April 17, 2006

 

Matins of Holy Tuesday

 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

 

In this evening's Gospel reading we heard the word hypocrite used many times. What is it that makes a person a hypocrite?  Often we hear and use the word to characterize one who says one thing and does something else.  In this case a hypocrite is one who does not practice what he/she preaches.  In building on this fundamental usage and understanding I would like us to characterize the hypocrite as one who plays a role.  Etymologically the word hypocrite refers to an actor.  We all know that when an actor is on the stage there is the need to bring attention to himself.  We also know that when on the stage, the actor assumes another persona by skillfully using script and props.

 

In this evening's Gospel the hypocrites are the Scribes and Pharisees.  Who in fact are these people?  They are among the religious and educated elite of Judaism.  They are the ones who are in.  And they are in because of their knowledge of the Scripture, particularly the Torah -- the first five books of the Old Covenant.  Consequently the Scribes and Pharisees are the experts in the Law.  Yet, in the Gospel of St. Mathew, Jesus forcefully draws attention to their hypocrisy. For it is precisely their hypocrisy that has turned them into actors  who are able to draw attention to themselves by using the Scripture as both script and prop.  They cleverly use the Scripture to assume a pious persona that ultimately hides their true identity and hence their deep desire to plot the destruction of Jesus who is the Christ.

 

As teachers of the Law, the Scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat in the local synagogues. (Mt.23:2)  From this place of authority they offer the words of the Torah to their audience.  Jesus tells the crowd gathered around him that indeed they are to listen to and put into practice the words of Moses but they are not to follow the behavior of the Scribes and Pharisees. "...so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice." (vs.3)

 

As Jesus makes his way to his voluntary passion he exposes the ugliness of those who feign piety.  He exposes those in authority who can only act the role of one who is pious.  In the course of this expose, Jesus conveys to his audience that those who pretend to be pious -- those who have made themselves the center of attention over the true meaning and practice of the Scripture - will find themselves separated from the One who is Truth.  Here we can recall the powerful parable of the Publican and the Pharisee in the Gospel of St. Luke (18:9ff).  All that the Pharisee does is according to the Law.  All that he does is good. Yet, he is the one who cannot allow God to assume the place of honor in his life.  On the contrary, he uses the Law -- he uses God -- to bolster his own image as he disparages and condemns the publican.

 

The Scribes and the Pharisees perceive themselves and are in fact perceived by others as being in.  But the Lord Jesus shows that they are "outside" and therefore, because of their acting skills, have broken their relationship with Life.

 

Let us get more personal.  We Orthodox Christians are the modern day Scribes and Pharisees.  We are the ones who are always triumphantly proclaiming that we are in.  We are the ones who love to say that we know the Gospel and consequently hold to the fullness of Truth.  But at this moment I will risk saying that so often we are hypocrites.  We are the actors who using all the biblical, patristic and liturgical vocabulary assume a role of piety and spiritual superiority which in turn place us outside of the Truth.  How and why is this done?  Like the Scribes and Pharisees in this evening's Gospel, we put ourselves outside the love of Christ by fooling ourselves into thinking that we deserve to be where we are.  Beginning with myself, no one here deserves to be in this sacred space.  No one deserves to approach the chalice. No one deserves or merits to enter the bridal chamber. It is the love of Jesus Christ, revealed in his passion and resurrection, that makes all of this possible. In a couple of days we will sing and hear the wonderful hymn which refers to the hospitality of the Master. He invites us.  He is the one who draws us to himself enabling us to participate in the banquet of immortality.  Not one of us here has earned this invitation. Not one of us here deserves these gifts even if our way of life is in full accord with the Law and the Prophets. Again and again we must remember the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

 

Prior to this evening's pericope, Jesus speaks about the tax collectors and the harlots who heard and accepted the preaching of John the Baptist. (21:28ff)  "Change! Repent! The kingdom of heaven is at hand." Being faithful to this proclamation rooted in the very depths of God's love, tax collectors and harlots repented.  They prepared themselves for the coming of Messiah who willed to be lifted up -- who willed to be crucified -- desiring to draw all to himself. (Jn.12:32)

 

Before the chief priests and elders, before the scribes and pharisees, the tax collectors and harlots will be entering the kingdom of God.  For in the process of repenting they recognized that they belonged outside the bridal chamber.  In a most intimate way they knew they did not deserve the hospitality of the Master.  Hence, those outside were, because of their true repentance, invited in and those who saw themselves as in would, because of their arrogance, find themselves outside the bridal chamber. The tax collectors and the harlots depended on the mercy and love of the Lord.  The religious elite depended on how they adhered to the letter of the Law while neglecting its very foundation; "justice, mercy and faith". (vs.23)

 

Because of our sin we can never deserve or earn a place at the Lord's banquet.  He has invited us.  In turn we are to repent. We are to change and draw near.  Unlike the fruitless fig tree we heard about yesterday, we are now called to bear the fruit of repentance so as to enter and celebrate the Lord's three day Pascha. Otherwise what has been given to us -- the bridal chamber, the kingdom, the Messiah, the banquet of immortality -- will be taken away and given to another. Now, with repentance, we are to respond to the divine overture of love that is freely and generously poured upon us so we may forever be one with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

Copyright 2006 by Father Robert M. Arida