Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

What Is Good and What Is Bad?

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 3 March 2021

It is a rather strange phenomenon when black-and-white meanings or all-or-nothing interpretations are assigned to sacred texts. Am I the Publican or the Pharisee? Am I the Prodigal Son or the Elder Son? Even the obvious ambiguity of the text is often brushed aside, overlooked, or explained away. Christ said that the Publican went down to his house justified. Some have advised to imitate the Publican lest one is condemned with the Pharisee (see Amma Syncletica [Apophthegmata Patrum] among many others). But Christ did not actually say that the Pharisee was condemned. Perhaps he was, but this is not self-evident to me. (It is certainly good advice to imitate the Publican, though solely in his repentance – an emphasis that necessarily must be made.)

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The word “justified” (δεδικαιωμενος) is not easy to understand in this context. Some of the meanings of this word include, for example, ‘to be declared right or not guilty.’ Of course, Christ could be saying just that: “His sins are forgiven.” Or, He may be referring to what He had said through Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”; and again through David: “The sacrifice to God is a broken spirit.” After all, the Pharisee fasted, tithed, and laboured by carrying the heavy burden of the Law – all forms of sacrifice. Perhaps, “justified” here means “his heart was right,” “his broken spirit was the true meaning of the Law.” Sure, the Pharisee seems to have missed the main point of God’s Law, but why must we necessarily assume that he was condemned?

***

While this is not proper theological reasoning, it seems that from a purely human point of view, the Pharisee tried to live a good and godly life the best he knew how. We focus on the Pharisee’s prideful stance, but overlook the fact that he was not an extortioner, or unjust, or an adulterer. The first two qualities – and perhaps even all three in many cases – are precisely what the first-century Palestinian tax collectors were known for. Before we cast our stone at the Pharisee, let us ask ourselves: what life advice would we give to our own children? Would we not teach them to not be extortioners, not unjust, not adulterers? Would we not encourage them to both fast and to support their local parish – to tithe? To be sure, we would want our children to repent like the Publican should they fail in their efforts to live like the Pharisee. After all, it was concerning the Pharisees, not the tax collectors, that Christ said: “Whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do…” (Matt 23:3) (The second part of that verse deals with the issue of hypocrisy; but the Pharisee from the Parable, prideful as he may be, does not appear to be a hypocrite – he actually puts his tithe where his mouth is.)

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One might propose that our everyday intuitive human understanding is insufficient, that God’s ways are not our ways, and that what men find righteous is in reality “as filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). Perhaps. But this line of reasoning quickly falls apart in the context of raising children. Imagine a scene from Mayakovsky’s poem “What Is Good and What Is Bad?” (translation is mine):

A little boy

came to his father

and then asked him

— Dad,

what things are

g o o d,

and what things are

b a d? —

Which one of us, fathers, would give our son a stone or a snake by suggesting that he model his life after the Publican, or the Prodigal Son, or even the Wise Thief? Repentance – yes, but life?

***

The Parable of the Prodigal Son offers yet another character whose riotous and wasteful life with harlots few parents would offer to their own children as an example to follow. Likewise, pastors of the Church put forth diligent efforts into guiding their flock in service to God and not transgressing at any of His commandments – the unmistakable way of the Elder Son (cf. Lk 15:29).

When the Prodigal Son returned to his Father’s house, a fatted calf was sacrificed. (No, this was not a backyard barbecue the way we may have. This is a sacred text, and these were ancient people. They had a very religious relationship with meat. I have written about it elsewhere.) A calf is a very significant sacrifice, a sin offering (Lev 1, 4, 8, 9, 16 et passim), and often a peace offering for the entire tribe (9:18, for example). Thus, it is quite fitting that the Father offers it on behalf of his son and his family.

A “kid of the goats” is also an important offering for sin, but, perhaps, a lesser one.

When a ruler hath sinned, and done somewhat through ignorance [the emphasis is mine – SS] against any of the commandments of the Lord his God concerning things which should not be done, and is guilty; Or if his sin, wherein he hath sinned, come to his knowledge; he shall bring his offering, a kid of the goats

Lev 4: 22-23

So, when the Elder Son says that the Father never gave him a kid (Lk 15:29), it is possible that this is not a complaint that he never ate meat while growing up or that he was never allowed to have fun with his friends – both propositions appearing equally unlikely in the home of his loving Father – but that he was so diligent in living according to his Father’s will that he never transgressed against any of the commandments, even through ignorance – a claim that the Elder Son actually makes, and with which the Father seems to agree (29, 31).

