Homily On Matthew 16:5-12

Barekmore. Glory be to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One True God, Amen.

The gospel portion that we ponder over today is Matt. 16: 5-12. Here, Christ warns his disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Leaven is employed here as a metaphorical expression for teaching. We are urged to be conscious of the teachings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Thus we sing in the Qolo of Monday Ramsho (Vespers);

Our Lord called his apostles and commanded them: Do not go in the way of the unbelievers. Do not enter into the house of the Samaritans and do not draw near to the teaching of the Pharisees, anathema is their teaching.  

The placing of this passage is significant. This conversation of Jesus with his disciples happens after Jesus confronts a ruse set forth by the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They tempt Jesus to demonstrate a ‘sign from the heaven’ intending a supernatural display of power. We should take cognizance of the fact that any attempt to tempt Christ either through our words or deeds is inherently demonic and Christ will never succumb to these temptations. For it is written; “You shall not tempt your Lord your God.”(Matt. 4:7). Furthermore it is such a shame that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were never satisfied with Christ’s prodigious healings of every sickness and every malady among the people and other incredible works which he performed. Christ has always upended our stereotypical concepts of power. He replaced the palace with a stable, throne with manger, exquisite robes with shabby swaddling clothes and crown with cross. Christ does not explicitly perform something extraordinary rather he unveils the power of powerlessness and the sanctity of the defiled. As George MacDonald writes;

“With divine alchemy, God turns not only water into wine but common things into radiant mysteries, yes, every meal into a Eucharist and the jaws of death into an outgoing gate.”

To ignore the earthly miracles for an apparent supernatural ‘sign from the heaven’ like the Pharisees and the Sadducees is a fallacious idea. The earth is filled with the miracles of Christ; we just need the eyes to see them. For instance creation is a miracle, grace is a miracle, the birth of a child is a miracle, the germination of a tree from a tiny seed is a miracle and so on and so forth.

After refusing to succumb to the temptation of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Christ then meets his disciples and instructs them to beware the teachings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees and Sadducees were highly legalistic in their spirituality and religiosity. They preferred to be enslaved to the letter of the law reprimanding the freedom offered by the Truth i.e. Christ. The Law should give way to the Truth for Christ fulfils the law. As Proclus writes in his homily on Pascha; “Let the Jews forsake the old leaven and take up the new dough of the truth.”

Adhering obstinately to the letter of the law often results in bloodshed; as it is written “the letter kills but the spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 4:6). For we read in the book of Numbers (Num. 15:32-36) how a man was killed just for picking up few sticks on the Sabbath. On other hand we see how Christ transcending the letter of the law, brings salvation to the woman caught in adultery. Being sinless, he was the only one qualified to throw a stone at her yet he did not reminding us that “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28). This proves the fact that the law is always subservient to the truth. That is the reason why the Scripture says; “No one is justified before God by the law for the one who is righteous will live by faith.” (Gal 3: 11).

This is also one of the reasons before reading the scriptures we pray “Open the eyes of my heart O Lord that I may see wondrous things out of thy law”. Laws or more emphatically the Scriptures are meant to be read through the eyes of our heart illumined by Christ (for He is the Light). Reading through our normal eyes we would only see myths and fables. This purification of our senses is achieved through prayer.

We have seven offices of prayer a day. Vespers, Compline, Night Vigil (4 Qaumos), Matins, Third hour, Sixth hour and Ninth hour. Together this makes ten prayers (including the 4 Qaumos of Night Vigil). These ten prayers are meant for the purification of our five external senses as well as five internal senses viz. intellect, intuition, imagination, memory and reason. It is only when our senses are illumined by the grace of God will we be able to discern and conquer the temptations of the devil. For St. Mark the Acetic remarks; “The devil makes small sins seem smaller in our eyes for otherwise he cannot lead us to greater evil.”

Christ accuses his disciples of little faith for they see but do not perceive. This should not be considered as an accusation alone but a fact. All our faith is little, incomplete and partial. As St. Paul writes; “For we know only in part and we prophecy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” (I Cor. 13:9-10). It is only in Christ where the fullness of faith dwells and therefore we are incomplete without Him.

It is interesting to note that Christ compares the teachings of Pharisees and Sadducees to leaven. The imagery of leaven is of something proportionately small and therefore able to be thought of as apparently of minor significance – so much so that in the early stages its presence in the dough is invisible – nevertheless over time it totally transforms the situation in a manner that will gradually become evident. The teachings of Pharisees and Sadducees would appear proportionately small as the leaven but over time it would corruptly ferment our thoughts. Moreover one would be so foolish to settle for a raw leaven when we have the opportunity to eat the bread of life itself brought down from heaven i.e. Christ. (Holy Eucharist). It is fascinating to see Christ using the leaven imagery as a negative counterpart to denote the kingdom of heaven by saying; “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was leavened.” (Matt. 13:33).   

Dear in Christ, now it is up to us to decide which leaven we would want to associate with. If we associate with the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees we would be prisoners of the law but if we associate with the leaven of the kingdom of heaven we can cherish the freedom offered by Christ the Truth. May God strengthen us to make the right choice consistently so that our habit becomes our nature. Amen.

In Christ

Dn. Basil Paul 

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