INTENT AND ACTIVITY: THEIR CONNECTION WITHIN THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY

by Fr. Joseph Allen

 

There is a story which Jesus tells, a story about two sons. You will find this story this parable — in the Gospel of Matthew, 21:28-32.

"What do you think," Jesus says to the Chief Priests and the elders, "A certain man had two sons; and he said to the first son, 'go out and work today in my vineyard'.

And that son said 'I will not go'. But afterwards he changed his mind, and he went. Then the man said to his second son, 'go out and work today in my vineyard'. And that son said 'I go, sir'. But he did not go."

Then Jesus said: "Which of the two did the will of the Father?" They said to him, "the first." Then Jesus said unto them, "Truly I say to you, the publicans and harlots will enter the Kingdom of God before you."

We begin with this story because of our Christian remembrance, a remembrance which must remain central in the life of every Christian. What we must "remember" is that the meaning of our service — our ministry — to Christ's Body — and through that Body to the world — is built upon more than "intent". It is built upon the doing of God's work. In another place our Lord said "Not everybody who says 'Lord, Lord' enters the Kingdom, but only the one who does the work — does the will — of the Father."

This is not to say that our intent is not necessary and good; it is. But it is not enough. It is preliminary and potential, but as our experience of life teaches us, that which merely remains preliminary and potential, and does not move toward implementation and actualization, dies!

This story of Jesus is an exaggerated story precisely to make this point. The second son never made it to the field, although he claimed good intention. The first son made it to the field even though he at first lacked the intention. Our Lord is using this story to make the point within his present context, that is to say, that the publicans and harlots, when they finally do God's will (just like the first son) will enter the kingdom before those "custodians" of the law (the Chief Priests and elders) who never did "deliver", (just like the second son). But Jesus may just as well be speaking to us today.

Yes, we know, we believe, and we teach, that intent and motive are important, but without the fruition of God's work (which we realize only through the Holy Spirit), we would be making the same mistake as the Pharisees. Jesus castigates the Pharisees for their outward appearance of righteousness, not because outward appearance is unimportant, but because it has become dislocated from the interior desire to do the righteousness: "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven!" The truth is that there must be a living, organic connection between our intent and our activity. This is the full picture and scope of Christian Ministry (which is our identity) and that this connection is real, is told to us (paradoxically in a negative vein) in Matthew 15:19: "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, slander," etc. The intent will issue forth in action, both positive and negative.

Our question, then, is how? How can we keep our intent and activity united? And how can we do that so that we can, not only continue in our service, but improve in our service to Christ's Body? As you can tell, I see this connection between intent and activity as fundamental to "who we are" as Christians who have a ministry to the Church. Allow me to share with you the following three issues which are clustered around this connection. Our service will in one way or another be lacking and even aberrant if one of these following three points is not properly lived.

 

Sight

The first issue is what kind of "sight" do we have.

In a recent article which I read, I discovered that there was a kind of fish in the Western Atlantic Ocean. This particular genus of fish are odd looking, to be sure. They are called "anableps", and they received this name because of their eyes. You see, they have eyes which have two tiers, with an upper half and a lower half. With their upper eyes they see above the surface of the water; with their lower eyes they remain focused within the water, like any other fish. They are called "anableps" because that term literally means "those that look upward". This genus of fish, while totally functioning in their world of water, enjoy a remarkable capacity to participate in a "higher" world, the one above their primary environment. They have a vision — a sight — which is inclusive of both worlds.

But this talk is not about fish. I raise this story, however, because when I stopped for a moment and took careful note of that term, "anablep", I knew that word. At first I could not recall from where I knew that word, but I knew I knew it! Actually anybody who has done only a little work in New Testament Greek would have the same response as I did.

