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Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentaryBy Father Victor Potapov, Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Washington DC
Since the time of the primitive Christian Church, parable has been the term for a story told by the Lord Jesus Christ to illustrate His teaching. The Greek root-word, parabole, means comparison. So a parable is a spiritual lesson of a story developed by comparison to everyday life. The Lord's parables draw memorable details from nature, human, social, economic, or religious life of His time. Characteristically, all oral teachers of the eastern cast of mind teach by comparisons and riddles, using homely images to stir curiosity and reflection. So His parables use images from life in this world to discover spiritual truth.
The Savior also told sacred insights in parables for three practical reasons.
- First, His parables were hard for many listeners to grasp, but His listeners could recall the vivid details from ordinary life long enough to discover the wisdom behind the allegory.
- Second, the Lord Jesus Christ told parables to make men expect a double meaning, and to make them want to discover the fullness of the divine plan for their conversion. Because the Church and Kingdom that our Lord founded differ so sharply from the Jewish expectation of the Messiah at that time, that the Lord's teaching had to be cautious and indirect. His parables use allegory to compare the recognizable world to the start, development, mixed character, and final triumph of Church and Kingdom. What may seem simple to us, of course, was a intriguing riddle to His contemporaries.
- And third, the Lord used the parable format because His followers could not readily forget or misinterpret the commonplace images. The parable format preserves the purity of Christ's teaching in distinct but evocative images.
The first group of parables sets out Christ's teaching on the Church is mission and the Kingdom of Heaven among men. His Church started on earth as the 12 Holy Apostles and His other close followers. After the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles on the day of Pentecost, the Church spread quickly wherever the apostles preached. The Church is not limited by territory, nationality, culture, language, or anything else. God's spiritual power penetrates and abides in the souls of men, lighting their minds and consciences, and directing their wills toward good. In the parables, members of Christ's Church are called "sons of the Kingdom." They differ from unbelievers and unrepentant sinners, who are called "sons of the Evil One" by Christ. Ideal missionary conditions for strengthening the Kingdom of God in men are found in the parables of the sower, the tares, the seed growing secretly, the mustard seed, the leaven, and the treasure hidden in the field,the pearl and the net.
"Behold, a sower went forth to sow; and when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured them up: some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: but others fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty fold, some thirty fold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear" (Matthew 13:1 9).
The parable of the sower has the Lord Himself to interpret it. The Sower is Jesus Christ; the seed is the Word of God. The ground is the human heart. The good heart is the fruitful earth, but the evil heart choked by sins is the earth that is good for nothing. From the Scriptures, we learn that faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Romans 10:17). So Christ sowed the word of God everywhere in the villages and towns, and in the deserts, and on the sea. He chose His apostles so that they too would sow the Word of God. The apostles appointed their successors - the bishops and presbyters who continue the missionary labor of spreading of sowing the Word of God until this day.
The Church on earth continues the work of Christ. It sows in our hearts the Word of God. When the living Word of God is sown in this sinful nature of fallen man, a new life springs up. All men have some strength to receive the Word of God. True Christian life is constant work on the conversion of one's own heart, to prepare the ground in oneself to receive the seed. Men can differ in how they approach this task.
Concerning the parable of the sower, let us consider the words of Bishop Theophan the Recluse-each "judge for himself as to which category he belongs." Some people are inattentive and scattered without reverence for the Word of God. Their hearts are like a beaten path, where no good fruit can grow, because the seed of the Divine Word is strewn onto the ground of a coarse soul, trodden by passions, vice, and evil thoughts.
These souls are beaten paths, open to all distractions and commerce, always craving new amusements. Such people let their good thoughts be trampled by a new curiosity. When they may read or hear the Word of God, the enemy of our salvation comes to them secretly, just as the holy, righteous John of Kronstadt says "like a thief in the house of a careless homeowner, he carries away the Word of God from their hearts, so that they would not believe and be saved." Such people let the Word of God vanish.
Some of them hear the Word of God for a while, sensitive to anything good, but they take the Word into their minds but not into their hearts. Their surfaces have no depth, and their surface religion is seed wasted along the highway, unable to take root. They attend to the Word of God so that in favorable times, they believe; in misfortune, they betray their faith. They do not want to change their lives, to make them worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven. They tolerate no "unseen warfare," on the "narrow path" of the Church Fathers. When adversity comes, they throw off their cross and they fall into despair, impatience, and murmuring. And their unrooted Word of God is torn and uprooted, never really sown in the ground of their hearts.
The seeds that fall among the thorns die too, are choked of life by people immersed in time and possessions. Their times are not to blame, their passion for time and possessions is. Such people may hear and understand the Word of God, and take it to heart, until care or temptation attacks them. They torment the Word of God that is cramped and choked in their hearts. No fruit of eternal life can grow because these people are worldly. The Word of God speaks of blessedness in heaven, but these people want distractions and comforts here and now: "We shall receive the good things of heaven someday. But the world is giving its good things to us now." Some may even understand that repentance is necessary, but they put it off: "We shall repent, we shall prepare for old age," they think, "but let us seize the days of pleasures here already." They forget that in old age they have neither strength nor opportunity.
Christ says that "only he that endureth to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 10:22). The seed that falls on good ground falls amid people who hear the Word of God, take it and keep it, resolve to follow it, and to offer their fruit of good deeds. Having learned the fullness of truth, they listen to its Word and serve it. These people follow the witness of Apostle Paul: "For not the hearers of the law. but the doers of the law shall be justified"(Romans 2:13).
In the Mystery of the Eucharist, the priest elevates the bread and wine, saying to God: "Thine own of Thine we offer unto Thee!" That is, "That which is Thine, we offer unto Thee!" So the parable of the sower also touches on "the mysteries of the Kingdom of God."
To understand this mystery, one's direction of mind and will must look to the mystery, and one's heart be disposed to accept it. The Word of God, the Seed spoken of in the parable, is part of us just as the Divine Word (the Logos) Christ is related to the Father, as "His Only begotten, Who with Him constitutes One" (John 10:30) and Who coexists with Him "from the beginning" (John 8:25). Just as the "Son lives by the Father" (John 6:57) and no one can come unto the "Father except through the Son" (John 14:6), and "he who has seen the Son sees the Father as well" (John 14:9), "for the Son has told us everything that He heard from the Father" (John 15:15).
The Word of God in the Gospel, sown by Christ in our hearts, is not foreign to us, not an alien book to study outwardly. The Gospel is life in God, present at our conception by the power of the Holy Spirit, which makes us conformable to God and more God-like. The Gospel is not information about strange events recorded by the apostles. The Gospel is the Word of God that explains kinship and communion with God to the human soul.
The Gospel makes the human soul recognize the voice of its Creator, its Heavenly Father, in its own heart. In the language of philosophy, the Word of God is immanent in us; that is, it is "in us, with us, and not outside of us" and not alien to us although it exceeds our mental grasp. The seed of the Kingdom of God sown in us, springs up, and grows mysteriously. Scripture says that a man "sleeps and gets up night and day and does not know how the Kingdom of God springs up in him" (Mark 4:27). The seed springs up in him unnoticed, miraculous. We cannot tell whether the seed increases by 30-fold, by 60-fold or by 100-fold. We know only that when our heart begins to burn, as within the disciples at Emmaus, that the Lord Himself is opening our mind to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:32), introducing His Kingdom to us.
In place of the desire to learn from the Gospel about God, our hearts begins to learn about Him from within our own hearts, showing that the seed has brought forth fruit. We cannot judge the quantity or quality of fruit borne from the seed in us, but we know that all the fruits from Him are too many to return to Him.
In the rhythm of the return to God the Father, the Son of Man on the Cross, summed up His earthly life: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit!" In the Liturgy, when we pray for the sending down of the divine grace, we cry out: " Thy own of Thine own we offer unto Thee!"
Regarding the fruits of the seed of the Kingdom of Heaven, God says thus to man: "My son, give me thine heart!" (Proverbs 23:26). That is, "All that thou hast, O man, thy gifts and talents, thy deeds and thoughts and feelings, all that thou lovest and believest in, that is thy whole life, thy whole heart, give this back to Him Who gave it Thee." But we must give back to God pure thoughts and feelings, pure love and faith, a pure life and an immaculate heart. Following the psalmist, we make ready to say: "Ready is my heart, O God, ready is my heart" (Psalm 57:7).
But how do we prepare the heart, make it ready to receive the seed, the Word of God? The parable of the sower concludes with the words "He who hath ears to hear, let him hear!" Using these words, the Lord knocks at the heart of each man, asking each man to look into his soul, to know what group of people in the parable he belongs to.
In the parable of the sower, Christ asks everyone to receive the Word of God with all his being, to receive it into a pure and good heart. Apostle Paul said of himself: "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."
So that the Word of God might put forth deep roots in our hearts, we must prepare the ground of our heart like the wise farmer, clearing earth of thorns and weeds that hinder the good fruit. By repentance we free the Word of God to clear sins and to uproot evil from our hearts. The Word of God "through a Divine change" regenerates the very nature of Men, according to the holy Gregory the Theologian.
The parable of the sower shows that God does not save a man without participation of the man himself. The Lord puts His life-creating Word into the man's mind. The man must open his heart, accept the Word into it, and bring forth its fruit. In the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father," we repeat the words "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." And Christ answers this hope: "The kingdom of God is within you." This kingdom that we want, according to Christ's word, is gained only by exertion. The Lord awaits action by man, man's service to God and his neighbor, and man's pursuit of his own personal perfection.
The wheat and tares
The parable of the sower and the seed shows how the Word of God affects men differently, eliciting different responses. Jesus Christ's next parable-the wheat and the tares - speaks of the fourth part of the seed that falls on good ground, and how the enemy of man's salvation tried hard to blast the seed and the fruit in this good ground. This parable speaks about the origin of evil to people perplexed by temptation in the Church and by schism and falling away from the Church. Here is how the Evangelist Matthew sets forth this parable:
"The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn" (Matthew 13:24 30).
Having told this parable, Christ explains to the apostles and us that the sower of the good seed is the Son of Man, that is, the Lord Himself. His enemy is the devil Satan, the sower of the tares; the field is the world of His Church. The good seeds are the sons of the Kingdom, the children of the Church, in whom the Word of God has taken root in the heart, and rendered them into God's wheat, to gather into heaven, which is the Kingdom of God. The tares are the sons of the evil one, that is, the false teachers and evil tempters by whom Satan does his evil work.
The Fathers of the Church teach that the devil counteracts Christ in everything. "After the prophets," says Saint John Chrysostom, "false prophets appear; after the Apostles, false apostles; after Christ, Antichrist will appear." Christ calls men to the truth, whereas the devil and his servants, i.e., the false teachers and tempters, sow falsehood and ruin in the minds of men, and sows vices in their hearts, embellishing all with similitudes of truth and goodness. Christ calls such men the tares, who resemble the wheat externally. "Until the devil sees what to counterfeit," writes Saint John Chrysostom, "he does not begin anything and even does not know how to set to work. Therefore even now, when he has perceived that he can no longer carry off, or choke, or scorch that which has been sown and has taken root, he invents a different kind of deception, namely he sows his own seed."
The devil sows tares, says the Lord, while men sleep. In other words, the devil sows his tares secretly, unnoticeably, when the guards appointed to look after the field, that is, the pastors of the Church, keep watch carelessly and when the faithful themselves live carelessly as well and listen to false teachers. About this matter, Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow writes:
"Men sleep spiritually when they carelessly close the eyes of their mind and do not wish to gaze at the light of evangelical truth, and when, like those who dream during sleep, they do not control their thoughts and do not bridle their desires. They sleep, and in the darkness of forgetfulness of God and His law, he steals in and sows his tares."
Christ, of course, knows all this, and calls His followers to awaken spiritually, to stay on constant watch. Let us turn again to Saint John Chrysostom: "But how, sayest thou, is it possible to remain without sleep. It is not possible without natural sleep, but without moral sleep it is possible. Wherefore, Paul also said: "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith" (I Corinthians 16:13).
The Lord alludes to heretics where the shoot springs up, and brings forth fruit, and the tares appear as well: "At first they conceal themselves; but when someone enters into conversation with them, then they pour out their venom."
"Behold," continues Saint John Chrysostom, "the devil's malice. He did not sow before, because there was nothing to destroy. But when everything is already sown, he too sows, in order to ruin that which cost the husbandman many labors. Such is the powerful enmity that the devil has displayed against Christ in everything!" The householder sowed good fruit, but the enemy sowed tares there by night. When the first shoots appeared, he called the workers and showed them that tares were growing together with wheat. On seeing the field, the servants asked their lord: "How could this be? After all, didst thou not sow good seed?"
The servants of the householder offer to pull up the tares, so that only wheat will grow. But the householder rejects their proposal because pulling the tares might harm the wheat, which looks so much like tares. Weeding could mix them and cause the loss of an ear of wheat. With so many roots intertwined, uprooting tares could can harm the roots of an ear of wheat, so that it perish. This cost-benefit is important. We see sin and scandal in the secular world, and within the Church as well. The sight of evil men makes people say: "O Lord! Why dost Thou not now chastise the evil? Why dost Thou give them the opportunity to make use of all the good things of the world? Why do they squeeze and oppress the good?"
To such questions, Christ's parable answers: "Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest, the day of the dread judgment, I will say to the reapers, My angels: Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them" (Matthew 13:30); "and they shall gather out them that do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth (verses 41 42). But gather the wheat into my barn (verse 30). Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (verse 43).
Many Church people imagine that they are zealous for truth and purity, and call for the tares to be uprooted. But zeal to excise every evil within the Church may be zeal to pull out as much wheat as tares, and so to harm everyone. The Lord forbids such a zeal against evil, because only God, the Knower of hearts, can tell the hypocrites from the righteous without error.
Many sinners, of course, repent and become righteous. Blessed Augustine says: "Many are correcting themselves, like Peter; many are forborne, like Judas; many will not be exposed until the coming of the Lord, Who will illumine that which is concealed in darkness and will disclose the thoughts of the heart." Indeed, many saints have been righteous people who fell into sin at some time. At the moment of their fall, one might take them for tares.
The Fathers also teach that temptations of the world and deeds of evil men purify the souls of the righteous. They help the souls to see weakness clearly, to feel guilt deeply, and to weaken the power of sin little by little. Gold is purified of dross by fire. The mix of good and evil men furnishes the good with occasions to be perfected, to win patience, meekness, humility, gentleness, and love. The lives of the righteous are tied to the lives of sinners. Bonds of kinship, like tastes, and outward circumstances mean that a shock to one shocks the others. For example, an unworthy father, drunkard, or profligate may carefully raise his pious children; the well-being of honest workers may be in the hands of an avaricious and crude proprietor; an unbelieving ruler may be a wise and beneficial lawgiver. For the Lord God to punish all sinners would upset the order of life on earth.
Moreover, Christ does not want the tares pulled out that grow alongside the wheat in the Church because he wants the righteous to learn patience and for sinners to feel His loving kindness. Saint John Chrysostom says that the Lord allows us to stop false teaching, but only by evangelizing the false teachers. We may not use force, as has happened in the Church many times. The Holy Fathers forewarn that - "Zeal that wants to vanquish every evil is itself a great evil, because it can bring about much harm."
The indignant Christian cannot take action when he sees evil except to curb the evil in himself. Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesenskij) wrote: "The Lord said: I say unto you, That ye resist not evil." The Russian and Slavonic texts of the parable do not coincide here. "Evil" is not evil as such, but is an evil person. In Russian this text is--"I say unto you: do not resist an evil [person]!" The Authorized Version (or King James Version) and then the New King James Version translate this passage (Matthew 5:39) "But I tell you not to resist an evil" [person]. Here the sense is slightly different-"To struggle with evil, do not address the man who does evil, but the evil that he causes." And do not try to put this person out of the Church, as the servants wanted to put out the tares. Try to convince him, try to explain his error to him. As Father John of Kronstadt said: "Sinful they are, but love the sinners and pity them."
Only unreasonable zeal strives to destroy every cause of evil. Apostle Paul says that this "zeal is not according to knowledge." Zeal can be an evil itself because it sows confusion and temptation in the Church. Christ says: "Let both grow together until the harvest," and the harvest is the end of the age. Blessed Augustine comments: "And so the Church until the end of the age will combine within Herself the good and the evil, without harm to the good. If it turns out that there are tares in the church, this does not hinder our faith and love; upon observing tares in the Church, we shouldn't fall away from Her. We ourselves must only try to be wheat, so that when the wheat will be gathered into the barns of the Lord."
Theophilact, Bishop of Bulgaria, also has also considered this matter: "If Matthew [who before his conversion was a tax collector hated by his fellow countrymen] had been wrenched from this life when he was numbered among the tares, then together with him the wheat of his word, which would subsequently sprout up from him, would have perished too. In the same way, both Paul and the thief, when they were tares, survived so that their virtue would spring up subsequently."
"Christ does not want the death of sinners, but desires that they come unto the knowledge of the truth and be saved (I Timothy 2:4). In the warmth of His goodness and in the enlivening rays of his love he wishes to soften the hardness of their hearts and arouse in them a new life" (II Corinthians 5:17).
Lord Jesus Christ chooses His saints, such as the convert Saul, the persecutor of Christians. Saul-Paul was not the only convert to become a saint? Many pagans became confessors of the faith upon seeing the selflessness of ancient martyrs and people alive recently. The new martyrs and confessors of Russia have inspired many people to their steadfastness! The Holy Fathers likened the Church of Christ to Noah's Ark, which held clean and unclean animals together. The Church is a net, drawing in creeping things along with the fish. Both sinners and righteous make up the Church as the Body of Christ. The Church must take care of the unsteady converts and the beginners, and not tempt nor drive them out through "zeal not according to knowledge."
The seed that grows secretly
Christ continues to explain the Kingdom of God on earth, the Church, the society of believers who do His will-in the parable of the seed that grows unseen. The Evangelist Mark has preserved this parable for us:
"So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come" (Mark 4:26-29).
According to Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), the man who cast the seed into the earth, is not God, as in the preceding two parables, but is each man who plants good seed (Christian teaching and piety) in his heart and public life. According to Blessed Theophilact of Bulgaria, the man of the parable is God Himself, Who became a man for the sake of our salvation, like us in everything but sin. Both interpretations are acceptable and edifying.
Whoever sows the seed-the preacher of the Gospel - casts seeds of faith into the souls of men. He cannot wait there to observe how these seeds grow into ears of grain, for gathering into the Kingdom of Heaven. The man who sows has few free moments. His special anxiety about the soil is wasteful and redundant. This parable is how the Lord assures the anxious to stay calm.
According to the word of Saint John Chrysostom, "The success of the preaching depended not on the apostles, but on the grace that preceded them. Although it was their affair to go and preach, yet the persuasion God Himself carried out, working in the apostles. So also the Apostle Luke said, that "their heart the Lord opened" (Acts 16:14).
