The Publican and the Prophets

The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14) –

The Lord Jesus taught this parable:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

St. John Chrysostom comments:

“There is not, in fact, there is not any other remedy so efficacious for wiping away sins as the constant recollection of them and the unremitting criticism of them. This is the way the tax collector succeeded in setting aside his countless vices so as to say, ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner;’ this is the way the Pharisee forfeited all righteousness in neglecting to attribute his sins to himself and condemning the whole world in the words, ‘I am not like other people, rapacious, avaricious, nor like this tax collector.’ Hence Paul also makes this exhortation, ‘Let each one test their own work, and then their boast will be their own work and not someone else’s.’

Do you want to learn also the way righteous people in the Old Testament criticized themselves? Listen to how they, too, uttered remarks in accord with these people. David, remember, said, ‘My sins have risen over my head; they weigh me down like a heavy burden.’ Isaiah cried aloud, ‘What a wretch I am, being human and having unclean lips.’ And the three young men, confined to the furnace and surrendering their bodies to death for the sake of God, in their extreme situation listed their sins in the words, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong’ – and yet what was more illustrious than they, what more pure? I mean, even if they were guilty of some sins, that fire by its nature would have wiped them all out; yet instead of their eyes being on their virtuous actions, they reckoned up their sins. Daniel, too, despite the lions’ den, despite the countless punishments he endured, criticizes himself personally and makes no such remarks about his neighbor.


What, then? The person who speaks badly of others provokes the Lord, whereas those who speak badly of themselves placate and appease him; it renders the righteous more righteous, rescues sinners from their sins and makes them worthy of pardon. Aware of this, therefore, let us busy ourselves not with others’ vices but with our own; let us examine our conscious, let us recall our whole life, let us pry into each of our sins, and let us not only not speak badly of others but also not listen to others speaking badly.”  (Old Testament Homilies: Volume 3, pp 48-49)

We can remember St. Luke’s explanation for why Jesus told the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others…

This is an important lesson for all Orthodox as we enter into Lent and imagine that fasting somehow makes us righteous and better Christians than those who don’t fast!  The fast is to bring us to personal repentance, not to the judgment of others.

Pleasing God By Being Aware

“Someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’  The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you:

whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes;

whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures;

in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.

Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.’”

(Anthony the Great in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 2)

The Pure Heart is God’s Writing Tablet

One result of the Gutenberg printing revolution is that today when Christians hear the phrase, “the Word of God”, a Bible comes to mind.  Yet for the vast majority of Christian history to this point, the printed Bible as we now envision it or carry it around, did not exist.  Prior to the printing press, what did Christians bring to mind when they heard the phrase, “the Word of God“?

They may have thought about sometime very real, and physical, but it may have been a Who rather than a what.  For Christians since the time of St. John’s Gospel have imaged the Word of God as Christ, not as a book.  Even God in the Old Testament does not appear to have envisioned a book as the natural way to contain, envision and express His Word.  Jeremiah the Prophet gives us this word from the Lord:

“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

God does not see the tablets of stone, let alone papyrus or paper as being the rightful material upon which to record His word.  Ultimately, God wishes His word to be embedded deep within each human – written on our hearts; rather than being printed on paper and external to us, God’s word is meant to be recorded within each of us.  With God’s revelation written on our hearts, to know the Lord does not even require a printed bible.  Rather each of us becomes a living bible with whom all other humans can interact.

St. Maximos the Confessor takes the prophecy of Jeremiah to heart, and says that it is the pure and humble heart upon which God fulfills His prophecy:

“When God comes to dwell in such a heart, He honors it by engraving His own letters on it through the Holy Spirit, just as He did on the Mosaic tablets (cf. Exod. 31:18).”     (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 15522-24)

“A pure heart is perhaps one which has no natural propulsion towards anything in any manner whatsoever. When in its extreme simplicity such a heart has become like a writing-tablet beautifully smoothed and polished. God comes to dwell in it and writes there His own laws.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 15528-30)

God’s word is kept best in the heart of humans.  This is no doubt why our Lord Jesus Christ chose disciples to go into the world, rather than writing any books and handing them out.  The Apostle Paul says:

10commadments“You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor?”   (2 Corinthians 3:2-8)

The written code can remain lifeless and inert, whereas the word written on the heart is Spirit which enlivens each person who receives it.  And what God writes on the hearts of people is not dependent on the perishable copy of a book.  Even for people who have no access to bibles, this is no limit to God’s spirit who is able to transcend such limits and can inspire the hearts of those ignorant of the printed word.

