Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

“The kingdom of God is within you.”

Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 17 February 2019

It is true that the perfect do not need rules and laws. But this is not because they are lawless, but because the Lawgiver Himself dwells in their hearts.

See also

God, Be Merciful To Us, Sinners

“On the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.”

On this the first Sunday of the Lenten cycle, we hear the story of the publican and the Pharisee. The story is a well-known one, and we hear it year after year. There is no great need to talk about it at length today, but to, perhaps, briefly remind ourselves some of the most important lessons from this story.

The first lesson is obvious: do not look at outward appearances. Put in modern Orthodox terms, the Pharisee is an observant Orthodox man who goes to church every Sunday and also on holidays, he observes all fasts and also Wednesdays and Fridays, he donates money to the church and maybe serves on the parish council. Everything this man does is good, and it is in our nature to assume that he is a good man.

The second man, the publican, is the exact opposite. In the United States, we do not have the exact equivalent of a person who collects taxes for an occupying pagan military by threatening and mistreating local residents, but we can, perhaps, imagine a job that would be seen by most modern Orthodox Christians as “unclean.” Imagine, for example, someone who writes grants for Planned Parenthood or something similar. He spends his time in the company of sinners, pagans, and atheists; he does not go to church very often; does not observe any fasts; and he is more interested in getting his Easter basket sprinkled with holy water than in participating in any parish building projects. By all outward appearances, we would not think of him as a good Christian.

It is natural for us to judge, and even in the reading of the Gospel, we are quick to judge the Pharisee in our own minds. But note that Jesus did not judge him, even though He may have been the only one who had that right. Jesus did not call him a hypocrite. The Pharisee was quite sincere: he was not an extortioner, not unjust, never committed adultery, and never colluded with pagans to abuse the people of Israel. We have every reason to believe that the Pharisee truly fasted and truly paid his tithe. Moreover, he gave thanks to God for the gift of being a partaker in His Covenant through the Law given by God to Moses.

Let us likewise withhold judgment. We can see but the outside. “The Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7), and in this story, the Lord did not reveal to us the heart of the Pharisee. But He revealed to us the Pharisee’s mistake. The Law was given to God’s people as a way, but for the Pharisee it became the goal. It was meant to lead the people of God to Christ (Gal 3:24), but was itself turned into an idol that they began to worship. The Law should have revealed to the people their true state of failure, but they chose to take pride in their imaginary accomplishments.

God attempted to correct His people many times through the words of the prophets and even through the very psalms sung in the Temple: “For I desired mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hos 6:6) “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Ps 51:17) It is the broken and contrite soul of a humble man that yearns for God as “the hart panteth after the water brooks” (Ps 42:1). This is why it is the prodigal son that yearns to return home, to reunite with his father, and it is the good and honest elder son that is “thankful” that he is “not like other men, or even as this brother of his.” This is why she, whose sins were many, was able to love much, “but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Lk 7:47)

The second lesson is somewhat counter-intuitive in light of the fast-free week that follows the Sunday of the publican and the Pharisee. By abstaining from regular fasting, we want to remind ourselves that we are not saved by fasting or by any other law or rule. But it is precisely the old Law, the high standard that the Law set, that allowed the publican to have contrition and to say: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18:13) It is the high standard set by the Law that led the publican to “smite upon his breast” and to “not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven.” Without law, there is no transgression; without transgression, there is no contrition.

The freedom from the Law that we have in Christ presents for us a certain level of spiritual danger. We may set our own standards so low that we turn into self-righteous and self-satisfied Pharisees: “We thank you, Lord, that we are not like other people: we sometimes go to church, sometimes say a prayer, we try to fast a couple of days before Pascha, and we put our dollar bill into the church basket (if we happen to be in church).” Of course, I exaggerate, but however lofty our personal tower may be, they all look small and silly when God comes down from heaven to look at our city and our tower (cf. Gen 11:5).

The old Law may have been an impossible standard designed to compel men not to rely on themselves but to seek salvation in Christ. But the new standard given to us by Christ is immeasurably higher: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt 5:48) This is not a destination, it is not something that we can ever achieve, stop and have a picnic at the top. This is a direction, a vector for the eternal aspiration of mankind.

It is true that the perfect do not need rules and laws. But this is not because they are lawless, but because the Lawgiver Himself dwells in their hearts. To the rest of us, the Holy Church offers tools–prayer and fasting–to prepare ourselves as the temple of God, the dwelling place of His Spirit (1 Cor 3:16) For the kingdom of God is not something remote, at another place, at a future time. No, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17); “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21).

See also

God, Be Merciful To Us, Sinners

“On the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.”





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