As a seed grows into a plant by stages , so also a baptized man accepts the teaching of Christ and gradually undergoes transfiguration within, helped by God's grace. At the beginning of his journey, a man has good impulses that promise spiritual fruits, but which are unripe like shoots of young plants. The Lord does not control man's will. He grants enough time to mature and gain strength in virtue. "The seed grows as if without His (God's) knowledge," explains Blessed Theophilact, "because we are free, and for this seed to grow or not to grow depends on our will. We do not bear fruit against our will, but willingly, that is, we bear fruit from ourselves. At first, when we are babes, not yet having attained to the measure of the stature of Christ, we sprout a bit of 'green', we show the beginning of good; later, the 'ear.' when we are already in a condition to withstand temptations as well, for the ear already stands upright and has attained much development. And then the 'full corn' in the ear is formed - this occurs when someone bears the fruit of perfection." In other words, only the spiritually mature man is capable of offering to God the perfect fruit of his good works. When God sees a man who has become spiritually well formed, then He takes him from this life unto Himself, which the parable calls "harvest."
The teachings of Christ, with God's invisible help, give fruit in time and bring benefit. The grace of God acts on the soul gradually. "Divine grace, which in one instant can purify a man and make him perfect," writes Venerable Macarius the Egyptian, "begins to visit the soul gradually in order to test the human will." The Lord, confirming virtue in the heart of the believing man, is like the sun and rain, which raise up the wheat growing in the field, disclosing to the laborers the grace-filled fruits as an abundant harvest." To the ancient world, the germination of a seed into a whole plant was inexplicable. In the same way, the religious conversion of a man's soul is inexplicable, but done by the power of God. Religious conversion is the theme of the parable.
Lord Jesus Christ's preaching and parables distinguish between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. The first kingdom - of God-is the Church that Lord Jesus founded on the earth, made up of those who believe in Him and do His will. The second kingdom - of Heaven-will number all the righteous people after the Last Judgment of all the human race. The first Kingdom of God-the Church-has two parts. This kingdom has the Church Militant, on its mission of seeking salvation while in the world and in time and struggling for eternity. It also has the beginnings of the Church Triumphant: the righteous people who are waiting. The Kingdom of God as the Church Militant prepares men for the Church Triumphant it will share with Kingdom of Heaven.
The Church began with the coming of Christ, Who cast into the hearts of men the Word of God, just as the sower casts seed into the ground. This Kingdom will end when the time of harvest comes, when all mankind on earth becomes one society of believers, one flock of the One Pastor, when all mankind come to one field, in which good seed is sown. Then will come the blessed life in the Kingdom of Heaven for the Church Triumphant.
Jesus Christ will participate in this Kingdom in its founding and in His sending the Heavenly Powers, the angels, to harvest the ripened fruit. Christ's leadership is a Christian article of faith now, but 2000 years ago His listeners on the shore of the Sea of Galilee lacked faith and could not understand many concepts such as the Kingdom of Heaven. These listeners needed such parables as the sower and the wheat and tares.
The enlivening energy in the seed meant that "the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear." And if neither thorns, nor tares choke it, then it will itself grow up and give fruit. According to the word of Venerable Macarius the Egyptian: "It is incumbent on one who expects to receive from God the seed of grace, first of to all cleanse the earth of the heart, in order that the seed of the Spirit that falls on it would bear perfect and abundant fruits."
Christians retain the grace of God by their own efforts. On this topic, Saint John Chrysostom writes: "When is grace with us? When we do not offend this benefaction, do not despise this gift. Who then in offending this grace can preserve it and not be deprived of it? God has granted thee absolution of sins, how then can a good mood or action of the Spirit abide with thee, if thou dost not retain it by good deeds? The cause of all good things lies in the grace of the Spirit always abiding with us. It leads us to every good thing, and when it leaves us, we remain abandoned and we perish. Let us not leave it! It depends on us whether it remains with us or not. It remains when we take care for the heavenly; it leaves when we are immersed in the worldly."
Divine Grace is not impersonal magic. Without our human efforts, God grants no grace to us at all. The Fathers of the Church write that "God created man without his [man's] participation, but He cannot save him without his [own human] participation." In other words, God created man, and "gave him freedom to choose between good and evil." The Lord does not restrict the freedom of man although he wants every man to choose salvation.
The mustard seed
Three of the Evangelists: Matthew (13:31-32), Mark (4:30-32) and Luke (13:18-19) report the parable of the mustard seed. Here is how the Evangelist Matthew tells it:
"The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof" (Matthew 13:31-32).
The Jews of that time had a saying: "Small as a mustard seed" In this parable, Christ compares the Kingdom of Heaven not to the small mustard seed, but to its growth into a big, bushy tree whose branches can shelter flocks of birds. The birds stand for the people of God who find shelter and salvation in the Church. At first, the mustard seed appears dead and small - the least of all seeds. But it symbolizes the mystery of resurrection after death.
Jesus Christ told the mustard seed parable just after the closely linked parables of the sower and the tares. The sower parable says that three parts of all the seed perish, and only the fourth part comes up to get saved. The parable of the tares shows how danger threatens even this one-fourth part. These parables could have disheartened the disciples; so few people find salvation.
The Lord offers encouragement, however, in the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven (spoken of further on). This mustard seed, least of all seeds, comes up as the greatest herb, and grows into a tree sheltering birds in its branches. This success of delivery is possible for Christian preachers too. Although His disciples were powerless in political terms, the divine power in them enabled them to spread the Gospel throughout the world.
The Blessed Jerome writes: "The preaching of the Gospel is the least of all teachings. In the very beginning it seems improbable: It preaches man and God, a God Who dies, and the scandal of the Cross. Compare this teaching with the tenets of the philosophers, with their books and brilliant oratory, with the composition of their speeches, and thou shalt see how the seed of the Gospel is the least of all these seeds. But this [the teaching of the philosophers,V.P.], while penetrating deeply at first, does not give life; on the contrary it grows weak and becomes exhausted, and dries up like grass. But the Good Tidings, while seemingly small, upon being sown in the soul of the believer or in the whole world, take root like a powerful tree."
In such hot countries as Judaea, the mustard tree attains great height and girth, unlike mustard plants that are mere shrubs. A horseman can ride under Judaean mustard branches; large furnaces can burn its wood; and flocks of birds can sit on its branches, which do not break even under the weight of a man.
Many proverbs also mention the seed of the mustard tree as medicinal. Christ Himself is the mustard seed as well as the Sower. Like a seed, He contained the whole Church. And from Him it spread throughout the world. Christ is the one, eternal Head of the Church; without Him there would be no Church. Christ is the Sower as well, who willingly gave Himself over to death and through this death gave life to His Church - to all who believe in Him. He Himself said of Himself: "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12:24).
Indeed, Christ was the little seed in the eyes of men. He was born in obscure Judaea, for 30 years he lived in obscure Nazareth, in despised Galilee, in the home of a carpenter. His teaching attracted a few disciples from simple fishermen and publicans. Finally, having given Himself into the hands of enemies, he died a shameful death on the cross. But He was resurrected, ascended to the Father, and spread His Church throughout the world like a great tree. In Him comes to pass the ancient prophecy of Ezekiel:
"I will also take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon in high and prominent mountain: in the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it: and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar: and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell" (Ezekiel 17:22-23).
As from a mustard seed, His disciples spread His Holy Church throughout the world. The same conversion takes place in the soul of the man who responds to the teaching of the Gospel. In the beginning, the grace of God acts imperceptibly with the man's own efforts to convert his soul, to perfect it, and to make it a "temple of God." Clement of Alexandria writes: "It stings the soul with benefit for us." That is, at first the commandments of Christ seem bitter and unpleasant for our heart, attached to sin, but when we decide to fulfill them, they become healing and saving, for they renew and transfigure our hearts.
The Venerable Isaiah writes: "It is fitting for us to imitate the properties of this seed. When Scripture calls it the very least of all seeds, then by this it shows that we must love humble mindedness, considering ourselves lower than everyone, and have meekness and long suffering. Its ruddy color means modesty and chastity, so that we would not allow in our flesh anything depraved. Its sharpness signifies hatred for the passions and the vanities of the world. And that its sharpness is not otherwise revealed than when it is crushed and grated - by this it demonstrates that virtue does not bring any kind of benefit, if in cultivating it we do not bear labors and afflictions. So then, in accordance with the image of this seed let us examine ourselves: Are we like it in humbleness of heart, meekness of soul, fervency of love?"
The mustard seed also produces warmth just as Word of God warms the heart. Luke and Cleopas, the two disciples of Christ, experienced in themselves such a grace-filled warmth on the way to Emmaus, when they said with amazement: "Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us by the way" (Luke 24:32). Mustard induces a craving for food, while the Word of God arouses hunger for the Heavenly Bread, thirst for salvation and for justification in Christ the Savior. The Lord speaks tells about this saving effect of His teaching again in the parable of the leaven.
The brief parable of the leaven is preserved by the Evangelists Matthew (13:33 35) and Luke (13:20 21). The Evangelist Matthew has it thus:
"The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened."
Here Christ compares the Kingdom of Heaven not to leaven itself, but to its action on flour and dough. The Lord chooses analogy to a natural process to emphasize that His word is changeless like the laws of nature. Christ's trace of leaven [yeast] in a large volume of dough can stimulate fermentation, like the inner, hidden action of Gospel preaching can quicken the world and human hearts.
Apostle Paul writes: "Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?" (I Corinthians 5:6). Leaven, no matter how little, imparts acidity to the whole mixture of flour. The living, creative action of the Kingdom of God is likened to dough, raised by yeast. The heavenly leaven - the Divine Spirit - placed by the Savior in human souls quickens the Kingdom of God on earth, so that its true children can emerge.
According to the Serbian bishop, Nicholas of Ohrid, in the Kingdom of God, the three measures of the parable may signify the three branches of the human race: Semites, Japhites, and Hamites. The Savior brought heavenly leaven or grace to all without limit. According to Blessed Augustine, the three measures of flour signify the three main powers of the human soul: mind, heart and will, or the three powers of thought, feeling, and operation, gradually sanctified by the Holy Spirit. The grace of God penetrates and sanctifies the spirit, soul, and body of man. When armed with the power of grace, a man enters a new, Christian life. His mind becomes the mind of Christ, fully obedient to faith and capable of attaining the Mystery of Salvation. The desire and actions of a man rise to full agreement with the will of the Lord. In the heart of a man reborn and cleansed by grace, the peace of God reigns. The body of a reborn man itself becomes a pure vessel of pure faith.
The Fathers of the Church emphasize the purity: the heavenly leaven acts on dough made of unspoiled flour. Stale, spoiled flour will not turn sour, rise, nor yield to the action of yeast, just as the grace of God does not act in a negligent soul. For Divine leaven to do its work, we must repent and struggle with all vices, and prepare the dough of our soul and body in patience. Success in the struggle with one's selfishness and with one's "old man" is easy or quick. Every minute, every day, is a struggle with temptation and sin, in order to live as the Lord wishes.
Every conversion to Christianity begins with something small, as small as a mustard seed or a speck of leaven. We take this gift from Christ's Church. The closer and more sincerely we unite ourselves to Christ in this mystery, the more spiritual strength we shall gain to fulfill His commandments.
"The kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field" (Matthew 13:44).
The parable of the treasure hidden in the field shows the priceless Kingdom of God, for which we ought to sacrifice all earthly goods. The people of antiquity had a practice of hiding treasures in a secret place, in time of war or disaster, hoping to retrieve them later. Of course, some one else could find these treasures and use them. Christ's parable at hand is about such discovered treasure: A man working and tilling a field finds a treasure hidden in it. He rejoices at the find, but keeps it secret. Hoping to make use of it, he carefully hides it again in the field, so that no one else would find the treasure. He sells everything that he owns and buys the field. Now he is the owner of the field and has the right to the treasure.
By the treasure, Christ means the Gospel and the moral life it teaches, supported by the Church. The Gospel is a genuine treasure, beside which all earthly goods are nothing. Man may obtain the whole world, but without a moral life according to the Gospel, he is nothing. On the contrary, he is rich whoever follows the Gospel although in all else he be poor.
But the Gospel is hidden from him who listens only with his ears and not with his heart. Perhaps the man of the parable had passed by that buried treasure hundreds of times, not knowing it until he discovered it. Just so, man may listen to the Gospel for years and not see its treasure, until it penetrates his heart, thanks to the word of a pastor or spiritual friend.
The man in the parable sold all he had to buy the field of treasure. Saint Gregory the Dialogist writes concerning the price of the Heavenly Treasure: "No fixed price exists for it. Every man must give up everything that he possesses for it. The Apostle Peter gave up his nets to gain the Kingdom of Heaven. The widow gave up two mites. He who has millions let him give up millions, and he who has nothing let him give up his will."
Blessed, eternal life is hidden in the treasure of the Gospel. It is only necessary to find the treasure in order to make use of it. But where is one to seek it; in which field? Here Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow answers, with eloquence:
"In many places! For example, in the field of solitude and reverent silence, in the field of chastity and abstinence: only spare nothing in order to gain possession of such a field, and thou shalt find the treasure. But a field particularly close and accessible for all, is that in which the treasure of grace is secretly placed, that is, the Church. What a treasure is hidden in her sacred assemblies! In them is hidden the presence of Christ the Lord Himself, and in Him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3), as well as the treasures of all other gifts spiritual and Divine. What a treasure there is in the prayers and doxologies of the Church! In them breathes the grace of the Prophets, the Apostles and the saints; still more, in them the Holy Spirit Himself maketh intercession for us with groaning which cannot be uttered (Romans 8:26). What a treasure there is in the readings of the Gospel! The same power, which, proceeding forth in Christ's word, cast out demons, healed infirmities, raised the dead and enlightened with the Divine light, now too abides in His word, in His Gospel. What a treasure there is in the Mysteries, and especially in the Mystery of the Body and Blood of the Lord! In it there is hidden eternal life with its inscrutable good things, in accordance with that which was said by the Lord: "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life" (John 6:54).
"One needs only to know how to use such treasures, and for this it is necessary to sell, that is, to scorn, to reject all that thou hast, namely pleasing thyself, thy passions, thy depraved habits, thy carnal desires, thy laziness, thine inattentiveness, thy dissipation. An even closer field of treasure is our inner man. The depth in which the treasure is hid signifies the heart of man. Herein, the Spirit of God breathed invisibly in the Mystery of Baptism, and by His breath introduced new life from God."
"And so, treasure is put into our field, but has each of us found it? If we bury this hidden treasure deeper and deeper under the dung and refuse of vain, impure and iniquitous thoughts and deeds, then our treasure lies without being used, our spiritual life is embryonic or in a faint."
The man who found the treasure hid it in order not to lose it. For a spiritual life, this parable means that whoever is proud of the gifts of grace will lose the treasure because of his pride. And a member of the Church who has gained the grace of God should humbly cherish it in his soul in humility. A humble man, rejoicing in the Lord, does not start to boast before everyone, but goes to a man close to him in spirit, to share his joy and his wealth.
Here is how Blessed Augustine writes about this joy, about his conversion to Christ: "How suddenly it became pleasant for me to do without worthless pastimes, and I with joy left off that which previously I had feared to lose! For Thou didst remove them far from me, and Thou, the true and highest Joy, Thyself didst dwell in me, O Sweetest of all joys!" And let us do the same!
The parable of the pearl is told in the chapter 13 of the Gospel according to Matthew. Its profundity is like the profound parable of the treasure hidden in the field.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it" (Matthew 13:45-46)
During antiquity, pearls were more valuable than in our time. Christ's contemporaries paid great sums for good pearls. They understood the words of Jesus to mean that to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven, one must give up everything for what Christ offers.
The parable pearl is the Gospel. The merchants are men seeking knowledge. The world has many pearls, many forms of knowledge, but only one is precious, which is faith in Jesus Christ. Men carefully acquiring knowledge of Christ and sensing the truths that lead to the Kingdom of Heaven can see their model in the merchant who seeks pearls, and who sold his many small ones, uses the money to buy one uniquely precious.
"He that possesses the pearl knows that he is rich," says John Chrysostom, "but others often do not know that they have a pearl in their hands, because the pearl is not big: the same can also be said about the truth. Those possessing it know that they are rich, but unbelievers, not understanding the value of this treasure, do not know of our wealth."
The parable of the treasure hidden in the field is about suddenly finding God's truth, but the parable of the pearl is about finding this truth after a long search. Prince Vladimir, the Enlightener of the Russian people, brought Russia to baptism after a long search, and the Church troparion calls him "the merchant who sought the goodly pearl." He sought and found the true faith.
Saint Justin the Philosopher is another who sought the truth and found it only in the teaching of Jesus Christ. In his work "Dialogue with Tripho, a Jew," he writes that while still a pagan he studied all the philosophical systems of his time (AD 100s) and he especially liked Plato. But his broad knowledge did not answer questions that interested him about God, soul, immortality, and such things until an elder (Saint Polycarp, according to tradition) told him about Jesus Christ and the prophets. Study of the prophecies and the Gospel brought Saint Justin to the one true philosophy, the pearl. The lives of these holy God-pleasers show how the words of Sacred Scripture sink into the souls of unbelievers seeking the pearl, and set them towards faith in Christ and life in Him.
So let each of us seek this one pearl. "Search the scriptures," says the Lord, "they are they which testify of me" (John 5:38). Find the precious pearl of Christ by attentive and prayerful study of the Word of God. Follow what the Lord said of to Martha, the sister of Lazarus, who was dead for four days: "the one thing needful" (Luke 10:42).
The Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander, has a chapter "On the Pearl of Great Price." The author writes of the signs of finding the precious pearl: "the deeper you pressed into your own heart, the farther and higher you climbed out of yourself. The outward conditions of your life are the same: you wash dishes and care for the children, you go to work, draw your salary and pay your taxes. You do everything pertaining to your external life as a person in a society, since there is no chance of leaving it. But you have resigned yourself. You have given away one thing in order to receive another. 'And if I have Thee, what more do I ask on earth?' 'Nothing,' answers St. John Climacus, but ceaselessly praying, silently to cling to Thee. Some are enslaved by riches, others by honor, still others by acquiring possessions; my only desire is to cling to God. '"
"Prayer, with all it contains of self-renunciation, has become your real life, which you keep up as though only for the sake of prayer. "Walking with God" (Genesis 6:9) is from now on the only thing that has real value for you, and it includes all heavenly and earthly events. For him who bears Christ within himself, there is neither death nor illness or any earthly clamor; he has already stepped into eternal life, and that embraces everything.
"Night and day the heavenly seed sprouts in your heart and grows, you know not how. The earth produces of itself, your heart's soil, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear" (Mark 4:27-8).
"The saints speak of something they call the inextinguishable light. It is a light not of the eye but of the heart that never ceases to walk in purity and clearness. It swiftly leaves the darkness behind, and constantly strives towards the day's height. Its constant quality is to be continually purified. This is the light of eternity that can never go out, and that shines through the veil of time and matter. But the saints never say that this light is given to them, but that it is given only to those who have purified their hearts in love for the Lord on the narrow way which they have freely chosen." It is worth renouncing everything for the sake of obtaining that which Christ offers us - the pearl of His teaching and the life of blessedness in Him."
We find the parable of the net cast into the sea in chapter 13 of the Gospel according to Matthew:
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:47-50).
