In St. Gregory Palamas’ 25th homily on All Saints Day, the first Sunday after Pentecost, written about 1350, he interprets Matthew 10: 38-42 in a way that I have found very helpful in my spiritual life. In the context of Matthew 10, Jesus is giving final instructions to his disciples before he sends them out to “ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” Here is the passage from Matthew:
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.”
St. Gregory points out the obvious: that the “you” in the clause, “He who receives you receives me,” is not a reference to just any Christian. It is a reference to the Apostles, those to whom Jesus is speaking. However, St. Gregory points out that it is also a reference to “the perfect,” those who have taken up their cross and followed Christ, those who have lost their life for Christ’s sake and found it, those who have not loved anything in this world more than Christ.
But then St. Gregory shifts the focus from the Apostles and the holy ones, the saints, to the “Whoever,” to those who are “less perfect.” [As a side note, notice that “perfect” in Greek does not refer to an absolute state, but to a continuum. It is possible to be more perfect or less perfect. In English, words that better represent the meaning of this Greek word are “mature” or “whole.”] According to St. Gregory, Jesus “provides for the salvation of those who are not [perfect] through welcoming those who are.” That is, Jesus provides salvation for those who are less perfect when they receive those who are more perfect. What does this welcoming of the more perfect look like? St. Gregory says that it is most fully evidenced in obedience, but also extends so far as to any sort of hospitality or accommodation one might provide—even to a mere cup of water.
Obedience is a scary word nowadays. For most of us, it conjures up images of slavery, exploitation and abuse. Obedience for us is almost always understood as a manifestation of weakness in the face of power: you have to obey or else you will be punished. However, obedience that is the result of coercion, the result of the exercise of power or authority, is not the kind of obedience St. Gregory is talking about. St. Gregory is referring to a freely given obedience, the obedience that one freely takes on oneself in the face of the evident superiority of the knowledge or ability of another. For example, we all submit to and obey scrupulously the rules and specific commands of a pilot—or even of a steward—when we fly on an airplane. The crew are trained in what they do, and since I have only the faintest idea about how to keep in the air and get back down again safely an eighty-ton piece of metal with two hundred people on board, it seems that the logic of obeying those who have actual training and skill in the matter is self evident. Similarly, if I am submitting to a surgeon, I do what he or she tells me to do in order to prepare for the surgery. The doctor is the one with the training and experience, and if I want to receive the benefit of that training and experience, I have to do what the doctor tells me to do.
St. Gregory is telling us that this is exactly what Jesus means. When we recognize a certain level of maturity or giftedness or perfection in another, even though we ourselves are not very mature or gifted or perfected, we nonetheless receive, despite our immaturity, the reward for, or benefit of, the maturity or experience or giftedness of the other when we receive that other person. Jesus said it this way: “He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.” St. Gregory tells us that we can receive the greatest benefit if we obey the righteous, the “more perfect” person we are receiving; but still, if we for whatever reason cannot obey, we will still do not lose a reward even if we merely care for their physical needs of the other, even if all we can do is offer them a cup of water.
But then St. Gregory says something really amazing to me. When answering the question, “how is this possible?” St. Gregory quotes 2 Corinthians 8:14: “That our abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply to our want.” In the context of 2 Corinthians, what St. Paul is speaking about is that the Gentile Christians are benefiting from the abundance of the spiritual teaching of the Jewish Christians and that it is therefore appropriate that the Jewish Christians benefit from the relative material abundance of the Gentile Christians. What St. Paul is speaking of, and what St. Gregory is applying to this saying of Jesus, is that among Christian believers a kind of mutual sharing of benefits and abundances exists. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul expresses this same idea using the image of the body. The hand benefits from the unique abilities and strengths of the foot and vice versa. And therefore, the hand cannot reject the foot, but must receive or accept it.
In Jesus Christ, all the fullness of the divinity dwelt in bodily form in the one person. The Church is the body of Christ, and in the Church is also found, in as much as the Holy Spirit dwells in Her, all of the fullness of the divinity, but not in one person. The gifts and graces of God dwell in the church in a distributed way. The Holy Spirit distributes “as it will” the gifts and graces: “Are all apostles?” St. Paul asks, “Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?” (1 Corinthians 12:29). Of course, no one can do everything. But even though we are not all prophets, Jesus tells us that we nonetheless receive the reward of a prophet when we receive a prophet, and we receive the reward of a righteous person if we receive a righteous person, and even, St. Matthew tells us, we will not lose our reward if we receive “one of these little ones…because he is a disciple.” In the Church our lack of maturity or giftedness in certain areas does not limit our ability to receive the reward or benefit of maturity and giftedness if we recognize it and receive it in others.
On a practical level, Holy Nativity Church does not have to go without the blessings of good administration, even though my administrative abilities as the pastor are terribly underdeveloped, if I recognize the administrative giftedness in others and “receive” them. When I support and care for and obey (at least as far as administrative matters go) someone who has a mature administrative gifting, then the Church and all of the administrative matters related to it go very smoothly. When I don’t, I make a mess. Similarly, I do not have much maturity when it comes to the spiritual life and prayer, but I know some monks who do—men who have spent decades practicing and learning and growing in the spiritual life. Even though I will never have even a portion of the kind of discipline and commitment and practical experience these men have in prayer and stillness, nonetheless, I can benefit from it. All I have to do is “receive” them.
When I visit and financially support a monastery that has holy monks or nuns, I am doing exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 10. I am receiving, giving a cup of water, if you will, not merely to one of the little ones, but to those who through practice have truly become the righteous men and women, the prophets of our day. And even if we are merely providing material aid, Jesus assures us, we will not lose our reward. However, if we want to benefit more, St. Gregory tells us, then we can begin to obey. I say “begin” to obey because unlike buckling your seat belt on the airplane, obedience in the spiritual life is a journey. It takes years—years and years—to develop a trusting relationship with a wise spiritual father or mother, a relationship in which the the father knows the son and the mother knows the daughter, a relationship in which, through trial and error, through testing and failures, the disciple and the teacher trust and love one another so much that very few words are needed, a relationship in which the teacher is always in the head of the student and the student is always in heart of the teacher.
I have had to accept that there are lots and lots of things, important things, spiritual things, that I will never be good at. I have a specific calling as the pastor of Holy Nativity Orthodox Church in British Columbia, Canada. And to do my best here with this calling, there are other things, other important things, that I cannot do—or at least not do well enough to grow much in them. (For example, you can’t get up early to pray when Bible studies often last until 10:00 at night). It’s not that I have no strengths at all. My wife tells me that I’m a pretty bookish and I write adequately—though my spelling is horrible. But I am a terrible administrator, have no artistic sensibility and have a vocal range of about four and a half notes, on a good day. But I don’t despair. And that’s really the point of this blog today: Don’t despair. None of us are good at much. None of us are very mature in many areas. But all of us benefit. We all benefit when we receive one another, when we recognize and encourage the strengths in others, when we submit to the maturity and giftedness of others, then the Church is the Church and we are all saved together.