|If we do not do Good, we will Perish: On Rewards and Long Life|
Gospel Segment for this Sermon: From the Gospel of Matthew
31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.
32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.
34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?
38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?
39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’
40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;
42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’
45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’
46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Sermon from September 8, 2017
I don’t wish to say much today, but nevertheless I have to — I have no choice. First of all, I would like to direct your attention to the gospel we have just read where it is said that any good deed you do in this life may be rewarded in this life, but then there is nothing awaiting you in Heaven. This is a very important thought — a person can be very kind, merciful, a good person overall, any person who so wishes to be — but in return he could also receive a great deal of kindness, mercy, and riches. And it can so happen that he has nothing to ask of God, and nothing will await him in Heaven. And this… is frankly scary. So, if we receive all our rewards down here, then up there nothing awaits us.
You may have done a great deal of good while you were here, in this world, and that is wonderful — and, in fact, it is vital to do good in this life. As Paul repeatedly says in his epistle to Titus, God saved us for good works. We were created, predestined by God for the purpose of doing good. And so, we must do it all the time, as long as the sun shines — not just once a year or once a month, but all the time. We must constantly be concerned for those around us, this is our assignment, this is our duty. But if we do this good, and receive good in return, then it may so happen that we will not receive anything else from God.
And so many of us are accustomed to the saying, ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ — when a person does something good, but gets a smack upside the head for it. And we are always puzzled by this phenomenon: ‘I’ve only done good — why am I being cursed, beaten, bitten, even on the verge of being killed? Why do I suffer — I only wanted to do good?’
Evidently, this is so that the righteous person can obtain his reward in the Kingdom of Heaven. Because if every good deed is repaid with good in this life, then we are quits with God and there is nothing for us to expect in the next life. Good-bye to you. You’ll appear before God in Heaven, and you will be told, ‘Sorry Brother, but certainly you will remember all the good that you have consumed while you were on Earth. How much more do you expect to keep receiving? This place is not for you — this place is for those who prayed, wept, endured, suffered, awaited, and so on.’ This interesting idea reveals itself to us in the Holy Gospel. And as long as we live, we will always discover something new in the Gospel — something astonishing, frightening, and difficult to understand. And many of you will be confused. We all know that ‘sinners must be punished’. But how many of you truly understand that not only sinners will be punished, but also those who did not do unrewarded good. Few of us grasp this, although it is written in the Gospel. Yet, we prefer to forget these parts.
The Gospel tells us about Judgement Day, that it is not just the sinners who will be punished, but those who didn’t do good. God will ask, ‘have you fed the hungry?’ ‘No’ ‘Have you clothed the naked?’ ‘No’ ‘Have you visited those in jail?’ ‘No’ ‘Have you visited the sick in the hospital?’ ‘No’ ‘Then this is no place for you.’ In other words, you may not have done any evil, but you also did not do any good. That’s how strange our Gospel is. Strange, because it presents ideas that often do not fit into our limited minds. Therefore, read the Gospel carefully so that you can understand how you will be judged. Normally, when you know how you will be judged, you hire a lawyer, prepare yourself mentally, and try to figure out how to save yourself. Therefore, keep in mind, when God will judge you, it will not only be for your sins, but also for the mere absence of good deeds. This absence can make you a hostage of the eternal flames. ‘Go into the everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels’ says Christ.
Why would you go into the everlasting fire? Is it because you made a drug lab in your basement? Is it because you created an alcoholic den in your apartment? Is it because you went into the street with brass knuckles to hit random pedestrians? No, simply because you have done nothing good in your life. That’s it. That’s enough. In order to find yourself in hell, all you need to do is avoid good deeds. We always thought that hell is about punishment for sin. Everyone will be punished for their sins, do not worry about that. Think about how often you do good. You wait for the opportunity to come to you, once in a while. But imagine seeking out good deeds. Imagine dedicating yourself to good deeds with the same zeal that you dedicate yourself to the pursuit of profit. Look at how the businessman looks for profit — he looks night and day, he can barely sleep at night as he searches of opportunities. Or how does a sick dog search for a patch of grass to cure its ills — it sniffs every corner of the forest to find the grass because it desperately needs a cure. With the same greed and desperation as this dog, we must sniff out good deeds.