“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts …”  (Romans 2:14-15)

The New Testament sees in Christ Jesus the fulfillment of all of the prophecies and promises of God.  Jeremiah’s life-giving word which is written on the receptive heart is completely fulfilled in Christ’s Body.

“But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says:

“The days will come, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I paid no heed to them, says the Lord. This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach every one his fellow or every one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”   (Hebrews 8:6-13)

The covenant written on inert matter – whether stone or paper – is passing away.  The covenant written on our hearts is the everlasting covenant in which we become the witnesses to Christ in the new way, just as the written word is a witness to Christ in the old.

Becoming Little Children

“Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them,and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'”   (Matthew 18:2-4)

Christ’s words that we are to become as little children, or else we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, have at times been a puzzle to me.   I’ve wondered, what was it about children that Christ believed to make this statement?  Look at any books of theology and mysticism, they are anything but child like.

In my parish, some might think, “like children?”   You mean …  disruptive, noisy, restless, misbehaving, distracting?

“Like children,” the Lord Jesus Christ says.

Probably one of the best explanations I’ve ever read illuminating Christ’s teaching, comes from a most unlikely source.   I’m a fan of  humorist and fiction author Douglas Adams, who was not a believer and certainly not trying to understand the Gospel.   In his book, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish,  Adams has the character Wonko the Sane say:

“I’m a scientist and I know what constitutes proof. But the reason I call myself by my childhood name is to remind myself that a scientist must also be absolutely like a child. If he sees a thing, he must say that he sees it, whether it was what he thought he was going to see or not. See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you were expecting.”

A child sees things and is not troubled by whether it is believable or not, whether it makes sense or not, whether it is logical or not, whether it conforms to reality or not.  The child sees first, and may not make proper sense of what he or she sees, but the vision is clear – innocent, unspoiled, not jaded or cynical.

I remember once hearing an aviation investigator say that some of the most reliable witnesses of a plane crash are children.  They tend to report what they saw without trying to interpret or make sense of what they saw.   The more a person knows about aviation, the more they try to make sense of what they were viewing as the plane goes down.  They don’t report what they saw but what they thought must be happening – what makes sense to them, rather than what they saw that didn’t make sense.

A child experiences, even before understanding.  Logic and reason can cause some things we see to disappear or fade away. To understand fully, we must be clairvoyant – we must see clearly and see all that is, not just that which makes sense to us, or reinforces what we think or agrees with what we think.  If we see only what we are expecting, we conform reality to ourselves, rather than experiencing all that is there.

As one sage said, “if we only read those parts 0f scripture with which we agree, then we are not listening to God, but only to ourselves.”

Wonko the Sane continues:

“But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you were expecting.Most scientists forget that. I’ll show you something to demonstrate that later. So, the other reason I call myself Wonko the Sane is so that people will think I am a fool. That allows me to say what I see when I see it. You can’t possibly be a scientist if you mind people thinking that you’re a fool.”  ( The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,  Kindle Location 10562-10567)

A truth teller always risks sounding like a fool to some because he or she may be the first to see something or may see that which others cannot see ever.   Sounds a great deal like a “fool for Christ” or a prophet.   Or perhaps returning to becoming like a child, it reminds me of the children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

St. Paul: Seeing Christ In History

It is already in St. Paul’s understanding of the Jewish scriptures that we find the theology which says the Old Testament prefigures the New.  It is in this same theology that we find the idea that Christians participate in the events of the Old Testament in Christ.  St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 –

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.

