Sometimes people say, I’d believe in God if he proved himself to me. But in fact the words of the Gospels show us that even if a miracle takes place in front of us if we do not have faith we will not believe. Faith is more than a bare belief, it is a trust in God, and we have to have some sense that there is a God, might really be a God, and that he cares about us, if we want to see God at work all around us.
The Pharisees saw exactly the same things as the Disciples, but where the Disciples found their faith confirmed, the Pharisees found lots of reasons to dismiss Jesus, even to suggest he was an agent of Satan. In the path of Discipleship we do not need to understand everything, and we can be confused and uncertain at times. But we do need to hold on to the belief that God exists and that he cares for us and wishes us to know him. When we think like this, even in the middle of confusion then we begin to see God active in our lives and in the world.
The Pharisees were so sure that what God wanted was obedience to a Law, and they were willing to consider the death and elimination of anyone who threatened their understanding. But God never wanted obedient servants acting in fear of punishment. He always wanted spiritual children, Disciples, filled with his own life by the indwelling Holy Spirit that they became like him in love without fear and by the experience of his presence with us and for us.
To see God at work in our lives, even in a little way, confirms and strengthens us on the journey of becoming the children of God, acting in his love and light. He asks so much more of us as his children, and as Disciples, but he promises to give his children everything they need to live a new life, as authentic human beings as he always intended.
Scripture – Matthew 12
1 At that time, Jesus went on the Sabbath day through the grain fields. His disciples were hungry and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But the Pharisees, when they saw it, said to him, “Behold, your disciples do what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3 But he said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered into God’s house and ate the show bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath day the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 But I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you wouldn’t have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” 9 He departed from there and went into their synagogue. 10 And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. They asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?” so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “What man is there amongst you who has one sheep, and if this one falls into a pit on the Sabbath day, won’t he grab on to it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath day.” 13 Then he told the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out; and it was restored whole, just like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how they might destroy him. 15 Jesus, perceiving that, withdrew from there. Great multitudes followed him; and he healed them all, 16 and commanded them that they should not make him known, 17 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, 18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit on him. He will proclaim justice to the nations. 19 He will not strive, nor shout, neither will anyone hear his voice in the streets. 20 He won’t break a bruised reed. He won’t quench a smoking flax, until he leads justice to victory. 21 In his name, the nations will hope.” 22 Then one possessed by a demon, blind and mute, was brought to him; and he healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw. 23 All the multitudes were amazed, and said, “Can this be the son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “This man does not cast out demons except by Beelzebul, the prince of the demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your children cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then God’s Kingdom has come upon you. 29 Or how can one enter into the house of the strong man and plunder his goods, unless he first bind the strong man? Then he will plunder his house. 30 “He who is not with me is against me, and he who doesn’t gather with me, scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. 32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in that which is to come. 33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree corrupt and its fruit corrupt; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You offspring of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. 35 The good man out of his good treasure brings out good things, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings out evil things. 36 I tell you that every idle word that men speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgement. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” 38 Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, but no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the huge fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up in the judgement with this generation and will condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, someone greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise up in the judgement with this generation and will condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, someone greater than Solomon is here. 43 “When an unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, and doesn’t find it. 44 Then he says, ‘I will return into my house from which I came;’ and when he has come back, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then he goes and takes with himself seven other spirits more evil than he is, and they enter in and dwell there. The last state of that man becomes worse than the first. Even so will it be also to this evil generation.” 46 While he was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, seeking to speak to him. 47 One said to him, “Behold, your mother and your brothers stand outside, seeking to speak to you.” 48 But he answered him who spoke to him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 49 He stretched out his hand towards his disciples, and said, “Behold, my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
From the Fathers
John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.)
Doubtless he speaks of himself when he mentions the “Lord of the sabbath.” Mark relates a complementary saying about our common human nature, that “the sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath.16
Why then should someone who gathered sticks on the sabbath be censured? The law that was established earlier could not be scorned without jeopardizing the law to be given later.