We must look back at our day and think, ‘what good have I done today?’ Maybe there were no old ladies with heavy bags walking around me today. Maybe I didn’t need to reach out and help someone near me today. And so we will keep living our lives pointlessly with these excuses. And Judgement Day will come and we will say, ‘but I did not sin!’ And God will say, ‘You did not have to.’ In order to end up in hell, you do not need to sin. It is enough to not do any good. It is enough to be useless and fruitless. To live your life for yourself, and not bother anyone. ‘I’m a quiet person who doesn’t bother anyone.’ And that’s it! You’ve booked a spot in a very unpleasant place. This is what the Gospel says. This is not what Father Andrei, or Father Simeon, or Father Ivan, or Father Paul, or Father Bartholomew are saying — the Gospel says this. This is told to us through Matthew in the story about Judgement Day.
So when you call guests into your house, the Lord says do not call wealthy neighbors, family members, friends. Instead, call the poor, crippled, lost — feed them, keep them warm. And in the end, they will not give you anything in return — they have nothing to give you. But your reward will be in Heaven — on Judgement Day. This is a sort of transcending truth, one that goes against all human norms. We are so used to the opposite — you invite me to your house, I invite you back. That’s normal, we can understand this. ‘Want to come over?’ ‘Sure!’ You come over, fry some potatoes, fillet some herrings, drink some tea. ‘Now you come over my place.’ And that’s normal. But what about up there. Up there it does not matter, we are quits. You ate bread, and I ate bread. But to feed someone wretched, who you are afraid to even touch, who you want to pass as quickly as possible — for that, you will be rewarded. Rewards will be given only for that which is done through labor, suffering, and with a clear mind.
The Gospel wants us to know exactly what we must do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and not be losers — an apt modern word. As you live, you might think, ‘it is for people like me that Heaven was created.’ But then you will arrive and see that no one is waiting for you there. No one there will know who you are. They will ask, ‘who are you?’ And you will say, ‘It’s me, don’t you know me?’ But they will reply, ‘No, we don’t know you. Leave, for you are taking up the space of good men.’ And then there will be crying and gnashing of teeth. Why? Because it will be very sad. It will be sad to approach the gates of Heaven and understand that no-one there knows you or is waiting for you.
Therefore, we have an interesting bit of truth revealed to us in today’s Gospel — that you will receive rewards above for the unrewarded acts down here. And it is so often that a person will do good, but only receive evil in return. And he will be surprised by this: ‘Why am I treated like this?’ ‘It is so that you will not have rewards in this life. You will receive your rewards up there — if you believe. If you believe, then do not be sorrowful and do not worry, because there will be a reward. The reward will find the hero, just not here. Do you have faith? Then be calm.’ On Earth, good deeds are punished, and not lauded. Read the biography of any great individual. Any great historical figure has been beaten, hated, slandered, tortured, but adored after their death. Any great person — physicist, chemist, officer, king, monk (especially monk), or priest. In life, they were spit on, but as soon as they died the world began to sing their praises, ‘what a holy man he was…’ Well this holy man was just walking on Earth, and you all spat on him.
This is the law, on Earth people spit at the good. And in Heaven, the good are rewarded. And if the Earth truly rewarded good, then there would be no reward left in Heaven. Such is the interesting turn of events. It is scary, but fascinating.
Today we are also commemorating the Patriarch Pimen, today is his patron saint’s day. We once had this Patriarch by the name of Pimen. He carried the name of Abba Pimen, an Egyptian monk, and he was a monk himself. Patriarch Pimen was a monastic man — he sang, he was very musically talented, he was the director of a choir, fought in the Second World War. He lived a very tough life under the Soviet regime — as he himself said, he lived in a golden cage. He could not say a single world out of line because of numerous soviet officials placed over him. His was seemingly a position of honor, yet he might as well have been in a prison. And today is the holiday of his patron saint, Abba Pimen of Egypt. I will say three things about him.