The net is Gospel teaching, the preaching of apostles, those "fishers of men." The sea is the world. The fish of every kind are the human race. This parable shows that the net of Gospel preaching will gather all men - both righteous and sinners. When the net is full at the end of time, those fish, those humans will be divided. The good will be gathered into vessels of the Kingdom of Heaven, but the bad will be cast away. The Church of Christ on earth - the Church Militant - consists of the most varied people, of zealous Christians, who live according to God's commandments, and as well of people careless or indifferent, Christians by name but not in way of life. We cannot discern their spiritual lives, but the dread, impartial judgment of God at the end of time will tell righteous from the sinners. In Lord Jesus Christ's prophecy of the Dread Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) is certain:
"He shall separate the righteous and the sinners one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left."
The parable of the net merely alludes to the separation of the good from the bad. But the prophecy of Dreaded Judgment adds the question that we must answer: How did we serve our neighbor; that is, how merciful were we toward one another? Christ lists six kinds of help to our neighbor. Identifying Himself, in His love, condescension and mercy, with every pauper and everyone in need of help, the Savior says: "For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me" (Matthew 25:35-36). The Savior sets these works of mercy to suffering people and to those in need of our help somewhat higher than all else achievements. "For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice," says God by the mouth of the Prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:6; see also Matthew 9:13 and 12:7).
The parable of the net and the prophecy on the Dread Judgment end with threatening images of the punishment of sinners. The parable of the net mentions how "the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." The Lord's prophecy says that sinners will go "into everlasting fire."
These threatening images frighten some people and cause others to protest, because they see Lord Jesus Christ as angry and condemning. It troubles others that Christ's images of the judgment are physical: sinners given over to torment in everlasting fire.
Interpretation of the Gospel, a scholarly Russian book by the B. I. Gladkov, remarks "Should one understand the words furnace of fire literally, or consider that the punishment awaiting sinners is only likened to torments in a fiery furnace. It seems to us that one might understand these words literally if Jesus Christ always expressed Himself thus about the impending future of sinners; however, it is known that in other instances He expressed Himself somewhat differently: thus, in the Sermon on the Mount, He compared the torments of sinners with abiding in the valley of fire (Gehenna, Matthew 5:29þ "hell" on the Authorized Version). After that, when speaking of the lot that will befall those who have not accepted Him, He said that they "shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, while many shall come from the east and west and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 8:11-12). Burning in a furnace was known to Jesus' audience from the books of the Old Testament: Judah, the son of Jacob, condemned his daughter-in-law Tamar to burning (Genesis 38:24); David cast into a kiln the inhabitants of his conquered city of Rabbah (II Kings [II Samuel in the Authorized Version] 12:31). "Nebuchadnezzar ordered Ananias, Misael and Azarias, who did not worship the golden idol, to be cast into a furnace made red-hot by fire" (Daniel 3:21).
So, in the time of Lord Jesus Christ, burning captives alive was a customary death penalty, but most horrible and excruciating. When He spoke of the future punishment of sinners, he spoke of fire to awaken his listeners, to make them think of repentance and rebirth. Replying to the Sadducees later, on resurrection, Jesus likened resurrected bodies at the Dread Judgment to spirits and angels. He explained that the bodies of the resurrected will not be our bodies from life here on earth, as if the sufferings of the condemned will also be more spiritual than physical.
We need not understand the words of Christ literally, because all the parables use figurative language to make their meaning easier to remember. The Lord uses especially vivid speech in the Gospel. He says "And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched where there worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:43-44). These words ought not to be understood literally. Evil and sin are not in the human hand, but in the human heart. The hand is only the tool of sin. And cutting off the hand or foot cannot remove temptation. Instead, we remove temptation and sin by force of will and by prayer. Thus, these words of Christ about eternal tortures have only a symbolic meaning to match a vivid image. Equally symbolic are the Lord's words "fire that shall never be quenched" and "worm" that "dieth not."
The hierarch John Chrysostom sees these torments of sinners as deprivation of the glory of God's Kingdom, abandonment by God, and remoteness from God, Who is Love. This spiritual pain is worse than physical punishment. Saint John Chrysostom calls this parable "terrifying," and Gregory the Theologian tells us to fear it more than to interpret it.
In the parable of the net and in the prophecy on the Dread Judgment, Christ shows that He does not cut off His love from us, but we alienate ourselves from His love by our sin and lack of mercy. The Savior calls us, before it is too late, to do good works in His name, to seek sobriety and freedom from everyday cares, and to think about our soul, meeting the Lord.
This ascetic mind set must guide us. It is not dark or melancholy, as people far from the Church may imagine. On the contrary, it is a joy that we see in Christian ascetics and all those on its path. May God grant that at the end of time, when we, according to the parable of the net, are drawn to the shore of the Kingdom of Christ, we will be gathered ... into vessels.
Many Gospel parables linger in our hearts, especially those about God's loving kindness. The parables of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, and the Pharisee and the publican evoke images of the loving Father, waiting for his erring son; of the kindly traveler who helped the man half-dead from wounds; and the visitor who heard the prayer "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Recollection moves the heart to repentance and readiness to recite this sinner's prayer again and again. These parables have inspired many painters, such as Rembrandt, who can call on their physical allegory to provoke contemplation and to make explications.
By patristic convention, the parables of Jesus Christ about God's loving kindness make a second distinct group, told by the Lord a few months before his sufferings. They tell of God's limitless loving kindness toward repentant sinners, and how Christ's followers must love one another. The parables of God's loving-kindness show us what to withdraw from and what to cling to: To [withdraw] from sin [and cling] to repentance in "the embrace of the Heavenly Father."
Here we must consider the tragedy of original sin and its fruit. The Church teaches that God is all-good and all-powerful. His omnipotence belongs to love because God is Love. God did not create any evil. One may even say that He could not even create it.
According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, evil appeared because God created His higher creations - man and angels-as free beings, according to His image and likeness. God is, first of all, Love. Man is like God and becomes more like Him when he loves. One cannot love by coercion. One can love only in freedom. Therefore love is the action, sign, and fact of freedom. That is why God also created angels and men free. He created them for Love, so that they might participate in that mutual love in which He Himself abides, as God, as Trinity of Persons.
Freedom brings the risk of a wrong choice, the risk of deviation from the Orthodox way. Unhappily, certain angels and the parents of the human race, made wrong choices, from whence evil arose.
Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky writes that at the creation, the Creator endowed man with three supreme gifts: freedom, reason and love. The three gifts are necessary to allow religious conversion. But freedom invites the possibility of wavering in one's choice, and temptation is possible. "The temptation for reason is to grow proud in mind; instead of acknowledging the wisdom and goodness of God; to desire oneself to be a 'god.' The temptation for the feeling of love is - in place of love for God and one's neighbor, to love oneself and everything that satisfies the lower desires and gives temporary enjoyment. This possibility of temptation and fall stood before mankind, and the first man did not stand firm against it" [Orthodox Dogmatic Theology [English edition, 154].
We cannot explain why our first parents made an incorrect choice. All created things have a meaning, as creations of the all-wise God. Whatever has meaning allows its explanation. But God did not create evil, and so it can have no meaning. It is inexplicable.
The power of evil lies only in the consent of a free man's will. God, of course, foresaw that angels and man would make an incorrect choice. So, before eternity, God "took measures" for man to correct his mistake. According to His immeasurable love, God responds to all man's mistakes, to all human evil and to all the sufferings of men with Self-sacrifice. He takes all mistakes, all evil and all sufferings upon Himself, as if He, Who is innocent of any evil, were the author of evil.
When man turns away from love, God always remains Love and only Love. The Lord's sacrifice in His Incarnation returns to man the chance again to choose the correct path freely. God does not wish to and cannot save men by force. He can call and summon, but in Christ, God summons man to Himself in a completely new way.
Oliver Clement, a French theologian, wrote an article on evil published in the issue No. 31 of the journal, Contakt. "God can do everything, except compel man to love . . . This paradoxical impotence of God (at the creation of man), Who, of course, still remains omnipotent, already announces to us beforehand the mystery of the Cross . . . God is so omnipotent that he can suspend His omnipotence . . . There is no need for Christians to create a special theory for justifying God (theodicy). To all the questions regarding the allowance of evil by God (the problem of evil) there is one answer - Christ; the Crucified Christ, Who burns up in Himself all the world's sufferings for ever; Christ, Who regenerates our nature and has opened the entry to the Kingdom of everlasting and full life to each one who desires it."
The Orthodox Church teaches that from the time of Christ's coming into the world, the fullness of Divinity Love is revealed to those who believe in Him, the veil is fallen, and the Lord's sacrifice has demonstrated His Divine in His Resurrection. It only remains for the faithful to partake of this Love: "O taste and see that the Lord is good," exclaims David the Psalmist.
And what is sin? According to one theologian, sin is "missing the mark." God created man for him to be an icon of God, to live in unity with God, and to exercise authority over the universe. Man's failure is that sin called "The Fall."
Orthodox tradition usually understands the tasting from the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" as man's real experience of choosing evil. Some other Orthodox writers (for example, Saint Gregory the Theologian) understand the Fall as man's attempt to overstep the limits of his capabilities. All Orthodox agree that human pride, human envy, and human lack of humble gratitude to God, caused man to yield to Satan's temptation and to violate God's commandment. Thus, man "missed the mark" of his calling. By violating God's law, man ruined himself, and the universe that God had entrusted to his care.
According to the Bible and Orthodox theology, sin, evil, devil, suffering, and death always co-exist. None comes by itself, and all come by man's revolt against God and loss of communion with Him. Sin gives birth to sin. The story of the Fall in the Book of Genesis is divinely inspired. As the devil's principality, the universe will groan in torment until God saves it. All children of Adam share this tragic fate. Even infants, who are born as images of God in a world originally good, grow up in a world bound by death, ruled by the devil, and filled with misdeeds of all generations.
Thus the ancient Church established the baptism of infants everywhere. A local council in Carthage in 252, under the presidency of Saint Cyprian, enacted the rule: "not to forbid (baptism) to an infant who, having only just been born, has not sinned in anything, except that by being descended from the flesh of Adam he has received the infection of the ancient death through birth itself, and who all the more readily approaches to receive the remission of sins, since not his own, but another's sins, are remitted him."
The good shepherd
Jesus Christ's second group of parables demonstrate how God's loving kindness enables man to return to his first state of blessedness in God.
A Roman procurator, who officially represented the Roman emperor, ruled Judaea in the Savior's time. Beside him but under [Roman] authority, sat a co-ruler, who was also a local tyrant. The king served Roman political interests, but the procurator and the king - Pontius Pilate and Herod the Younger, in particular - had clashes. A lower level of government officials was the Scribes (lawyers) and Pharisees (rabbinical officials), who had more direct contact with the people and who sat "in Moses' seat," as Jesus expressed it (Matthew 23:2). The Scribes and the Pharisees were the religious intelligentsia. The Pharisees especially valued external ritualism and a decrepit national cult of religious consciousness, without a real spiritual life. A contemporary term for representatives of this class is "apparatchiks."
Lord Jesus Christ entered conflict with this ethnic authority, knowing ahead of time how much it would cost Him. Conflict was inevitable because the Pharisees were arrogant but lacked any real authority from Rome or the Jewish temple. Their status was less than "Caesar's," as Jesus recalled when He said to "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, while at the same time rendering unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21). The Pharisees were poor prophets for the Kingdom of God. Saint Paul the Apostle may have been a Pharisee before his conversion.
The main allegory of the good shepherd parable contrasts the true Judaic teachers, who lead people to salvation, with the Scribes and Pharisees, the egotists of spiritual blindness. On the Sabbath, the day of rest, when the Law forbids labor, Jesus healed a man born blind. This miracle amazed everyone, and the anxious but learned Pharisees tried to convince the blind man that "this man [Jesus] is not of God, because he keepeth not the Sabbath day" (John 9:1) . . . "we know that this man is a sinner" (verse 24). To this complaint, the blind man replied: "If this man were not of God, he could do nothing." The Pharisees answered and said unto him, "Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out" (verses 33-34).
Jesus heard about the healed man's encounter with the Pharisees and called on him to strengthen the man's faith. Jesus asks him: "Dost thou believe on the Son of God?" Because the healed man had not yet seen His Healer, he did not recognize Him. Expressing readiness to believe in the Son of God, that is, in the Messiah, he asked: "Who is he?" And when Jesus revealed His divine dignity to him in the words, "Thou has both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee," the healed man said in reply: "Lord, I believe. And he worshiped him. And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth" (John 9:37-41).
Again, Simeon the God-receiver, holding the Infant Jesus in his arms said: "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against . . . that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (Luke 2:34-35). Concerning this division of people into His followers and adversaries, Jesus said: "For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind."
The spiritual blindness of the learned Scribes and Pharisees implies that men exalted by erudition may possibly never see the main of God's truth. The learned may be hopelessly blind, and the ignorant or handicapped people who appear hopeless may see truth in their hearts and accept it. In this parable, the blind and unlettered can see.
The Apostle and Evangelist John testifies that God's will is for everyone who sees the Son of God to have life eternal, and that the Son of God came and gave us light and understanding to know the true God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). When Christ denounces blind Pharisees, He condemns their spiritual blindness to the "Light of the world," that is, Christ, the Messiah.
Further, Christ's good shepherd parable points to Christ as the true Good Shepherd, Who brings those sheep to life eternal -
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice; and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them."
"Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd" (John 10:1-16).
The shepherd and his sheep are mentioned frequently in Sacred Scripture, for sheep are meek, helpless animals who need care and special protection from wolves and other dangers. Their well-being depends on the shepherd. The true shepherd of men preserves us from the snares of the "ruler of the darkness of this age" (cf. Ephesians 6:12), from the devil's false teachings, his temptations, and worldly influences. The one, true divine shepherd is Christ.
"I am the good shepherd," said the Savior, who would show a self-sacrificing love for his the sheep, even to a death on the Cross for the salvation of the human race. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) says the Lord.
"I know Mine and Mine know Me." Jesus knows the heart, the moral disposition, the needs and dangers of His "sheep," those who truly believe in Him. His sheep perceive Christ, and know Him as their Redeemer and Savior. Just as between God the Father and Jesus Christ, so between Christ and those who are "His" there exist communion, mutual love, and understanding.
"The sheep hear the shepherd's voice," says the Lord. "And he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice." This part of the parable is based on pastoral customs. If, on account of weather, shepherds could not leave the flock of sheep in the pasture, with wolves and thieves about, they would drive them into caves or fenced enclosures, shut the doors for the night, and the shepherds would remain with their flocks. Sometimes several shepherds would drive their flocks into one enclosure; then one of them would stay inside with the sheep. In the morning the door-keeper would open the doors and the other shepherds would enter and gather their flock, calling their own sheep by name. The sheep know their own shepherds by sight and voice. After gathering all his own sheep, each shepherd would lead his flock to pasture, walking ahead with a staff for defense, and with a walking stick.
The Savior knows His "sheep" and their names are written in the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5, Philippians 4:3). He calls them, enlightens, and gathers them. The "sheep" know Christ's voice in His holy Gospel. They distinguish His teaching from false teachings, and they follow Him.
The Savior has other sheep, "which are not of this fold," whom he must also bring into the sheepfold, that is, into His Church. The Lord is speaking here of the Gentiles (since Jews living in the diaspora belonged to "their own fold," to Jewish theocratic society). According to God's well-known determination, the Gentiles also "will hear" Christ's voice, as the prophets foretold (Micah 4:2, Isaiah 2:3 and others), "and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd." No longer will barriers separate the Gentiles from the Jews, the chosen people. The Good Shepherd and His followers will gather everyone, and His work will be done at the end of time in the conversion to Christ of the "faithful remnant" (Isaiah 10:22, Romans 11:25-26).
But the best thing in this parable is Christ's blessed confirmation that He gives eternal life to His "sheep" if the Christian be a true "sheep" of Christ and walk in His steps.
The lost sheep and the lost drachma
We find the parables of the "lost sheep" and the "lost drachma" in the Gospel according to Luke:
"What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Either what woman having ten pieces of silver [drachmas], if she lose one piece [drachma], doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbors together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece [drachma] which I had lost. Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth" (Luke 14:4-10).
Lord Jesus Christ used the image of the shepherd in His preaching because His audience knew this image from the pastoral economy and from the books of the Old Testament. The image of the shepherd, of the herdsman leading his flock, was deeply rooted in the experience of the "nomadic Arameans" (Deuteronomy 26:5 [Russian Bible]). The Israelite shepherd is both leader and comrade. This powerful man defends his flock from wild beasts while knowing his sheep well (Proverbs 27:23), adapting to their situation (Genesis 33:13), carrying them in his arms (Isaiah 40:11), even loving one or another of them as a daughter (II Kings/II Samuel, 12:3). His authority is indisputable, based on devotion and love. The ancient Babylon and Assyria's kings called themselves shepherds with a divine ministry to gather and care for sheep of the flock. The Bible uses this image to show the relationships that bind Israel with God also work through Christ and His envoys with the Church.
Many Jews preserved a prophecy of the coming shepherd. Jesus fulfills this prophecy; as the shepherd of those sheep and of publicans and harlots who accept the Good News joyfully. The shepherd image appears as well at Bethlehem where they receive Jesus, Who had been born in their cave (Luke 2:8-20). Ancient Christian symbolism, in the catacombs of Europe and the Near East, often shows Christ as a shepherd, bearing a sheep on his shoulders, as Christ rescued sinful humanity when Christ took upon Himself our sins.
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost drachma depict the Lord's true concern for the conversion of a sinner, and the joy in the heavens for those who repent. These parables emphasize that God Himself seeks out the sinner to save him. This Christ speaks in other places in the Gospel: "For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10; Matthew 18:11) and to "call . . . sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:13).
These parables of Jesus show the proud and self-assured Scribes and Pharisees God's boundless love and compassion toward all men. The Scribes and Pharisees were certain that only they fulfilled all the minor prescriptions ad sacrifices of the Mosaic law, and did not need to repent and to deal justly with sinners.
From the Gospel, we know that Christ met all men who were conscious of their sinfulness and wanted to change their lives. He visited homes of sinners and ate with them-with Zacchaeus the tax collector, and Levy the publican, who became the Apostle Matthew. This tolerant and welcoming gesture bothered the Scribes and Pharisees, who considered a helping hand to a fallen brother or simply touching him as ritual pollution. These elite scholars thought that Jesus sinned by consorting with sinners. So they warned people to shun Him.
Christ says, as it were, to His accusers in reply: "You bring an accusation against me that I accept sinners who have fallen away from God, that I even go after them, bring them to repentance and, saving them from perdition, return them to God. But, after all, you (Scribes and Pharisees) also act likewise in regards to that which is near and dear to you.
Further, Jesus offers to them the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. "What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? Either what woman having ten pieces of silver [drachmas], if she lose one piece [drachma], doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?" If you act that way on losing your property, Christ further says, as it were, then why do you reproach Me, when I am saving men who have fallen away from God, their Father. A responsible, good shepherd, on finding a lost sheep, does not punish it because it fell away from the flock, does not even drive it back to the flock; but, rejoicing that he found it, takes it on his dependable shoulders and bears it home; he calls his friends and says to them: "Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, who need no repentance." This is how God rejoices to return the lost sheep to the flock of salvation.
The lost sheep stands for the sinner dead to virtue and blessedness (the lost drachma), for which God had created him. By the Holy Spirit, the Lord acts inscrutably on the heart of man, who has not lost all capability for repentance and conversion to God.
