Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
The Church is filled with beautiful icons, but they are not mere works of religious art. They show that the Savior has made us participants by grace in His deified humanity so that we also may shine brightly with the divine glory. The icons invite us to share in the blessedness that Christ has brought to those who bear the image and likeness of God, for the brilliance of a human person radiant with holiness surpasses the beauty of even the best work of wood and paint.
Today we commemorate the 367 Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council, which met in Nicaea in 787. The council rejected the false teaching that to honor icons is to commit idolatry, for it distinguished between the worship that is due to God alone and the veneration that is appropriate for images of Christ, the Theotokos, and the Saints. The council’s teaching highlighted the importance of the Savior’s incarnation, for only a truly human Savior with a physical body could restore us to the dignity and beauty of the living icons of God.
The 7th Ecumenical Council addressed matters that strike at the very heart of our salvation and call us to embrace our fundamental vocation to become like God in holiness. Too often, however, we think that iconography simply has to do with wood and paint, and overlook the question of whether we are becoming more beautiful icons of Christ. The icons are not religious art, but reminders that to become a truly human person is to become like Jesus Christ, for He has healed the corruption of the first Adam.
Whether we realize it or not, we are growing in the image of something or someone every day of our lives. We can easily become living icons of our culture’s ideals, values, prejudices, and practices without even noticing what we are doing. Without ever burning incense before the altar of another lord, we can easily conform our character to that of someone or something other than Jesus Christ. Doing so is a form of idolatry that will mar the beauty of our souls and block us from sharing in the blessedness of His life.
Today’s gospel reading addresses these same questions with different imagery. Christ used the parable of the sower to call His disciples to become like plants that grew from the seed that “fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.” He wanted them to become “those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.” Not all who hear the Word of God will do so, even as not all seeds will grow to fruition. Some never even believe, while others make a good start and then fall away due to temptation or “are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”
This parable warns us about what happens when we fail to fulfill our potential as those who bear the image of God. Our vocation is to become more beautiful living icons of the Savior, but we diminish and distort ourselves when we refuse to become who God created us to be. Plants must grow and flourish as the kinds of plants that they are in order to become healthy and bear fruit. Farmers must care for them accordingly. The sun, soil, moisture, and nutrients must be appropriate for that particular type of plant in order for them to flourish. In order for us to bear good fruit for the Kingdom, we must attend to the health of our souls with the conscientiousness of a careful farmer or gardener. We must do so in order to become more fully who we are as living icons of Christ.
In today’s epistle lesson, St. Paul urged St. Titus to tell the people to focus on doing good deeds and helping others in great need. He wanted them to avoid foolish arguments and divisions, “for they are unprofitable and vain.” St. Paul did not want the people to waste their time and energy on matters that would simply inflame their passions and hinder them from attaining spiritual health and maturity. He called them to care for their spiritual wellbeing with the conscientiousness of farmers who are single-mindedly dedicated to bringing in a bumper crop. If they let down their guard to the point of being so consumed by pointless controversies that they ignored basic disciplines like helping others, they would risk dying spiritually like a neglected plant overtaken by weeds.
If we are to become “those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience,” we must mindfully cultivate the gardens of our souls by keeping a close watch on what we allow to take root in our hearts and minds. We must water our parched souls with prayer and do the hard, daily work of denying ourselves and serving others in order to gain the strength necessary to recognize and rip out the weeds as soon as they begin to appear. The more health and strength we gain, the less room there will be in our lives for anything that keeps us from bearing good fruit for the Kingdom.
With the media and technology constantly available today, we must refuse to focus on matters that will serve only to distract us from becoming more beautiful icons of Christ. Unless we struggle mindfully against this temptation, we will become obsessed with defining ourselves and our neighbors according to some version of the standards of our world of corruption. We must not become like those who believe that there is no hope, truth, or meaning beyond our present life, for they think that that is all there is. Obsessive worry and fear are inevitable for those who believe in nothing other than the inevitability of the grave. They will welcome anything that distracts them from facing the meaninglessness of their existence.
Since we confess that Christ is risen triumphantly over death, we must not allow anything to distract us from becoming more beautiful icons of Him. The Savior Himself was mindful in rejecting the temptation to define His Kingdom in popular nationalistic terms against the Romans, the Gentiles, and the Samaritans, or in legalistic terms against those considered hopeless sinners by the religious establishment. He came to restore everyone to the beauty of a living icon of God.
If we are becoming participants in His life, then we must refuse to define ourselves according to any sensibilities that would deter us from growing to spiritual maturity and bearing good fruit for His Kingdom. We must live and grow according to His image and likeness, not according to the standards of the many false gods that threaten to choke the life out of our souls. We must remember Whose icons we are and refuse to make anything or anyone other than the God-Man the true measure of our lives. That is ultimately why we have icons in the Orthodox Church, for they proclaim who Jesus Christ is and who He enables us to become. In order to find the healing of our souls in Him, we must conscientiously remain on guard against all that threatens to keep us from maturing to the point that we bear fruit a hundredfold for His Kingdom, which remains not of this world. Like conscientious gardeners, we must doggedly tend the gardens of our souls with prayer, fasting, almsgiving, confession, and repentance. There is simply no other way to flourish as the living icons of Christ in the midst of “the cares and riches and pleasures of life.” As the Lord said. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”