Shall I show you another bed? I mean Jacob’s. He had bear ground underneath him and a stone under his head. For this reason, he saw the spiritual Rock and the ladder where the angels were ascending and descending. St. John Chrysostom, First Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man
Jacob was a deceiver who stole both the birth right and blessing from his older brother, Esau. Esau was foolish to sell himself short and distress his parents by marrying faithless women. But, that does not excuse the fact that Jacob has placed himself in the wrong. In order to make something right out of the wrong (as well as for his own protection), Isaac sent this deceptive son to their faithful kinsmen to find a good wife to raise up offspring. On route to the place of redemption, safety and a blessing, Jacob didn’t seek any comfortable tent nor lodging in a village. He settled for the hard ground beneath him and took a stone to lay his head on. By his obedience to his father (which is an act of transforming from deceptive behavior) and not looking for some temporal haven or alternative to what he was told but taking his rest in a lowly manner, Jacob has a divine encounter (1). Jacob is a man on a mission like that of a soldier on duty. Thus, in this section of the sermon, Chrysostom instructs the congregation from Paul’s epistle that as spiritual soldiers, we are not to be entangled in civilian pursuits (2). We should not seek after seeking to sleep in ivory beds. We should take our rest on the ground.
In our society, I am afraid we have our priorities mixed up. And this is true across political ideology, race, and economic standing. We count the luxury items and the ability to afford them as blessings to pursue and any willing abstinence from them to be either extremely religious or foolish. Looking at the story of Jacob, we know that he eventually gains two wives, twelve sons, and no shortage of animals and servants. He even gains the blessed name “Israel” after his struggle with an angel of God. However, nothing is gained until he first pursues obedience to his father, and a place of refuge where he may find something good out of the wrong he had done. And the path to such a place does not mean chasing after convenience and comfort, but accepting hardship. In accepting the difficulties on the way, God reveals Himself and His promise to us.
Of course, no one wants to sleep outside of the gates of comfort with dogs licking one’s sores. But, John Chrysostom teaches that we must not make luxurious living our aim in life if we desire to be in the presence of God. The Lord shows himself to people who take up the path of obedience and repentance. These are spiritual blessings that are necessary for the survival of our souls. The rich man lived fulfilling every material whish and whim he desired. And where did he end up? Where did Lazarus, who patiently endured his disgrace and suffering (3), spend eternity? If we wish to have the end result of Lazarus, taking up a hard deprivation as Jacob for the sake of seeking God should be a part of our lives.
Likewise combat soldiers are to be vigilant and watchful against an attack from the enemy, be ready to go on an offensive against the adversary. They can’t carry thick mattresses and eat five course meals. They sleep on the ground with little more to comfort them but perhaps some grass, a cot, or tent. Aren’t we in spiritual warfare against the enemy of our souls? Does he not attack us when we let our guard down? Are we not called to fight against our personal demons? Then like the soldier, we can’t be caught up in a life of hedonism and pursuing pleasures. If we accept the hardship on the battlefield, the Lord will grant us victories over our passions and the ultimate victory of dwelling in His kingdom.
This is the Lenten season where Christians traditionally take on some level or another of fasting. Too many people dismiss taking up even this annual time of even prescribing a lenient form of discipline for themselves. It isn’t that we can’t give up that bag of potato chips every other night and put the money saved into the missionary offering. It is that we don’t want to and that we belong to churches that do not teach that we should. Indeed too many ministers and ministries teach that we should eat, drink, and be merry rather than seek any sort of discipline in almsgiving, prayer, and fasting; all three of which Jesus Himself clearly gives us clear instructions on (4). Of course, those who are pregnant, nursing babies, very young, very old, and are under a doctor’s care must be cautious about what sort of fasting can be done. Although not traditional, turning of the TV for an hour and refraining from wasting time on social media are also great means of self-denial for the sake of spiritual growth. Anyone who is not trying to fast in accordance to his ability is denying himself an important tool knowing and following God’s will.
And beyond Lent, it is to our advantage to avoid seeking a luxurious life and take on some difficulty for the sake of growing closer to God. No, not everyone will follow Anthony the Egyptian by giving an inheritance to the poor and moving out into the desert. Nor will we all imitate Basil of Cappadocia and immerse ourselves in simple living among the poor and sick. But, we can all start by devoting ourselves to refusing to live to chase the “all-mighty dollar,” status symbol cars and clothes, 400 channel TV subscriptions, and constantly falling prey to our modern consumer culture. I have heard and seen Christians refer to one another as “prayer warriors.” A hymn we used to sing in the church of my youth is, “I Am On the Battlefield for my Lord.” What sort of warrior doesn’t train hard? Where is the battlefield that allows a soldier to reside in total comfort?
If we are to be one with God and break down the walls of ethnicity, class, and other barriers that separate us, it will take self-denial and getting out of our comfort zones as a way of life. If you don’t agree with this point from Jacob, Paul, or John Chrysostom; please consider the words of the one whom we worship: “If any man desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. … For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works” (5). May we all pray and seek wise counsel on what our crosses are and how to carry them to the glory of God and our salvation.
From Chrysostom pgs. 25, 26
- Genesis 25:27-33, 27, 28:1-15
- 2 Timothy 2:4
- Chrysostom, pg. 28
- Matthew 6
- Matthew 16:24-27