IV Lent Friday – Esaias 29: 13-23

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Thus saith the Lord: This people draw nigh to me with their mouth, and they honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me: but in vain do they worship me, teaching the commandments and doctrines of men. 14Therefore behold I will proceed to remove this people, and I will remove them: and I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will hide the understanding of the prudent. 15Woe to them that deepen their counsel, and not by the Lord. Woe to them that take secret counsel, and whose works are in darkness, and they say, Who has seen us? and who shall know us, or what we do? 16 Shall ye not be counted as clay of the potter? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Thou didst not form me? or the work to the maker, Thou hast not made me wisely? 17 Is it not yet a little while, and Libanus shall be changed as the mountains of Chermel, and Chermel shall be reckoned as a forest? 18 And in that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, and they that are in darkness, and they that are in mist: the eyes of the blind shall see, 19 and the poor shall rejoice with joy because of the Lord, and they that had no hope among men shall be filled with joy. 20 The lawless man has come to nought, and the proud man has perished, and they that transgress mischievously have been utterly destroyed: 21 and they that cause men to sin by a word: and men shall make all that reprove in the gates an offence, because they have unjustly turned aside the righteous. 22 Therefore thus saith the Lord concerning the house of Jacob, whom he set apart from Abraam, Jacob shall not now be ashamed, neither shall he now change countenance. 23 But when their children shall have seen my works, they shall sanctify my name for my sake, and they sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and shall fear the God of Israel. 

The first verse of today’s reading may be understood on different levels, addressing different but related aspects of the same problem.  The first level is theological, the second is about our practical choices on how we spend our mental energy, and the third deals with the inner life of the soul.   

The theology of this verse is made clear by the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who quotes this verse from Esaias in the midst of an argument with the scribes and Pharisees over the true interpretation of the Mosaic Law (see Matthew 15).   Christ, the Incarnate Logos of God, the One Who gave the Law to Moses, tells these men that they are twisting the meaning of the Law because their hearts are far from God.   The direct and unrepentant spiritual descendants of these false teachers, the rabbis who fabricated the false religion of Talmudic Judaism and imprisoned their people in this dark and suicidal religious system, to this day stand condemned by the words of Christ Himself.   Talmudic Judaism is not the religion of the Old Testament; it is the antithesis of the Old Testament.  The only true interpretation of both Testaments, Old and New, is Orthodox Christianity. 

We must be careful not to take lightly the false claims of Judaism or any other false religion, especially if they claim to be based on the Holy Scriptures.  We have a moral obligation to reject these claims not simply as an academic exercise, but with all the powers of our soul, not only with our intellects but also with our sentiments, our will, our words, and our actions.  For, as St. Cyprian of Carthage says, the stubborn refusal to admit the true meaning of the divine plan is not a light thing; it offends and angers God. Here is what he writes: 

What is this obstinacy or what is this presumption to place human tradition before the divine plan and not to notice that God is offended and angered as often as human tradition subverts and disregards the divine precepts?  He cries and says through Esaias the prophet, “This people draw nigh to me with their mouth, and they honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me: but in vain do they worship me, teaching the commandments and doctrines of men.”  St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 74 

St. John Chrysostom quotes this same verse for a pastoral and practical purpose, to reprove his listeners for taking secular education more seriously than sacred study, for thinking that all they have to do for their salvation is go through the motions for a short time at church services, and for ignoring the active labor of sacred study to purify their intellects.

If we do not see our children deriving any benefit from the teachers we send them to, then we blame the teachers and take our children to other teachers.  What excuse will we have for putting so much emphasis on earthly things but not putting emphasis on virtue?  Our teachers here [in the Church] are far more numerous.  No less than the prophets and apostles and patriarchs and all righteous people are set over you as teachers in every church.  And there is no profit in merely chanting two or three psalms, making the accustomed prayers at random and then being dismissed.  Do you think this is enough for your salvation?  Have you not heard the prophet (or rather God through the prophet) say, “This people draw nigh to me with their mouth, and they honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me”?  To keep this from being the case with us as well, then wipe out the letters and impressions the devil has engraved on your souls, and bring me a heart that has been set free from worldly tumults so that I can write on it what I want to.  – St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Homily Eleven

Ultimately, of course, the purpose of this sacred study that the great Chrysostom is calling us to is  our salvation, but the proximate goal must be the purification of the mind and of the heart.  If our hearts are to be close to God, and not far from Him as were the hearts of the scribes and the Pharisees, we must go within daily and continually, to acquire the unceasing remembrance of God and abide in repentance.  Then the thoughts of our minds will be pure, and therefore our words will be pure.  Only thus will the words of our mouth and lips be pleasing to the Lord, unto our salvation.   St. Gregory of Nyssa says the following: 

For speaking in this way or in that is not the cause of the thought within us, but the hidden conception of the heart supplies the motive for such and such words, “for from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34).”   We make the words interpret the thought; we do not by a reverse process gather the thought from the words.   Should both be at hand, a person may certainly be ready in both, in clever thinking and clever expression; but if the one [that is, cleverness in speech] be wanting, the loss to the illiterate is slight, if the knowledge in his soul is perfect in the direction of moral goodness. “This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” What is the meaning of this?  That the right attitude of the soul toward the truth is more precious than the propriety of phrases in the sight of God, who hears the “groaning that cannot be uttered (Romans 8:26).”  Phrases can be used in opposite senses; the tongue readily serving, at his will, the intention of the speaker; but the disposition of the soul, as it is, so is it seen by Him Who sees all secrets. – St. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius 1.37

Whenever we are tempted to skip or cut short our prayer or sacred study, let us think instead carefully on what these Holy Fathers are telling us, and get back to work on ourselves.  The eternal and irreversible outcome of our entire lives, after all, depends on the purity of our minds and the inclination of our hearts.  As ones chosen and elect, as Orthodox Christians, we have undeservedly received in Holy Baptism the sanctifying grace from the Lord that alone can enable the mind and the heart to acquire this purity and to persist in this inclination.  May His gracious gift to us be not given in vain! 

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. 

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