The sabbath did confer many benefits, great blessings in the earlier dispensation. It made people more gentle toward those close to them. It guided them toward being more sympathetic. It located them temporally within God’s creation and providence, as Ezekiel knew.17 The sabbath trained Israel by degrees to abstain from evil and disposed them to listen to the things of the Spirit.
They would have stretched the law out of shape if, when he was giving the law of the sabbath, Jesus had said, “You can work on the sabbath, but just do good works, do nothing evil.” This would have brought out the worst in them. So he restrained them from doing any works at all on the sabbath. And even this stricter prohibition did not keep them in line. But he himself, in the very act of giving the law of the sabbath, gave them a veiled sign of things to come. For by saying, “You must do no work, except what shall be done for your life,”18 he indicated that the intent of the law was to have them refrain from evil works only, not all works. Even in the temple, much went on during the sabbath, and with great diligence and double toil. Thus even by this very shadowy saying Jesus was secretly opening the truth to them.
Did Christ then attempt to repeal a law so beneficial as the sabbath law? Far from it. Rather, he greatly magnified the sabbath. For with Christ came the time for everyone to be trained by a higher requirement
[In the Old Testament, God gave the Jews the Law. But it was never his intention that by trying to do the things he commanded people could earn their way to Heaven. As St John Chrysostom describes, it was to restrain the wickedness of men, to begin to train them for good. But when Jesus Christ came the Law ceased to be of any use. God does not want us to try and keep a list of commands, but to have the very life of God inside us, by the indwelling Holy Spirit that we go far beyond any commandments in doing good. He intends us to actually become like God, experiencing his love in us as the basis for all of our life.]
Returning to the Lord’s Prayer. We have considered, Our Father, which art im Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Now we come to the phrase, Give us this day our daily bread. In fact this word daily is an unusual one. It is only found in the Gospels and means super-essential. It does not just mean the ordinary bread we need, as if of all the things we pray for we have to remind God of this. Rather it has the sense of that more than natural nourishment which we need each day.
We need the spiritual nourishment which only God can give us, and about which Jesus Christ spoke when he said, I am the Bread of Life, and the Bread which came down from Heaven. On the journey of Discipleship we need this nourishment each day, more even than we need physical nourishment. Without it we have only the illusion of making progress.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer each day this must be in our thoughts as we offer these words with warmth. We must urgently and earnestly ask God to give us that spiritual nourishment which we need, even more than we are aware of it.
1. Be sure to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening, with warmth and attention.
2. Prayerfully read Psalm 1 in the morning. This is part of the traditional Coptic Orthodox prayers of the morning.
3. Continue to pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning and evening. But increase the number of times you prayerfully repeat the words of the prayer to 25 times in the morning or evening. What obstacles are there which make it hard for you to achieve this? What can you do to remove them and keep the little commitment?
4. Read the Gospel again carefully, and listen for the words that come alive by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Write this in your notebook and reflect on them through the day.
5. Do not forget to pray for those on your intercession list in the morning and evening, with warmth of heart and attention.
In the fourth century, in Jerusalem, St Cyril of Jerusalem was responsible for preparing adults for baptism and membership of the Church. We have the words he used to teach the candidates over several weeks preserved for us. About baptism he says,
Jesus sanctified Baptism by being Himself baptized. If the Son of God was baptized, what godly man is he that despises Baptism? But He was not baptized that He might receive remission of sins, for He was sinless; but being sinless, He was baptized, so that He might give to them that are baptized a divine and excellent grace.
The Orthodox understanding of Baptism is not something recently produced. It is no more than the early and original teaching about Christian Baptism as the means of becoming a member of the Church. In this short passage, and we will consider more of the words of St Cyril of Jerusalem in due course, he asks why Jesus Christ was baptised. It was not because of any sins which needed washing away. But it was so that being baptised he could give us, all of us who follow him in baptism, a divine gift.
This is a first difference between the original and Orthodox view of Baptism and some other later views. It is something which God himself has instituted, and it is established by Christ himself as a means of God giving a grace to mankind, and not mankind doing something for God, such as testifying that we have become a Christian. In the Orthodox sense we become a Christian by and through the action of God in baptism. and not before baptism.