If you turn to the encounter which Jesus has with the blind man, as he was going on the way through Jericho up to Jerusalem, you will see why I responded in this way. The blind man, Bartimaeus, is a rather belligerent and bellowing beggar who cries out, "Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me!" As you may remember, they tried to shut him up, but he persisted in his petition. Finally, Jesus himself asks him, "what do you want me to do for you?" Bartimaeus quickly shoots back, "I want to see!" But literally, when Bartimaeus says this, the word he uses, is that same word from which those fish are named. He says: "Anablepso". When he says this, "anablepso," he means not only to see again, but it conveys this additional meaning: "to have spiritual sight", or "to look above." He was saying, "Yes, I want 20/20 vision", but realizing who Christ is, he uses this particular term — which he did not have to — but which means, "I also want a spiritual discernment". His "new eyes", then, are eyes to see the world around him, but also to perceive the work and will of God in that world. He wants "spiritual sight". This is true, for how could he see what was made without seeing the Maker?

I say this: like the fish that are called "anableps"; like Bartimaeus who cries out "Anablepso"; the Church, both its individual members and in the corporate sense, needs this fullness of sight to see what is in this world, in this environment, and to sense rightly God's purpose and priority for the world. To see this way is to love and serve both God and our fellows in true obedience.

Without this double-vision, we will not be able to hold together our intent and our service. The first issue, then, is one of a proper seeing.

 

Service and Money

The second issue with which we must come to terms, if we will hold together our intent and our activity, is service and money. Again this is intimately related to our first point of maintaining this double vision.

We do have certain Orthodox Christians around today who separate prayer and service, piety and activity. It is true that St. Paul writes that we must "pray without ceasing". But what could that mean for us today? There are those who would turn to the Ascetic Fathers of the Desert and claim that they are an example of the proper way to understand "prayer without ceasing". Of course, it is always necessary to pray "in your room, behind closed doors" as the Lord says: to pray in the inner chamber of your heart; to pray "before and after"; i.e. meals, sleep, particular times of the day, and so on. All this means to commune with God in verbal prayer, and when we do nothing else but that verbal prayer. But does that by itself explain "prayer without ceasing?" That is, is it to the exclusion of service and work. If the Desert Fathers are to be used for our guide, let me share with you this story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. (Apophthegmata Patrum)

One time certain "Evchites" (which means "men of Prayer") came to visit Abba Lucius (who lived in Egypt). And the old man asked these "men of prayer", what kind of work they did. They respond: "Oh, we do not do work; we touch no kind of manual labor; instead we "pray without ceasing," according to what the Apostle (Paul) taught.

The Elder then said to them:

"So, does that mean that you do not eat?" They replied "Of course we eat". The old man replied, "Now while you are eating, who prays in your place?" They gave no answer.

The Elder immediately asked a second question: "Do you not sleep?" They responded, "Of course we sleep!" "And when you are sleeping, who prays in your place?" Again, no answer.

Finally, the old man Lucius said to these Men of Prayer, "Forgive me, my brothers, but you do not do what you say you do. Let me show you how I manage to work and labor and yet continue to pray without ceasing. You see, I sit down and, with God's help, I begin to weave my baskets (mats) out of my palm leaves, and while I do, I pray, 'Have mercy on me, O God according to Thy great goodness …' (Psalm 51:1). Tell me, is this not prayer?"

They assured him that it was. Then he said, by working and praying, I finish sixteen baskets. I give away two of these to any beggar that comes to my door, and I make my living from the rest. (But he is not done!) And, the beggar who received that gift of two baskets, he prays for me while I am eating and sleeping. That is how I manage to pray without ceasing while I continue my service of work. (Waddell Version, pp. 112-113).

I believe that that story well relates to both, the fallacy that we must do one to the exclusion of the other, and the truth that we must continually do both.

One of the greatest dangers for any Christian is to forget that our money and service are of one unit of commitment.

