The Woe of the Scribes and the Pharisees

This should have gone out last night, but I was too tired to finish it up before services. My apologizes.
Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom he finds watching; but unworthy is the one whom he finds slothful. Take care then, my soul, not to be overcome with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and be shut out of the kingdom; but rouse yourself and cry: Holy, holy, holy are you, O God; through the prayers of the Foreunner, have mercy on us.
(Troparion, Bridegroom Matins For Great & Holy Tuesday)
The Gospel ( Mt 22:15-23:39) assigned for Matins records some very harsh language and sharp comments from Jesus. Seven times our Lord says to the Jewish authorities: “W oe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” And after each utterance, our Lord summarizes their hypocrisy:
  • You shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. (v. 13)
  • You devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. (v. 14)
  • You travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as as much a son of hell as yourselves.
  • You pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. (v. 23)
  • You cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. (v. 25)
  • You are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. (v. 27)2
And finally, in His last call to repentance Christ summarizes their offense:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (vv. 29-36)
I said last night that these first service of Great and Holy Week radically relativize my own propensity to plan, to imagine that my life is subject in an absolute sense to my own will and desires.
Instead of planning, the service of these first few days call me to be vigilant. A central theme of Bridegrooms Maitns is watchful preparedness.
But are preparations are not like that of an adolescent who decides never to decide. Yes, we are to remain open and expectant, but our ready is like of a soldier who, having prepared for war, find himself waiting out the last moments before the battle begins.
And what is it that we wait for? We wait for the revelation of Divine Love.
It is here that the scribes and Pharisees have failed. Though they scrupulously kept the Law, their very fidelity blinded them to the revelation of God’s love. What they did not see, maybe even what they could not see, is that when God’s love comes to us it comes with a human face. This is why when Jesus is challenged by the lawyer to name to greatest commandment of the Law He offers a two-fold answer:
But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, ” ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (vv. 34-40)
Looking back at the woe of the scribes and the Pharisees, their sorrow is that their love of God made them indifferent to the love of neighbor and insensitive to their neighbor’s poverty and need. The woe of the scribes and the Phraisees is this: The love of God killed in them compassion for their neighbor!
In this the scribes and the Phraisees are mirror image of many of us today. If once the love of God obscured the love of neighbor, today it is rather the other way around. Compassion for my neighbor in his or her weakness has now come to trump our love and fidelity to God. For the scribes and the Phraisees their love of what was greatest became to excuse to disregard what was smaller, but closer; for us today, we love what is small and close but we often neglect what is greatest.
In either case though, our severing of the “two commandments” on which “hang all the Law and the Prophets,” inevitably leads to violence and even bloodshed. Again, why? Because love comes to us with a human face.
The human face of love is, I think, one of the most extraordinary elements of the Gospel. It is not simply that God loves me, it is not simply that God comes to me as a human being, it is also that He comes to me in you. Love, forgiveness, mercy, compassion for my neighbor in his weakness and need, all of these are essential to the Gospel.
And it is because of these, that I will at times find myself having to be—like Jesus—harsh. But my harsh words or actions are not, or at least should not, born from a desire for power and control. Rather, and again mindful that the model here is Christ, my harsh words reflect my willingness (and again, like the soldier) to place myself between the innocent and those who would victimize or exploit them.
Much is sometime made of the fact that God offers us mercy and not justice. This is true as far as it goes, but only if we understand carefully what we mean by “justice.” It is certainly true that I often appeal to justice to hid my desire for revenge or to rationalize my hatred or desire for power and control. Justice in this sense has nothing to do with the Gospel much less with God.
But there is another understanding of justice. We can think of justice in this second, more radically sense, as consonance, harmony or (if you prefer) synergy , that profound working together of the Divine and human wills that the Apostle Paul alludes to when he calls us “co-workers” with Christ (see, Phil 2.25). The woe of the scribes and the Pharisees is the fruit of a lack of justice in this second sense.
And so, to yesterday’s counsel to eschatological preparedness, we should add I think this: A willingness to work for justice in human affairs. Not justice as vengeance or control, but of synergy , of a cooperative working together of the whole Church not only with Her Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, but all the members with Him and each other and indeed all people of good will.
Kalo Pascha!
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

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