The Orthodox Pages




23rd FEBRUARY 2012




























































































































At our last talk I mentioned that we entered the period of the Triodion which began with the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Parable, with its message of repentance and humility, set in motion a period of preparation to help us prepare for Great Lent and more importantly for the spiritual journey that will lead us to Pascha, the Feast of Feasts.
As we saw last time, the preparation period is designed to teach us about the four basic and essential elements of repentance, humility, love and forgiveness, required if we want to progress up the spiritual ladder. Along the same lines, the middle group of Parables we have been studying during our recent meetings, and which we have termed as the behaviour Parables all teach us about these essential elements and spiritual qualities we must strive for.
The Sunday after the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee the Gospel reading was the very moving Parable of the Prodigal Son who wanted independence from what he considered were the strict rules that his father imposed, and so left to find freedom. His newly found freedom led to a life of sin and he ended up wasting all his inheritance by leading a wasteful and reckless life. Having reached rock bottom, he came to his senses and decided to return to his father's house.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son belongs to preparation period and also to the group of behaviour parables and has mush to teach us about repentance and humility. Having said this, it is a parable that we have seen in great detail in previous years and because this is our last talk on the parables and our last talk before we break up for Great Lent and Pascha, we will give it a miss this year and look at some of the other parables of the same group.
Before we begin our study of today's parables I want us to quickly see the remaining two Sundays of the Preparation Period. Last Sunday's Gospel reading was the Parable of the Last Judgement which we saw on our study of the Parables in December. The message we received from this Parable was that God will not judge us according to how we fasted, neither how we prayed nor how good a Christian we might have appeared to be, but according to our attitude towards our fellow men, in other words the criterion by which we shall be judged will be love. If we cannot love our fellow men then in truth we don’t love Christ, because he has created each man in his own image and likeness.
The last Sunday of preparation is this coming Sunday known as Cheesefare Sunday which is also called Forgiveness Sunday. It has two themes: The first we hear in the hymns during Vespers and Mattins, which is the Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of bliss. Man was created for Paradise, for knowledge of God and communion with Him. Man’s sin has deprived him of that blessed life and his existence on earth is in exile. Christ, the Saviour of the whole world, opens the door of Paradise to everyone who follows him, and the Church revealing to us the beauty of the Kingdom, makes our life a pilgrimage towards our heavenly fatherland. Thus just before we begin our journey through Lent we are reminded of how great a loss Paradise was for mankind and how much Adam must have wept bitterly knowing what he had lost.
The second theme is ‘fasting and forgiveness’ and is taken from the Gospel for the day. All the Gospels we heard in the previous weeks taught us how our inner self should be to be saved. We must first have the humility of the Publican, the repentance of the Prodigal Son and the love of Christ. But to accomplish all these things is by no means an easy task and each man needs a great deal of help to be able to reach home to the Father. The help comes from Christ himself, but we must first take that first step. Great lent is that period when the Church gives us the opportunity to make these first and very essential steps and gives us the means through fasting and the daily Lenten services. But the Gospel for this Sunday of Forgiveness warns us to beware how we use these means at our disposal. It tells us firstly that if we are to ask of our heavenly Father to forgive our sins, we must also forgive those who have sinned against us, and if we have not the love and humility to forgive them then neither will our heavenly Father forgive us. And when we fast let us not be as the hypocrites who make themselves look dismal, who disfigure their faces, so that they may appear to men that they keep to a strict fast. And if that is how you fast, don’t expect any reward from God because you’ve already received your reward through the praises of men. In other words let us not tell people that we fast so that they can say “oh well done! how do you manage it?” Contrary to this, Christ tells us to keep our fast a secret that only the heavenly Father who knows the secrets of men can see and who will reward us openly. And he tells us also of one more thing to beware of: not to collect earthly treasures which from one moment to the next can be ruined by moths or rust or can be stolen, but to store up treasures in heaven where we will have them for all eternity.