Martha is a doctor. (This is a true story.) She lives in a small village in Zaire, Africa. She fights mice, cockroaches, malaria and a kidney infection. She is also a wife, a mother and a teacher. Martha does not like living as she does. She does not like being her own physician, nor does she particularly like these little creatures, like the mice and cockroaches, who always want to move in with her. She is not in Africa to promote her career. She is there for one reason only. It is her conviction that that is where God wants her to be, and what God wants her to do. The "where" and the "what" are the key elements to any Christian Ministry, and Martha, although she may not like every aspect of her work, knows that her service cannot bypass the where and the what of God's plan for her. To that she is committed. The question for us is not that we must go to Zaire to be of service, but rather, where are we and what do we have to do in our contemporary service. The "where and the what" may vary, of course, but the commitment must be the same.

But besides service, I did say "money" also; I do not want to bypass it, to circumvent it, to pretend it is not an issue; we do not take this word, "money," lightly. The Fathers very pointedly use the term for money and material possession; they use the word chremata. But literally it means "things to be used". It is precisely this understanding of money which reminds us that it is, with service and prayer, of one unit in the Christian commitment. Can we afford to forget this?

Listen to St. Clement of Alexandria:

"I do not speak against those wealthy people who live righteously with their chremata, but I accuse those possessing riches who live in greed. As wine is created for a double effect, i.e., wine is for the wise man something of joy, but for the foolish man something for sin — likewise wealth is given unto one for salvation, but to the greedy for sin."

St. Maximus says it differently, but just as effectively' "O wealthy man, you have lit your candles in the Church. Well have you done so; but once a needy man whom you have wronged will come into the Church, he will sigh and shed a tear because of you, and he will quench the light of your candle with his tear."

That is what Sts. Clement and Maximus say. How shall I, however, Joseph Allen, say it? Thinking upon the meaning of these words in terms of money and service, that is, their connection within commitment, I would say it this way: "He who has no money is poor; he who has nothing BUT money is even poorer."

The second factor is money and service.

 

Humility

The third and final issue which must be dealt with, if we are to hold together our intent and service, is humility. This does not mean, like the Pharisees, the pious showing of behavior; it does mean a sincere remembrance of who God is and who we are. Remembering that, we will not then forget that what we have is not ownership of our things, but stewardship of our things.

The Emperor Justinian built the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople. He imported marble and treasures from all over the world to make it the beautiful Church it was. When it came time to dedicate the Church, the words uttered by Justinian seemed full of humility. He said that all he had done was for the "Glory of God". And then, as his eyes drank in the beauty of the building, he forgot. Yes, he forgot! He forgot stewardship; he thought ownership. He forgot Church; he thought building. He forgot God; he thought Justinian. Someone heard him proudfully whisper: "Solomon, (who built the most beautiful temple in the Old Covenant Jerusalem), Solomon, I have surpassed thee!" Such intolerable arrogance will always confuse faithfulness and success; Jesus did not say "Go thou good and successful servant;" He did say "go thou good and faithful servant."

That we have been given what we have been given; that we can offer it as a faithful service to Christ's Body; this is not cause for arrogance before other people; this is cause for true humility.

Allow me to close my thoughts with the words of Our Father among the Saints, John Chrysostom. One of the things St. John detested was the flattery which he continually received from those to whom he preached. He said:

"To me it is nothing when I am applauded and well spoken of. There is only one thing I ask of you: to prove your approval of me through your works. That is how you can speak well of me, and that is my greatest honor. I prefer it to a material crown. I do not desire applause, then, I have only one request to make; for you to listen to me in quiet attentiveness, and then to put my advice into action. This is not a theater (he then added). You do not sit here in order to admire actors and to applaud them. This is the place where you learn the things of God in order to do them."

It is true, then, that as we consider all the activities and plans and challenges yet to be undertaken, these three issues — our sight, our service and money, and our humility - these three are what we need to hold together our intent and our activity within our ministry.

And Jesus said, "A certain man had two sons, and he said to the first, 'go out and work today in my vineyard'. And he said to the second, 'go out and work today in my vineyard'. One said he would go and did not. The other went according to the command. Which of the two did the will of the Father and they said, 'The first'".

 

Taken from an address delivered in July, 1987 to the General Assembly of the Order of St. Ignatius in Dearborn, Michigan.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
February 1988
pp. 4-6

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