Bearing Witness by Speaking of Neighbors, Not Enemies: Homily for The Holy Righteous Martyr Paraskeva of Rome and the Seventh Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 3:23-4:5; Matthew 9:27-35

          Especially in stressful times like the ones we face today, it is tempting to define ourselves over against other people with whom we disagree.  There is obviously a lot about which people argue today, and too many view others who see this or that issue differently as their enemies, not as their neighbors.  Doing so often leads us to insult and condemn people in ways that only bring judgment upon ourselves, as Christ taught.  (Matt. 5:  22-23)  The Lord said that our mouths speak “out of the abundance” of our hearts, which means that our words reveal the state of our souls.  (Luke 6: 45)  That is why we will have to give an account for every idle or careless word “in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt. 12: 36-37)

We often forget the power of the spoken word.  Remember that the prologue to John’s gospel refers to Christ as the Logos, the Word, through Whom everything came into existence.  He spoke the universe itself into being, as Genesis describes.   Remember how the pride of those who built the tower of Babel led to the diversity of languages.  The resulting division between peoples and nations was overcome at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in different tongues so that Jews from around the world would be drawn to the good news of the Savior.

In today’s gospel reading, Christ restored the sight of two Jewish men who had been blind.    They hoped for a Messiah and obviously thought that the Lord could help them.  They were, however, blind to the truth about Christ, for He was not the nationalistic religious leader they expected to bless their nation and destroy their enemies.  Nonetheless, the Savior restored their sight because they had at least enough faith to trust that He could do so.  Then a demon-possessed man who could not speak was brought to the Savior.  Some of the Fathers of the Church see this man as representing the Gentiles, who had lost the ability to speak the praise of the one true God because of their idolatry.  That the man had lost the ability to speak is a sign of the Gentiles’ slavery to sin, which distorted and weakened their ability to embrace the high calling of those created in God’s image and likeness.

The Lord showed mercy to this man also, casting out the demon and restoring his ability to talk.  The Jews who witnessed the miracle said, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel,” for it went against their expectations for the Messiah to minister to a Gentile.  This was such a shocking scene that “the Pharisees said, ‘He casts out demons by the prince of demons.’”  When the Savior set a Gentile free from slavery to evil and gave him back the basic human ability to speak in the praise of God, He exploded the Jews’ assumptions about who was an enemy and who was a neighbor.  Some found it easier to speak blasphemous words about the Lord than to open their own mouths in thanks for Him helping a fellow human being in such a profound way.

In our time and place, it may be hard for us to understanding how radical it was for the Savior to deliver and heal a Gentile.  We probably take for granted what St. Paul wrote to the Galatians:  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  As Gentiles ourselves, we have become “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” extended to all through faith in the Savior.  As adopted sons and daughters of God, it would make no sense for us to accept the view that a person’s ancestry, nationality, social standing, or sex could make him or her a stranger or an outcast from the mercy of our Lord.  Christ has overcome the dividing force of such human characteristics and made clear that nothing but a stubborn refusal to embrace His healing can keep us from entering into the joy of His Kingdom.

Unfortunately, it is still very tempting to think and speak about others in ways that underwrite precisely such divisions.   The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales.” (Isa. 40:15).  Still, however, it is so easy to become idolaters of kingdoms that are very much of this world and to end up denying Christ in what we say about other people and in how we live.  Of course, we are hardly the first generation to face such temptations.

Today we commemorate the Holy Righteous Martyr Paraskeva of Rome, who certainly did not live according to the conventional ways of the world.  She gave away all her wealth to the poor, consecrated her virginity to Christ, and proclaimed Him boldly to the pagan Romans in a time when the penalty for doing so was torture and death.    For refusing to do her patriotic duty of worshiping the false gods of the Roman Empire, she endured horrible tortures.  Twice she was set free from imprisonment, but she was ultimately beheaded for refusing to abandon Christ after enduring even more horrible abuse.  Saint Paraskeva did not see herself according to the categories of this world, including the sensibilities of the most powerful empire on earth during her lifetime.  Consequently, she was able to make a brilliant witness for Christ and for the superiority of His Kingdom to any of the passing orders of a world still enslaved to the fear of death.

Regardless of what opinions we may have about any of the pressing concerns of contemporary culture, we must all wrestle seriously with the question of whether we think and speak of ourselves, our neighbors, and especially those with whom we disagree in ways that bear witness to Christ’s restoration of the human person in the image and likeness of God.  That means considering whether we view any person or group as somehow being shut off from the healing mercy of the Savior Who opened the mouth of the demon-possessed Gentile so that he could give thanks for his healing.  That means asking whether we have accepted corrupt definitions of ourselves or other people that ultimately amount to the idolatry of seeing reality through the lens of some narrative of earthly glory.

St. Paraskeva had no interest in worshiping such false gods, for she knew that she served a Lord Who had already triumphed over them in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  He made a mockery of the pathetic powers of this world, and those who share in His life must not think and speak as though His Cross were not a trophy of victory over them.  If we truly share in His life, then we must refuse to see anyone who bears His image and likeness, and especially those with whom we disagree or whom we are inclined to disregard, as anything less than a neighbor who is more worthy of the Lord’s mercy than we ourselves are as the chief of sinners.   (1 Tim 1:15)   We must guard our speech to make sure that we do not speak idle words in which we insult and condemn others, and thus bring judgment on ourselves.

There is no way around it.  Our words reveal the state of our souls.  Like St. Paraskeva, let us bear faithful witness to Christ as we refuse to fall into the idolatry of giving our souls to the false gods of the corrupt ways of a world that crucified our Lord in the name of an earthly empire.  Many such kingdoms want our allegiance today, and we must resist them all if we are to embrace the blessed promise that is ours through faith in the Savior Who has made us the adopted sons and daughters of God.  Let us think, speak, and act accordingly.



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