In the Name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit!
Dear Father, brothers & sisters: Spraznecom! Happy Feast!
In today’s Resurrectional Gospel reading we are with the Saviour and his newly recruited fishermen turned disciples at the very beginnings of our Lord’s earthly ministry. This section of the Gospel, between chapters 6 – is the Lukan equivalent of what is known in St Matthew’s Gospel as the Sermon on the Mount, and contains some of the most important moral discourse in the whole of the Gospel. The traditional site for this Sermon of our Lord is on what is now called, the Mount of Beatitudes on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, between Capernaum and Gennesaret. This would have been a fairly short distance from the place where Simon, or Simon Peter as he was now named, would have had his boats and the place where they had made that extraordinary catch. To understand and interpret our short Gospel reading, let us turn to our father among the saints, St Ambrose the Bishop of Milan.
Our reading today comes a little way into chapter 6, after our Lord has pronounced the Beatitudes, or the list of people who are worthy of blessings as well as, in St Luke’s particular version, the list of people who deserve moral censure. Our Gospel begins –
And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.
This principle is known as the Golden Rule and is perhaps more better known in the form: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Perhaps due to our familiarity with this moral tenet, or even over-familiarity, it is easy for us to miss its stark radicality and the kind of maximalist moral demand it makes upon us and how we should live. Our Saviour is not simply asking for actual reciprocity, for us to simply mirror what our brother does to us, to do as we are done to, for this has always been the moral philosophy of the Old Covenant and also of the world. This is the philosophy of ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ a powerful moral instinct that we can see right at this moment being worked out in Gazan strip, only a relatively short distance from where Jesus uttered these words. No, what is so radical about Jesus’ command is that we are taught to act towards our brother, without any regard for who he is or what he has done, or even how he has already acted towards us. Our own moral conduct towards our brother is entirely independent of his own moral action towards us and of his moral character. We are called to think how we should ideally like to be treated, regardless as to whether we are currently experiencing this in reality, and to make our own ideal conception the guide to how we treat our brother.
To further illustrate this radical new ethic, Jesus then explains with three striking examples –
For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them.
And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same.
And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
To love those who love us is of course entirely natural. To do good and repay good to those who are good to us is also to be expected. To lend to those who we expect to receive back from, is surely just common sense. Yet to each of these moral truisms, Jesus adds the devastating evaluation – “sinners do the same”. Jesus is asking us to go beyond what is normal, what is expected what is natural towards something which is clearly beyond our old human nature, with its passions, lusts and its ego, the Old Man. Instead, through the Gospel, our Lord points us towards a new moral horizon where all that is normal, expected and habituated is turned upside down, in what I have called before the Topsy-Turvy world of the Kingdom of God. This is a new ethic for the New Man that is searching and seeking for something beyond the world, for holiness.
Jesus’ teaching here is truly sublime in its lofty moral perfectionism. In his dense commentary on the Gospel, St Ambrose sees in our Lord’s teaching here that he is presenting his disciples with an invitation to a profoundly different way of living and a new path. A path which is not short, easy and straight-forward, but difficult, challenging and even dangerous. A life spent in the pursuit of true virtue. As St Ambrose says, our Lord –
‘taught the peoples … to progress with footsteps of virtues outside the path of the Law … to Grace’
Keeping in mind the three examples he had given of limited moral action, our Lord then summarises what his disciples, and those who truly follow Him should live –
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.
As St Ambrose glosses –
‘The Law commands requital of punishment; the Gospel bestows charity for enmity, benevolence for hatred, prayer for curses, help for the persecuted, patience for the hungry, and grace of recompence’.
Our Lord’s injunction here to love our enemies; to do good and to lend without expectation of reciprocation or return, seems impossible, something utterly beyond us. I am reminded of that reaction of the disciples later on in this Gospel where they exclaimed –
And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved?
Who, we could continue is capable of doing this? Our Saviour’s response to his disciples same question also applies equally well here –
The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.
Without the humbling of our ego, without the crucifixion of our passions, and without God’s grace, the kind of moral life our Saviour expects of us is truly impossible for that “Old Man” grumbling and complaining inside each one of us. However, we should know that through our Baptism and through our reception of the Holy Mysteries, we do indeed receive this Grace that can transform us, that can enable us to live and to love as our Saviour commands us. As we will hear later this Liturgy, when the curtain is closed at the end of the Anaphora the priest raises the Lamb, the Body of Christ, in the air with his fingers and exclaims –
“The Holy things for the holy”
Standing or sitting as we are now, we are surrounded by the saints which proclaim to us that the Christian moral life, life as it should be lived, as our Saviour commands IS possible. We can do it, if we would only preserve and kindle the grace that has been given to us.
Moreover, unlike the flawed sages and philosophers of the world, who taught one thing and lived another, our Saviour Himself lived out His Word. As St Ambrose says –
‘All these things said and did the Lord, Who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return (1 Pet 2:23); when He was struck, did not hit back; when He was despoiled, did not resist; when He was crucified, sougt parden for His persecutors, saying, “Father, forgive their sin; because they do not know what they do … They prepared the Cross, He requited with salvation and Grace.’
Dear ones: as we commemorate today St Cyprian who lived over thirty years in pagan error only then to turn radically to Christ, turning from pagan priest to Orthodox bishop, let us ourselves be convinced of the possibility of making the impossible, and improbable actual and real. The sinner that we know we are, the Old Man that we hear continually grumbling and groaning with us, demanding our rights and our preeminence can be overthrown. And as we also commemorate St Andrew the Fool for Christ of Constantinople who saw that most beautiful vision of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, that we celebrated here in church yesterday, let us remember that all the saints, and especially our Warrior-Chiefteness, the Theotokos herself, are willing us onwards and upwards towards, what St Ambrose called our, “loftier calling” the New Man within ‘hidden with Christ in God’.