God’s people in the Old Testament were participating in Christ, according to St. Paul, though only in shadows, as their actual experience foreshadowed and prefigured Christ.  Those saints of the Old Testament were prefiguring us in that in and through the Exodus and Passover they were prefiguring the sacrament of baptism.  And, we who are baptized into Christ join the people of God in the saving experience of the Exodus.  Baptism sets us free from the same tyrannical and demonic forces that were oppressing the ancient Israelites.

The great Christian scripture exegete of the Second Century, Origen, writes about the Exodus, the Jewish escaping Pharaoh and Egypt by miraculously crossing the Sea, seeing these saving events through the lens of St. Paul:

“See how the tradition of Paul differs from the historic reading.  That which the Jews  consider to be the crossing of the Sea, St. Paul calls Baptism.  That which they believe to be a cloud, St. Paul proves to be the Holy Spirit.  And he wishes this passage to be interpreted in the same sense as the precept of the Lord, saying: ‘If any man is not reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of heaven.’” (Homilies on Exodus V, 1;184,2)   ( Jean Danielou, THE BIBLE AND THE LITURGY, p 91)

Origen in the Second Century realizes that there is a tradition of reading the Old Testament as historical (or factual, what we today would call ” a literal” reading of the Old Testament).   He points out that St. Paul is following a different reading, a particularly Christian reading of the Old Testament.  St. Paul sees clearly the Christian images found in the historic texts.  Thus we see in our New Testament, those Christian scriptures which interpret the Jewish scriptures as the prophecies and promises of God, the method of seeing the events of the Old Testament as prefiguring the New.  The tradition of St. Paul sees the Old Testament texts as pointing to and being signs of the Christ.  It is a method of interpreting and proclaiming the scriptures not invented by later Christian writers, but rather found from the beginning in the Jewish disciples of Christ.

Forefathers of Christ

We are God’s Daytime Stars

“Blessed be God! Behold, there are stars here on earth too, and they shine forth more brilliantly than those of heaven!

There are stars on earth because of Him who came from heaven and was seen on earth. Not only are these stars on earth, but – a second marvel – they are stars in the full light of day. And the daytime stars shine more brilliantly than those which shine at night.

For the night stars hide themselves away before the rising sun, but when the Sun of Justice shines, these stars of day gleam forth still more brightly. Did you ever see stars which shine in the light of the sun? Yes, the night stars disappear with the end of time; these daytime stars shine forth more brightly with the coming of the consummation. It was of the night stars that the Gospel says: The stars will fall from heaven, as the leaf falls from the vine; and of the day stars: The just will shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

Why is it that as the leaf falls from the vine, so shall the stars fall from heaven? As long as the vine nurtures the grapes, it needs the shelter given by the leaves; when it puts aside its fruit, it also puts aside its foliage. So, too, as long as the whole universe possesses in itself the race of men, the heavens also will have their stars, just as the vine will have its leaves. When there is no more night, there will be no need for stars.

Fiery is the nature of the stars in the skies; fiery, too, is the substance of those on earth. But the fire in the skies can be seen with the eyes of the body, whereas this other fire is perceived by the eyes of the soul. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire, says Matthew.

Do you wish to learn the names of these two kinds of stars? The stars of the firmament are called Orion, Arcturus, Evening Star, and Morning Star. Among the stars in our midst there is no evening star; all of them are stars of morning.” (St. John Chrysostom,   Ancient Christian Writers: Baptismal Instructions, pp 56-57)

Striving for the Kingdom

“At the same time, Paul is aware that he is not yet perfect, that he must continue to hasten toward the prize of the upward call of God (Philippians 3:14). Paul does not say that his growth in perfection requires his suffering. He says rather that his growth in perfection requires his striving. And he says that as one who strives he is one who has the righteousness of God and shares Christ’s sufferings. It is as a person ‘in’ Christ, righteous with God’s righteousness, suffering with Christ’s suffering, that he strives. This whole human package – the righteous sufferer – is who strives for the upward call of God.  Paul says that his perfection will be achieved by this striving of one who has been seized by Christ (3:12). Subsequent to this seizure, suffering is part of his makeup. Suffering is not an instrument of sanctification, except insofar as it is part of the condition of the whole ‘in’ Christ person. Paul directs his converts to strive in a similar way: ‘work out your own salvation with fear and quivering; for God is the one who energizes you both to will and to work for God’s good purpose.’ (2:12-13)” (L.Ann Jervis, At the Heart of the Gospel, p 52)

