The Pharisees were considered the most religious of all the Jews, and Jesus didn’t criticise them for the effort they put into the practice of their religion. Many of the things they insisted on were a particular interpretation of the Law which God himself had insitituted. But he had not introduced it as a way for people to become holy and be restored to life with God. Rather it was introduced to restrain the evil which mankind was easily falling into, and to teach the Jews that even against this measure they were failures and deserved judgement and punishment. It was intended to help people come to the point where they turned to the mercy and compassion of God.
But the Pharisees misunderstood. They thought that by keeping all the little extra rules they had created they were pleasing God, and they imposed all these hundreds of extra regulations on other people, even though on the inside, as Jesus taught, they were full of corruption and decay.
They thought that they knew the way to God but they rejected God himself when he appeared among them. So they were blind guides of the blind. They were leading those who followed them astray. It was Jesus himself who was the Way, and he made hus own Apostles and those who followed in his own Church, the guides of pilgrims on this path of Discipleship.
In the modern world there are many people, religious and not religious at all, who want to insist that they have a special insight into the way that humanity should pass. We should not imagine that everyone has the truth, however religious they appear, or however sincere they are. There are many blind guides in the world. But the one who is the Way, has left a sure and certain understanding of the truth in his own Church, which he established in the Apostolic community, and it remains the sure and certain path in Orthodoxy today, which is this same Church.
At its heart, Orthodox Christianity is not a matter of rules and regulations, but of a way back to God, and life lived with God. The way of rules and regulations is much easier in some sense, easier to grasp and understand and feel that we are doing well in. But the true path to life with God in every moment, union with him by the indwelling Holy Spirit, though demanding more of us, everything we have, leads out of darkness into light if we follow it to the end.
1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat bread.” 3 He answered them, “Why do you also disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’ 5 But you say, ‘Whoever may tell his father or his mother, “Whatever help you might otherwise have gotten from me is a gift devoted to God,” 6 he shall not honour his father or mother.’ You have made the commandment of God void because of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, 8 ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honour me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. 9 And they worship me in vain, teaching as doctrine rules made by men.’” 10 He summoned the multitude, and said to them, “Hear, and understand. 11 That which enters into the mouth doesn’t defile the man; but that which proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 But he answered, “Every plant which my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be uprooted. 14 Leave them alone. They are blind guides of the blind. If the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 Peter answered him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 So Jesus said, “Do you also still not understand? 17 Don’t you understand that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the belly and then out of the body? 18 But the things which proceed out of the mouth come out of the heart, and they defile the man. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual sins, thefts, false testimony, and blasphemies. 20 These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands doesn’t defile the man.” 21 Jesus went out from there and withdrew into the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Behold, a Canaanite woman came out from those borders and cried, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, you son of David! My daughter is severely possessed by a demon!” 23 But he answered her not a word. His disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away; for she cries after us.” 24 But he answered, “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and worshipped him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 But he answered, “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 But she said, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Be it done to you even as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that hour. 29 Jesus departed from there and came near to the sea of Galilee; and he went up on the mountain and sat there. 30 Great multitudes came to him, having with them the lame, blind, mute, maimed, and many others, and they put them down at his feet. He healed them, 31 so that the multitude wondered when they saw the mute speaking, the injured healed, the lame walking, and the blind seeing —and they glorified the God of Israel. 32 Jesus summoned his disciples and said, “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have continued with me now three days and have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away fasting, or they might faint on the way.” 33 The disciples said to him, “Where could we get so many loaves in a deserted place as to satisfy so great a multitude?” 34 Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” 35 He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground; 36 and he took the seven loaves and the fish. He gave thanks and broke them, and gave to the disciples, and the disciples to the multitudes. 37 They all ate and were filled. They took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces that were left over. 38 Those who ate were four thousand men, in addition to women and children. 39 Then he sent away the multitudes, got into the boat, and came into the borders of Magdala.
From the Fathers
John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.)
He does not simply reveal to them what he has to say but first makes his message easy to receive by respect and courtesy. For the Evangelist showed this when he said, “Jesus called the crowd to himself.” Then he also makes his message easy to receive by its timing. For it comes after the rebuttal of his critics, his victory over them and the accusation cited from the prophet. It is then that he begins the process of instituting a law, when the things that he is saying were even more easily accepted.
