When Jesus called his disciples they were ordinary men who had ordinary lives and ordinary occupations. Most of them were fishermen, one was a Government official. None were especially important, or especially religious. In fact Jesus always had a difficult relationship with the Scribes and the Pharisees, those who represented the traditional Jewish religious leadership. There are very few people which Jesus condemned, hardly ever the ordinary people. But he was strong indeed in his condemnation of those who considered themselves already holy and worthy of praise. He called them white-washed tombs. Attractive on the outside but filled with decay on the inside.
Many people came to Jesus and wanted to be part of his circle of friends, especially in the days when he seemed to be at the peak of his popularity. A rich young man came to him one day. St Mark, in his Gospel, says that he came running to Jesus. He was determined to see him and speak with him. The Lord Jesus was very gentle with him. The rich young man had not murdered anyone, or committed adultery. He thought that he was doing well in observing the rules. He had inherited great wealth from his family, and now he wanted to know how he could inherit eternal life.
Are we like the fishermen or the rich young ruler? When we read the Gospels we see that the fishermen left everything and followed Jesus. But when Jesus asked the rich man to do the same, he found he could not bring himself to do it. Jesus said to him,
Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.
When we begin the journey of discipleship this is what matters. It is not how wealthy we are. It is not how religious we are, in an external sort of way. It is not whether or not we have everything well organised in our lives. All that matters is whether we are willing to put God first in our desire to find him and know him.
The rich young man had the same opportunity as the fishermen. He had the same opportunity which is given to us. But when Jesus told him what was required if he wanted to be a disciple, we read,
His face fell at that saying, and he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions.
This isn’t what he wanted to hear. He imagined that Jesus would be pleased to have someone like him among his followers. With such an attitude, as though he was doing Jesus a favour, it was impossible for him to become a disciple. The disciple comes to Jesus with nothing but himself, and gives himself wholeheartedly to God, and to the seeking after God.
As we begin this journey of pilgrimage we have to face the same calling and the same choices. It does not matter what our background is, whether it is humble or important in the eyes of other people. It does not matter what we think of ourselves, as long as we are not filled with self-righteousness and pride. It does not matter what our age is, or our social class, or our educational attainment. It does not matter what seniority in work we have. All that matters is that we are willing to offer all we have and all we are to God.
This is just the same as the lesson from yesterday. We read,
You will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. Deuteronomy 4:29
This was the response which the disciples made when the Lord Jesus called them. But it was the response which the rich young ruler was unable to make. At the beginning of this three month course it is a choice we have to make. Will we put God first? Will we seek him with all our heart and strength? Will we make seeking after God the priority in our life? These are necessary preconditions for discipleship. Any other response, in which God is not first, will become an obstacle to our becoming disciples.
Scripture – Matthew 2
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, behold, wise men* from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he asked them where the Christ would be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is written through the prophet,
6 ‘You Bethlehem, land of Judah, are in no way least amongst the princes of Judah; for out of you shall come a governor who shall shepherd my people, Israel.’” 7 Then Herod secretly called the wise men, and learnt from them exactly what time the star appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and search diligently for the young child. When you have found him, bring me word, so that I also may come and worship him.” 9 They, having heard the king, went their way; and behold, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them until it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 They came into the house and saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Opening their treasures, they offered to him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country another way. 13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.”
14 He arose and took the young child and his mother by night and departed into Egypt, 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceedingly angry, and sent out and killed all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding countryside, from two years old and under, according to the exact time which he had learnt from the wise men. 17 Then that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; she wouldn’t be comforted, because they are no more.”
19 But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, 20 “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those who sought the young child’s life are dead.”
21 He arose and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in the place of his father, Herod, he was afraid to go there. Being warned in a dream, he withdrew into the region of Galilee, 23 and came and lived in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets that he will be called a Nazarene.
From the Fathers
St John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.)
“And lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.” The star brought them to inquire of the Jews, that their discovery might be made evident to all, and then appeared to them again. Note how fitting was the order of events: the wise men saw the star, were received by the Jews and their king; they heard prophecy to explain what had appeared; the angel instructed them; and then they journeyed from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by the guidance of the star. From all this we learn that this was not an ordinary star, for no other star has this capacity to guide, not merely to move but to beckon, to “go before them,” drawing and guiding them along their way.
The star remained after bringing them to the place, in order that the child might also be seen. For there is nothing conspicuous about the place. The inn was ordinary. The mother was not celebrated or notable. The star was needed to manifest and illumine the lowly place, until they had reached their destination at the manger.
[What can we learn from this? It is surely, as St John Chrysostom describes, that God will provide a way to guide us, even an unexpected way, and that he shows himself present in the most humble of circumstances. It does not matter where we find ourselves today, what work we have to do, where we live, or what friends and family are around us. There is a star which will guide us to discover the presence of God in the humble place where we are. God will provide a way for us to discover him, even if we begin the journey, like the Magi, the wise men, with many miles to travel.]
Over the next few days we will consider the words of the prayer which our Lord Jesus Christ, God himself, taught his disciples to pray. We should pray it every day, thoughtfully and carefully, and with warmth of heart. But there is value in reflecting on the words even when we are not praying them, so that our prayer becomes more united with our understanding of what we say.
This prayer begins, Our Father! These two words say everything about the relationship which God desires for us. Not only has he created us, as an Almighty and Incomprehensible deity, but he wishes us to enter into a family relationship with him, so that we are his own children. The Lord Jesus spoke about this relationship with God as our father when he said,
If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” Luke 11:11-13
It is easy for us to think about our experience with our own fathers, for good or bad, and imagine that God is just like them, with all their mistakes and weaknesses, and even their harmfulness towards us if we have had a difficult childhood. But this is to have things the wrong way around. God is not a bigger version of our own father. He is the model of all fatherhood, which our own fathers, and we ourselves if we are fathers, have failed to live up to.
When we are addressing God we must have in mind that we are turning our heart towards one who fulfills all the human expectation of a good and kind and generous fatherhood, and far exceeds them. He is not like our father, if he was a bad example. He is not even like our father, if he was a good example. He is so much more, and even the best of human fatherhood is a faint echo of the goodness of God.
But what does Orthodox spirituality teach? It is not that God will give us whatever we want or demand. It is that he waits to give us what we need and what will bring us to the experience of abundant life itself. He waits to pour out his Holy Spirit on those who ask. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer this must be our first attitude, that more than any human father we are turning to one who loves us, and generously waits to give us his own life. When we turn to him we need not be afraid. Beyond every failed experience of human parenthood, even beyond every happy experience, God surpasses and fulfills all our hopes and expectations and dreams in his unfailing and unshakeable embrace.
Continue with whatever spiritual routine you presently use.
1. Make sure you pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening, slowly and with as much attention as you find possible. Especially think about the first words, our Father, and try to pray these with warmth. This warmth is not a forced emotion, but is prayer with attention and focus.
2. Read the Gospel passage for today, carefully and prayerfully. What does it say to you? Of course there are the events described, but what do you find it saying to you and to your circumstances? Write down your reflection in your journal, or where you have decided to record them.
3. Yesterday you made a list of family members. Be sure to pray for them today. This should not be seen as an obligation, but as an invitation to bring them into God’s presence so that they might receive light and life. When we pray for others we discover that we are also in God’s presence where we also receive healing.