• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

Life, not Spirituality

Christianity has very little to do with spirituality; it has everything to do with life.

It’s popular nowadays to talk about “spiritual matters.” While fewer people are claiming to be ‘religious,’ more and more insist that they are ‘spiritual.’ Among the bestsellers at amazon.com and the newest editions in the airport bookstands, there is a host of paperbacks on “spirituality.” We like to think of spiritual matters the way one cooks with spice. Put three dashes on your soup and behold ‘the balanced lifestyle.’ In our society, we praise nearly anyone who is a fanatic about football, the stock market, or just about anything you can think of, but we cringe if someone takes his religion too seriously. “Very well,” one might say, “a little dose of spirituality is healthy, but don’t let your beliefs, or your religion, mix with the rest of your life, and good heavens, don’t talk to me about it.”

But Christianity has very little to do with spirituality; it has everything to do with life.

The notion that we have spiritual affairs and worldly affairs, our ‘mystical interests’ over here and our ‘ordinary life’ over there, flies in the face of everything for which Jesus Christ died on the cross and resurrected from the dead.

Anyone who says Jesus was a moral teacher or that the bible is a lovely set of ethical standards has absolutely no clue what he’s talking about.

Listen to St. Paul, as he writes in Colossians, chapter 3, “If you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God. When God shall appear, who is your life, then you shall also appear with Him in glory.”

“You are dead.” He writes. “Your life is hid with Christ.”

What does it mean to be dead to the world and alive in Jesus Christ?

In an imaginative story, called “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis brings us on the journey of a Christian who passes away on earth and finds himself in purgatory. This purgatory was not quite what you or I might expect, but was instead, well, rather British…dreary lanes, smog covered home, and an overwhelming sense of boredom. But then a bus from heaven landed in the streets and brought a group of men and women out of purgatory and up into heaven. Once there, the Christian recounts, the people that looked so solid and strong below, immediately appeared ghostlike, or as wisps of air. He looked back and saw that, to his surprise, the whole realm of purgatory and hell was just a tiny dot, and heaven loomed every else. Cast in the light of paradise, everything that seems so important and permanent here on earth shows its true value – smoke and mist. God’s presence always brings out our true colors, and only the good, the holy, and the pure prove themselves to be solid and real in the end.

This is what it means to be dead to the world and alive in Jesus Christ. The closer you draw to God, the more you look like a ghost to worldly eyes. But, in the light of paradise and everything eternal, you’re actually becoming more solid and real, and if you look back, you’ll see that what the world takes seriously is all very petty and vaporous.

When Paul implores us to, “Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth,” he is doing so not because he wants us to give up the good life, but rather to not forsake it. We are foreigners here on earth. God has called us out of Sodom and up to the mountains. “Don’t look back,” Paul reminds us, “Behind you is nothing but a pillar of ashes. Keep your eyes on the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Very well, but how does this help us to live in this world in the meantime? What about all our worldly concerns? What about our clothes, our food, our friends, and even the money that we keep in the bank?

This Christian calling to mind the things above and not those below is often misunderstand. This does not mean that we should dapple in earthly things only as we must, as a chore, or as a secret pleasure, and then put on our Christian hat when we feel obliged. Rather, the message has everything to do with the way that we interact with all those ‘mundane’ and seemingly ‘non-spiritual’ parts of our lives. Our attitude when we clean the kitchen or take out the trash, our efforts to eat our food mindfully and to savor our deserts, or the way we balance our checking account – this is where we are called to be heavenly minded.

Can we look at our jobs and our daily tasks in the broader perspective – cast in the light of God’s eternal plans?

God doesn’t want our soup to be seasoned with spirituality. He wants it to be permeated and overflowing with His life-changing presence.

This is the theme in our Gospel today, where Jesus Christ gives one of His most bizarre parables.

He tells us about a steward who had been squandering his master’s possessions. Finally, the day came when the master confronted the steward and insisted that he give an account of his actions. The steward knew what was coming for him if he didn’t do something quickly, and so he worked out a very shrewd plan of getting money back from all of his debtors. When he brought this money to his master, the overlord looked at it and was pleased, and commended the steward for his thriftiness.

“For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Jesus Christ explains, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

This parable and its surprising ending have probably baffled Christian readers for over 2,000 years. The translation given in the King James Version doesn’t help to make it easier.

Another rendering can be found in the NIV translation, which says, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

Still, it’s rather dense and asks for a deeper reading.

What does it mean, “use worldly wealth (or dishonest wealth) to gain friends for yourselves”?

In Greek, the phrase runs: “ἐκ τοῦ μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας.” A literal translation calls this, “the mammon of unrighteousness.” The word ‘Mammon’ stems from a Syrian superstition. When the Jews were in captivity among heathens, they encountered the Syrian practice of worshipping a god called Mammon, whom they believed was the protector of wealth. Overtime, the Jews began to refer to wealth, whenever it because a god in itself, as mammon.