First, he lived for 110 years — Abba Pimen. He lived a long life that many of us would also like to live, because so many of us seek longevity. But he lived such a life, that we would not have lasted a week in his shoes. And here is another paradox, those who live very long lives also live very hard lives. He did not live in comfort — he did not know what it meant to lie on a sofa, or take a shower, or wash his hair with shampoo, or take a bath, or eat some kebabs. He absolutely did not understand such luxuries — he lived an immensely difficult life for 110 years. Longevity is a reward for a life of labor. A lazy person, one who lives for pleasure, usually ends up full of diseases and departs at an early age. But those who live very difficult lives, they live very long lives. So, if you want to live for a long time, work! Work as hard as a galley slave, chained to his oar. Do not rest, work, labor away — on your job, in the garden. Always be laboring, and you will live to 70,80,90. You will be 70, but look 50.
If you want to always seek pleasure from life and look young, if you put Botox in your lips, ears, eyes, noses — then you will die very quickly and only your Botox will be left of you. Years later, they’ll find a row of very white and straight teeth inside your coffin and that’s all. If you want a short life, do not work. Idlers die quickly. If you want to depart from this sad and scary world, then all you have to do is be lazy. I promise you this. But if you work hard, like a work-horse, like bees, then you will live very blessed and strenuous lives — like Abba Pimen.
Pimen had a saying, ‘there are some who are always silent, yet say a great deal.’ Many psychologists today would read Pimen’s words and recognize him as a great psychologist. People always lead an internal dialogue, whether or not they are surrounded by other people. This is not insanity — it is natural for we are conversational creatures. But there are some very angry, irritable, and bitter people who constantly lead a hateful internal dialogue — these people are truly insane. They walk around and imagine how they will insult others and how they will argue with them. And so, Pimen said that there are some people who can remain silent for weeks, but nevertheless engage in sinful dialogue with someone. He was as a clever psychologist, very sensitive to the nuances of the soul. Today psychologists work on the soul and mind, but in the past this was the realm of monks. However, psychologists take money for their work, but monks do not. You can come to a monk, and he will tell you how your soul is doing, what is rotting, what is aching, how to fix yourself, and in the end he will not take a cent. But for a psychologist, you make an appointment, pay a bunch of money, and rant about your childhood filth. Do you see how we are being duped?
Therefore, holy men are also great psychologists. And, in fact, many modern psychologists, and even self-help writers like Dale Carnegie would read Abba Dorotheus, the Optina Elders, and other holy men. Then they translated their words into modern contexts and made millions. This is because they found profound wisdom in the words of monks.
This was the great Pimen. One last thing about him — he did not like speaking of metaphysical subjects. For example, a group of monks would gather and begin to talk about very esoteric concepts, or ask very complex questions such as ‘what was God doing before he created the world?’. If they would sit and think up all these silly hypotheticals and questions — whenever something so esoteric was asked of Pimen, he would simply get up and leave. He wouldn’t talk to such people. But if his followers would run after him and say, ‘wait, wait Father, I have a serious affliction, I am full of lust. My soul has hurt from this for as long as I can remember.’ And to this he would respond very positively. He loved to engage in conversations on how to deal with everyday problems of the soul. In other words, the ‘high/intellectual’ conversations did not interest him. But he loved to discuss our human filth — our greed, lust, gluttony, envy.
And we should also avoid aiming so high. As the saying of Optina Elder Ambrosy goes, ‘Go high and it will be very difficult. Go low and it will be slippery. You must take the middle path.’ Therefore we must take the middle path and always deal with our own sins first. Because if we do not combat our own sins, what is the point of us knowing the structure of an atom. Sure you may become the administrator of something like the Large Hadron Collider. And so what? Then the administrator of the Collider will be a sinner and a glutton, and what good does it do him? Or you could be green with envy your entire life. What kind of life is that? That is what Abba Pimen loved to speak about with his followers. Let’s talk about these things — not the complexities of the universe, but about how we have failed in our own lives. Anthony the Great was like this as well.