Jesus' expression "over one sinner that repenteth," in both parables, emphasizes that the sole pledge of salvation is repentance. And "joy . . . in heaven," according to the word of Venerable Ephraim the Syrian, is "a feast for God." "Repentance, making a feast for God, summons heaven also to the banquet. The angels rejoice when repentance invites them to the supper. All the heavenly ranks celebrate, being aroused to gladness by repentance."
The sheep who ran away from the flock is a pitiful animal. It may stray where there is neither forage, nor water, the prey of wild beasts. Thus, too, the soul is unfortunate, exposed to every delusion and passion as an easy prey of the devil who seeks, according to the word of Scripture, "whom he may devour" (I Peter 5:8).
The Lord shows great care for lost souls, whom He boundlessly loves. God loves the world so much "that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). And after His Ascension to heaven, His Providence cares for the Church that calls sinners to repentance.
The shepherd who discovers the lost sheep, does not drive it back to the flock, but takes it on his shoulders and joyfully bears it home. Here the compassionate Shepherd Jesus Christ strengthens him who has freely decided to seek salvation. The sinner goes not alone on the new path, but with Christ. If he falls on the way, Christ will take him onto His shoulders, encourage and comfort him, for He said: "Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
These parables of the Savior address the Pharisees of His time and all times everywhere. The Lord desires that we would imitate his love for man. In each man, we must see a brother in Christ and an image of God. And no matter how a man might fall and darken God's image in himself, we must seek God's spark in his soul, as Dostoevsky did so in his Notes from the House of the Dead. "Sins are sins, but the image of God is the basis of man," writes Feodor Michailovich. "Hate the sin, but love the sinner," the holy, righteous John of Kronstadt loves to say. And the Apostle James in his epistle says directly: "He which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death [both the sinner's and his own, V.P.], and shall hide a multitude of sins" (James 5:20).
Blessed Theophilact, the Archbishop of Bulgaria, and other interpreters of the Gospel understand by the "ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance" as the angels and the righteous, for whom the salvation of a sinner is also dear, but who have already walked their path of salvation and departed to eternity,
Nicholai (Velimirovich), the Bishop of Ohrid, sees the parable of the lost drachma as the tragedy of both the world and of each person. He sees the nine drachmas that were not lost as the nine angelic orders, which Christ, Who is depicted in the parable under the form of a woman, leaves, in order to find the one drachma - the human race seduced by the devil and fallen away from God. Coming to the earth, Christ found the sinful human race and declared to the holy spirits: "Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece [drachma] which I had lost," I have found the men who will fill up the place in the Kingdom of Heaven left after the fall of the angels away from God, which had happened of old.
The prodigal son
The parable of the prodigal son is known so well that some of its phrases have passed into ordinary spoken language. We all remember book illustrations relating to it from our childhood.
Christ's parable of the prodigal son replies to the reproaches of the Pharisees that "He receiveth sinners, and eateth with them" (Luke 15:2). Christ forgives them and calls sinners to repentance, saying "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth" (Luke 15:10). All three of these parables-the good shepherd, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son, stress forgiveness in the final time, are found in chapter 15 of the Gospel according to Luke:
"A certain man had two sons: and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it: and let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found" (Luke 15:11-32).
This parable is inexhaustible; its themes, too many to count. Every man who studies it with reverence, finds consolation for his anxiety about his own soul.
The first theme of the parable is history - God's chosen people and the pagan nations. The elder son in the parable could be Israel, and the younger son, the pagans. According to Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, this parable may summarize the Old Testament period, when men committed the original sin and withdrew from God. "The Father grieves over the departure of the beloved son. But, not infringing upon his filial dignity and filial freedom, He waits until the son himself, on having come to know all the bitterness of evil, and having remembered his past life in the Father's home, begins to yearn for this home and opens his heart to the Father's love. Thus it was with the human race."
The second theme is guilt. The parable of the prodigal son is read at the Liturgy on the third preparatory Sunday before Great Lent, when the faithful prepare to cleanse themselves from sin through the endeavor [podvig] of repentance.
Its third theme is repentance: the gradual, inner process of the sinner's turning towards full repentance, which calls for awareness of his fall, his sincere remorse, and his humble conversion of spirit toward the Heavenly Father.
Its fourth theme is the Church and her Liturgy. According to the Synaxarion for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the best robe, in which the father arrays his son who has returned, is the Mystery of Baptism; the ring and seal of the Holy Spirit is the Mystery of Chrismation; the feast with the eating of the fatted calf is the Eucharist, the Mystery of Communion. The music and dancing are symbols of the Church celebration of her restored fullness and oneness.
The fifth theme is the Savior Himself, Who appears as the Eucharistic slaughtered calf, referred to in Scripture as "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
The elder son represents envy, legalism and need for mutual, brotherly forgiveness. The younger, prodigal son is all fallen mankind as well as each individual sinner. His portion of goods, that is, the younger son's share of the property, are God's gifts to each man. According to Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, these are "the mind and heart, and especially the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to each Christian. The demand made to the father for the portion of goods falling to the son in order to use it arbitrarily is the striving of man to throw submissiveness to God off from himself and to follow his own thoughts and desires. The father's consent to hand over the property depicts the absolute authority with which God has honored man in the use of God's gifts."
One of Protopresbyter Alexander Men sermons for the "Sunday of the Prodigal Son," mentions some details of ancient economics: "In those times which the Lord is speaking about people would try to live as one family. Nowadays, it is more natural for children to separate from and leave their parents when they grow up. Then, men jointly owned the land, which they worked together, and the larger the family was, the more working hands there were, the greater the ability to labor was. Therefore, to divide the home, to divide the property and the household was considered a detriment, a loss. If the children acted thus, it was considered an offense to the parents."
Having taken his portion, the younger son departs to a far country, a foreign place of estrangement from God. There he stops thinking of his father and "lives riotously," in a life of sin that alienates him further from the Creator. He quickly squanders his property, his share of God's gifts of mind, heart, and body. His poverty is spiritual desolation. Such a man does not really control what brings him pleasure. It controls him. This is why Apostle Paul warns Christians: "I will not be brought under the power of any [thing]" (I Corinthians 6:12).
One Church thinker has written: "This far country, this foreign land reveals to us the profound essence of our life, of our condition. Only after having understood this, can we begin the return to real life. He, who has not felt this at least once in his life, who has never realized that he is spiritually in a foreign land, isolated, exiled, will not understand the essence of Christianity. And he, who is completely "at home" in this world, who has not experienced a yearning for another reality, will not comprehend what repentance and remorse are . . . Remorse and repentance are born out of the experience of alienation from God, from the joy of communion with Him . . . It necessarily includes in itself the profound desire to come back, to return, to find anew the lost home."
Before Great Lent, beginning with the Sunday of the prodigal son, the Church chants the psalm "By the waters of Babylon," to remind us of the captivity of the Jews in that far country. This same captivity in sin alienates the Christian from God. But this psalm likewise speaks of repentance, love, and return to the father's home.
Having lost his inheritance, the younger son begins to hunger. To survive, he herds pigs as a swineherd. And he would gladly eat the swine's food-"with the husks," but no one would give him any. A saving thought awakens in him: "How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!"
The prodigal son could recall this fact because he had not dissipated his one remaining gift--memory of his father and his home, which amounts to his conscience (God's voice within us). And here, conscience life returns and he understands his terrible situation. Resolve comes to him, to forsake his sins and to repent his offences to the Lord. Finally, his humility, repentance, and awareness of his unworthiness bring the sinner back to the father.
When God allows calamities to sinners, He brings them to their senses. They are God's call to repentance.
Bishop Theophan the Recluse compares the typical sinner to a man in a deep sleep. In man's turning to God, the recluse finds three psychological moments that match the parable: (1) awakening from the sleep of sin (Luke 15:17); (2) the ripening of resolve to forsake sin and to dedicate himself to pleasing God (Luke 15:17-21); and (3) investing the sinner with power in the mysteries of repentance and communion.
The vivid parable image of this father of two sons stands for the Heavenly Father. The Father is the primary allegory of the parable, Whose goodness exceeds all human concepts, in His love for the sinner and His joy when the prodigal son's returns to Him. The Gospel says to us, "When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him." The waiting father has looked every day to see whether his son were returning. When He sees him, He has compassion, and runs and falls on his neck, and kisses him. The son starts his confession, but the father does not let him finish. The Father has already forgiven and forgotten everything, and he receives the dissolute and starving swineherd as a beloved son. The father does not require proofs of his son's repentance, because he sees that his son has overcome shame and fear to return home. He commands his servants to give him the best robe, shoes, and a ring on his hand. The ring is God's gift to the forgiven sinner, the gift of God's Grace. According to Blessed Theophilact, the ring restores the sinner's marriage to the earthly Church and the Church in Heaven.
Words cannot convey the fullness of God's love for fallen sinners. Perhaps Apostle Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians has it best: "Charity suffereth long and is kind . . . charity vaunteth not itself, . . . is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things" (I Corinthians 13:4-7). Because every sin is against love, repentance can be real only before God, the face of Perfect Love, for "God is love" (I John 4:8).
The Father's joy is there because "my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." The prodigal son was spiritually dead when he was living without God, and he come back to spiritual life by returning to life in God. Sacred Scripture often represents return to God as a resurrection from the dead (cf. Romans 6:13, Matthew 8:22, Revelation 3:1, Ephesians 2:1).
The elder son of the parable is also problematic. The return of his younger brother and his reconciliation to the father displeased the elder son. Here is how the parable sets it forth:
"Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf."
The elder son, Jesus Christ implies, is the Pharisee or Scribe whose legalism blocks him from coming to the Father. The elder son is all of us. The elder son was not much at fault until his brother returned and provoked the terrible sin of envy, which had led to the first murder and to the later murder of the Savior Himself. In the house of the Father (an image of the Church) angels feel joy and exultation over one sinner that repents, but this joy is sealed off from the elder son. The father invites the elder son to enter this joy, but he prefers to calculate legal considerations and contracts. Such cold, juridical attitudes prevail wherever love has dried up. The elder son does not really value his father's gifts. His soul holds a void more fearful than his brother's before repentance. The elder son has choked his conscience.
At some time, we all behave like the sons of the compassionate father. By our sins, we all alienate ourselves from His love. The service for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son describes our alienation from God: "I have wasted the riches which the Father gave me; I have spent them all and now am destitute, dwelling in the land of evil citizens." The prodigal son was in that state until the Gospel parable says, "he came to himself."
What does "he came to himself" mean? One Holy Father says that our salvation begins in self-knowledge. We may argue that self-knowledge is a cumulative lifetime pursuit, toward which a man always strives. But the Holy Fathers would say that until you have come to know who you are; until you have sensed the image of God in yourself; until you, living amidst earthly citizens, have felt that you are a citizen of heaven and have been enslaved to "foreign citizens"; until you, amid the filth of your soul, have come to know the image of God in yourself - until then you have not entered on the path of salvation at all.
Salvation begins when you come to know your own divine nature, as the prodigal son did. In one instant he saw that he was a slave to sin in a foreign land without genuine life. After a such self-recognition, a man may contrast himself with God's image in him, however bruised and calloused by habitual sin. Then a man begins to thirst for regeneration from sin and conversion back to being God's image.
Conversion may take a great change in perspective. A monk came to Venerable Antony and began to ask that he forgive and have mercy on him. Antony replied to him: "Neither I, nor God will have mercy on thee, if thou wilt not have mercy on thyself."
This rebuff from Saint Antony may seem strange to us. How is this so? Saint Antony asks us to understand that each of us must first discover the image of God in himself. Each of us must say "Have mercy on my inner man who, though brutalized by sin, possesses the image of God; until I myself have mercy on God's creation in myself; until in my conscience I have mercy on myself, who am sinful, defiled, and prodigal, until I take pity on my immortal soul - until then, God also will not have mercy on me. Until then, my entreaty will be in vain."
Patristic experience teaches that our requests for mercy will be in vain until we must sense in ourselves the image of God, the remnants of Divine beauty in us although distorted. The prodigal son saw how badly he was living and how well his father's servants lived. At that point, he had mercy on himself, and so went to God to beg for mercy from Him.
When we have mercy on ourselves and feel the contrast between ourselves in creation and ourselves in life, then we too can follow the path of the prodigal son toward God and can beg for mercy. Renewal of the image of God in ourselves is conversion, our sole business on earth. For us to keep God's creation - the image "of God's ineffable Glory" - constantly before our eyes, means we have more mercy on ourselves. We shall perceive the joy of life in God while we endure. Then we shall come to God and shall beg Him, as the prodigal son: "make me as one of Thy hired servants." And we shall be received by God.
The publican and the pharisee
Continuing to discredit the pharisaic religion, Christ tells another parable, the publican and the Pharisee, in chapter 18 of the Gospel according the Luke 18:10.
"Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon 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 every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
The phrases "Two men went up into the temple to pray" begin the Lord's parable. Lord Jesus describes both men in the prayer, inasmuch as "Prayer is a mirror of one's spiritual disposition," according to the holy Fathers of the Church. "Look into this mirror, look at how thou prayest, and thou wilt be able to say unerringly what thy spiritual disposition is." Our prayers show our good and dark sides, our spiritual abasement and spiritual resistence. It is not by chance that The Lenten Triodion service book opens with the sticheron: "Brethren, let us not pray as the Pharisee."
The parable presents the Pharisee as total self-satisfaction. The Pharisee fulfills the law and comes and prays in thanksgiving: "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess and here I am coming and thanking Thee."
In fact, the Pharisee have some genuine grounds for satisfaction as an member of the intellectual elite, in his own way religious, educated, and well-read. He preserves the beliefs and traditions, fulfills the religious prescriptions, and gives one-tenth of his wealth to Jewish projects. Evidently he is not a bad man, but is regarded with great respect. But his self-satisfaction so dominates his mind that cannot look into his heart, which has forgotten all values that matter at the time of God's Last Judgment.
The other man, the publican, is a tax collector, a profession held in contempt at that time. The publican appears to fulfill no part of the law at all. Sensing his worthlessness, he beats his breast and prays: "God be merciful to me a sinner!" The publican concentrates his prayer on his sinfulness before God. He understands all the futility of justification by outward works. So the men of self-satisfaction and repentance are truly opposites.
On one hand, we see the egoist: "God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are." According to Venerable John Climacus, this "shameless parade of our labors" is redundant, because the Lord knows the heart of the Pharisee already. But the Pharisee goes on: "I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, and degrading his neighbor as well - I am not . . . as this publican." Although the Pharisee believes in the Lord and loves Him, and seeks His help, when he degrades his neighbor and exalts himself, he thereby rejects God.
The Pharisee does not even need God. John Climacus writes that the passion of pride "finds food in gratitude." For now, the Pharisee is praying, but in a little he will stop praying, because prayer is striving toward God to receive His help. "I have seen people," says Venerable John Climacus, "who thank God with their mouth, but mentally magnify themselves. And this is confirmed by that Pharisee who said ironically: "O God, I thank Thee."
The self-satisfied Pharisee's worst error is to condemn others. Love has dried up in him, and condemnation of others and contempt for them has taken love's place. And so the Pharisee forgets what the measurelessness of mercy and calculates his virtuous quantity: "I fast twice in the week, I give tithes."
God does not need calculations. He wants men's hearts. To quantify good works can lead only to formalistic Pharisaism. The Lord says, "That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). Note the Savior's words "except your righteousness shall exceed." With these words, the Lord evaluates the Pharisees' spiritual life.
Repentance differs utterly from satisfaction. Abba Antony once said to Abba Poemen: "A man's work consists of laying his sins on his own head before God." Therefore, the publican also prays: "God, be merciful to me a sinner." He needs God and he begs, understanding that he is nothing, that all he can do is to lay "his sins on his own head before God."
"Pride is the annihilation of virtue," says John Climacus. Ancient books and old popular prints show the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee races along in a chariot while the publican walks on foot, both striving toward the Kingdom of Heaven. At the last moment the Pharisee's chariot breaks down, so that the publican on foot can overtake him. In the struggle of real life, one must learn to balance inward and outward religiosity. One must keep God's commandments and Church regulations. But doing so is no more, according to Climacus, than thinking to swim out of the deep using one hand. One must share the humility of the publican too. The publican, however, went out from the temple better justified before God than before, but he is not-as a tax farmer - yet in the Kingdom of Heaven. In the prayer of Ephraim the Syrian, the teacher of repentance, the prayer "O Lord and Master of my life," we ask to see our own sins and not to judge our brother.
Prayer and good works are vain if done not for God but for vainglory. According to all Fathers, vainglory is "trust in one's own efforts," "a rejection of God," "a driving away of His help." Doing something for show is not to render to God what is due, not to return the talent of gold to Him multiplied-"This is Thine." The devil met a certain Holy Father and said to him: "I am like thee in all things, except one: thou dost not sleep, and I keep vigil; thou fastest, and I eat nothing; but thou vanquishest me with humility." The faithful followers of Christ are known, not by works, but by humility. I can feed someone in God's name, not ascribing anything to myself - and in this instance I shall have done a truly Christian work. However, if I should do the same thing, but for any other reason, for any other aim - whatever it might be - this work will not be Christ's."
The parable of the publican and the Pharisee is Christ's call to uproot the Pharisaism in each of us. The Church hastens to our aid on the first Sunday before Great Lent, when Her Divine services reads: "Come, learn from both the Pharisee and from the publican. From the one learn his works, but by no means his pride; for the work by itself means nothing and does not save. But remember that the publican also is not yet saved, but is only more justified before God than the Pharisee, who was adorned with virtues."
Let us remember Christ's words: "Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Luke 18:14).
Lord Jesus Christ's third group of parables deal with how to overcome evil, which may try to undo the work of the Incarnation and deification of man by conversion.
"I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly? I lay down my life for the sheep.. I am the good shepherd? I am not a hireling who careth not for the sheep? And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd." These words are from Christ's parable of the good shepherd. Christ's flock, His Church, is supposed to be One. In eternity, God will be "all in all" (I Corinthians 15:28). In that Kingdom of God, Christ gathers all men who have come to believe in Him and who have fulfilled His Gospel (Revelation 14:6), out of love for whom He offers Himself in sacrifice. " The Lord came into the world for the sake of the salvation of all men"(I Timothy 4:10), in order that there might be one flock and one Shepherd.
Christ's salvation has evil as primordial "enemy," that "thief" or "wolf" that comes to steal, to kill, and to destroy, not to let the sheep have Life everlasting, but to carry them off. This mysterious "wolf" wants to hinder the saving work of the Shepherd-Christ, not only for sheep within the fold (the Church of Christ), but the wolf wants the other sheep - whole of mankind - as well. We do not ask why some billions of people are outside the sheepfold - the Old Testament and New Testament Church of Christ. We have no answer in this world. All we do have is the good sense to see the reality of evil and its incompatibility with good. We can see it in daily experience.
The strange thing is to see evil within ourselves as well as outside. We can see evil living beside the good in us. The wolf in sheep's clothing enters the sheepfold of our Christian hearts and lives there with the lambs. The Good Shepherd knows this, but allows it and is silent for the time being. He made us free, so that we may choose Light and Good and Beauty and Truth and Love voluntarily, without His coercion, without prompting, so we can come to Him freely as His children. Each of us, together with the apostles in sorrow must say:
"For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. . . Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. . . For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. . . For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:15-24).
