Extremism: A Word on God's Expectations
“In the evening, the communal prayer would end with an impressive ‘God is with us’ sung by three hundred voices. On the top floor there was a room reserved for ‘unceasing prayer.’ A prisoner would pray…for an hour each day, stopping only when his replacement would arrive.”
Elder Arsenie Papacioc describes his earlier years in prison. He and his companions dedicated their days to meditation and scripture reading. They stayed up for all-night vigils and set aside one day a week for complete silence, “with the goal of attaining a mystical depth, an encounter with God,” and for scrupulous self-examination, exploring and confessing “every moment and deed of one’s life.” The elder went on to become a monk after his release and was imprisoned for his faith over forty times.
The lives of the saints are always convicting. How could they remain so steadfast? How can anyone be so focused on Christ, willing to set aside hours of daily prayer, willing to endure so much suffering? They came into this world as flawed as any of us. They had just as many excuses to make as you and I do. But they did not. They sacrificed everything for the Kingdom.
“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses” (Luke 14:16-24).
The banquet that God has prepared is nothing other than himself.
He is the feast. Nothing else could be as satisfying. The “presence of God is the fullness of joy,” and “at his right hand is pleasure forevermore” (Psalm 16:12). The feast is not heaven somewhere high up and in the distant future. The feast is God right now, waiting for us.
Not only is God the banquet, he invites us to that banquet. The master’s servant, in this parable, symbolizes all the prophets, the philosophers, nature and reason. Everything in creation urges us to commune with God.
“Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’ (Proverbs 1:20-22).
But how do we respond?
“They all alike began to make excuses” (Luke 14:24).
If all the bibles in the world were lost…If we grew up in the Amazon without ever hearing the gospel…If we were were totally ignorant and uneducated, but had this one parable alone, we would have enough. We need to pay attention to these words. What are they implying in our lives? “They all alike began to make excuses.”
Here are the excuses:
“The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come’” (Luke 14:18-20).
These are first-rate excuses. People are busy. The first man has a career to tend to. He has invested a lot of time and study in this. It comes with debts and expectations. America is a career driven society. We can all relate to this excuse. How can I take time out in the morning and evenings to pray? How can I take off work to attend Mass on a day of obligation? How can I be expected to fast, pray, confess, and give tithes? I’m too busy…
The second man just bought ten oxen. Farmers did not have tractors back in those days. It was no easy thing to acquire a yoke of oxen, and one’s entire livelihood depended on it. Neither could they be left alone for a day or two. They require feed, water, and all manner of care. In practical terms, it would be absurd to leave them behind.
The third man had just been married. This is by far the most reasonable excuse. The pious Jews took marriage seriously. Listen to this law: “When a man hath taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business: but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken” (Deut. 24:5). It sounds wonderful! Who could even question this man’s excuse?
And yet, it was not good enough.
“Let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober…He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him…Rejoice always, pray continually…May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5: 6, 10, 16, 17).
How can we know how much to sacrifice for God? When are our excuses valid? There is no easy answer, but there are principles given us. We are not all called to be monks. But we are all called to sacrifice as much, to be no less dedicated in our faith, as the monks. God’s expectations for us are radical.
How much should I pray? How much should I study the bible? How much should I tithe? Without any question, we must always sacrifice more than is comfortable.
In the very least, we can submit to the Church. When does the Church tell us to pray? How often does the Church ask us to confess? Are we arranging our lives first and then squeezing in religion, or do we cut and mold our lives first around the life of the Church? Our Gospel today calls us to examine our priorities.
God’s expectations are especially challenging in modern American life. We are inundated with mediocre Christianity. We have been so comfortable for so long, that any genuine sacrifice sounds absurd, even embarrassing. Heaven knows, we do not want to look differently than other people. We do not want anyone to call us prude, or narrow-minded, or extremists.
The Orthodox Church has a lot of expectations for us. It is a communal life built around the altar, the sacred calendar, frequent confession, and sacrifice. One would think, our Church actually asks us to live differently than the people around us.
“So the servant returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the maim…so that my house my be filled” (Luke 14:21-24).
It is the broken and impoverished who find a seat at the heavenly banquet. Why? They had nothing to distract them from God.
It may be that the best thing that could happen in America is for Christianity to be illegal. Perhaps, our only hope is to spend time suffering in prison the way Elder Arsenie Papacioc suffered. Meanwhile, we cannot put off our salvation for tomorrow. We have to took at our lives just as they are now. What are our priorities?
I want to end with a few words from Elder Arsenie. He lived a long life and died in 2011. Shortly before passing, the elder left these words to his people:
“There is nothing more precious for us, my dear, than time. God created us just for him. If he gives us some time and extends our lifetime this is for us to be together…There is nothing without sacrifice…Do not waist your time.”