Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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To live a Christian life, one needs excitement and good sense. Without good sense, our excitement can turn into "zeal not according to knowledge," and then to delusion and self-deception (which is spiritual suicide), and to fanaticism about the beliefs and spiritual life of other people. The holy Fathers of the Church define good sense as judiciousness or the gift of discernment needful to do good works. The Fathers considered judiciousness itself important.

Venerable Anthony the Great writes: "Many virtues are excellent, but sometimes, due to lack of ability or excessive enthusiasm, harm can result from them . . . Discernment is the virtue that teaches and disposes a man to follow the straight path and not turn off at crossroads. If we follow the straight path," continues the great Egyptian ascetic, "then we shall never be lured by our enemies, either on the right - toward excessive abstinence, or on the left - toward negligence, carelessness and laziness. Discernment is the eye of the soul and its lamp," writes Venerable Anthony the Great. "By discernment, a man sorts out his desires, words and deeds and steps away from all those which remove him from God."

The judicious man combines his education, experience, and insight to instruct His followers. Concerning good sense, Christ gives us two parables - the parable of the builder of the tower and the parable of the king preparing for war, both preserved by the Evangelist Luke.

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish."

"Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth a delegation, and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple"
(Luke 14:28-33).

In these two parables, the Savior advises His followers to calculate their strength and to prepare for this spiritual trial [podvig] with training and self-denial, in order to defeat spiritual enemies and not to lose salvation.

The Savior's main thought in the parable of the tower lies in the words: "whether he have sufficient to finish it." These words should stimulate the Christian toward self-examination and self-development by exertion of his will, judiciousness, and self-sacrifice. Moreover, the parable of the king preparing for war speaks of the struggle with unavoidable difficulties and temptations. To overcome, one must show judiciousness.

In the Gospel according to Matthew (Matthew 8:19-20), we read of a Scribe who wanted to follow Christ, wherever He might go. The Lord saw that the Scribe was unready for the trial [podvig] of following after Him unconditionally, and that he needed more seasoning to free himself from Scribal prejudices. Although neither refusing him, nor denying him the chance of discipleship, the Lord points out how a wandering way of life with hardships needs preparation and could be beyond the Scribe's strength. Christ gives the Scribe more time to think and to become judicious before following after Him.

The parables of the builder of the tower and of the king preparing for war concern self-denial as well as good sense. They both concern Christ's teaching on bearing one's cross. The core of this teaching is contained in the brief phrase: "Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27).

The expression "take up one's cross or bear one's cross" also signifies voluntary sufferings, even to death. This expression reflects the Roman custom whereby those condemned to crucifixion had to carry the shameful instrument of the penalty - the cross - to the place of punishment (John 19:17), which magnified their sufferings even more.

The Gospel saying, "He that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:38) warns nominal Christians who are attached to the world, its comforts, and its cares rather than the building of their inner temple, the perfecting of their soul.

Such is Christ's narrow path. Christ's path is not easy or wide. His path remains narrow even now, just as the gates to Christ's Kingdom are narrow. The Christian must renounce himself, leave everything behind him, and not glance back. The meaning of a Christian's life lies in working together with God in the service of God's Kingdom. To live in this world by God's righteousness means to struggle courageously, to lay one's sorrows and cares on God, and to purify one's weaknesses and sins by His holiness and His love.

Christ is "not of the world," and the world hates Him, and all His disciples as well (John 15:18-19). The Lord foretold their banishment, suffering, and punishment by death. All this was fulfilled in the lives of Jesus' disciples, who knew, according to the words of the Apostle Paul, "that all that will live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse" (II Timothy 3:12-13).

The follower of Christ does fear this inevitability because only he who becomes little, like a child, can receive the Kingdom of Heaven. To become like a child means to become meek, guileless, alien to every form of force and pride. The "world" will beat and revile this voluntary child. Christ brought life and joy to the world, while the lot of His disciples is sorrow and suffering. Woe and suffering in the world come to every servant of Christ. Those who follow Christ cannot be rich in this world because need and poverty reign in it. A Christian cannot be carefree and merry in this world when tears and illness are everywhere. A Christian cannot be proud because his every shortcoming brings sorrow. A Christian cannot be vindictive when that experience means his falling out of communion with God. A Christian cannot act with force and still walk in His footsteps. And without wealth, without satiety, without self-satisfaction, without pride, force and vindictiveness, without all these, what can befall Christians but affliction and deprivations.

According to the words of Hierarch Ignatius Brianchaninov, "without them [sorrow and suffering], the Christian trial [podvig] is inconceivable." But sufferings is salutary only when it is humbly accepted from God, Who appoints the general plan of mankind's salvation. "Only the Triune, Tri-Hypostatic God alone knows everything that is beneficial and needful to each, and which cross he can and ought to bear," writes Ignatius Branchaninov. To bear this cross with the strength necessary, we must be judicious. Like King David, we must turn to the Lord the prayer: "Cause me to know, O Lord, the way wherein I should walk. Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God" (Psalm 143:10-11).

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