A Light to Influence Others
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
“The criminal in your community may be less guilty for his crime than you, his Christian neighbor,” the great Russian writer Dostoievski wrote in his book The Brothers Karamazov. “For you could have been a light to the evil doer, yet you were not. For the man remained beside you in darkness. Had you been the kind of example you ought to have been and allowed your light to shine on that lost man’s path, perhaps he might not have stumbled into his crime. If you had loved your neighbor as yourself and lavished upon him some of the care you generously lavish upon yourself, shared some of the warmth God has privileged you to possess, that criminal might have changed in time.”
This thought-provoking statement reminds us of the responsibility we have for our neighbor, for “the other,” for those who surround us. How easily we judge and condemn, instead of accepting part of the responsibility to help those struggling with evil. We are brothers and sisters with one another, and if we truly possess divine love, than we will be deeply concerned for the other. Read the daily newspapers and see countless examples of confused, hurting, desperate people who give in to temptations of violence, aggression, immorality and other vices. Do we accept part responsibility for their actions? What are we concretely doing to reach out to such people? What are we doing to try and change the structures that lead people into poverty, violence, depression and despair?
Dostoievski challenges us by saying “The criminal in your community may be less guilty for his crime than you, his Christian neighbor!”
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear our Lord Jesus Christ say something similar to this. “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The light of Christ is to shine from our lives, but not so that people may praise us! No! Christ wants His light to radiate from us so that people may see Jesus in us; so that they may give glory to our Father in heaven!
We read this Gospel lesson today as we remember the Holy Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council because the reading summarizes two important aspects about the lives of these holy leaders. First, we hear about the importance of allowing the good works of our lives to shine forth in a dark and sinful world. Second, we remember that whatever good works we do, the result should always be only for the glory of God, to lead people back to God!
Here’s a great question for all of us to think about today. When people see us in our daily lives, when they hear our words and conversations, when they see us face unexpected struggles and crises, will they see Christ in our personhood and witness? Will they glorify God from our example? Or will they simply say there seems to be no difference between us and any non-Christian or secular person? As Christians, we must understand that every person has a certain influence in the world. No matter how great or small we are, we affect people around us – in our families, in our neighborhoods, among our friends in our work, in our recreation, and in our schools. Maybe our circle of influence doesn’t appear to be great, but still we do influence certain people, and who knows what great or terrible things those people may do in the future because of our witness!
St. Innocent, one of the greatest Russian missionaries who brought the Gospel to Alaska in the 19th century, admitted that his main problem in preaching to the native peoples of Alaska was the terrible witness the Russian fur traders gave to the eskimos. When St. Innocent preached the Gospel, the people asked him, “Are the Russian workers also Christian? If yes, then why would we want to be like them. They drink too much, they abuse and misuse us, they are dishonest and greedy. If that is what it means to be a Christian, then we are not interested in your teachings.” Only after a long time, during which St. Innocent offered an example of authentic Christian love, sacrifice, and service, did he finally persuade them of the beauty and truth of our Orthodox faith.
Therefore we have to be careful what message we transmit to others, whether consciously or unconsciously. Let us ask ourselves, by what we say and who we are, are we radiating light or darkness in the world? Are we helping our neighbor come closer to God and His love, or are we scandalizing or ignoring them and unconsciously pushing them away from goodness. It is a sobering thought to realize that our examples may cause people to either draw closer or fall away from God! We play a role in the path others take!
An inspiring illustration of shining Christ’s light to others occurred during WWII, when the Russians began their countermarch against the Nazis. A young Nazi soldier found himself behind Russian lines. He was bleeding from a gun wound in one arm. Bewildered and afraid, he found his way into the home of a poor Russian peasant. She welcomed him into her humble home, and offered him food and rest. He did not understand why she was so kind, since he was her enemy, but before he departed, he noticed how she prayed daily, standing before her icons of Christ and the saints. This soldier recalled years later, “I could see God living in that home, even though I had never known Him before. Before this, I believed that God didn’t exist, but that the State was my god. And this false god taught me to hate those who didn’t believe as I believed. Although I had never even seen a Bible in my life, no less read one, from the witness of that woman, I came to realize that God was alive because I saw Him in the life of that poor peasant woman.” A short time later, as this same soldier attempted to find his way back to the German lines, he became lost and returned to the home of this friendly Russian woman, only to discover that her home had been burned down because of what she had done to help an enemy soldier.
Well, the soldier did find his way back to the German side, but he found his way back as a new man! He had met God! And following the war, he decided to dedicate his life to serving Christ and becoming a great defender of the Christian faith, all because he witnessed God’s love and mercy through this humble Christian woman! “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Obviously, the witness of saints throughout history has always reminded others of how to shine God’s light onto the world around us!
The second important lesson from this Gospel reading tells us to let our light shine, so that “others may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.” Whatever good influence or witness we offer to others we must never take the credit for ourselves, but give all glory to God and God alone. One of the quickest ways to darken a shining light is to cover it with pride and a desire for praise. Our purpose in allowing others to see our good works is so that others may understand where our source of goodness comes from, and thus, to draw closer to that source – God himself.
Too often the devil tempts us to forget that every good thing we do comes from God. We foolishly become proud, thinking we ourselves deserve the credit. We want our picture to appear in the newspapers, and our name to be engraved for our good deed. In such cases, we forget that we are not the light, but simple reflections of the light. If a mirror reflects the rays of the sun, its reflection can be very powerful, but the mirror itself has no light; all light comes from the sun itself.
Mother Teresa summarized this teaching well when people tried to praise her for her incredible witness. She noted, “I am simply a pencil in the hands of God. If a great author writes a masterpiece, can the pencil take credit? Of course not. Greatness came from the mind of the author, not the pencil.” In like manner, if any good comes from us as Christians, remember that its source is God alone. Who are we to take credit for anything good?
Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven! Today, let us go home thinking about what light we are radiating from our lives and how we are influencing our neighbor. Let us imitate the saints, past and present, who offered a bright light of God’s love, and thus, drew people closer to that source of love, God Himself!