The AIOCS Short Courses 2021
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The Pre-Lenten Narrative: Preparatory Reflections
The fourth part: The Thirty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
The scriptural readings prescribed for this Sunday: 1 Corinthians 8:8–9:2. Matthew 25:31–46.
An interpretive framework: Doru Costache, Reading Scripture in the Orthodox Church: A Diary (Sydney: AIOCS Press, 2018) 87–89.
1 Corinthians 8:8–9:2 Food is irrelevant to our spiritual journey. Those who are strong in faith know that, as the gods of religion do not exist, eating sacrificed meats is of no consequence. But when what we eat scandalises our brothers and sisters whose faith is weak, then we must compassionately adjust to their weaknesses. All are saved through the sensitivity of those who are strong to the limitations of the weak ones.
Matthew 25:31–46 After several parables of the kingdom, the Lord disclosed that upon his glorious return he will judge all of humankind, both sheep, namely, the serene and obedient, and goats, namely, the restless and disobedient. Only the sheep will see the face of the glorious Lord. The goats or the unrighteous will then enquire about why they have been barred from the divine presence. They will hear that it is because they have not ministered to Christ’s little sisters and brothers. In so doing, they did not minister to the Lord who always stands with the forgotten ones of the world. In turn, wholly surprised by the Lord’s praise of their generosity, the sheep or the righteous will wonder when they ministered to him. They will hear that they did so when they showed love towards the Lord’s little brothers and sisters. The two ways of life, the selfless service to others and the selfish lack of sensitivity to others, lead to different outcomes. In not being able to see the Lord, the goats reap punishment. The sheep inherit life in the presence of the Lord.
The fourth stage of the pre-lenten preparation unveils another social facet of our journey. Christians cannot be God’s people if they do not love all of humankind, particularly the destitute and the marginal. This message reiterates the wisdom of the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, conveyed through the parable of Lazarus and the anonymous rich man. The characters in today’s Gospel are, metaphorically, the obedient sheep and the disobedient goats. These farm animals have been chosen to illustrate the lesson precisely because of their very different attitude towards the shepherd and towards one another. Symbolising disobedience to the Shepherd (read Christ) and carelessness regarding their environment, the goats were insensitive to their neighbour’s presence to whom they did not minister. In turn, symbolising obedience to the Shepherd (read Christ) and an aptitude for harmonious cohabitation with the environment, the sheep showed compassion to their neighbour, thus finding green pasture, divine life. Granted, this message is not about the “righteous” who judge the repentant sinner, but it is equally relevant to the lenten season. Lent and by extension the Christian life are not about observing religious prescriptions such as fasting. Nor are they about taking care of ourselves to such an extent that we grow insensitive to the presence, needs, and weaknesses of our neighbour. Lent is not about eating the flesh of our neighbour. It is about being there for the neighbour. Christianity is not about religious prescriptions that blind one to the presence of the neighbour. On the contrary, central to the Christian life is discerning that the value of the neighbour exceeds all others, and acting accordingly. It is in this light that fasting itself gains value. As an ascetic undertaking or spiritual exercise, it makes us selfless and sensitive to our neighbours with whom Christ is. And where Christ is, the Spirit is there too. If we are temples of the Spirit, then we should revere all the other temples in which the Spirit is present and for whom the Son of Man has become a brother, a shepherd, and a saviour.
Led by the Spirit, Christians hold nothing dearer than those with whom Christ himself identifies, all his little sisters and brothers.
ascesis, compassion, neighbour, solidarity, temple
11 March 2021 © AIOCS