Have any of you been to Egypt? It is a land that for 300 years flourished with holiness. It was home of such holiness that few of you can even imagine. Many of its inhabitants were angelic people — it was the home of monasticism. Take for example Anthony. He was once at a council with many of the Church Fathers. At one point they asked him a very complex question about the Scriptures. He got up from his seat, and walked for a long time — straight into the desert. He prayed for God to send him Moses with an explanation of that segment from the scripture. A monk had followed him into the desert and witnessed as Moses came down and explained the scripture to Anthony. Thus, Anthony was able to return to the Church Fathers and explain the Word without hesitation. Those are the kind of people that lived in Egypt. It was considered an honor to speak with them.
And they preferred to speak about people’s ills. One could come to them and say, ‘Father, I am an idle man. I have great intellect. I could have learned eight languages, I could have helped many people, I could have moved mountains. But I did not because I am lazy. So now I am 52 and I have wasted most of my life.’ That is what the Egyptian monks wanted to talk about with their followers, and nothing else. And Pimen lived for 110 years doing this. This was a difficult life. Soon we will be celebrating Job ‘Zilizo’ (Iron) of Pochaevo. He was a man of Iron — he became a monk at 10 years of age. 10! And for 90 years he lived in monasteries — moving from one to the next to avoid worldly praise and rewards. He would always be on his feet, often not sitting down for weeks. Sometimes he would stand so long that the flesh on his legs began to rot and fall off its bone. That’s how hard he worked — his life was full of suffering for Christ. That’s how he lived for 100 years — serving Christ.
Now those are people. Those are real people. And we… we are also people. Of course, we are different. So let us also save ourselves. Let us listen to the Word, let us meet in our churches, let us learn the history of the church, read the lives of saints, bring our relatives — the lazy and godless ones. Let us experience suffering for Christ. People will tell us that we are idiots and fanatics, even cultists. We may gain some unflattering epithets to our names for our faith in Christ.
Let us pray for the dead, because half of them died having lived bad lives. There are very few holy men among those who are dead. Most were like carrots plucked from the dirt. They were not ready — living without prayer and dying without warning. And let’s pray for their souls.
We are all people. And each person is a miracle. You are a miracle. I am one too. I don’t know if you will remember anything I’ve said. But let’s recap. We have discussed that the logic of the Gospel is opposite that of worldly logic. That you will receive rewards in Heaven when you do not have them in this life. Therefore, do not rush into the queue for rewards. When someone offers your reward, do not take it. Whether you are offered medals or awards, do not take them. If you are a true believer, then you do not need this attention. God will reward you. Otherwise, you will have your reward here, but not in Heaven. We talked about Judgement Day — that it is not enough to not sin. To enter hell, you do not need sins — lack of good deeds is enough. We remembered Abba Pimen, the patron saint of our departed Patriarch. We discussed that he lived a long and hard life, that he did not like talking about esoteric things, but instead loved to help people struggling with sin.
We also discussed that Pimen was an acute psychologist, and that modern psychology is often a reproduction of monastic wisdom. Many of the ‘wise men’ alive today appropriate the findings and revelations of great monks for their own enrichment. And if you delve into the world of psychology, you will see that I am not exaggerating. All of the great monks we mentioned today were part of one great school — the school of deciphering the human soul. And what is psychology? Psycho — ‘the soul’, and logia — ‘the study of’. And so, as Christians we have our own great psychologists. So let us study their writings. Instead of watching TV and aimlessly swiping at our phones, let us read these great books. The greater your knowledge of and faith in the Lord, the happier your life will be. But if your life is full of sin and madness, your eyes will be dim and life will be boring. Therefore, live happily, live long, and be as hardworking as bees.