I usually don’t quote extensively from the Fathers, because I prefer to speak with my own voice. But today’s Gospel reading (Luke 6:31-36) prompts me to share some powerful messages from Saints Gregory Palamas and Isaac of Syria.
In Homily 45 by St. Gregory Palamas (14th century) we read:
He who alone fashioned our hearts seeks from us, now that he is re-making us, the very things which he originally put in our souls when he created us, but which have been spoilt. Nothing shows this more clearly than the words of today’s Gospel reading: “As you wish that others do to you, do so to them.”
St. Gregory goes on to say: “Now that the Lord has revealed that all the gospel precepts are inscribed within us, he commands and ordains that we should order our lives in agreement with them. Being the lover of goodness and the friend of humankind, he has put into our nature the knowledge of how we should act.”
St. Gregory tells us that this Gospel reading aims at making us like God. Indeed, Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Then the light of the glory of the Most High will shine around you, and you will be among those who in the company of Christ will be deified.
St. Isaac of Syria (Hom. 71) asks, “what is a merciful heart?”
It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and at the recollection and sight of them, the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy that grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up prayers with tears continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy…. But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered his own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. This is not because he could not have redeemed us another way, but so that his surpassing love might be a teacher to us. And by the death of his Son he made us near to himself. So great was his love for us that he did not wish to violate our freedom, but he chose that we should draw near to him by the love of our understanding.
This, dear friends, is what is missing in so much of Christianity today. St. Gregory is right to identify this Gospel reading as the sum of all Christ’s teaching. If we can give without expecting anything in return; if we can love even our enemies – then we are perfect, and the fullness of God’s image and likeness is in us. Luke says, Be merciful as your Father is merciful. Matthew 5:48 puts it differently: Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Our liturgy is full of Kyrie Eleison – Lord have mercy. But where is our call to be merciful? Is it the missing dimensions in our lives?
The hatred and bigotry that are so much a part of Christian societies today are the exact opposite of what Christ teaches. There are too many walls in the world – because there are too many walls in our own minds and hearts. What I love about Gregory’s teaching is that he uses the word “re-making”. Because of Jesus Christ, God is re-making us. We are a work in progress. Jesus tells us today that because he is re-making us, it will be natural for us to love even our enemies, to even pray for the devil (according to St. Isaac).
Most of us are not there yet. But let us strive to it. Let us not move backward – backward to the state of sin, backward to what we would be without Christ. Watch your speech, watch your thoughts. Let love govern your speech and actions. St. Isaac (Hom. 46) tells us, Paradise is the love of God. The tree of life is the love of God. If we live by love, we partake of Christ and are made immortal. The person who lives in love reaps life from God, and while still in this world nevertheless breathes the air of resurrection.
Love is the language of the kingdom. There is no other language that can be spoken in the eternal kingdom of God. When you travel to another country it helps to learn something of the language spoken there. So why don’t we start learning the language here? Why not start speaking it and practicing it? Love your enemies. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.