The Gospel for today from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St Luke begins by urging us to treat other people the way we wish they would treat us. Children, how would you like other people to treat you? How do you hope that your friends will behave? . . . . Yes, that they will be kind and respect you, that they will love you and share with you. This has been called “the Golden Rule”—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
A note on this verse in The Orthodox Study Bible suggests that the Golden Rule also includes the human desire to be a good person, or as St Cyril of Alexandria put in the fifth century, “the natural law of self-love.” Isn’t that a bit confusing? We should treat other people the way we want them to treat us, but we begin by loving and respecting ourselves? How can we do that—loving other people a great deal, but also loving ourselves? We need to understand better this relationship between loving others and loving ourselves. It’s important, because Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke have each quoted the Lord Jesus Christ as saying, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And the Lord Himself told a lawyer who was questioning Him that the two great commandments in the Old Testament still apply to all His disciples, in ancient times and today: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” So then, there are three kinds of love to link together—love of God, love of self and love of neighbour.
The last line in the Gospel for today urges us to “be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” Therefore, our model for how to live is to become merciful like the Father as much as possible. St Augustine pointed out that, and I quote: “The practice of mercy is twofold: [avoid vengeance and show compassion]. The Lord included both of these in His brief sentence: ‘Forgive and you shall be forgiven [Matthew 6.14], give, and it shall be given to you’ [Luke 6.38] This work,” continued St Augustine, “has the effect of purifying the heart, so that, even under the limitations of this life, we are enabled with pure mind to see the immutable [that is, the unchanging] reality of God. There is something holding us back, which has to be loosened so that our sight might break through to the light.” St Augustine concludes by citing a short verse from the Gospel of St Luke, chapter 11, verse 41: “Give alms . . . then indeed all things are clean to you.”
What I find fascinating and challenging is that even in the midst of “the limitations of this life,” to use St Augustine’s powerful phrase, each of us—all of us—still have, here on earth, in the midst of all the confusions of our lives, the possibility of seeing the unchanging “reality of God.” Yet, yet, as St Augustine says, “there is something holding us back, which has to be loosened so that our sight might break through to the light”—that is, break through to the experience of the reality of God’s mercy toward each of us and toward every other human being. How can we achieve such a magnificent and awesome goal as knowing the reality of the presence of God and His mercy in our own lives?
St Cyril of Alexandria give us a simple but challenging answer—avoid pride. I quote: “God cuts away from our minds a very unmanageable passion, the commencement and [experience] of pride. While it is people’s duty to examine themselves and to order their conduct according to God’s will, they [often forget] this [and instead] busy themselves with the affairs of others.” As St Cyril says, “Why judge your neighbour? … If you venture to condemn [your neighbour], having no authority to do it, it is yourself rather that will be condemned, because the law does not permit you to judge others. Whoever therefore is guided by good sense does not look at the sins of others, does not busy [themselves] about the faults of [their] neighbour, but closely reviews [their] own misdoings.”
St Cyril continues by reminding us of Psalm 129 (130), which is very powerful in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew into Greek: “Out of the depths I cried out for you, O Lord. Lord, listen to my voice! Let your ears become attentive to the voice of my petition! If you mark lawlessness, O Lord, Lord who shall stand?—because with you there is [forgiveness].” Then St Cyril comments on how another psalm, 102 (103) reminds us that “the Lord has had compassion for those who fear Him because He knew our makeup. Remember that we are dust,” concludes St Cyril.
That is true—we are dust. One Bible commentary points out about Genesis, chapter 2, verse 7: “the Hebrew for ‘man’ (adam) sounds like and may be related to the Hebrew for ‘ground’ (adamah). As Ecclesiastes chapter 3, verse 20, says: “All came from the dust and all return to the dust.” That perhaps is a good reason to avoid pride—“We all came from the dust and we [shall] all return to the dust” Yet during our lives on earth we are much more than dust. We are unique persons capable of loving God, loving ourselves and loving others—as long as we do not judge others or judge how the Lord is treating us, which we may often not understand, in my experience. We don’t know the future. We often don’t even know precisely what we should do in the present.
As far as I can understand how these many ideas fit together, we love and respect God first. Then we love and respect ourselves because we are each made in the image of God. That love of God and of ourselves then gives us the strength and discernment to love others. I conclude with gentle encouragement from St Augustine, who preached: “You pardon. You are pardoned. You are generous. You are treated generously. Listen to God saying [to you], ‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give and things will be given to you.’ Keep the poor in mind. I say this to all of you,” preached St Augustine. “Give alms, my brothers and sisters, and you won’t lose what you give. Trust God.” So concluded St Augustine—trust God. It is appropriate to add: “Also trust yourself to seek and find and love the Lord, then to love yourself with all your strengths and weaknesses and then to love others.”
And so, we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.