Zacchaeus: Desiring Spiritual Growth

The Parable of Zacchaeus   (Luke 19:1-10)

Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.  Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich.  And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature.  So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.  And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”  So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.  But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.”  Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”  And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham;  for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann (d. 1983) remarks:

“The very first announcement of Lent is made the Sunday on which the Gospel lesson about Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10) is read. It is the story of a man who was too short to see Jesus but who desired so much to see Him that he climbed up a tree. Jesus responded to his desire and went to his house. Thus the theme of this first announcement is desire. Man follows his desire. One can even say that man is desire, and this fundamental psychological truth about human nature is acknowledged by the Gospel: ‘Where your treasure is,’ says Christ, ‘there shall your heart be.’   A strong desire overcomes the natural limitations of man; when he passionately desires something he does things of which ‘normally’ he is incapable. Being ‘short’, he overcomes and transcends himself. The only question, therefore, is whether we desire the right things, whether the power of desire in us is aimed at the right goal, or whether – in the words of the existentialist atheist, Jean Paul Sartre – man is a ‘useless passion.’ Zacchaeus desired the ‘right thing’; he wanted to see and approach Christ. He is the first symbol of repentance, for repentance begins as the rediscovery of the deep nature of all desire: the desire for God and His righteousness, for the true life. Zacchaeus is ‘short’ – petty, sinful and limited – yet his desire overcomes all this. It ‘forces’ Christ’s attention; it brings Christ to his home. Such, then, is the first announcement, the first invitation: ours is to desire that which is deepest and truest in ourselves, to acknowledge the thirst and hunger for the Absolute which is in us whether we know it or not, and which, when we deviate from it and turn our desires away, makes us indeed a ‘useless passion.’ And if we desire deeply enough, strongly enough, Christ will respond.” (Great Lent, pp 17-18)

Worship and Relationship

Hear the word of the LORD,
You children of Israel,
For the LORD brings a charge against the inhabitants of the land:
“There is no truth or mercy
Or knowledge of God in the land.   (Hosea 4:1)

For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,
And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.   (Hosea 6:6)

Commenting on Hosea 6:6,  biblical scholar Fr. Eugen J. Pentiuc writes:

This eternal will of Yahweh is revealed in v. 6.

‘For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’

Note that ‘mercy’ is followed by ‘knowledge of God’ as in 4:1. Both virtues reflect the will or the delight of God in promoting a profound relationship with Israel. Yahweh is the Lord, and in this quality, he sets the moral standards and principles pertaining to the covenantal relationship with Israel. Yahweh does not reject worship as a whole but he criticizes the way Israel perceives it. Instead of a means to enter the relationship with God and to foster community ties, the worship becomes gradually a goal in itself (cf. Am 5:21ff.; Mic 6:6ff.).

A similar explanation may be found in Theodoret of Cyrus:

‘For I do not require sacrifices, I accept these sacrifices, condescending to the weakness of your mind. But I demand these two things: good will toward me, and love for your neighbor.’

Instead of cultivating the ‘knowledge of God’ and ‘mercy,’ Israel is more interested in bringing sacrifices (or sacrificial meals) and burnt offerings.” (Long-Suffering Love: A Commentary on Hosea with Patristic Annotations, p 99)

Every generation of Orthodox Christians has to also consider the words of the Lord.  We place emphasis on exacting and proper liturgy and rules of fasting, yet they are never to become ends in themselves.  Right worship and exacting piety, which we believe are important to the spiritual life, can never displace or preempt mercy and the knowledge of God in our spiritual lives.  Piety, asceticism and liturgy are to form our hearts so that we can have a proper relationship with God and neighbor.   If we come to see them as the goal of the spiritual life, we can lose the right relationship we are to have in loving God and loving neighbor.


St. Athanasius: Christ Dies for Us

St. Athanasius (d.  373) writes:

“The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required.

Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.” (St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, p 35)