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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, rich men and paupers, the zealots 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, nevertheless He 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, and no fall which 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.
Our actions often give a very different answer to the question: “What do you believe?” than do our words or our thoughts.
If we really believed that Christ is risen from the dead, if we really believed that we can 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 we can become by grace everything which God is by nature… would our lives really look anything at all like they do?
If the answer to that question is “no,” then we must become willing to hear for ourselves the only rebuke which 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 love of God.
But there is nothing 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. When our life is a lie, we hide ourselves from the footsteps of the God Who is Truth, just as did our First Parents Adam and Eve in the Garden. With our lies we bar ourselves from the Tree of Life, just as surely as did the flaming sword of the Cherubim before Christ took that sword away.
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 devotion, slowly but surely swallowing up everything it touches. If we allow this leaven to multiply unchecked, then eventually the day will come when 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 are real at all. And regardless of what we might tell ourselves we believe, quite often even we believers do not behave as though sins or angels or even God Himself are real. We live our lives as though the world is right, and the Gospels are wrong. We live as though this life is the only thing there is.
That is why the Mystery of Confession is so important for us Christians. Because when we go to confession, we have the precious and God-given opportunity to finally face the truth about our lives. We are — at least for those few brief minutes — finally acting as though we believe in the truth. And there, standing before the Cross and the Gospel, we have the opportunity to once again make a beginning. The grace of God once again has the opportunity to enter into our hearts, to begin again to illuminate the filth and the darkness which have gathered there. Confession truly is the “Mystery of Repentance” — in the fullest sense of both of those two words. According to Patriarch Kyrill: “Repentance 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 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 as our Savior told us, the Kingdom of Heaven is also leaven. One small mustard seed of faith is all that any of us needs.
And in the final analysis, 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.