Homily on the 6th Sunday After Pentecost Archpriest Alexander Webster
Delivered at Holy Trinity Monastery Jordanville, NY July 15/28, 2018
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
Oné of the specific counsels of the Holy Apostle Paul in one of today’s epistle readings is especially striking. St Paul urges the Christians in Rome to outdo one another in showing honor.1Romans 12:10 ESV
Now what on earth can that possibly mean for us living today in a society in which “honor” seems to be in such short supply? Perhaps more than we may think!
Webster’s Dictionary—alas, no relation!—defines honor, in the first place, as a “good name or public esteem.” It’s an aspect of character, a personal quality, a matter of doing what is right with little or no regard for one’s own advancement.
I prefer to define honor as doing the right thing, especially when it may cost you or me personally!
The Honor of the Good Samaritan
The Good Samaritan in our Lord’s memorable parable knew what honor meant — and he acted with honor. After a priest and a Levite went out of their way to avoid the poor soul, presumably a Jew, who had been beaten, stripped, and left for dead on the road to Jericho by robbers, a Samaritan chanced upon the poor victim. Now, Samaritans in those days were despised by the Jews as a wayward sect whose “temple” was on Mount Gerizim in Samaria, between Judea and Galilee. The Samaritans worshipped there instead of at the true temple of Solomon (and later, King Herod) in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, it was the Samaritan, not the two Jews in the story, who had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.2Luke 10:33–35
The lowly Samaritan responded to the plight of the poor mugged Jew by tending to his wounds personally, taking him to an inn, paying for his lodging, and pledging to the innkeeper to cover any additional expenses incurred by the recovering victim. The Samaritan, unlike the two Jewish leaders, did the right thing, despite the investment of time and money that it cost him.
For the Good Samaritan, it was simply a matter of honor.
The Honor of Soldiers
The Hollywood film Glory (1989) depicts the formation and battle history of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the second African American volunteer unit in the Union Army during the Civil War. The regiment was commanded by a young officer, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, from a very prominent Caucasian Boston family.
In the movie, Colonel Shaw gathers his regiment on a miserable rainy evening to deliver devastating news. It’s early 1863 and the soldiers are still in their initial training phase at Camp Meigs in Massachusetts, not yet donning the coveted blue Union uniform. Shaw announces:
In accordance with President Lincoln’s wishes, you men are advised that the Confederate Congress has issued a proclamation. It reads: ‘Any negro taken in arms against the Confederacy will immediately be returned to a state of slavery. Any negro taken in Federal uniform will be summarily put to death. Any white officer taken in command of negro troops shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection and shall likewise be put to death.’ Full discharges will be granted in the morning to all those who apply. Dismissed.
Then Colonel Shaw turns to his second-in-command, Major Forbes, and says quietly, “If you’re not here in the morning, I’ll understand.”
Well, next morning the rain has ceased, the sun is shining, the bugle sounds as the Stars & Stripes is run up the flagpole, and Colonel Shaw, still fastening the buttons on his uniform, walks out of his tent and asks Major Forbes, “How many are left?” Forbes is silent, and Colonel Shaw takes a few more steps to the assembly area to discover that no one had left overnight—every one of those African American soldiers and their Caucasian officers had decided to stay and take the fight to the Confederacy, even with a certain death sentence hanging over each of them if captured.
For the men of the 54th Infantry, it was simply a matter of honor.
The Honor of Mothers
Back in the summer of 1960 when I was a nine-year-old boy in Jersey City, NJ, fascinated by the American Revolutionary War, I did something very wrong and sinful that led to a crucial turning point in my young life.
The local F.W. Woolworth store, which we called the “5 and 10 cents” store, was selling a bag of toy Revolutionary War soldiers for $1.98. But I had only one dollar to spend. So I concocted a scheme in my little boy mind. I headed up Jackson Avenue to the “John’s Bargain Store” and shoplifted a bag of World War II soldiers selling for 99 cents. It was a close call, but I wasn’t caught! Immediately I proceeded down Jackson avenue to Woolworth’s and tried to make a deal with the salesman in the toy section. I offered to trade the WWII soldiers I had just stolen and the dollar bill I had for the coveted Revolutionary War soldiers. Well, of course, it was no deal. The salesman could not possibly accept such a barter. So I did what any little thief would do in that case: I went home disappointed, but began to play with the stolen WWII soldiers in the living room of our family apartment.
Enter my mother Eileen with her eagle eye! When she noticed the new toys that she had not purchased for me I had to confess what I had done. Good Irish-American Roman Catholic woman that she was, my mom told me to go back to John’s Bargain Store with my stolen loot and fess up to the storekeeper.
“Will he send me to Reform School?” I cried. Reform School, a home for criminal minor boys, was the big bogeyman that urban parents in those days sometimes invoked to keep their kids from misbehaving. “I don’t know,” said my mom a bit disingenuously, “but you have to do the right thing.”
And so I trudged back to John’s Bargain Store, and, awash with tears, confessed my sin to the storekeeper. Instead of a legal punishment, that kind old fellow marveled at my honesty and told me to thank my mother for being such a good mom.
For my mother, it was simply a matter of honor.
There’s an epilogue to that tale. The very next day, Saturday, my mom, my younger sister, and I went shopping on Jackson Avenue. We stopped at F.W. Woolworth’s as usual, but this time we paused at the toy counter and my loving mother Eileen bought for me the Revolutionary War soldiers that I had wanted so badly in the first place!
For my mom, it was also a matter of forgiveness and redemption of her wayward, nine-year-old son!
Honoring One Another in the Church
Brothers and sisters in Christ, honor is more than a noun — even more than doing the right thing, especially when it may cost you or me personally. Honor is also a verb — and that gets us even closer to what the Apostle Paul means when he exhorts the Christians in Rome to outdo one another in showing honor.
The original Greek text of that phrase in Romans 12:10 is a bit ambivalent. It could also mean, “In terms of honor, let each one esteem the other more highly” than ourselves.3The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1968, p. 325 St Paul is summoning the Christians in ancient Rome — and us, too, of course — to show respect and honor toward one another in the Church, whether or not any of us deserves it, or may not seem to deserve it — even if it costs us something personally, such as our sense of our own dignity!
That’s why the Fifth Commandment summons each of us to honor our father and mother.
That’s why the Apostle Paul, in Ephesians 5:21, exhorts husbands and wives, [Submit] yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
That’s why St Paul, a little later in Ephesians 6:4, commands, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
And that’s why we, all of us Orthodox Christians, are expected to honor our Church leaders—the patriarchs, bishops, priests, deacons, monks and nuns — that is, to respect, heed, and love them; and why our Church leaders ought to “outdo one another in showing honor,” in St. Paul’s words, by loving and esteeming all of the faithful.
As usual, St John Chrysostom, in his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, put it simply and marvelously: “There is nothing which makes friends so much as the earnest endeavor to overcome one’s neighbor by honoring him.” 4Homies on Romans, 21, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) VI, p. 315
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The V. Rev. Archpriest Alexander F.C. Webster is Dean of Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary and Professor of Moral Theology, pending a well-earned retirement later this month. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. A retired military chaplain, he has authored numerous books and articles on Christianity and the morality of war.