Each of us knows how this conflict hinders our single-minded devotion to the Good Shepherd. We struggle every minute, to find the joy of abiding in the Fold of Christ.
Although we have personal experience of this conflict, do we easily tolerate it in other people. Why is it so hard for us to understand conflict and contradiction in other people? We often imagine other people as stereotypes without conflicts. "Likeable" people have positive qualities, while "unlikeable" have only shortcomings. These prejudgments hinder our valuing and loving people. For example, because of a man's insufficient faith, we are ready to close our eyes to his ability to love sacrificially; his innate bad character so irritates us, that, aside from this bad character, we do not wish to see anything good. We take human fatigue for carelessness and laziness. Human irritability we take for obdurate, incorrigible sin. We take a man's disagreement with our ideas for his stupidity. We may think to expel that man from the Sheepfold although the Shepherd-Christ lays down His life for all the sheep. We may forget the thief on the Cross, and Matthew the Publican, and Mary the sinner. When we cast a stone at the harlot, we forget how Christ in our place once treated her (John 8:7-11).
By overlooking a man's virtues, but counting his shortcomings, we demonstrate our blindness to the image of God in our brother and sister. And by not seeing the image of God in each man, we calumniate the Creator, as though He were capable of hurting one of His creatures unjustly. How can one imagine that the Savior is concerned only about the good and obedient sheep? The Savior has said that He has other sheep not of this fold, but sheep that He must gather.
These other sheep must hear Christ's voice and go to Him. They can hear His voice through our Christian witness of His Resurrection. These other sheep can arise only after they sense God's image goodness in themselves and forget his past slavery in sin, according to the Apostle Paul: "Forgetting those things which are behind [that is, the past], and reaching forth unto those things which are before " (Philippians 3:13). By forgiving men their blunders and sins, we take part in their arising, coming back to life and taking wing. By finding good in a man, we perform the missionary work of drawing him into Christ's Fold, where, according to the Church hymn, "the sound is unceasing of those who keep festival, and the delight is endless of those who behold the ineffable beauty of the Lord's countenance."
Of course, we must pray for ourselves and for others as well. Prayer is the first and greatest work of mercy. So let the following parables - the unmerciful debtor, the good Samaritan, the rich man and Lazarus, and the unjust steward - speak to us about forgiveness of offences, good works and virtues; and let them encourage us to pray.
The unmerciful debtor
The Savior said more than once, "Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven" (Luke 6:37; cf. Mark 11:25-26), setting our forgiveness of our neighbors as the condition for our forgiveness by the Lord. In one of Christ's talks with His disciples about forgiveness, His instruction on the loving and cautious reproval of a brother who has sinned provoked a question from the Apostle Peter, concerning how many times one must forgive someone who has offended.
The Scribes taught that one could forgive only three times. The Apostle Peter wished to exceed the righteousness of the Old Testament, so raised the number to seven. But Christ, Who urged us to make one's heart pure and bright by all-forgiving love, answers, that one must forgive until 70 times seven, that is, without any limit at all. To make this clear to Peter, Christ told the parable of the unmerciful debtor.
"Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshiped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow-servants, which owed him an hundred denarii: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou begged me: shoulds not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every brother his trespasses" (Matthew 18:23-35).
The meaning is clear. The king is the Lord, "to Whom all power is given . . . in heaven and in earth" (Matthew 28:18). The king's servants are we insolvent debtors to the Lord. Although our sinfulness makes us unworthy of God's loving kindness, the Lord, through the death of His Son on the Cross, has forgiven us our offenses.
The Kingdom of Heaven is compared unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. Whatever takes place in the Kingdom of Heaven, in the Church of Christ, can be likened to the occasion when the king in the parable wanted to settle accounts with his servants, that is, to require an accounting from them. The King of Heaven has the right to require an accounting of all our thoughts, desires, words, and deeds at any time. We must give Him this accounting, which means to live according to the laws of the Gospel. A great mercy from God is for Him to let us settle our accounts, to pay our debts through repentance. It is most fearful to depart from this world with debts that we cannot pay or repent of in another world.
And when the king had begun to reckon, one servant was brought unto him, who owed him 10,000 talents. The servant brought to the king stood before the face of God. In the parable, 10,000 talents was an enormous sum and a metaphor for an uncountable sum. The debt weighed upon the servant, who wanted so much to be debt free. He may have been glad to stand before the king and to ask for an extension. We may say that he was not brought forcibly, but came after an insistent invitation.
Our fall is so great that we cannot come to God alone. Only a few people, pure in heart, can come to Him alone. Most sinners are brought, by the prayers of the saints, or by misfortune, illness, and other trials that help break us away from passions of this world and remind us about theafter life. The Lord also sends us experienced spiritual directors, both living people or the Holy Fathers in their books.
According to Blessed Theophilact, Archbishop of Bulgaria, the unusual debtor is not one man, but all of humanity. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov writes that each of our sins is significant, since each offends God. Our sins are as numberless as the talents in the parable. The 10,000 talents are our sins against God's Ten Commandments, our total debts of ingratitude for God's countless mercies toward us. We live in sin and each day increase our debt to God.
Inasmuch as he could not pay 10,000, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, to make payment. This seeming cruelty of the king is disturbing to some. Why did the lord sell both the wife and the children and all that the servant had when their loss means he could never pay his debt.
Hierarch John Chrysostom explains: "Not out of cruelty or inhumanity, but in order to frighten the servant, and thereby to spur him on to submissiveness, without any intention of selling him! For, if he had had this in mind, then he would not have heeded his request and would not have shown him his loving-kindness. He only wanted to make the servant understand how many debts he was forgiving him, and through this means to compel him to be more lenient toward his fellow-debtor. For, if, having realized both the weight of his debt and the greatness of the forgiveness, he nevertheless began to choke his fellow servant, then what extent of cruelty would he not have reached, if he had not previously been made to understand by such means?"
In desperation, the servant fell down, and worshiped him, saying, "Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all." Terror provoked humility in the servant. Then the lord of that servant was moved to compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. The same thing takes place with every sinner, when he realizes the whole depth of his fall and the extent of his debt before God.
When we turn to God with repentance and a sincere promise to correct ourselves, then the Lord is ready at that second to grant us complete remission of sins. Hierarch John Chrysostom remarks concerning this: "what power prayer has! This debtor showed neither fasting nor indifferent to riches--nothing of the kind; however, when he, bereft and devoid of every virtue, only asked his lord, then he succeeded in inclining him to mercy. Let us not weaken in our prayers. Dost thou not have boldness? For this, then, approach, in order to acquire great boldness. He Who wishes to be reconciled with thee is not a man before whom thou must be ashamed and blush; it is God, Who desires more than thou to free thee from sin. Thou dost not desire thy safety so much as He seeks thy salvation."
The Lord's forgiveness is heavenly grace, which does not act automatically, but only after the participation of the believer. Of course, the Lord could forgive His servant unilaterally, without repentance, but He wants the debtor to learn from experience and to forgive debts in his own life too.
But this same servant goes out [that is, from repentance and humility], and finds a fellow-servant who owes him 100 dinarii. The first servant forgets about God. If he has remembered about God, then he would be kinder. But he lays hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, "Pay me that thou owest." This sum was so insignificant that it is awkward to name it. The desire to get the sum brings the ungrateful servant to choke his fellow-servant. He claims his own judgment by one standard, but he uses another standard to judge his debtors. He enjoyed the King's love and mercy, but he himself shows no mercy toward others.
Often we see such behavior towards debtors, when we are angry or we remember some offense by someone, and when we mutter offensive words, to choke our neighbor. Our hostile gaze, unnoticed by us ourselves, can harm someone. We can harm his good name when we spread all kinds of false stories about him, choking our neighbor.
We should relate the ungrateful words "pay me" to ourselves. After all, we may demand that someone who has sinned against us offer us satisfaction. If he has caused us material injury, we want him to reimburse us immediately; and if he has offended us, then we demand an apology, We may want him to suffer for his sin to satisfy our self-love. We forget the Savior's words: "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Matthew 7:2).
"And his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all." Who does not recall that heartfelt sympathy which we experience when someone asks forgiveness of us? At times we feel awkward; we are ready to forgive and forget everything immediately. But it was not so with the servant: And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. He was implacable. He was blinded by his pitilessness, not at all realizing that by this he is condemning himself. Such blindness always accompanies one who becomes stern and cruel, who "departs from God," that is, leaves the true path and forgets God's mercy. When we demand immediate satisfaction from one, we are confining ourselves in the prison of alienation from God. We can no longer recite the Lord's Prayer-"Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
God does not accept prayer by a man unready to forgive his neighbor. The specific words of the Lord are - "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there remember that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." (Matthew 5:23-24).
We learn that bystanders sympathized with the fellow servant who suffered because of the ungrateful servant: "So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done." Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky), following the Holy Fathers of the Church, writes that parable fellow-servants are angels and saints, our benefactors in heaven.
"Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou begged me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him." Usually, the words "delivered . . . to the tormentors" are taken to mean that God consigns His debtors to eternal torment. But then who can be saved? One must understand tormentors as temporal afflictions, misfortunes, illnesses, and so forth. When we sin, we are directed by desire for enjoyment. Affliction is a fitting redemption of that sin.
But only Christ gives complete redemption. "I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?" These words mean that our lack of desire to forgive our neighbor offends God's loving-kindness and His trust in us. We must soften our hearts, while we can. We must remember God's mercies. Let us heed the meaning of this parable to fulfill Christ's commandment: "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive and ye shall be forgiven" (Luke 6:37).
The good Samaritan
The parable of the good Samaritan is well known to many of us from childhood. We think we know it well although we know only a part of it. No one knows it fully until Christ's words become his rule of life.
Christ tells the parable of the good Samaritan to answer a lawyer's question about how to gain eternal life. All Jews knew the answer to this question, already given by God in the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18). The answer is love of God and of neighbor. Christ makes the lawyer answer his own question aloud. The Savior confirms the answer and, adding: "This do, and thou shalt live" (Luke 10:28).
The lawyer asks: "Who is my neighbor?" The lawyers consider only Jews as their neighbors. The Pharisees consider their neighbors to be only men who are as righteous as Pharisees themselves. And other men are sinners (as in the parable of the publican and the Pharisee). The Lord Jesus Christ introduces a complement to this moral law of the Old Testament when He tells the scribe what a neighbor is in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which the Evangelist Luke has preserved for us:
"A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise" (Luke 10:30-37).
The Samaritans and Jews were at cross purposes because of a schism of religion. To a pious Jew, a Samaritan was an unclean and despicable man. But the Samaritan knows that works of mercy permit no distinction between men. According to the Gospel, every man is a "neighbor," irrespective of his background or convictions. A "neighbor" to a fellow countryman is neither a like-minded person, nor a colleague. A neighbor may be our public, political enemy, our ideological opponent, a man who disagree with us on religion and other subjects, or a man psychologically and physically alien to us and offensive.
But every man is a "neighbor," whether he is one of our own or a stranger. Love for one's "own" must not fill our whole heart with no place left for "strangers." The parable of the good Samaritan and all the Gospel erases the boundaries between who is "near" and who is "far." For God, no one is far or near. All are his precious creations.
Few of us can love everyone equally, but our hearts must try to feel the value of each human being. It may be beyond our strength to love an enemy, but we can look on an enemy through the prism of Divine love. It is within our strength to know that Christ died on the Cross for our enemy too. Something in him is worthy of Christ's death. He is not a blank, but God's creature, bearing His image and likeness. God became man so that man might become god-like. God Himself is humane, so man too must be humane. Men's humanity manifests their divine likeness. The parable of the good Samaritan teaches us that any man - be he sick, poor, thief, or enemy-has greater value than any abstract idea of goodness, of common or public welfare, or churchmanship, or traditions, regulations and canons.
The parable of the good Samaritan teaches us a hierarchy of values: man comes first, and the Sabbath second. Public, social and ecclesiastical institutions serve man, and not man serving them. Like the Samaritan, we must first see the man, his status in society notwithstanding, his fine clothes or pauper's rags notwithstanding. The Lord gave us the parable of the good Samaritan to answer to the lawyer who asked what he should do to gain eternal life.
When Christ answered with the commandment on love, the lawyer again asked a basic question: "And who is my neighbor?" The parable of the good Samaritan, shows us that there can be no minimum due. The parable teaches that our neighbor is every man who needs mercy.
According to the Fathers, the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho is Adam, who is all mankind. Our first parents, who did not stand firm in good and fell into sin, were banished from Paradise, from the "Heavenly Jerusalem," and had to live in the world, with many difficulties. The thieves are demonic powers who envied the purity of the first people and pushed them onto sin, depriving them of faithfulness to God's will and of life in Paradise. The man's wounds are the consequences of sin, which make us spiritually weak. The priest and the Levite are the law of the Old Testament, given by Moses, and the priesthood of Aaron, which cannot save man. The Good Samaritan is Jesus Christ, Who gave us the New Testament and the grace of God (the oil and wine in the parable) to heal our infirmities. The inn is the Church of God, where we find all things needful for recovery. The innkeeper is the sum of Church's pastors and teachers, whom God charged to care for the flock. The departure of the Samaritan in the morning symbolizes the appearance of Christ after his Resurrection and also His glorious Ascension. The two denarii, given to the innkeeper, are the Divine Revelation, in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Finally, the Samaritan's promise to return to the inn for a final reckoning is a prophesy of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, when to each man will be given according to his works.
This small portion of the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us who our neighbor is and how to become Christian neighbors. "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God" (I John 4:7).
Lord Jesus told the parable of the unjust steward just after the parable of the prodigal son, in which God's mercy toward a sinner, how He receives and forgives every truly repentant man. Having told about prodigal son, the Lord then addressed not His Apostles, but His disciples, with the following parable of the unjust steward. The Evangelist Luke has handed down to us the parable of the unjust steward:
"There was a certain rich man, who had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I nake resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations" (Luke 16:1-9).
Bishop Theophan the Recluse explains that all who followed Jesus were called his disciples, including the publicans and sinners whom this parable clearly addresses. Lord Jesus said many times that they, too, could become "sons of the Kingdom." And when he was reproached for eating and drinking with publicans, He said: " They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick?For I am not come to call the righteousness, but sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:12-13). When sinners heard these truly comforting words, they began to follow the Savior in order to learn how they might be saved. The parable also addresses itself to scribes and Pharisees, who reacted by badly: "And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him" (Luke 16:14).
Almost everything in the Gospel is understandable, but a few places can cause confusion. One such place is the parable of the unjust steward. Everything in the parable is fairly clear but its conclusion: "And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, adds Jesus Christ Himself, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations."
One stops in perplexity. Did the lord commend the unjust steward because he deftly swindled him and gained friends for himself at his expense? Does the Lord Himself really propose to His followers that they gain friends for themselves by unjust wealth? Is this possible?
No, of course one should not read the parable this way and Christ's commandment in it. The lord in the parable is God; the steward is man. The Lord cannot commend a man for swindling and tell His disciples to act this same way.
Another interpretation may take into account that in those ancient times a class of people in Judaea, the "Jerusalem princes," excelled in covetousness and usury. They collected surcharges for themselves, which were considered normal, even laudable, and brought great riches to the "princes." Their dishonest commerce provided the Jerusalem princes with palaces, servants, gardens, and so forth. Beside their wealth, one could see destitution. There were more poor than rich. The poor derived their living from the rich. They rented land, gardens, and fields and paid the rent not with money, but with produce. The landlord-princes themselves did not manage their large estates but hired bailiffs or stewards to manage without any oversight by the princes. The hired stewards collected more rent from the tenants than the landlord had set, pocketing everything left over.
And so, how should one rightly understand the concluding words of the parable "And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely [dealt shrewdly, NKJV]; for the children of this world are in their generation wiser [more shrewd, NKJV] than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations?" Some commentators have suggested that the steward did not simply reduce the quantity of the debts on the receipts of the debtors, which would have meant inflicting a great loss on the landlord, but covered this loss out of his own funds. This would have been altogether possible, and even quite appropriate, if there were not a small qualification in the parable itself. "When the steward became convinced that his lord taketh away from him the stewardship, he said to himself, What shall I do? I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed."
If his situation were bad enough that he needed either to labor or to beg, he had no funds of his own, and had wasted the landlord's goods pleasures, without setting anything aside for the landlord or himself. What was the steward's shrewdness? If he himself did not pay, if he did not inflict a loss on the landlord, if merited his praise, and if he gained friends for himself among the landlord's debtors, who then reimbursed the landlord for that sum taken off the record books?
Accounting has its rules. With impunity, the steward raised the prices on the produce sold, paying the landlord the price set by him, and the landlord secretly gave him the arbitrary surcharge he himself had already specified in his contract with the buyers. This unjustly acquired wealth would be his in the future. But he perceives it as his own already. His careful timing in relinquishing this wealth to gain friends for a rainy day, characterize him as a shrewd man.
The debtors did not know that he had subtracted only so much as he had previously added for his own benefit, and they thought that he had risked his position and deceived his landlord out of friendship toward them. The debtors could be grateful to the steward, and could attribute his possible dismissal to the landlord's discovery.
The landlord, however, knew the truth and commended the steward for his shrewdness. The landlord had lost nothing. When formulated this way, the steward really does have merit and some genuine moral worth. He can renounce certain desirable values for future, higher values.
Christ summons us to follow the example of the unjust steward, and to relinquish lower values for future, higher values and not to serve two lords at once. With regret, and irony as regards the children of this world, Christ says that they are shrewder than the children of light because they understand the material values of this world, and can renounce less valuable goods for the more valuable. Often the children of light cannot renounce the world and neglect spiritual values. The children of light can be less shrewd, less reliable for the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:62) than the sons of this world when they think ahead. However, the sons of this world seldom look ahead, so their superiority remains a relative superiority in their generation.
It still is unclear why the Lord is speaking to the disciples not just about riches and materials goods, but specifically about unjust riches? Perhaps the word "unjust" does not mean unjustly acquired or stolen riches so much as unauthentic riches. In general, all our wealth is fragile, unstable, illusory, temporal, and insignificant in eternity.
Riches are foreign to man. They are temporarily his only when entrusted to him by God, as to the steward, not for him to use for himself. Riches from God belong to all mankind as well, and a rich man must consider the commonwealth before himself. His neighbors may become intercessors for him in heaven. By the prayers of these grateful neighbors he may be received into everlasting habitations.
In his commentary on the parable of the unrighteous steward, Bishop Theophan the Recluse writes: "Fix in your mind beforehand that in the parables it is not necessary to impart a meaning to every feature, but to hold to only the main thought of the parable, which is almost always indicated by the Lord Himself. For example, the Lord calls Himself 'a thief' only in the sense that He will come unexpectedly and unnoticed. All the other features that distinguish a thief should not be taken into account. So also in this parable, the Lord had in mind to indicate only one feature, namely, how the unjust steward, having heard that dismissal awaits him, did not stand about gaping, but at once got down to business and provided for himself for the future. The application is such," continues Hierarch Theophanes: "We, knowing for sure that deprivation of the kingdom awaits us, pay no heed: We live as we live, as if no misfortune whatsoever awaits us. The Lord also expressed such a thought when he said: 'The children of this world are wiser than the children of light.'"
Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow explains the meaning of the words, "Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness" in the following manner: "The Syrians had an idol, which they called Mammon and superstitiously venerated as the protector of wealth. From this, the same name, mammon, was transferred to wealth itself. Of course, the Lord, used the word mammon, in which the notion of wealth is united with the notion of idolatry; and one may suppose no other reason for this than that He wanted not simply to signify wealth, but wealth gathered with a passion, possessed with a passion, made into an idol of the heart. In this manner, the meaning of the whole expression, mammon of unrighteousness, is defined. This means wealth that is made unrighteous and depraved through passion for it; for, in the sacred tongue, unrighteousness can signify vice in general, just as righteousness can signify virtue in general. What, therefore, does the instruction, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, mean? It means: Turn wealth, which through passion easily becomes for us the mammon of unrighteousness, the substance of vice, an idol, into a good acquisition by doing good to the poor, and obtain in them spiritual friends and intercessors for you. As for those rich who not only are not free of the unrighteousness of passion for wealth, but also are burdened by the unrighteousness of it's abuse - in vain do they seek for an easy means of covering their unrighteousness in the parable of the unrighteous steward. But if they want true guidance that applies properly to them, then they will find it in the story of Zacchaeus."
Let us follow Metropolitan Philaret's advice. Let us recall Zacchaeus. Christ desired to abide in the house of Zacchaeus the Publican, the chief of the tax collectors, a kind of minister of finance. Almost everyone looked on him with contempt. Christ's entry into his house regenerated Zacchaeus and resurrected in him the very best qualities of the soul. Zacchaeus, in the hearing of everyone, solemnly promised Christ God: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold" (Luke 19:8). In other words, Zacchaeus promised to give to the poor half of those goods that he acquired by honest means. Everything that was acquired in an unrighteous manner he will duly return, and he will even add from the wealth that remains to him in order to return fourfold to those offended by him.
Touched by God's grace, Zacchaeus, like the steward of the parable, showed shrewdness toward correcting his serious errors and sins. Here we Christians, too, must act resourcefully regarding works of mercy and life in general. If we have offended anyone - let us ask forgiveness. If we have dishonestly appropriated someone else's goods - let us return them. And only then will God accept our sacrifice to Him, according to the Lord's words: "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Matthew 5:23-24).
"Millions came and went." Earthly wealth is temporary. It is better to share it with our poor brothers and sisters and to gain friends before God. Helping them, we help God. "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much," says the Lord; and further: "If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own?" (Luke 16:10-12). These words of Christ show that good faith and bad faith depend on conscience. He who is unfaithful in earthly goods, and cannot manage them for the salvation of his soul cannot be entrusted (Matthew 7:6) with possession of such higher wealth as the grace-filled gifts of the Holy Spirit that lead to life eternal. And what is "that which is another man's"? That which is earthly; but our fatherland and wealth are in heaven.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus shows us a foolish misuse of material goods. It raises slightly the curtain covering certain mysteries about man's portion beyond the grave. We encounter this parable in the Gospel according to Luke:
"There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: and there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivest thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that those who wish to pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, whon would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldst send him to my father's house: for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rise from the dead" (Luke 16:19-31).
A first-time reading of this parable does not make clear why the rich man ended up hell. Because he was rich in this life? We know from the Gospel that wealth is seductive, but not all the rich are condemned. Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector, in spite of his wealth, was saved with all his family (Luke 19:1-10). We remember the wealth of Joseph of Arimathea, the disciple of Christ, in whose tomb the Savior was buried (Matthew 27:57-60). Likewise, the Pharisee Nicodemus, one of the chiefs and leaders of the people of Israel was not a poor man. He brought a hundred liters of expensive aromatic oils to anoint the body of Jesus Christ (John 19:39). We remember that Lord Jesus Christ did not condemn the rich young man for his wealth, which did not hinder him from faith or from keeping all God's commandments, or from coming and venerating Christ as a teacher. Christ did not condemn the rich man's way of life, but pointed out a more perfect way of life to him. Christ never said that the rich cannot enter into the Kingdom of God, but that men cannot enter into it who trust in wealth, who think that wealth rather than God will save them (Mark 10:24), and who make an idol or fetish of wealth (Mammon).
The Bible has many righteous men who were very rich: The righteous Joseph, the son of Israel, controlled the treasures of Pharaoh, arrayed like a royal prince (Genesis 41:40-45) as second man in the realm. The righteous Job - blameless and God-fearing - was also rich: He had 7,000 head of livestock, 3,000 camels, 500 pair of oxen and 500 she-asses and a great many servants (Job 1:3).
The Christian Church has glorified many emperors and kings - those anointed to reign - who held all the wealth of their country as personal property, and who did let wealth become their God. In Russia and America millionaires have done a great deal of good in philanthropy.
But all the same, why did the rich man in the parable we are examining end up hell? The parable does not say that he was evil, cruel, depraved, godless or impious. The Evangelist Mark explains the problem: that he trusted in wealth. "How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10-24). Money is not bad in itself, but one's attitude toward money must be ironic.
On the contrary, it is good to be dissatisfied, always "to hunger and thirst after righteousness." It is good to be always "poor in spirit" and to ask alms of Christ unceasingly. For conversion to Christ, we must be uneasy, always seek and asking, always in thirst and be in need, always be know ourselves as destitute, not self-sufficient, but dependent on God. The rich man's lived only for the flesh; he enjoyed earthly goods and stifled within himself every part spiritual life. He really prepared for himself his bitter fate. The Apostle Paul says: "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting" (Galatians 6:7-8).
Each man prepares his portion beyond the grave. If he abides in God's commandments to love God and neighbor; if he repents when he transgresses these commandments in any way; if he nourishes his soul with Church mysteries; if he abides in prayerful communion with the Lord; then about such a man one may say that he soweth to the Spirit. Such a man in this life begins communion with the spiritual world; he becomes its citizen. After death, such a man enters into a better world and enjoys its good things, which his life here taught him to enjoy.
Genuine faith begins with repentance, recognition of one's spiritual poverty and sinfulness. "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," say both the Forerunner and Christ (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). The Kingdom of God belongs to the sincere Christian who prays "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!" Without this prayer a Christian cannot live. Consciousness of one's sinfulness, poverty and helplessness makes a Christian a disciple of the Savior and a member of Christ's Church.
The destitute Lazarus gained heaven, of course, not because of his material poverty, but because of his knowing his spiritual destitution, and listened to Moses and the Prophets (Luke 16:29). And the rich man of the parable did not gain heaven because he lacked this spiritual need and he trusted in his wealth as in an idol. He did not feel a need for God's help. He became so hardened in soul that he showed no compassion for Lazarus, who lay at his gate in constant view. The soul of the rich man could not love his neighbor.
What can such a man expect in the world beyond the grave? He cannot commune with God, Who is love, and Whose communion requires love, and not with the other sprits of the righteous. Such a man must remain apart from God and from the world of the righteous; he must remain in outer darkness. The passions that the rich man managed to amass during his life will burn him with everlasting fire. His conscience which he had ignored will become an unsleeping gnawing worm in him. He himself is to blame, who ignored God's constant warnings. He cast himself into the abyss of hell.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus suggests that the torment of sinners will be endless. And The torment of fire burns but does not consume. But the fire, smoke and other horrors are images that distort the torments of hell. According to the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church, the torments of hell are not physical sufferings, but remoteness from God and his mercy, which is possible only in conditions of full and sincere repentance. Therefore, the torment is endless only because repentance is impossible.
Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky), the preeminent theologian of this century, points out that the Gospels speak of everlasting punishment in time, but that everlasting is not synonymous with endlessness. According to Metropolitan Antony', the Word of God does not define the endlessness of the sufferings of all sinners not fix their fate as unchangeable. Abraham's words about the gulf between the righteous and sinners in the other world, which cannot be crossed, does fix the sinner's lack of repentance.
Metropolitan Antony's continues on our fate beyond the grave: "The parable of the rich man and Lazarus gives us, as it were, two rays of hope for a more consoling prospect. First of all, we see that Abraham in paradise did hear the rich man, and, consequently, there is between them some kind of communication, if only in the form of conversation. This, their conversation, indicates that sinners have the thought and hope for something better. This alone already eases their condition, because the most fearful thing is not the suffering itself, but the hopeless consciousness of the endlessness of the sufferings. The rich man does not have this hopeless consciousness; but, on the contrary, he has an aspiration and hope for something better."
"Secondly, the rich man begins to feel sorry for his brethren. This shows that good feelings had awakened in him, that he had begun to repent and hopes for their repentance. This means that in the life beyond the grave a certain change in a man's state is possible, because repentance that has begun can already turn into full repentance and then into compunction."
"The rich man does not yet know full repentance. For the present, he only understands the causal tie between his condition before, on earth, and now, in hell; but he does not understand the justness of his condition. But all the same, he has begun to feel sorry for his brethren, which is very important for the further development of his soul."
"If in that life there is a possibility of changing one's state in the sense of manifesting good feelings and repentance, then one must allow the possibility of full repentance and then compunction; then one must allow the possibility of hope that the doors of paradise are not closed once and forever. One must likewise allow the hope that, in passing through some kind of suffering, the soul of the sinner, if it has not become completely hardened, can become capable of repentance, at first partially, as with the rich man, and later fully; and then the soul can revive for spiritual compunction and salvation."
Let us ask the Lord to imbue in us the need, the hunger, and the thirst for the divine sap from the Vine of Christ, given to us all at the Lord's Table, at the Holy Eucharist. Let us pray that our minds grow poorer in spirit, that we, like Lazarus and the beggars who stand on church porches, stretch our hands out and beg alms of Christ, Who Himself, according to the Apostle Paul, "though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich" (II Corinthians 8:9).
A certain man once appealed to Lord Jesus Christ, for Him to order his brother to divide an inheritance with him. Christ declined the appeal on the grounds that He came into the World not to hear lawsuits before a civil judge, but to educate men in morality and to open the way into the Kingdom of Heaven for them. This appeal to divide property served as another occasion for Christ to tell a parable, warning His audience about the passion and sickness of gaining possessions rather than the wealth of repentance. The Evangelist Luke has preserved this parable for us:
"The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to store my crops? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I store all my srors and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God" (Luke 12:16-21).
God told the rich but imprudent man: "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?" This question can never give rest to many of the rich people of the world. Even the richest Solomon, when pondering the matter, said: "For all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Yea, I hated all my labor which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labor wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity" (Ecclesiastes 2:17-19).
In a letter about the sudden death of a rich acquaintance, the pagan Roman philosopher Seneca wrote: "How foolish it is to make plans in life! We cannot be in charge of ourselves even for the morrow! O the madness of those who amuse themselves with hopes for the distant future! I shall buy, I shall build, I shall lend, I shall take back, I shall hold a post, and then I shall enjoy contentment in the years of old age and weariness!" Pagan stoicism seconds Christ's last words in the parable of the rich but imprudent man: "So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." The rich man's interests are well-being on earth, and his thoughts are far from God and from striving toward spiritual values. Everything he possessed he called his own, forgetting that "ours," belongs to God, Who gives to us wanderers on the earth temporarily. "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof, the world, and all that dwell therein" (Psalm 24:1; see also Psalm 50:12), exclaims the Psalmist.
Our life itself is in God's hands, and God counts all our days before our birth (Psalm 138:15). Just when the rich man's passion for ownership reached satiety, and he stood confident about his future, the Lord cut short his life. "Surely," writes King David and the prophets and the Apostle Paul, "man walketh about like a phantom, nay, in vain doth he disquiet himself. He layeth up treasure, and knoweth not for whom he shall gather it" (Psalm 39:8-9; see also Psalm 49:11, Proverbs 11:4, Ezekiel 7:19, I Timothy 6:7, 9-11, 17-19).
"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal," says the Lord, "but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:19-21).
Giving one's heart to worldly treasure disables a man from choosing freely and evaluating the world. Christ elaborates the passion and sickness of gaining possessions in the metaphor of eyesight (Matthew 6:22-23). The healthy eye correctly sees the world and delivers information, unlike the damaged eye. "And what the eye is for the body, the mind also is for the soul," explains Saint John Chrysostom. A bright mind clearly understands spiritual objects and directs all the soul's to gather spiritual treasure. "If thine eye is pure," says Blessed Augustine, "if thine intent is pure and pleasing to God, then all thy works performed with this intent will likewise be pure and righteous; they will be bright. But if thine eye is wicked," continues Augustine, "if thine intent is defiled and darkened by carnal lusts and the desire for temporal goods, then all thine actions which spring forth from this impure impulse will participate in darkness." Therefore, cleansing one's "heart," one's inner world, is the Christian's only concern.
Commenting on this parable, Bishop Theophan the Recluse speaks of the believer and his wealth: "Since wealth is from God, when it flows in, dedicate it to God, and it will go out as holy wealth. Share all surpluses with the needy: this will be the same as returning to God what was given by God. Whoever gives to the poor, gives to God." Bishop Theophan the Recluse continues, "By exhausting wealth, as it were, such a man truly grows rich, being enriched by good works, he grows rich for God's sake, in forms of pleasing Him; he grows rich in God, attracting His good will; he grows rich from God, Who sets whoever is faithful in a little over many things; he grows rich from God, and not for himself, for he does not consider himself as an owner, but only a steward and a disburser, whose whole concern consists in satisfying all who come to him in need, and who is especially afraid to spend anything on himself, considering this as an incorrect use of the property entrusted to him."
Men are ready to destroy the storehouses given to them in order to build anew, but in the end, their hands are empty. These storehouses are our stores of time, each minute passing. The storehouses we think to build are our future moments and times, which may not come. The phrase "time is money" is un-Christian. The Christian must sanctify his time to build the spiritual riches that do not grow scarce.
The Apostle Paul answers this question with great precision in the Epistle to the Ephesians (5:9-19), which is read during the Liturgy with the parable of the rich but imprudent rich man on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost. This epistle speaks of the fruits of the Spirit, which are the riches given by God. The apostle counts these fruits "For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth . . . Wherefore, he saith, Awake thou that sleepest and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. See then that ye walk circumspectly . . . redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is . . . be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord."
These words encourage us to seek fruits of the spirit, to convert the personality, and to value time not by our will, but by God's will, in oneness with God, as with a best friend, even more so than as bride and groom, or as wife and husband. Each minute, in each detail, the Lord wants to teach us what to do, not for His Own sake, but for our salvation, for the light and fullness of our lives. We value each minute as lovers value it, whose only care is to stay together. Such a lively oneness with God is not given immediately. One must to strive and believe. If we value our time, according to the Apostle Paul, let us wake up at last. Let us rise from the dead. And may Christ the Lord enlighten us.
A mina was a Greek silver coin in circulation from the period of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. It was also in use during the Jesus Christ's earthly ministry. Often the parable of the minas becomes confused with the parable of the talents, about which we still need to speak. And, indeed, much is in common between them.
Both parables show a lord, on departing, giving a specific sum of money to his servants, for them to invest in commercial enterprises and increase. Both parables show some of the servants to be faithful and to increase the silver, while others prove to be lazy and get no return on their money. Both parables show the diligent men getting a reward, while the lazy are punished. The excuses of the lazy and the lord's reaction are almost identical, as well as the lord's reactions. Both parables show the silver taken from the lazy and given to the zealous.
But there is also a substantial difference between these parables. Thus, in the parable of the minas, the lord gave out this silver coin out to all in equal measure, but in the parable of the talents, each received according to his strength. In one parable the diligent servant increased the silver given to him by tenfold, while in the other he only doubled it. In the parable of the minas, the lazy servant hid his money in a kerchief, while in the parable of the talents, he buried it in the earth. And there are other differences as well that imply different spiritual values.
The parable of the minas shows the cause of spiritual strength. The parable of the talents shows the effects of spiritual strength, after the lord has distributed talents to his servants, according to ability and strength of each. Here is the parable of the talents.
"A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return." Christ used royal birth in the parable because his audience remembered how Archelaeus, the son of King Herod the Great, had - in parallel action-gone to Rome to request his succession to the throne of Judea. An opposing Jewish delegation had followed him to Rome, asking for denial of his succession.
By "nobleman," Christ has Himself in mind. He went to a far country; He prepared Himself to die for men and to stand before His own Father as a mediator for all. The far country is heaven. He received the Kingdom after His exploit [podvig] on the Cross. On returning to earth after His resurrection, Christ said to His disciples: "All power is given unto me in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:18). When He ascended to heaven, then He sat at the right hand, that is, at the right side of God the Father. His return is understood to be His Second Coming, when he will carry out the judgment of all men.
"And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten minas, and said unto them, Do business untilI come. But his citizens hated him, and sent a delegation after him, saying: we will not have this man to reign over us." The servants are men who have come to believe in Christ and to serve Him. At first, these men were all Jews, but later men of other nations came to believe and joined the original servants. The citizens are men who reject Christ as their king. The deledation that they send after Christ is the hatred and blasphemy of His enemies.
To each servant, the lord gave one mina to use in trade. The mina is a token of basic Christian truth that starts a believer to develop in the Kingdom of God. A mina is much like the mustard seed that a man sowed in his field (Matthew 13:31). The mina is also like that leaven that the woman put into three measures of meal, to leaven the whole (Matthew 13:33). When a man understands true Christian concepts such as serving God to attain eternity, he understands a mina's worth that can grow into a great treasure. And God gives this mina to man.
The servants knew to take the minas and to multiply their value in accord with God's will in his commandments. If we live according to the Gospel, vanquish our human will, and fulfill God's will, then our inner strength will grow in successive victories over our fallen nature and the prince of this world, who is hostile to God. As our strength increases, the Lord distributes more of His gifts of grace and talents.
Whoever does not distinguish himself by great faithfulness does not receive great gifts.
"And it came to pass, that when he was returned, having received the kingdom, then he commanded these servants to be called unto him, to whom he had given the money, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. Then came the first, saying, Lord, thy mina hath gained ten minas. And he said unto him, Well, thou good servant: because thou hast been faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities. And the second came, saying, Lord, thy mina hath gained five minas. And he said likewise to him, Be thou also over five cities. "
The return of the lord in royal dignity signifies the Second Coming of Christ. All the righteous who died before the Second Coming could get their reward when they stood before the Lord, giving an account of their deeds at the preliminary, particular judgment. The righteous will get their final full reward after the Dread Judgment. Their rewards vary according to merit. Whoever revealed greater zeal in pleasing God gains a greater reward. Only the Lord and they themselves know what the ten and the five cities signify. We only know that, according to Christ's word, "in my Father's house are many mansions" (John 14:2).
The saints and the righteous receive many rewards in this world too. Gifts of grace and talents are entrusted to them in prayer.
"And another came, saying, Lord, behold, here is thy mina, which I have kept laid up in a cloth: for I feared thee, because thou art an austere man: thou takest up what thou layest not down, and reapest what thou didst not sow." The third servant has also received a mina. He understands that the aim of human life is service to God and salvation of one's soul. And he has not forgotten this truth but has preserved it, "laid up in a cloth." The Greek text of the Gospel uses the word "soudarion," which means a head scarf, worn now as during antiquity. Although this servant knew he was to multiply his wealth, his evil will and sloth overcame him. His self-justification is strange: "Thou takest up what thou layedst not down, and reapest what thou didst not sow."
