Soul Saturday in Great Lent

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Learning Forgiveness from Saint Juvenaly
Soul Saturday in Great Lent
29 March, 2008
Hebrews 10:32-38 ; Mark 2:14-17

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Today, our Lord is calling Levi from his tax-office. We may understand that Levi is, in fact, the Evangelist Matthew. Levi immediately gets up and follows Him. Our Lord simply says to him : “Come”, and he comes. After this, as we see, our Lord is eating in a house with many such people. As I keep saying, these days we Canadians have a hard time appreciating the meaning of this. All these tax collectors were following Jesus. Then the local authorities : the lawyers, the Pharisees, and the experts in how to live life according to the Jewish customs, got upset with Him because, according to their reckoning, a Jew is not supposed to have anything to do with these people. Why ? Because they were traitors. A tax collector in the Roman Empire was collecting money from the Jewish people for the Roman Empire because the Roman emperor had conquered them, oppressed them, and people were being killed every year in that land. Therefore, under those circumstances, anyone would likely feel a similar resentment.

Here in Canada, for the most part (except when people manage to get out of hand for a time), we have a fairly safe system of tax-collecting. It is all supposed to be above-board, and they are supposed to collect only what the law says they are supposed to collect. However, in the days of the Roman Empire, the Roman emperor would spread the word to each of his provinces how much money he needed to govern the Empire that coming year, and the tax collectors had to collect it. He did not tell them how. The tax collectors were not obliged to tell the people how much was owing to the emperor, either. There was none of that. The tax collectors just had the authority to go and collect the taxes from the people, and so they did. People every year at certain times, when they knew the tax collector might be coming around, were hiding everything that they had, and, probably as I understand it, they were hiding as many of their animals as they could, too, because the tax collector could just come to your house and say : “I am taking this, this, this, this – hand it over”. It had to be liquidated for the tax.

The tax collector, of course, would keep plenty for himself. This is another reason why these people were rejected by the Jewish people. Not only were they collecting money for the oppressing emperor, but they were also stealing from their own people (and everyone knew it, too).

This is the environment, and that is why people were getting upset that Jesus would and did go to visit such people – tax collectors, and other people of disrepute — real disrepute in His day. In today’s Gospel, we are hearing that certain scribes and Pharisees are complaining that not only is He talking with those who are disreputable, but that He is also eating with them ; and then, even worse, that there are very many of them. They say to His disciples : “'How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners ?'” Our Lord says to them : “'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick'”. He came to heal the sick and the disreputable, in other words. The ones coming to Him are sick in their hearts, and He came to heal them.

There is an important lesson for us in this, because we believers very often become very relaxed in our environment here in North America where it is so comfortable. We now seem merely to live in and for ourselves. We easily forget (or often overlook) this basic example of Christ (which you see everywhere in the New Testament) : that He is always reaching out to the people who are “outside of the box”, as you would say – people who are dispossessed, people who are poor, people who are blatant sinners, people who are even corrupt. He is bringing wholeness and life to them.

We forget that in this country, our responsibility as Orthodox Christians is to be a bright light that is shining (see Matthew 5:14), and to be live yeast that is growing bread (see Matthew 13:33). We are supposed to be like our Saviour, being a witness to people like the tax collectors we met today, people who do not know Him. We cannot bring them to Him as if we were “bringing in the sheaves”, because they are not inanimate. Not only can we not force anyone to come to Christ, but also our Saviour does not let us force anyone. If they come to Him, they must do so freely. People cannot either be forced or bought to become Christians. My grandfather always said that even though you can lead a horse to water, you cannot make him drink. We can, at least, lead the horse to water. It is up to the horse whether it wants to drink or not. Our responsibility, in our way of living, in how we are behaving, is to present Christ and His love to people around us somehow (even if we are weak about it), so that they might find some encouragement, hope, and maybe find Him in and through us.

The Apostle was talking to us earlier about the fact that the Hebrews to whom he is writing have suffered physically and otherwise for the sake of Christ. He said that they had not given up, but rather, that they had held on in Christ. It is important for us to remember that the sort of suffering that very many people have endured for the sake of Christ – physical suffering even unto death – still exists very much amongst us. There is other suffering, too, besides that. Many of us in North America are suffering in one way or another – spiritually, emotionally, and in other ways. Even though our Canada, which is such a nice country, is supposed to be a free country (and in a sort of a way it is), the trouble with Canada is that this freedom is more like license than real freedom. So-called freedom is wild, out-of-hand, irrational and unfocussed in this country nowadays, because there is no clear sense of direction for anyone. As a result of this, for people who are Christians, there is now very much the tendency to have to suffer ridicule or other sorts of negative attitudes, because people either have suffered one way or another (and they are paying back), or they just do not know anything, and they think that we are strange.

It is important for us to accept that we will doubtless suffer in one way or another in this life. As those people who suffered unto death, who suffered physical tortures, and who still are suffering, it is important for us to offer this suffering to Christ (even though it is not like that of some people, nevertheless, our suffering is real), and to learn how to pray for the person who is hurting us. This is the big way in which Orthodox Christians can show Who is Christ : by how we can forgive – and not only forgive, but bless people who are hurting us.

I always love to tell the story about Saint Juvenaly as retold by Father Michael Oleksa, who received these details from the oral tradition of the Aboriginals in Alaska. It is true enough. We all know that Saint Juvenaly was martyred in Alaska. He was killed by the Aboriginals. There are various sorts of inaccurate stories that have been told about him. The most likely story is, in fact, that Saint Juvenaly was coming with a companion to the west coast of Alaska, to the Yup’ik people. His companion was an Athabaskan man whose name has been lost. To the shaman of the Yup’iks, Father Juvenaly appeared to be an invading shaman from somewhere else, because he was wearing a chain with a Cross on his neck. Such a chain (without the Cross) happened to be, in the local area, the sign of authority of a shaman. The Yup’iks started to attack him. They told him not to come, but his boat kept approaching them. Therefore, they started shooting arrows at him. The people said that they thought at first that he was perhaps somehow a little bit “cuckoo” because it seemed to them as though he were trying to brush away the arrows as he would brush away mosquitoes. Father Michael points out that what the Yup’iks did not understand at the time (but they did understand later) is that Father Juvenaly was not “cuckoo”, and brushing those arrows away. They did not yet recognise the Sign of the Cross. Father Juvenaly was blessing the people who were killing him, while they were killing him. This is truly the authentic Christian way.

If we can find in the love of Jesus Christ the way to live in this sort of forgiveness, then we will be of some use to people around us. Then we will be a sign of hope to people around us, even though we never really do see the fruit, ourselves.

It is up to the Lord what He does with our faithfulness. It is up to us to be faithful. Let us ask the Lord to give us the Grace to be faithful, the hope to be faithful, the love in our hearts to be faithful, and to try, out of love, to glorify Him in everything that we are and do, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.