So now let's go to our first parable for today: the Parable of Building a Tower and Making War.
"Christ said: If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace. So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26-33)
The meaning of the twin Parable of building a Tower and the king making a war is made clear in the verse leading into the parable. Christ said: whoever does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sister and even his own life cannot be my disciple. This doesn’t mean that we should only love Christ and no one else, or to abandon everyone we love and go and join a monastery. Many have done this and the Apostles also left all that they had to follow Christ, but this verse should not be interpreted fanatically. Christ would not have us hating our beloved family members when elsewhere he tells us that we should also love our enemies. What Christ means is that if we have love for God above all others, if we make Christ the centre of our lives then our love will become Christ-like and not only our love for our family members, but love for all people will follow naturally. But a sign of a true follower is that he must be prepared, if absolutely necessary, to sacrifice even family relationships especially when these family members have an unbelief and total disregard for God.

Our true faith will be tested if we find ourselves in a position of having to choose between a temporary worldly life with our family members or following the way of Christ and eternal life. Thus through faith and trust in God Abraham parted with his own country, and Moses with Pharaoh's court. Our faith will also be tested if we have to choose between staying alive but denouncing our faith in Christ or remaining steadfast in faith and dying a martyr's death. If we are not ready to take up our cross and follow him then we are not worthy to be called his disciples. Christ is not referring to his own crucifixion which is still to come, but gives a image of the Roman custom whereby those condemned to crucifixion had to carry the shameful instrument of the penalty - the cross - to the place of punishment (John 19:17), which magnified their sufferings even more. But Christ is not talking about a punishment, but a voluntary suffering that we will endure for his sake. Christ is warning those who say they are willing to follow him that the road ahead is painful and full of sacrifice. Are we then ready to take up our cross? Do we have faith to endure like Christ the spitting, the scourging, the buffetings, the scorn, the mocking; do we have faith to endure until the end and death.
Thus Christ tells us that before we begin to be his followers we should sit down and calculate the cost to ourselves just like someone intending to build a tower. When taking on any building project we must first sit down and calculate the cost and see if we have enough funds to finish the project. If we begin blindly and lay the foundation and then realize that we cannot finish because we had no idea of the costs we would appear like fools.
Christ is therefore advising his followers to calculate their strength and see whether they have sufficient faith to finish what they started. A Christian must be aware of the costs of being a Christian and the cost is one's very life. It is a way of life that needs deep thought and serious contemplation. The person who decides to follow the way of the Gospel attempts to build a tower, not like the Tower of Babel which remained unfinished, but a tower in accordance with God's will who will help the builder bring it to completion. The builder will begin low putting the foundations deep into a rock and will slowly build the tower until it reaches heaven. But this tower will have high costs. The builder will have to put to death the sin working within him and all the strong temptations and desires of the flesh. He must live a life of self denial and keep watch over his work lest evil enemies come at night and demolish the tower before it reaches heaven. It may, perhaps, cost him his reputation among men, his estates and liberties, and all that is dear to him in this world. He may even be asked to give his life in defence of his tower.
Many that begin to build this tower do not go on with it, nor persevere in it, and it is their folly; they have not courage and resolution, and so bring nothing to pass. It is true, that none of us in ourselves have sufficient to finish this tower, but Christ has said, My grace is sufficient for thee, and that grace shall not be wanting to any of us, if we seek for it and make use of it. Nothing is more shameful than for him that has begun well in religion to break off; every one will justly mock him, as having lost all his labour he has put in until then because he did not persevere. We lose the things we have wrought (2 Jn. 8), and all we have done and suffered is in vain, (Gal. 3:4)
The twin parable of the king preparing to make war is similar in meaning. A wise king will sit down with his advisers to see if he has the military strength to go to war against a much stronger enemy and if the odds are against him then it would be wiser for him to send an ambassador with a hope of a peace settlement.