In other words, "Thou requirest perfection of me, but Thou Thyself hast not given me the strength to acquire this perfection." Someone may commit a crime without ever thinking of self-discipline. Then he may accuse God of cruelty and injustice: "Thou required purity of me, but Thou Thyself hast not given me the strength to struggle with my passion. I prayed to Thee a few times, but Thou didst not help me." Alcoholics, addicts, and all sinners, give themselves up to their sin and make this excuse. But the scales of God's justice cannot measure such a weightless answer.
"And he saith unto him, Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant. Thou newest that I was an austere man, taking up what I laid not down, and reaping what I did not sow: wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required mine own with interest?" In the Greek Gospel, the word for bank is the word for table, as used by moneychangers. They not only changed money, but took in money on deposit, at interest, and lent it out to others at greater interest. Thus, the Savior's words: "wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank mean: "Why didst thou not lend out my money at interest, for an increase." This increase of spiritual wealth works invisibly in our souls while we are actively being Christian.
To make our spiritual wealth grow, we need whatever good works the Bible commands us. Doing good erodes the will to passion and sin, and plants virtues in our soul. Good works gives us the skill and strength to abide in God's will. As we become more faithful servants of God, the Lord grants us His spiritual gifts as well. We must use them for ourselves and everyone else.
Even a weak man can develop goodness. If he cannot resist a bad habit, he can still fulfill some of God's other commandments. He can help the needy, he can forgive offenses, he can console the sorrowful, visit and look after the sick, abstain from harmful amusements, he can fast and pray. Such works develop the spiritual powers of the soul and attract the Lord's help. When the soul becomes stronger, the man can more easily cast off such bad habits as drunkenness, condemnation, or whatever. One must take action decisively and show courage. The lazy servant in the parable of the minas should have tried these methods. But he did not try, and this fault he was condemned.
"And he said unto them that stood by, Take from him the mina, and give it to him that hath ten minas." The wicked servant's general carelessness caused God to withdraw any further divine help. And that divine power that helped him before is given to whoever serves the Lord more faithfully and bears greater spiritual fruits. Those in the parable who stand by, who are ordered to take the mina from the lazy servant and give it to others are God's angels, whose agency God calls on to bestow His gifts.
"And they said unto him, Lord, he hath ten minas). For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him what hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him." The bystanders thought it unjust to give the extra silver to him who was rich without it. But here is no injustice. The spiritually rich servant can use the extra mina with his own for his benefit and for the benefit of many. The servant who lost his mina is to blame. If he had wanted to, he could likewise have increased his silver like the other did. Blessed Theophilact, the Archbishop of Bulgaria, comments: "O foolish man! The eminent Apostles Peter and Paul also received such a mina as thou didst. And thy mina can make thee a Peter or Paul. Labor according to thy strength and offer something to Him Who gave to thee." In the beginning, the greatest saints were men such as we. But they labored against their sinful inclinations, they fulfilled God's commandments, and became lamps to the universe. The way is open to every one who desires it. God wants everyone to reach salvation, and He is prepared to help us all.
In the Gospel time, a talent was a large sum of money equal to 60 minas. A mina equaled 100 denarii (or pennies in English). During the life of the Savior, an ordinary worker earned one penny a day. We find the parable of the talents in the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew:
"For the kingdom of heaven is as a man traveling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and dug in the earth, and hid his lord's money. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: and I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou newest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundantly: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 25:14-30).
In preparing to leave this world, Christ charged His apostles and other followers, to continue His work, to gain personal salvation, and to help to save others. He gave his followers spiritual gifts, talents, according to his strength. The parable of the minas showed how a man's spiritual strength grows as he learns to overcome his own will and to do God's will. Whoever has gained greater strength also receives greater gifts.
Then Christ left this world. But even to this day, the Lord distributes His spiritual gifts to the successors of the apostles, to the pastors of the Church, and to all Christians who believe in Him, who have a desire to serve Him in some way. The talents in the parable denote all the good things given by God to man. Material talents are wealth, favorable living conditions, social status and good health. Talents of the soul are a lucid mind, a good memory, skills in the arts and crafts, eloquence, courage, sensitivity, compassion, and other qualities placed in us by the Creator. There are also talents of the spirit. The Apostle Paul counts some of them in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: "But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues" (I Corinthians 12:7-10).
To this we add the gifts of prayer, exhortation, and justice. There are many other gifts. He who had gained five talents used them in business and gained five other talents. He who had received two talents gained two others. One must increase the talents gained by exercise in active trading. Having received, for example, the gift of prayer, we must diligently pray for ourselves and for others; having received the gift of teaching, we must educate others, and so forth. The Apostle Paul writes: "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth on exhortation; he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness"(Romans 12:6-8). If we act according to the apostle's counsel, we know our talents will increase.
The servant who received one talent, buried it to hide his lord's silver. To do so uses abilities given by God only to arrange worldly affairs a little better, and not to benefit the soul. He who gained five talents, and he who gained two, showed equal effort in the direction of working for the Lord. So they received equal praise. The Lord values diligence. The widow who put only two mites into the temple treasury pleased the Lord more than the rich who give more. " Thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things."
"Enter thou into the joy of thy lord," says the Lord to the faithful servants. God is the All-blessed Spirit, and ordinary man cannot understand the unceasing joy that He has prepared for those who love Him. As the Apostle Paul writes: "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him."
For his negligent spirit, the third servant received only one talent. He could have increased his talent also, but his laziness was so wicked that he accused his lord of unjustness: "Thou art an hard man, says the servant, reaping where thou hast not sown. Thou didst not given me sufficient gifts, and desirest of me that I myself succeed spiritually and look to the benefit of others. I was afraid to use thy money in trading so as not to lose it completely, and incur punishment for this from thee. I went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. At least I have returned the money to thee intact."
This servant's proud boast is insulting. By calling his lord cruel and avaricious, he pronounces the sentence against himself. If the lord is cruel, then he must make an even greater effort and be fearful; if the lord demands what is another's, then all the more will he demand his own. And the lord pronounced his judgment on this lazy and impertinent servant: "Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundantly: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
As in the parable of the minas, grace is taken from the negligent and given to him who brings the great fruits to the Kingdom of God. The richer a man's virtues and other gifts and talents, the greater his benefit to his neighbors. The worthless servant was cast into outer darkness as a soul outside of communion with God. God is light, and whoever abides in God abides in light. Whoever is deprived of communion with God is deprived of light as well (I John 1:5-7; 2:8-11). One must increase one's talents while there is time.
The cross one carries in life, one's difficult times and decisions, is also a talent to use, multiply and increase. And no matter how hard those conditions, the Christian always comes out victorious who stays faithful to God in word and deed until the end of his sojourn here. Increase the talents given you by God.
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).
The two preceding parables of Lord Jesus Christ tell us to calculate our strength for the against difficult temptations. The next two closely related parables of Jesus - of the friend who asks for bread and of the unjust judge - strengthen our faith that God hears the prayers of those who hope in Him. We find both parables in the Gospel according to Luke. The first is the parable of the friend who asks for bread:
"And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth" (Luke 11:5-8).
The parable of the unjust judge, we also find in the Gospel according to Luke:
"There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: and there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:2-8).
The friend asking for bread is a vignette of Palestinian village life, without commercial shops. At daybreak the housewife bakes her family's supply of bread for one day. Towards evening, the other villagers usually know whose supply of bread has not yet been given out. In the East, it was a duty to receive and feed unexpected strangers. The one who asks his friend for bread probably intends to repay the borrowed bread before long.
Towards evening, the house is dark, for village people go to bed early. The wick of the oil-filled lamp burns dimly. "The door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee." The doors are held shut by a large bolt. The are hard to open, and moving the bolt causes a loud noise that would wake up everyone. The fact that the man's children are with him in bed suggests a dwelling of only one room. To get up to pass out bread would cause inconvenience. One ought not to understand the words, "I cannot rise and give thee" as a refusal, but just an allusion to special difficulty that his neighbor put him in. Christ knows that the man will give his friend some bread. Christ is asking His listeners to put themselves in the place of the hospitable man in the East, who must help strangers at any time. Tradition dictates him. One can say the same about the parable of the unjust judge, who defended the widow to stop her pestering him. Even more will the Lord God hearken unto us and help us.
Both parables teach that constant is necessary to gain what is asked for. Sometimes God does not fulfill our prayer swiftly, even if the request is necessary and according to God's will, and offered with faith and hope. His divine wisdom and omniscience fulfill our prayers according to His Providence, sometimes testing our faith and always knowing what is better for us. We must believe that God's providence is best for us.
The Holy Fathers also teach us to pray constantly and steadfastly. "Ask for what is worthy of God," says Saint Basil the Great, "not ceasing to ask until thou receivest. Though a month passes or a year or three years or a greater number of years until thou receivest, do not give up, but ask with faith, constantly doing good."
Christ told the parable of the unjust judge, as the Evangelist Luke relates, after His discourse on His Second Coming. Despite the harshness before His Second Coming, Christians must neither waver in prayer nor become despondent, for the Lord defends those faithful to Him. The expression, "though he bear long with them who cry unto Him day and night," that is, who intensely and insistently pray to Him, confirms that God fulfills prayers in accordance with His plans and purposes, at the time He sets. But he does hear all sincere prayer.
Christ promises attention to sincere prayers: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Luke 11:9-10). "And so, O man, do not become despondent," says Saint John Chrysostom; "ask, knock at the doors of God's loving-kindness, and even if thou receivest not at once, then in that case also do not despair. For this is why Christ also said: Knock, in order to show that even if He does not quickly open the doors, all the same one must wait." And again from Chrysostom: "One must ask, because God does not give good things to those who do not want to ask them of Him, who close their heart and are, therefore, incapable of receiving His grace."
The father who takes care of his son (Luke 11:11-13) is Christ's allegory again that the all-good Lord grants a man everything needful, and only what is needful and good for him. The meaning of this teaching is clear: If men who are entirely imperfect in love are able to give good gifts to their children, then all the more will our Heavenly "Father give good things" (Matthew 7:11) to them that ask of Him. And we, the Holy Fathers teach, sometimes ask a stone of God instead of bread, that is, we ask what is not beneficial for us.
Let us trust in God's will, for God knows better than we. Let us show constancy and patience in our prayer. The Canaanite woman, in the Gospel narrative of the healing of her daughter by Christ, is an example of astonishing constancy and persistence in prayer. She would not leave the Savior. Let us recall this Gospel account: "A woman of Canaan . . . cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us" (Matthew 15:22-23). The Lord's silence vexes His disciples, who could hear the woman entreating. They ask Christ to send her away, not understanding the Savior's silence. And Lord's reply transfigures the harsh scene:
"I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 15:24), says the Lord. In spite of this negative answer from Christ, the Canaanite woman approaches Him and says: "Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and cast it to dogs" (Matthew 15:25-26). This reply may seem sharp and even cruel to us, and it could offend most women. He compares her people to dogs. But her answer is not that way.
And she said, "Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table" (Matthew 15:27). And then the words of the Lord revealed the meaning of this Gospel episode: "Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour" (Matthew 15:28). His encounter with the Canaanite woman shows the whole world this woman's faith, humility and persistence. Let us too, beloved, follow her example.
The evil husbandmen
We find the parable of the evil husbandmen in the first three Evangelists, Matthew 21:33-41, Mark 12:1-9, and Luke 20:9-16. Here is how the Evangelist Luke recalls this parable:
"A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went into a far country for a long time. And at the season he sent a servant to the husbandmen, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard: but the husbandmen beat him, and set him away empty. And again he sent another servant: and they beat him also, and entreated him shamefully, and sent him away empty. And again he sent a third: and they wounded him also, and cast him out. Then said the lord of the vineyard, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him. But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be our's. So they cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do unto them? He shall come and destroy these husbandmen, and shall give the vineyard to others" (Luke 20:9-16).
Our Lord Jesus Christ told this parable in the Jerusalem temple itself, not long before His death on the Cross. He addressed it to the Sanhedrin (the high court in Jerusalem, of 72 members under the presidency of the high priest).
The parable of the evil husbandmen is directed against the Jewish leaders who rejected and killed the prophets and crucified Jesus Christ Himself. It discloses God's foreknowledge of His chosen people, God's long suffering with their leaders, and the sad result of their bitterness. Not suspecting at first that the parable referred to them, the chief priests and elders enjoyed its logic and passed sentence on themselves: He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons (Matthew 21:41), which is expressed in the Lord's words thus: "The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (Matthew 21:43).
For greater clarity of speech, Christ uses the Prophet Isaiah's "song of the vineyard" (Isaiah 5:1-7), which was well known to the Pharisees and lawyers. He says that the owner-gardener allotted time and care to the "vineyard," to the "house of Israel," that is, to the Hebrew people as the Old Testament Church. Indeed, God gave everything to the chosen people for success. God Himself led their exodus from Egypt, with many miracles and signs. Then God turned authority over the Hebrew people to the spiritual leaders He chose.
The Evangelist Matthew adds some details to the parable that the Apostle Mark does not mention. The Apostle Matthew lets us know that the vineyard's owner hedged the vineyard "round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower."
The hedge is the Law of Moses, which, like a "fiery wall" defends the Hebrews from Gentile influence and from deviations from the Law. God watched the Jews after they entered into the promised land. The tower supplied the watchmen of the vineyard, but the Holy Fathers have also interpreted it as the temple in Jerusalem. The winepress for grape juice is the Holy father altar of sacrifice, prefiguring the redeeming blood of Jesus Christ.
Having arranged everything, the owner of the vineyard left his husbandmen there, to gather fruits at fixed times for the owner. So too, the Lord set up the people and moral and religious life of the Old Testament Church, first led by His chief priests, to till the garden according to His law. The "vineyard" depended on them, and they were responsible to God. These spiritual leaders were imperfect, pursuing personal, financial interests. With malice, they slew the servants of God, the Old Testament prophets, "of whom," according to the Apostle Paul, "the world was not worthy" (Hebrews 11:38). The prophets reminded the priests of their duty to God and His required "fruits," that is, lives according to God's will.
Thus, for example, the Prophet Isaiah was sawn in two with a wooden saw, Jeremiah and Zachariah were killed by stoning, many were tortured or, according to the Apostle Paul, "had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they . . . were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented" (Hebrews 11:37-37; Nehemiah 9:26 and others). In the same way, the leaders of the people also killed, persecuted, and tortured the apostles and other followers of Christ.
The owner in the parable sent his one son, his "well-beloved . . . last unto them" (Mark 12:6). In reality, God sent His Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, the heir (Hebrews 1:2), "unto Whom all things are delivered of His Father" (Matthew 11:27). When the Lord was telling this parable, the spiritual leaders of the people had already decided to kill Him, lest they lose their domination over the Old Testament Church and their authority over the people. The crime of Deicide by the chief priests and the Sanhedrin, took place next, just as in the parable: The Savior was given over to execution outside the vineyard (Matthew 21:39), that is, outside the gates of Jerusalem (Hebrews 13:12), which was the holy city of the Old Testament Church.
The Evangelist Matthew writes that the Lord, having finished the parable, asked this question of the chief priests and members of the Sanhedrin: "When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen? To this he received the very logical answer: He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him their fruits in their seasons"(Matthew 21:40-41).
Glancing at his self-assured audience, the Lord indicated that they were excluded from the immanent Kingdom of Christ by recalling certain prophecies that assigned to the activity of the Messiah: "The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes" (Matthew 21:42; Luke 20:17; Psalm 118:22-23; Isaiah 28:16; I Corinthians 3:11; Romans 9:33 and others). The leaders were to build God's Church, but they rejected Christ, the Cornerstone of this temple. The Cornerstone Foundation held firm all the same, connecting the Old and New Testament Church as two "walls" to separate believers from Jews and Gentiles.
The fulfilled prophecy of Jesus Christ shows that God the Father Himself sent Him into the world to found the Church and to be worshiped by the faithful that He redeemed (Matthew 12:42; Mark 12:10-11). The leaders who reject Christ the Messiah and His Kingdom lose the fruits or faith and virtue, and they belong to Christ's Church. The leaders of the people understand that the parable referred to them. Certain of "them when they heard it, they said, God forbid" (Luke 20:16), that is, "God forbid that the Church be taken away from us and be given to others."
Saint John Chrysostom writes that Christ's enemies' pronouncing the sentence "was a clear proof that it was not the Punisher, but the punished who were the cause of the punishment sent down upon them." The angered and embittered chief priests and the Pharisees then tried to "lay hands on him" (Luke 20:19; Matthew 21:46). Their fear before the watching people, who revered the Lord as a prophet, delayed their violence for a time.
Thirty-five years after Jesus Christ told this parable, His prophecy was fulfilled, about this punishment and loss. The Roman commander, Titus, destroyed Jerusalem and all of Palestine, and dispersed the Jews throughout the world.
The workers of the vineyard had not understood that their ownership was temporary. They misused what they had and killed the owner's heir in order to stay in the vineyard. Christ's word, however, is eternal, and the parable applies to the Church now. If the new leaders of the faithful people, princes of the Church, patriarchs, metropolitans, bishops, and priests behave like the parable husbandmen of the vineyard, God will reject them, and give the vineyard to other, worthier people.
With this parable, Christ also forewarns each of us that the vineyard is His and He will come to ask an account of our work. So, let us labor in the vineyard and bear its fruits unto its lawful Owner, God.
The barren fig tree
This parable is written in the Gospel according to Luke:
"A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of the vineyard, behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down" (Luke 13:6-9).
In Gospel Palestine, people often planted fruit trees in their vineyards. Three years had to pass before the fruit of the fig tree would ripen and be fit for harvest and eating. The fig tree in the parable did not bear fruit after the three-year period. "Why cumbereth it the ground?" says the owner of the vineyard. The roots of this fig tree also soaked up the moisture that the grape vines needed, growing around it, which wasted much water, which was also scarce in Palestine. All the same, the vine dresser tries to persuade the owner to hold off on his decision to destroy the barren fig tree, saying: "Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down." The Old Testament nowhere mentions use of manure, and an ordinary fig tree does not need any. Thus, this vinedresser is proposing extraordinary measures to help fig tree bear fruit.
The Jewish had people preserved the folk-tale of Achicar (5th century BC). The legend runs "My son, thou art like the tree which did not give fruit, in spite of the fact that it grew next to a spring. Its owner was forced to cut it down. The tree said to him: 'Transplant me, and if I do not bear fruit in the new place either, then cut me down.'" In reply, the owner said: "When thou didst stand next to the water, thou didst not bear fruit. Why then should fruit appear on thy branches if thou shouldest stand in a different place?'" Jesus used this well-known folk tale in His parable, but gave a different end to a different request.
In the parable of the barren fig tree, the theme is God's long suffering with His chosen people, as with the fig tree in the vineyard. The vineyard is the world and its peoples. God expected His chosen people to believe in His Son and to repent and live according to faith in Him. Human failure brings down God's wrath, shown in the guise of the owner's decision to cut down the barren fig tree. But the kind-hearted Christ (the vinedresser), suffers throughout the course of His public ministry to bring the people to the saving faith and the fruits of His labors. He entreats His Father to put off the judgment of people, until His teaching and deeds could save all those who still could be saved (Luke 13:7-9).
