In today’s Gospel Reading, we hear of another example of the Pharisee’s malice toward Jesus- their response to His healing of a demon-possessed mute man. “He casts out demons by the ruler of demons!” In other words, they claim that Christ derives His authority over the demons from Satan. And they say this, even in light of the fact that Christ is “preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.” Now, they obviously can’t find fault with the actions that He is taking, or their results- curing the blind, healing the sick, and the rest, so what is it, exactly, about Jesus that so makes them want to attack Him? Don’t they get it? How can they not see Him for Who He is? How can they possibly be so far off the mark? How can these Pharisees possibly be so…evil?
I suspect that thoughts along these same lines have run through the heads of many of us when we read such things in Holy Scripture. But before we condemn the Pharisees out of hand, we should stop to consider their actions, as compared, for example, to our own. One thing that seems to have turned the Pharisees against Christ is the fact that He didn’t meet their expectations for what, in their minds, the Messiah should be doing, or saying. And they heard everything that He was saying, they were listening to Him, they simply didn’t like what they were hearing.
But can we even say that much about ourselves, brothers and sisters? Do we really listen to everything that Christ says to us? Or, do we ourselves need to be healed of a “selective” deafness, in which we, who call ourselves Christians, only hear those things that we want to hear, only those things that we expect that the Christ should say? It is easy for us today to criticize the Pharisees, but if we truly listened to everything that Christ says to us, would we be any different than they are?
We all like to hear Christ say that “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”, but do we like it so much when He also says “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”? We like it when Jesus says “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”, but do we like it so much when He also says “if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out”, and “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off”, and “If any one wants to sue you and take away your tunic, give him your cloak as well”?
Do we listen to Christ when He says these things, brothers and sisters? For not everything that Christ says is easy to hear, and, to be honest, we don’t always want to hear them. Because if I, as a Christian, believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, God Himself, then doesn’t my hearing these things, from Him, mean that I should make every effort necessary to obey them? And if I don’t, am I really any better, any different than the Pharisees? They heard what He was saying, and, because they didn’t want to do these things, they denied that Jesus is the Christ. I don’t deny that He is the Christ, but I don’t do these things- that makes me a hypocrite. And “hypocrite” was one of the most common names that Christ called the Pharisees... I am no different than they are... I am a Pharisee.
This realization is shocking to most of us, when we finally arrive at it. But it is an essential realization for us, if we want to be able to fully receive everything that Christ has to teach us. We must understand that the majority of what Christ says to the Pharisees applies to us as well.
The Pharisees also attacked Christ, refusing to accept Him as Who He is, because these things that He was calling on them to do would result in them having to make some drastic changes in their lives- their behavior, their world-view, their priorities, their actions. And no one likes to change. He was calling on them to leave the status quo behind and radically redirect their lives toward God- the very definition of repentance. Indeed, this is the very first message that we hear Christ preach in the Gospel, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Likewise, wemust willing to change the status quo in our lives as well, brothers and sisters- regardless of the fact that change can be frightening. We cannot remain merely comfortable with our spiritual lives- if we are comfortable, then we are no longer living the life of repentance, no longer growing in the Likeness of God. And Christ never said that we should be comfortable- He said that we should be holy, even as our Father in Heaven is holy.
So, before we condemn the Pharisees out of hand, brothers and sisters, before we write them off, and arrogantly assume that we are not like them, we should all examine our own lives, our motivations, our priorities, our hearts a little more carefully. Because like that old saying goes, we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. It is our Fallen natures, the Old Man that still lives within each of us. It is only when we finally do come to this realization, this shocking self-revelation, that we can begin to glimpse the depth of God’s mercy, the inexpressible enormity of His love for us. For as the Apostle teaches, before we ever thought of loving God, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Despite knowing all there is to know about us, despite knowing our shortcomings, our sinfulness, far better than we do ourselves, He still gave us His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. He still said that He will give our souls rest. He still stretched out His arms on the Cross and died for us. He still rose again, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and granted us the inheritance of His Kingdom. It is only when we realize, in the depths, at the very core of our being, just how undeserving of His love that we really are, that we can begin to truly thank Him for healing our souls and bodies, for forgiving our sins, for bestowing upon us the unending joy of His Kingdom, for having mercy even on me, the Pharisee of Pharisees, and the first among sinners.
For He is a Good God Who loves mankind, and to Him is due all glory, honor, and worship, to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Fr. Gregory Czumak
Four Evangelists Orthodox Mission
Bel Air, MD