The state of a Christian in this world is a military state. A Christian is a soldier and there are many stages of the spiritual life that can be resembled to warfare? We must have our sword ready at hand to fight the restless spiritual enemies that come in force to battle against us. Thus like the king in the parable, we ought to consider whether we can endure the hardness which a good soldier of Jesus Christ must expect and count upon before we enlist ourselves under Christ's banner; whether we are able to encounter the forces of hell and earth, which come against us twenty thousand strong. The fight against evil needs a strong and fearless heart which bears its strength in faith. The Christian must be courageous and believe that God will be with him in his struggles. Weighing up his strength the Christian must not fear the twenty thousand strong enemy and consider the fact that he is on the defence fighting for his land. It is his calling and holy duty to fight and his courage and self sacrifice should more than make up for the numbers. But what if someone hasn't the courage to battle what should he do? Christ said: "while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace." Christ is not saying that we should seek conditions of peace with the devil. That is a choice that many have made when after renouncing the way of the world have for a while keep the faith but when tribulations and persecutions arose they didn't have the strength to fight and took the easy way out and returned to the world and their old life of sin.
It is better for someone to remain an honest person religiously indifferent and cold, than to be an inconsistent Christian changing sides whenever it suits him. Christ warns his followers that if they are not prepared and determined to follow him until the cross, if there is a possibility that they will betray him at the last minute, then it is better for them not to sever their relationship with the world.
Such is Christ's narrow path. The Christian must renounce himself, leave everything behind him, and not glance back and if he cannot do it he cannot be Christ's disciple.
The overall message in the twin Parable is that we cannot be just a Christian by name alone or a part time Christian. We must count the cost and weigh our faith before embarking on the road of the Gospel. The Cost is self denial and we can adapt the meaning of the parable to the period of Great Lent which we will enter on Monday. Great Lent and the fast it entails is a tool that helps us learn about self denial. It is a tool that the Church gives us to help us keep in check our free will, but it is also a means which helps us to free ourselves from the dependence of food and other material things with the aim of making us aware that our life does not depend on food but on God.
Fasting helps us to place a boundary to our own egotistic desires, it is a voluntary self denial with the intention of disciplining ourselves to live according to what is truly necessary and not according to worldly pleasures. In this sense it is a real fight because we are doing battle not only with the devil but with our passions which can be stronger than any temptation he can hurl at us to bring us down. Self denial is a means to salvation: which as we saw in the parable, we are called to denounce our very lives and to voluntarily bear our cross and follow Christ. And because fasting is a self denial we must weigh the costs just like in the parable of the king contemplating going to war. Fasting is not just an exercise of giving up certain foods: there is a right and a wrong way of fasting and only if done correctly can it bring forth the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Many people keep the fast like a religious duty a Christian is obliged to do and that by fasting they are somehow pleasing to God. But fasting involves a lot more than just giving up certain foods. St. John Chrysostom says that fasting implies not only abstinence from food, but from sins also. “The fast,” he insists, “should be kept not by the mouth alone, but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.” It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.
True fasting means to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. Only if we renounce these things is our fasting true and acceptable to God. And if our fasting is true we should see a spiritual change in us. If our fasting is true then we will also experience temptations, weakness, doubt, and irritation. It is highly significant that it was while fasting when the body was weak that Christ was tempted by Satan. If Christ was tempted then we also will be tempted but we should not fear this because Christ later said that Satan can be overcome by fasting and prayer. True fasting is a real spiritual fight and we will probably fail many times.
But the very discovery of Christian life as fight and effort is the essential aspect of fasting. A faith which has not overcome doubts and temptation is seldom a real faith. No progress in Christian life is possible, without the bitter experience of failures. Too many people start fasting with enthusiasm and give up after the first failure. I would say that it is at this first failure that the real test comes. If after having failed and surrendered to our appetites and passions, we start all over again and do not give up no matter how many times we fail, sooner or later our fasting will bear its spiritual fruits.