St. Philaret explains, mammon is the “wealth gathered with a passion, possessed with a passion, made into an idol of the heart.” He continues, “This means wealth that is made unrighteous and depraved through passion for it.”

What is money and wealth?

These, like all our earthly possessions, are gifts given to us by God to do His work. We must never forget that none of us are masters of anything in this world. We are all stewards, put here for a little time to manage the wealth of our master in heaven. And the day will come when our God asks each and everyone of us for an account of how we handled His wealth. Did we use it all for His purpose? Did we squander it on vanity and selfish pursuits? Or, for many of us, perhaps we used much of God’s wealth for Him, but every once in awhile pocketed a couple bucks here or there.

Everything in our lives is a gift from God. How are we spending it?

Whenever we view our earthly goods as our own possessions, they become mammon of unrighteousness. But when we treat them as the property of another, and work them for His greater good, then that wealth becomes a holy vessel for salvation and sanctification.

“For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light (KJV). I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings (NIV).”

To be a ‘child of this age’ is to look around at one’s wealth and possessions, and to believe that it’s actually yours; to see the world as an end in itself, rather than as a means for a relationship with God.

To be a “child of light” is to see your property, your talents, your money, and the very food on your plate as all gifts from your heavenly Father and material stuff that He has loaned you for a time, so that you can use it to do His work.

But in this parable, Jesus Christ points out the irony that worldly people are sometimes much more shrewd then godly people.

Any businessman or businesswoman will spend hours and hours looking over the finances and seeing how much money he or she can save. We all find it easy to motivate ourselves to get up in the morning and to work for ourselves, perhaps to go to the gym, to budget one’s income, or to find ways to become more prosperous here on earth.

But do we put the same amount of effort in going to church, saying our morning and evening prayers, or tithing and giving to the poor?

St. Theophylactus says: “In human affairs we find that we act in all things with prudence, and take great pains, so that when we withdraw from active life we shall have a secure [retirement]. But in the management of divine things we do not look ahead and consider what may happen to us in the future life.”

But this is exactly what we must do.

“If you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above…Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God.”

Life is short. We must stay focused on the finish line. In the end, when we are lying on our deathbeds, or perhaps the moment after we’ve taken our last breath and stand before the judgment of Jesus Christ – how then will we feel about the choices we’ve made and the way that we used the goods loaned to us on earth?

This is the only real question that should keep us up at night.

And finally, Jesus ends his parable with a breath of fresh air: “I tell you, use the [mammon of unrighteousness] to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

What is He talking about?

This parable is one of the most liberating messages in the entire gospel. It tells us right away that the shrewd manager wasn’t the most righteous person you ever met. He spent his entire life squandering his master’s possessions. But it is never too late. The master came to the manager and told him that it was over. He was fired. But even at this last hour, the manager didn’t give up and saved himself.

It’s never too late. So you can see in your life that you haven’t made all the right decisions…then open the front door, step outside, and buy your neighbor a lunch. Tithe a little extra; give alms to those in need; help a brother or sister who is suffering.

It’s a profound mystery in life that whatever you give to a fellow human being you give to God.

The saints of our church teach that at the final judgment we will be surrounded by the people we knew in this world. In some way, we can’t quite know how, they will have a bit of a say in the Lord’s decision about our soul. Will they cry out: “He robbed us!” “He ignored us!” Or will they plea: “Have mercy on his soul. Though he wasn’t always the best guy, he never hesitated to help us out when we needed it.”

St. Clement of Alexandria puts this boldly: “Gather for yourself an unarmed, unwarlike, bloodless, peaceful, and a stainless army – an army of godly old men, orphans dear to God, widows armed with meekness, and men adorned with love. Obtain with your money such guards for your body and soul…All these warriors and guards are trustworthy. Not one of them is idle; none are useless. Some of them can obtain your pardon fro. God. Others can comfort you when sick. And still others can weep and groan in sympathy for you to the Lord.”

God gives us so many opportunities to walk the path of salvation.

It has nothing to do with spirituality. It is about the way we live our life.

There is no such thing as ‘secular matters’ and ‘spiritual matters.’ Our money, our stuff, our time, our friendships – these all belong to God and all He asks from us is that we give them to Him.

There is only one life, and we live that life in separation from God or in relationship with God.

With this in our heart, may our heavenly Father, who is merciful and forgiving, give us the grace to wake up each morning and see the possessions around us in a new light, in the light that they all belong to Him and we are but stewards of our master’s wealth. May our God teach us to see the world for what it is, as one eternal banquet with Him.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

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Wichita Falls, TX, 76309