The Savior's kind heart is the deeper theme of the parable. The three-years wait of the owner for the vinedresser is the three years of Christ's public ministry. The fourth year is the year of popular rejection of Christ by the people, His crucifixion, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the subjugation of Israel by the Romans. The Savior also curses the barren fig tree not long before His passion (Matthew 21:18-20, Mark 11:12-14; 20-21).
The marriage feast
"The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, and sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: and the remnant took his servants, and treated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests. And when the king came it to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: and he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:2-14).A proper wedding feast has much light, joy, and merriment in the presence of the groom and bride. Of old, it has been a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven, as in The Proverbs of King Solomon, 9:1-6.
The Pharisees taught that the Jews alone are God's chosen people and that God meant His Kingdom of God only for them. The Jewish people got so used to this prejudice that the parable offended them because it appeared to threaten them: "the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (Matthew 21:43). The Lord understood their confusion, so His newer parable of those called to the marriage feast shows them what they need to become a genuinely chosen.
"The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, and sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding." The guests had been invited earlier to the king's wedding feast at a certain time, so they knew that they would have to get ready. Some of them were indifferent to the royal invitation indifferently and did not want to come. The king good-heartedly excused the guests, who perhaps delayed on account of some misunderstanding. In his goodness, he wanted those invited not miss a festival, so he sent the servants a second time to call them to the feast. They were indifferent again because mercenary, worldly calculations were dearer to them than the honor of guests at the marriage feast of the king's son. To add injury to insult, "the remnant took his servants, and treated them spitefully, and slew them." By offending the royal messengers, the subjects insulted the king himself. Their error offended the king's dignity, who, able to endure no more, sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
Meanwhile, the time of the feast arrived, and the king wanted to share his feast with his subjects. He ordered his servants to invite everyone to the marriage whom they would meet, without distinction. The royal servants called everyone, both the worthy and the unworthy, leaving to the king whether to seat them at the royal table or to remove them from the banquet. And quickly the festive table was occupied by guests. Everything was ready. Then the king came out to gladden the banqueters by his presence; but he saw something that upset him: "he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment."
One must know eastern customs to understand why this man upset the king and why he cast him out of the marriage feast. The fact is that anyone at a feast who did not have his own festive garments took garments at the household entryway from the steward of the house. Anyone who refused to put on such a garment showed contempt for the master of the house, as if saying: "I shall eat and drink with thee, but I want nothing to do with thee." The king asked the man who had not put on a wedding garment: "Friend, how camest thou in hither?" He was silent, that is, he had no justification whatsoever; he had a full opportunity to have this garment, but he disdained it. His silence told of the depravity of his heart, and he himself passed sentence on himself. He was expelled forever from the royal feast.
The Lord concluded His parable with the words: "many are called, but few are chosen." Many did not come at all, and some few came to the feast, but only one did not want a wedding garment.
The parable of the marriage feast alludes to the chief priests and the Pharisees who were Christ's immediate audience, as well as to all historic leaders of the Hebrews, who insulted and killed the prophets, the "servants of God" sent to them. The words "burning of the city" and "destruction of the murderers" of the prophets foretell the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel because it "did not know the time of its visitation." The Pharisees did not, of course, understand this prophecy.
The parable of the evil vine dressers shows that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from the Jews "and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof." The parable of the marriage feast shows the baptized pagans will enter into His kingdom. The Word of God calls all mankind to the wedding feast. Modern Christians resemble those who refused to come and that one man him who came without proper clothes to celebrate. He was not baptized.
The Divine Liturgy is a feast to which the Lord invites us constantly with love. What hinders us is whatever cares that held back so many others invited to the feast? Often we may try to cite our unpreparedness. We should remember what awaits those who renounce their place in this marriage feast? "With fear of God, with faith and love draw near!" "Taste and see that the Lord is good."
But if we go to the feast, we must have a wedding garment: "I see Thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Savior, and I have no garment that I may enter there" (Expostilarion for Great Monday). So, one must fear, but must be baptized and enter. The wedding garment is the proper spiritual condition of the soul.
In a nonwedding garment, a man outwardly accepts all that the Lord and His Church teach him, and he considers himself already justified by works of outward piety. Most likely he is a Pharisee, hypocrite, or ritualist. He may even look on the Mysteries as magic. These legalists have no inner life. Their lot is terrible. We must struggle but not lose heart; we must repent but also be bold, for "a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise" (Psalm 51).
"Live in such a way," teaches Hierarch Theophan the Recluse, "that the God of love will love thee with eternal love. Go forth to thy commerce, but watch, so as not to sell thy soul to the world through the acquisition of worldly goods. Go forth to thy fields, fertilize thy land, and sow seed in it, so that with its fruits thou mayest strengthen thy body; but especially sow the fruits of eternal life in the field. Preserve the garment received in Holy Baptism pure and spotless until the end of thy life, that thou mayest be a worthy partaker of the heavenly bridal chamber, wherein only those enter who have a pure garment and burning lamps in their hands."
The laborers who received the same wages
This parable, which some Church writers call the parable "of the husbandmen called to work at various times of the day," we find in the Gospel according to Matthew:
"For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an landowner, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a dinarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the market place, and said unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a dinarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a dinarius. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a dinarius? Take what thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen"(Matthew 20:1-16).
At the dawn of the Church's history, the Word of God summoned [men] to the Kingdom of Heaven in the midst of the Jewish people. The Old Testament prophets, Saint John the Forerunner, and the God-Man Himself summoned ancient Israel first to the work in the vineyard of the Lord God. After that, the Holy apostles and other preachers carried the Good Tidings throughout the whole world. The Gospel summons individual men and whole nations to work in Christ's fields. It calls all men to God's work who stand idle in the market place, spiritually adrift and unemployed.
The "hours" - the third, sixth, ninth, eleventh - can signify either (1) the various periods of the Church's history, when one or another people was first summoned to take part in the building the Kingdom of God, or (2) the various moments in one's man's individual life (early youth, maturity, old age), when the heart first hears and accepts the summons of the Word of God.
The "evening" is the end of the work day, that is, the end of the Church history on earth or the end of one man's life, his hour of death. Just as the owner of the vineyard went out himself to seek laborers for himself, so Christ Himself also summons workers to Himself: "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you" (John 15:16), He says to His Apostles. Every good thought, every good impulse to labor for the Lord, for the salvation of one's soul, comes from the Lord: The Lord calls all unto salvation, calls all into His vineyard, into His Church to labor; but it depends on man to obey or not to obey this divine call, to take the grace-filled impulse to heart or to oppose it. This is man's freedom.
The "penny" [denarius] is the token of eternal salvation in heaven. Whoso come early in the morning and whoso come late gain the same reward. This unfairness grieved those who came early, who then murmured against the owner. Here human, formal fairness wants to set itself up against divine compassion.
The husbandmen would not have begun to murmur against the owner if he had given to the "last" less than one dinarius, that is, a sum too small to provide basic costs for a single day. They first had no business with those who had come "last." Their souls felt envy, unfriendliness, and condemnation of the owner's unfairness in equal compassion, which hurts their pride. How could those called "first" be equal to those who came "last."
The elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son also spoke in a like manner: "Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf"(Luke 15:29-30).
The morally insignificant feelings that gripped the first (and the elder son) undermined the quality of their labor in the Lord's field. After all, one can work even a whole day in a bad mood and do nothing good. But in "one hour," one can do more with diligence, love for the work, and trust in the owner.
The husbandmen's appraisal proved to be formal, while the owner's was spiritual and moral. And according to this appraisal, the "last" became "first" and the "first" "last." The envious may completely lose their participation in the Kingdom of Heaven. For, Christ added, "many be called, but few chosen" (Matthew 20:1-16).
This parable of the Lord teaches us that God sends grace and eternal life to man, not as by measuring his works or his time inside the Church, but by God's mercy. The Jews thought that they deserved greater reward as the original members of the Messiah's Kingdom, greater than for Christians of non-Jewish descent who had joined this Kingdom later. But God has different measures of righteousness. He values sincerity, diligence, pure love, and humility more than the external and formal human works. The good thief who repented later but sincerely on the cross and believed in the Savior with his whole heart, was worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven equally with other righteous people who served God from early childhood.
Saint John Chrysostom supplements this parable of the Lord: "If any be pious and God-loving, let him enjoy this fair and radiant solemnity. If any be a wise servant, let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored in fasting, let him receive now his denarius. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him receive today his just due. If any have come after the third hour, let him feast with thankfulness. If any have arrived after the sixth hour, let him doubt nothing, for he will in no way suffer loss. If any have come later than even the ninth hour, let him draw nigh, doubting nothing, fearing nothing."
"If any have only arrived at even the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid for his slowness: for the Master, Who is munificent, receiveth the last even as the first: He giveth rest to him that came at the eleventh hour, even as to him who wrought from the first hour; on the last He hath mercy, and the first He pleaseth; to this one He giveth, and on that one He bestoweth; and the works He receiveth, and the intention he welcometh, and the deed He honoreth, and the purpose He praiseth. Wherefore, then, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord: both first and second, receive your reward. Ye rich and ye poor, dance with one another. Ye abstemious and ye slothful, honor the day. Ye that have fasted and ye that have not fasted, be glad today. The table is full . . . let all enjoy the banquet of faith: Receive all ye the wealth of goodness!"
The parable of the ten virgins, who await the coming bridegroom and go out to meet him, is found only in the Gospel according to Matthew. However, certain details have parallels in the Gospel according to the Apostle Luke (Luke 13:25).
"Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh" (Matthew 25:1-13).
The wise and foolish virgins are the souls of men. Both those who believe in the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and those who hope to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, will stand at the Dread Judgment to enter the Kingdom of Heaven or not to enter - their faith not withstanding.
Here Christ figures His Second Coming in the coming of the Jewish bridegroom to the home of the bride during the wedding ritual. According to ancient custom, after the betrothal, the bridegroom with family and friends would go to the home of the bride, who awaits the groom in her best attire, surrounded by her friends. The wedding ceremony usually took place at night, so the friends of the bride could meet the bridegroom with lamps burning. Because of the uncertain time of the bridegroom's arrival, those waiting would store extra oil in case the lamps might burn out. The bride, with her face covered by a thick veil, the bridegroom and all the participants in the solemnity would proceed to the bridegroom's home with singing and music. The doors would be shut, the marriage contract would be signed, "blessings" would be pronounced in honor of the bridegroom and the bride, the bride would uncover her face, and the marriage feast would begin, seven days for a maiden or three days for a widow remarrying.
In this parable, the marriage feast is the Kingdom of Heaven, where the faithful will be united to the Lord for eternal life. The waiting for the bridegroom is a man's whole earthly life, preparing himself for the meeting with the Lord. The shut doors of the marriage chamber do not admit those who were late, that is, those who died before repentance and amendment.
According to Hierarch John Chrysostom, Christ shows the faithful entering the Kingdom of Heaven as virgins, thereby extolling spiritual as well as physical virginity. "Here," says Chrysostom, "the gift of virginity, the purity of holiness, Christ calls a lamp; while philanthropy, kindheartedness, helping the poor, he calls oil." Oil in Sacred Scripture is usually an image of the Holy Spirit, and burning oil is the spiritual ardor of the faithful, filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The righteous Venerable Seraphim of Sarov explains the parable of the ten virgins as an understanding of Christian life as "the acquisition of the grace of the All-Holy Spirit." In a remarkable conversation with the merchant, Motovilov, Venerable Seraphim said to his companion: "In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, when the foolish ones lacked oil, it was said: "Go and buy in the market." But when they had bought, the door to the bride chamber was already shut and they could not get in. Some say that the lack of oil in the lamps of the foolish virgins means a lack of good deeds in their lifetime. Such an interpretation is not quite correct. Why should they be lacking in good deeds if they are called virgins, even though foolish ones? Virginity is the supreme virtue, an angelic state, and it could take the place of all other good works."
"I think that what they were lacking was the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God. These virgins practiced the virtues, but their spiritual ignorance made them suppose that the Christian life consisted merely in doing good works. By doing a good deed they thought they were doing the work of God, but they little cared whether they acquired thereby the grace of God's Spirit. Patristic books mentions such ways of life, based on doing "good" without testing whether the ways bring the grace of the Spirit of God, are mentioned in the Patristic books. 'There is another way which is deemed good at the beginning, but it ends at the bottom of hell.'"
Not every "good work," according to the teaching of Venerable Seraphim, has spiritual value. Only those "good works" have value that are done in Christ's name. In fact, unbelieving people perform good works. But the Apostle Paul says of them: "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing" (I Corinthians 13:3).
Venerable Seraphim says: "Antony the Great in his letters to Monks says of such virgins: 'Many Monks and virgins have no idea of the different kinds of will which act in man, and they do not know that we are influenced by three wills: the first is God's all-perfect and all-saving will; the second is our own human will which, if not destructive, yet neither is it saving; and the third is the devil's will - wholly destructive.' And this third will of the enemy teaches man either not to do any good deeds, or to do them out of vanity, or to do them merely for virtue's sake and not for Christ's sake. The second, our own will, teaches us to do everything to flatter our passions, or else it teaches us like the enemy to do good for the sake of good and not care for the grace which is acquired by it. But the first, God's all-saving will, consists in doing good solely to acquire the Holy Spirit, as an eternal, inexhaustible treasure that cannot be rightly valued. The acquisition of the Holy Spirit is, so to say, the oil which the foolish virgins lacked. They were called foolish just because they had forgotten the necessary fruit of virtue, the grace of the Holy Spirit, without which no one is or can be saved, for: 'Every soul is quickened by the Holy Spirit and exalted by purity and mystically illumined by the Trinal Unity."
"This is the oil in the lamps of the wise virgins that could burn long and brightly, and these virgins with their burning lamps were able to meet the Bridegroom, Who came at midnight, and could enter the bride chamber of joy with him. But the foolish ones, though they went to market to buy some oil when they saw their lamps going out, were unable to return in time, for the door was already shut."
The parable of the ten virgins shows that only a man's earthly life in God, according to the testaments of Christ and, therefore, consonant with the Kingdom of Heaven, will justify him both at the particular judgment (after death) and at the general Dread Judgment. But all "formal" Christians, who live out of contact with God and care not about their salvation, prepare for themselves a rejection. "No one mounts to heaven while living only," teaches Venerable Isaac the Syrian. Neither formal faith, without a life according to Christ's commandments (Luke 6:46; James 1:22; Romans 2:13), nor prophecies in Christ's name or many miracles worked by His Name, as is evident from the Savior's words (Matthew 7:21-23), are sufficient for inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven.
"Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his," says the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:9), and it will be natural for such to hear the words of the Son of God:
"Verily I say unto you, I know you not" (Matthew 25:12).
[Quotations here are taken from Archimandrite Lazarus Moore, St. Seraphim of Sarov, A Spiritual Biography (Blanco TX: New Sarov Press 1994) 172-174.]
"Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to set down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through. Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of cometh at an hour when ye think not" (Luke 12:35-38).
Before telling this parable, the Lord uses another parable, the rich but imprudent man (Luke 12:16-21), to caution His apostles not to gather treasures for themselves on earth but to become rich in God. The man who becomes rich in God will appear at the final judgment with treasure to justify him and to open the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The parable servants awaiting the coming of their Lord, show us how Christ teaches us to live in a way rich in God, always ready to depart from this world and to stand at God's judgment.
Our Christian life is waiting for this judgment of the Lord - both the preliminary judgment after our death, and the Last Judgment after the glorious Second Coming of Christ. Our waiting ought to be active and not to be passive. Christians are waiting not for "something" or "someone," but for "the Owner," "Bridegroom," "Master of the house," Who will come and recompense each according to his works. Vigilance and faithfulness to one's Lord, Who is returning from the wedding, is rewarded by the blessedness of new life with Christ. In a word, "waiting" is service to God's will, the fulfilling of His commandments, unceasing watchfulness.
The "burning lights" are diligent service to God while the light of Divine grace abides in our hearts. Venerable John Cassian says in this regard: "The grace of God always directs our will toward the good side; however, it requires or expects corresponding efforts from us also. Lest it give its gifts to the careless, it seeks out instances whereby it rouses us from cold carelessness; lest its munificent bestowal of gifts appear to be without reason, it gives them after our desire and labor. For all that, however, grace is always given as a gift, because it recompenses our small efforts with measureless munificence." Venerable Isaac the Syrian expresses a similar thought: "To whatever extent a man draws nigh to God through his intent, to such an extent God also draws nigh to him through His gifts."
The more we abide in God's grace, the more we shall prepare for the last hour and God's judgment. "Death resolves everything," teaches Hierarch Theophan the Recluse. "After it comes the summation of life; and what thou acquirest, with that also be satisfied for all eternity. Thou hast acquired good - thy lot is good; thou hast acquired evil - thy lot is evil. This is as true as it is true that thou dost exist. And all this may be resolved this minute - now in this very minute in which thou art reading these lines, and then - the end of everything comes: a seal is placed on thine existence, which no one will any longer be able to take away. That is something to think about!?But one ought not wonder how little is thought about this. What a mystery is happening with us! We all know that death is near, that it is impossible to escape it; but meanwhile, almost no one at all thinks about it; and it will come suddenly and seize us. And what is more?even when one is seized by a mortal illness, he still does not think that the end has come" (Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, 172).
Let us take these words to heart. Let us gird up our loins, let us fill our lamps with oil and take care that they burn with a bright light. Let us be watchful, for the Lord is coming.
Final thoughts on the gospel parables
From June 1993 through December 1995, we examined 27 of our Lord Jesus Christ's parables in Parish Life newsletter. As we have seen, the Lord frequently used parables to explain the truths of his teaching. The Lord began to use parables only after the final selection of His apostles, and even the parables often amazed even them, who would ask His further explanation. The Gospel parables comprise approximately one- third of the Savior's recorded words.
We find moral value in all of the Savior's parables, and some are remarkable too as literature, such as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. No day passes without our recalling images from Gospel parables. Often we call a compassionate man "a good Samaritan." We often cite such concepts as a "a far country" and "prodigal son." We acknowledge the importance of not hiding a "lamp under a bushel," and we grasp the necessary multiplication of "talents" given by God and not putting off our affairs until the "eleventh hour."
This frequent recollection, however, does not mean that we have absorbed all their lessons. We must again and again turn to them to manage our spiritual lives. Despite 2000 years since their appearance, each is current and topical as part of the Good Tidings, the Gospel. The parables are filled with the mysteries "of the Kingdom of God" (Mark 4:11) that has drawn nigh, that the Sole Physician of men's souls and bodies has come, Who heals the lepers, Who takes from us the burden of the ancient curse, Who finds the lost sheep, Who opens the entry to the heavenly fatherland, Who invites the outcast and homeless to His Divine wedding banquet, Who generously recompenses those who have not earned full wages, and Who fills the hearts of the earthborn with great joy.
The "acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:19) has begun. He, Whose glory and magnificence are manifest in each of His priceless words, has come to us. To God be glory!
Protopresbyter Cathedral of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia
4001 17th Street NW, Washington DC 20011-5302