St. Porphyry of Gaza (353-421)
We go far back in history today to learn a bit about a saint whose name is not familiar to most of us in the West but who is celebrated by the Greek and other Eastern churches. Born near Greece in the mid-fourth century, Porphyry is most known for his generosity to the poor and for his ascetic lifestyle. Deserts and caves were his home for a time. At age 40, living in Jerusalem, Porphyry was ordained a priest. If the accounts we have are correct, he was elected bishop of Gaza—without his knowledge and against his will. He was, in effect, kidnapped (with the help of a neighbouring bishop, by the way) and forcibly consecrated bishop by the members of the small Christian community there. No sooner had Porphyry been consecrated bishop then he was accused by the local pagans of causing a drought. When rains came shortly afterward, the pagans gave credit to Porphyry and the Christian population and tensions subsided for a time. For the next 13 years, Porphyry worked tirelessly for his people, instructed them and made many converts, though pagan opposition continued throughout his life. He died in the year 421.
The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew (5.20~26)
Jesus said, "I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny."
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)
The discovery of tools is usually a standard indicator of the one-time presence of human beings at archaeological digs. But in recent decades there have been many who have argued that various animals use tools — especially those animals which are close to man in their DNA. For instance, in their DNA, apes and men have some 97.5 % in common. There are scientists who claim that various species of ape in effect use tools. Therefore, they think, there is but a difference of degree (in animality) between man and the ape, rather than a radical difference in kind. Setting aside the question of what it is to use something as a tool, I mention this merely to introduce yet another feature common to animals and man: they engage in activity that serves their needs. The lion sets out in the morning and the whole day is engaged in gaining its food. Very many human beings are simultaneously engaged in the same project. Do they both, then, engage in “work” — the “work” of gaining sustenance? Just as with the use of tools, do they both really “work”? Instinctively, we say that the animal does not do a “work,” whereas man does indeed “work.” What is it, then, to “work,” which makes of it an activity distinctive to man? This is not the moment to explore this philosophically, but one feature of “work” could be mentioned immediately which would seem to make of it a human activity. The animal does not have the capacity to choose between its activities, nor does it choose the degree of energy it invests in the activity. Both are governed by instinct. The lion on the hunt must hunt, unless its instinct leads it to desist. It is a captive of its instincts, and so it is not responsible for its actions. Moreover, its degree of effort in the hunt is entirely dependent on factors governing it, such as instinct, immediate strength, and so forth. What the lion does is the work of its instincts and circumstances. Man, though, may freely choose among his works which is to his liking or best interest, and he is free to devote maximum strength to the work, or little at all. We may say that choice of work and choice of effort applied to his work is distinctive of man. It is he who does the work, not his “instincts.”
What has this to do with what our Lord tells us in the Gospel today? Ah! Much indeed. Our Lord begins with this warning: “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Christ is saying that we must aim high in the matter of righteousness. Our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. He is telling us that every man and woman has a great “work” to do in life and he must deliberately choose to do that work. Man cannot just drift along. He cannot be governed by self-interest, by “instinct” as it were, or by any other circumstance which, broadly, may govern other living things. He must choose among works in life and the one work that is absolutely necessary is “righteousness” — the holiness of Jesus Christ. He must work at being good. This is the supreme work and it is a work of choice. Included in this choice is a further choice — the degree of effort to be put into it. There are those who make the supreme work of choice their careers, their health, their popularity, and include the work of righteousness as something largely incidental. This means that they also choose to put little real effort into it. Christ says that the righteousness which we must choose has to be of a high order, one that surpasses “that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.” Most especially it means cultivating with energy and persistence a true religion of the heart, with the heart of Christ being the model. It means working at love and forgiveness. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:20-26).
Every man and woman born into this world has a magnificent project ahead. The project is personal holiness, a project that must be deliberately chosen and then sought with all one’s powers. The attainment of goodness is the supreme work of personal freedom, and its most singular manifestation. It will never come as a result of mere instinct, and it will never come unless the choice is made to give to the work one’s very best. Indeed, it is commanded by God that we make this choice and carry it through. We must love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and our neighbour as ourself. The grace has been won — let us to it, then!