In addition, he does not simply call them to himself but also makes them more attentive. For he says, “Take notice,” that is, “Start thinking, wake up.” For the law he was about to enact was such that it required attention. “For you listened when the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem nullified the law because of their own tradition and at the wrong time. Since this is so, much more should you listen to me as I lead you into a greater philosophy at the appropriate time.”
He also did not say, “The observance of food laws is nothing,” or “Moses did a poor job of making laws,” or “Moses only made these laws as a way of coming down to your level.” Instead, he speaks to them on the level of advice and counsel and took the testimony of natural phenomena. He does this when he says, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” In this statement he appeals to nature itself both in the process of instituting law and in the process of revealing what he has to say.
[St John Chrysostom notices such small things in his commentary that have such an important meaning. He sees that Jesus calls the crowds to himself, after the Pharisees and Scribes have rejected his teaching. He calls us still, the ordinary people, with a transforming message. By the display of his divine power in miracles he demonstrated that he had the authority to set aside the old Law of commandments about what could and could not be eaten. But it was for the sake of something much more important, and impossible for us to fulfill without God’s help, it was for the purity of our heart that he instituted a new and spiritual Law.]
After considering the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we will reflect on some of the other Orthodox teaching about prayer and its connection with our spiritual life. In the writings of St Isaiah the Solitary, a monastic in Egypt and Palestine in the 4th/5th centuries, we read,
‘Be ready at every hour, for you do not know when the thief will come; do not let him come and find you asleep’ (Matt. 24:42-43). He also says: ‘Take heed, lest your hearts be overwhelmed with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of this life, and the hour come upon you unawares’ (Luke 21:34). Stand guard, then, over your heart and keep a watch on your senses; and if the remembrance of God dwells peaceably within you, you will catch the thieves when they try to deprive you of it. When a man has an exact knowledge about the nature of thoughts, he recognizes those which are about to enter and defile him, troubling the intellect with distractions and making it lazy. Those who recognize these evil thoughts for what they are remain undisturbed and continue in prayer to God.
This is an example of the wholly practical advice which is found in the Orthodox spiritual tradition. There is a scriptural, spiritual and practical aspect to all of these instructions. It begins with the words of the Lord Jesus, be ready and it applies this to the attacks which come upon us in our thoughts. It is spiritual, warning us that these attacks will try to steal the peace of God from us. And they are practical, encouraging us to learn to examine each thought and discover which are good and which are intended to cause us harm. If we refuse these thoughts then we will remain in peace and the rememberance of God will be preserved in us.
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. Pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning and evening. Prayerfully repeat the words of the prayer to 25 times in the morning or evening.
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.
6. Pray Psalm 134 again in the evening. Which phrase sticks out most to you this evening.
From the very beginning it has been baptism which has been understood as the means of becoming a member of the Church. There is a baptism of witness in the Evangelical and Protestant churches, and a sacramental baptism and chrismation in Orthodoxy. The two baptisms are different in intention and meaning, despite the common features of water and word. These differences relate to the very different understanding of the nature of the Church which was being joined in each case.
An Evangelical is not really joining the Church at all, by testifying to his or her faith in Christ through baptism. As far as is believed, they became a member of the invisible Church simply by believing in Jesus, and so were already a member of the Church. Often it is a means of saying publically that someone was a Christian so that they could participate as an adult in the activities of the congregation. It is usually expected that a believer would be baptised, if they were serious, but not usually considered that being baptised was necessary to becoming a Christian.
Within Orthodoxy, and from the beginning, sacramental baptism also features water and word, and then anointing with oil. But it has a different meaning and represents a different understanding of the nature of the Church. It is becomimng a new person in Christ, it is being united with his Body, it is remission of sins, all the things that are rejected in the Evangelical baptism of witness and associated only with faith in Jesus, and it is the reception of the Holy Spirit as an inner presence.
There is a a real difference. At the very least it deserves a proper consideration of the practice of the earliest Christians, which we have seen, represents this view that in baptism we are not telling people we believe, so much as God himself is acting for our salvation.