How can ye escape the damnation of hell?

3 August OS 2017: Wednesday of the Eleventh Week of St. Matthew; Ss. Isaac, Dalmatus, and Faustus

In today’s Gospel, the Lord pronounces sentence on that portion of His own nation that had rejected Him: their house will be left desolate. A few decades later, the Romans will come, conquer Jerusalem, and scatter them over the face of the earth, as the result of their hardness of heart:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. – Matthew 23: 29-39

St. Theophan the Recluse points out that a similar thing occurs in the soul:

…Does not a similar thing occur with the soul? The Lord cares for the soul and teaches it in every way. An obedient soul traverses the path indicated, but a disobedient soul remains in opposition to God’s calling. However, the Lord does not abandon even this soul, and uses every means to bring it to reason. If stubbornness increases, God’s influence increases. But there is a limit to everything. A soul becomes hardened, and the Lord, seeing that there is nothing more that can be done with this soul, abandons it to its fall… Indeed, no one can say when he will overstep the limit. Perhaps God’s long-suffering is just about to end. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 170-171

Just as God’s grace abandoned the Old Israel, it will abandon the Christian at some point if he hardens his heart. This is not the case only with the obvious sinner, but also with the lukewarm soul who is nominally Christian but actually lives according to his passions on the inside and according to the standards of human respect on the outside, who abandons conscious spiritual effort on the inside and confession of the Faith on the outside, and has settled for being nice and having others be nice to him. Such a person seems nice to others but is actually impervious to repentance, and, if he does not change before death, is destined for hell. Someone else may seem rough and difficult, but he actually may be struggling with his passions, trying to repent, making no secret of his Faith and total dependence on God, and crying to God for mercy. He knows that he is bad and only God is good. He has a firm hope of entering Paradise.

The Church is not a club of nice people who never offend anyone. She is a spiritual hospital for sinners, and She is an arena in which we do combat with the passions. Everyone in this hospital must admit his disease, or he cannot be healed. Everyone in this arena must be willing to be knocked down, or he cannot win the contest. The fundamental disease which we all have is pride, and the Cerberus of pride, its implacable guardian, is hardness of heart. If we are pleased with ourselves and claim that we have a “good heart” or a “pure heart,” we will not be saved. If we really think we can look at others and see a “pure heart” or a “bad heart,” we are deluded, and we will not be saved. It is equally deluded to say that someone has a good heart as to say that he has a bad heart. Either statement implies that the speaker believes that he is God. Either statement is both blasphemy and delusion.

Today Orthodox Christians, shell-shocked by a nihilistic culture which denies all virtues, retreat into something that is marginally better but is not the Gospel, a humanistic “feel-good” mode in order to be nice and get along, both with others and with their own self image. They do this rather than choose courageously to speak the truth on the outside and see how bad they are on the inside. They uncritically accept the idea that those who value tolerance and good feelings above all are somehow pleasing to God, though God Himself said that He will spew such people out of his mouth (Revelation 3:16). They avoid the combat with the passions on the inside and the combat of confessing the Faith on the outside. Even Aristotle, a pagan, noted that tolerance is the last virtue of a dying culture. If our distinguishing virtue is tolerance, we are indeed almost dead. Humanism is better than nihilism, but it also leads to hell. You will be in a higher circle of hell than the nihilists, but you will be in hell.

We do not believe with Calvin that we are totally depraved, but we certainly must believe that we are extremely and helplessly bad, and that, apart from divine grace, the eternal outcome will be the same as if we were totally bad. Until we get that, we do not get anything. Until we get that, we are hard of heart, whether we are nice to others or not. The Lord will spew us out of His mouth.

The Scripture calls to us today, saying, “Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts (Psalm 94:8) .” Let us confess that the Lord is our righteousness, that He is our salvation, that He is our Creator, Savior, and God. He is everything to us, and we are nothing. Only then can we begin the cure for the fatal disease of pride. Only thus will we not hear those dread words, “Your house will be left desolate,” and instead hear His most sweet voice calling us to Paradise.

What can be sweeter to us, dearest brethren, than this voice of our Lord inviting us? Behold, in His loving mercy, the Lord showeth us the way of life (St. Benedict, Prologue to the Rule).”

O most sweet Lord, our life and hope, glory be to Thee!

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