The Leaven of the Pharisees and the Kingdom of God

The secret thought nestles within me: ‘Who knows what happens after death?’ If I say I believe in immortality, then I am speaking about my mind only; and my heart is far removed from a firm conviction about it. That is openly witnessed by my conduct and my constant care to satisfy the life of the senses.

-The Way of a Pilgrim

It is a striking fact that in the Gospels, Christ lived peacefully and freely walked among all manner of people: Jews and Romans, Pharisees and Samaritans, tax collectors and adulterers, zealots and fishermen, the rich and the possessed. And despite the monumental pride, selfishness, greed, idolatry, lust, treachery, and all manner of sinfulness in the lives of the many people He encountered, He nevertheless fulfilled in very truth the prophecy of Isaiah: “A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench.” Hardly a word of rebuke or censure ever passed from His most pure lips, even when the entire world had erupted in a demonic frenzy, repaying Him with mockery, spitting, scourging, and death for the mercy, forgiveness, healing, and life which He had poured forth freely and abundantly upon all those around Him.

With one exception: the Lord did not hesitate to rebuke a hypocrite. It was above all in this way that the Lord fulfilled the second and lesser-known half of that verse from the prophecy of Isaiah: “He shall bring forth judgment unto truth.”

In the Gospels, our Lord declared that He Himself is the Truth, while He called the devil the “father of lies.” And so we can see that there is no sin, no passion, no transgression or hardness of heart that can so easily separate us from God as when we “change the truth into a lie.” Especially when that lie is our very life itself.

Stepan Trofimovich, at the close of the novel Demons by Dostoevsky, has this revelation upon hearing the Sermon on the Mount on his deathbed:

The worst of it is that I believe myself when I lie. The most difficult thing in life is to live and not lie … and … and not believe one’s own lie, yes, yes, that’s precisely it!

And indeed, to live in such a way is far more difficult than it sounds. I am reminded of a story told by Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov):

One day, I was able to pose one and the same question to two different ascetics—Fr. John (Krestiankin) and Fr. Nicholas Gurianov: ‘What is the main illness of contemporary Church life?’ Fr. John replied at once, ‘Unbelief!’ “’How could that be?’ I protested. ‘And what about the priests?’ He again replied, ‘For the priests also—unbelief!’ Then I went to Fr. Nicholas Gurianov, and he gave me the very same answer, independently of Fr. John: unbelief.

A similar insight was reached by Jordan Peterson when he pointed out that most people really don’t have any idea what they believe. He said this as a clinical psychologist. But uncannily, he said it precisely when he was asked whether or not he believes in God. His reply: “I act as though He exists.”

While there might be a certain amount of evasiveness in such an answer (he doesn’t like being asked if he believes in God, in part because he doesn’t like being “put in a box”), at the same time he is really making the same point as the one being made by Metropolitan Tikhon, Fr. John (Krestiankin), and Fr. Nicholas Gurianov. Our lives often give a very different answer to the question: “What do you believe?” than our heads and our mouths do.

If we really believed that Christ is risen from the dead, if we really believed that we could die at any moment, if we really believed that the only thing that matters in life is loving God and every single one of His sons and daughters to the fullest extent possible, if we really believed that God came to make us into gods, that we really can become by grace everything which God is by nature… would our lives really look anything at all like they do?

And so we must be willing to hear the only rebuke that Christ had for anyone in this life: not “sinner,” but “hypocrite.”

As grievous and as tragic as sin is, nevertheless even the worst sin can be forgiven and healed in an instant. Nothing that we have ever done or can possibly ever do is any obstacle at all to the mercy and the love of God.

But there is nothing that God can do for the man or woman whose whole life is a lie. Why? It is quite simple: because we won’t let Him. We refuse to live in the real world, in God’s world. We stubbornly cling to a fantasy of our own devising.

Christ warned His disciples against “the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” That leaven can hide itself in our lives, under the veneer of faith and piety and righteousness, and if it does then slowly but surely it will swallow up everything it touches. And then the words of Christ to the Pharisees will be fulfilled in us as well: “If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.”

Truly, the Holy Fathers were right when they declared that the man who sees his sins is greater than he who sees the angels.

But we live in a world which insists that neither sins nor angels exist at all. And whether we say that and think that or not, quite often we act as though that is the case. We live our lives as though the world is right and the Gospels are wrong. We so often behave as if God does not exist, and this life is all that there is.

That is why the Mystery of Confession is so important in the life of a Christian. Because when we go to confession we have the opportunity to finally encounter the truth about our lives. We are, at least for those few brief minutes, acting as though the truth is true. And that is a very good place to start. That is a doorway for the grace of God to enter into our hearts, to begin to illumine the darkness and the spiritual cobwebs which have gathered there. Confession truly is the “Mystery of Repentance,” in the fullest sense of both of those two words. And repentance, in the words of Patriarch Kyrill, “is the opportunity to throw off sin, having told yourself the truth about your own life, and doing this before the face of God.”

In the modern age we are all, as Dostoevsky once said about himself, “children of unfaith and skepticism.” We might even long for belief with all our hearts, and yet so often we still find — when we look honestly at our lives — that we don’t seem to believe in much of anything at all.

But even that one small shred of honesty is enough. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is also leaven. One small mustard seed of faith is all that we need.

And faith is not a thought or a feeling, but a decision. Will we decide to believe our own lie, or not? It’s entirely up to us.

By the grace and mercy of God, may we all decide wisely. Amen.

1 Comment

  • The protagonist in Walker Percy’s “Love in the Ruins” says:

    “I believe in God and the whole business but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally I do as I please. A man, wrote John, who says he believes in God and does not keep his commandments is a liar. If John is right, then I am a liar. Nevertheless, I still believe.”

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