Of course, other interpretations are possible. Simple jealousy may be the key to understanding the Elder Son’s words; or that he much preferred beef, or at least goat, to the lamb that was usually served for dinner. But these are sacred texts, parables dealing with the deepest aspects of our relationship with God, and simple interpretations – helpful as they are – may not be the most insightful.

***

The Elder Son is not condemned by his Father – neither for his anger (28), and certainly not for his diligent service and obedience (29). Even more importantly, the Father confirms his love and affection for his elder son: “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine” (31). (Compare this to the words of Christ’s prayer to His Father: “And all mine are thine, and thine are mine…” – John 17:10.)

***

It is not bad to be the Elder Son. With all his undeniable flaws, it is still not bad. Yet, there is an obvious problem. The Elder Son seems incapable of appreciating the miracle that his brother is found – apparently because he does not know what it is like to be lost. Likewise, the Pharisee cannot repent like the Publican, because he, the Pharisee, did not sin like the Publican. There seems to be a maxim at work here: “[T]o whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Lk 7:47). The Lord said this parable to Simon the Pharisee:

And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on. There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged.

Luke 7:40-43

The problem is that it would be an unwise piece of pastoral or parental advice to suggest that people should sin more in order to be able to repent better, or that they should engage in prodigality in order to develop their capacity for humility. Even knowing the holy outcome of her life, what mother would urge her daughter to follow in the footsteps of Saint Mary of Egypt from the beginning of her life in Alexandria? Yet, is it not the depth of depravity in her early life that made the height of her repentance possible?

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One may correctly point out that from the Christian point of view, “there is no man that liveth and sinneth not, for God is alone without sin” (from prayer for the departed), that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). But surely, there is some difference between being angry and acting in anger to kill someone, or between lustful thoughts and acts of adultery. At least, we act as if there were a difference – Matthew 5:28 notwithstanding – for the meaning of Christ’s words cannot be that, if we happen to sin in thought, then it would be a wasted and meaningless effort to abstain from the corresponding deed. We teach our children not to act on every desire, thought, or impulse they have. Surely, a child who is able to control his actions is not doing so in vain, even if his mind wanders. And just as surely, the Pharisee who abstains from vice and the Elder Son who dutifully fulfills his Father’s will are also not laboring in vain.

***

Certainly, I do not wish to propose that the labors of the Pharisee or the Elder Son are salvific or sufficient in any way – just that they are sincere, admirable, and indicative of one’s character. We admire men who are hard-working, diligent, obedient to their parents, men who take their faith seriously, who fast, and tithe, and keep the commandments. On the other hand, we do not admire men who are extortioners, or unjust, or adulterers, or who waste their inheritance on riotous living with harlots.

So, what does it mean to “imitate the Publican,” or to “be like the Prodigal Son”? It is clear that we are to imitate their repentance – the change in them, the metanoia. But what kind of change is it? Judging by the real-life example of Zacchaeus (Lk 19), if such a parallel could be justified, the repentance of the Publican is in the rejection of extortion, injustice, and, presumably, embracing fasting and tithing at least to some degree. (According to one tradition, Zacchaeus became the first bishop of Caesarea of Palestine – see Apostolic Constitutions 7.46.) In other words, the metanoia of the Publican was in becoming more like the Pharisee.

Likewise, the Prodigal Son, upon his return to his Father’s house, presumably made up his mind to serve his Father (“make me as one of thy hired servants” – Lk 15:19) and never again to transgress any of the Father’s commandments (cf. 29). Thus, the return of the Prodigal Son is in his becoming more like his Elder Brother.

Paradoxically, if we are to imitate the Publican and to return to our Father’s house like the Prodigal Son, we cannot merely smite upon our breast (18:13) and repeat that we are not worthy (15:21), but we must bring forth fruits worthy of repentance (3:8). We must work to change our lives to become more like the Pharisee and the Elder Son – not in their arrogance or anger, but in their faithfulness, diligence, discipline, and hard work.

May this Lenten season be fruitful!

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