23 July OS 2019: Monday of the Eighth Week of St. Matthew; S. Phocas, Hieromartyr; S. Ezechias, Prophet; S. Pelagia of Tinos; S. Joseph the New Hieromartyr of Desphina
In today’s reading from the Holy Gospel, the Lord refuses to give the leaders of the Jewish nation a “…sign from heaven,” but He instead tells them that they will receive “…the sign of the Prophet Jonas,” that is, as Jonas was in the belly of the whale for three days and came forth alive, Jesus would die, be buried in the earth, and rise from the dead on the third day.
The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven. He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed. And when his disciples were come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. – Matthew 16: 1- 6
Now think about this. These men, no doubt the best informed people in that country, knew perfectly well that Christ had been working a great number of miracles that were both demonstrations of divine power and eminently useful and compassionate – exorcisms, healing, feeding the hungry, even raising the dead. But they still demanded that He prove Himself by something as spectacular as it was pointless, a “sign from heaven,” i.e., lightning bolts, an eclipse, shooting stars, etc. It strikes one as incredibly immature and shallow. Why would the leaders of this captive nation not rejoice that the poor and suffering of their own people, their own flesh and blood, were already receiving a truly great consolation? Why did they so oppose the one who was bringing them, both through tangible physical help and the liberating truth of His preaching, a real deliverance from oppression and sorrow?
Their hatred of Jesus sprang primarily from envy. The patristic commentaries and the services of Great Week state this over and over again. They knew deep down that Jesus was the Real Thing, while they were spiritually bankrupt phonies and power-seekers, and instead of bringing them to repentance, this knowledge filled them with envious hatred. Both parties, the Pharisees and Sadducees, had made idols out of some outward thing: the Pharisees were busily constructing a nitpicking, complicated, oppressive, and ultimately meaningless code of behavior to replace the true practice of the Mosaic Law, while the Sadducees worshipped their own authority as the priestly caste and the glories of the Temple worship over which they presided. Both parties were determined to project a false image of their supposed spiritual superiority, which gave them power over others.
The resulting emptiness of their inner life corresponded precisely to the inanity (literally “emptiness”) of this absurd cosmic fireworks show they were demanding from the God-Man to prove His credentials. Their brand of religion was all about outward show. Today we might say that it was all about marketing.
How do we prevent ourselves from falling prey to false religious leaders who maintain their authority through outward show but are actually apostate by reason of their having renounced the confession of the Orthodox Faith? It get backs to the basic question: Do I want my faith to be the Real Thing? The Real Thing requires the narrow way Christ speaks of in the Gospel. Do want I want that, or do I want a reasonable facsimile thereof, a pleasant and, yes, convincing, simulacrum that offers a broad and smooth highway on which one can enjoy the sensations of a pretended spiritual, intellectual, and cultural superiority (“Orthodoxy, the Coolest Religion Ever!”) combined with worldly advantage?
Hebrews, chapter eleven, gives us a criterion of discernment. We must ask ourselves if we honestly agree to pay the price required to spend eternity among that “cloud of witnesses” of whom the Apostle writes that they
…had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. – Hebrews 11: 36-40
We must daily search our hearts and ask the Lord to enlighten our minds to see our true motivation. The bedrock, essential, and eternally efficacious miracle of our times is simply that we keep the Orthodox Faith, that if necessary we stay in “dens and caves” in order not to join the great lemming rush to the Great Apostasy. The foundational miracle, the only sign we need, is the Faith itself. Without this, nothing – neither following the latest, skillfully marketed elder or academic theologian, nor seeking security in the historical titles of patriarchs and synods – will save us. The Lord did not say, “When I return, will I find monasteries and cathedrals?” He did not say, “When I return, will I find elders with visions and miracles?” He said, “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find the Faith on the earth?”
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12: 1-2
P.S. A suggestion for spiritual reading relating to this Gospel text: “On Miracles and Signs” by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, which you can find at http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/st-ignatius-brianchaninov-miracles-and-signs.aspx.