Let's now move on to our next twin Parable of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep.
"And Christ spake this parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." (Luke 15:3-10)
The occasion for the Lord to say these parables came after the Pharisees and Scribes murmured against him for keeping company with sinners and eating with them. Christ's tolerance and acceptance of sinners bothered the Scribes and Pharisees, who considered a helping hand to a fallen brother or simply touching him as ritual pollution. These elite scholars thought that Jesus sinned by consorting with sinners. So they warned people to shun Him. Instead of rebuking them for their inhumane dealings with sinners, he humbly directs these parables to them, to teach them that each person is special to God.
Christ used the image of the shepherd in his preaching because His audience knew this image from the pastoral economy and from the books of the Old Testament. The Israelite shepherd is both leader and comrade. This powerful man defends his flock from wild beasts while knowing his sheep well (Proverbs 27:23), adapting to their situation (Genesis 33:13), carrying them in his arms (Isaiah 40:11), even loving one or another of them as a daughter (II Kings/II Samuel, 12:3). His authority is indisputable, based on devotion and love. The ancient Babylon and Assyrian kings called themselves shepherds with a divine ministry to gather and care for sheep of the flock.
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin depict the Lord's true concern for the conversion of a sinner, and the joy in the heavens for those who repent. These parables emphasize that God Himself seeks out the sinner to save him. Christ is saying to his accusers: "You bring an accusation against me that I accept sinners who have fallen away from God, that I even go after them, bring them to repentance, saving them from perdition and return them to God. But, after all, you Scribes and Pharisees also act likewise in regards to that which is near and dear to you. "What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? Or what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?" If you act that way on losing your property, then why do you reproach Me, when I am saving men who have fallen away from God, their Father.
A responsible, good shepherd, on finding a lost sheep, does not punish it because it fell away from the flock, does not even drive it back to the flock; but, rejoicing that he found it, takes it on his dependable shoulders and bears it home; he calls his friends and says to them: "Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, who need no repentance." This is how God rejoices to return the lost sheep to the flock of salvation.
The parable of the Lost Sheep speaks of a hundred sheep of which ninety nine do not need saving. Some have interpreted this as the angels whom Christ left in heaven when he came down from heaven and became incarnate, but I think this is just an illustration of the Son of man's coming into this world, to seek, and to save mankind, his lost sheep. The parable does not mention that the ninety nine were righteous, but that he left them to seek out the one that strayed. The ninety nine must be referring to the Scribes and Pharisees to whom the parable is directed and who believed they were righteous and had no need of repentance because they fulfilled the duties prescribed in the Mosaic Law.
They too need saving but their hearts are closed to receive God's calling. On the other hand the lost sheep may be a sinner dead to virtue and blessedness for which God had created him, but he had not lost all capacity for repentance and conversion to God. The sheep who ran away from the flock is a pitiful animal. If is truly lost because it doesn't have the instinct to find its way back. It may stray where there is neither feed nor water and it is in grave danger because it doesn't have claws or horns to protect itself and becomes prey to wild beasts seeking to devour it. In comparison, a man's soul is exposed to every delusion and passion and is an easy prey of the devil who according to the word of Scripture "walketh about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour" (I Peter 5:8).
The lost sheep is truly lost because it doesn't give to God the honour, worship and obedience it is obliged to do. It is lost to the fold because it separated itself from it and doesn't have any form of communication with it. It is lost to itself because it doesn't know where it is and roams from place to place alone. It is lost because it is impossible without help to find its way back to the fold.
The Lord shows great care for lost souls, whom He boundlessly loves. He diligently seeks out each person calling him by his name and doesn't give up until he is in range and can hear his voice and respond. And when he finds the lost soul he does not reprimand him or punish him for being a sinner and falling away, he doesn't drag him behind him like a slave, or beat him to go in front, neither does he order others to carry him back but himself takes him onto his shoulders, encourages and comforts him, for as he said: "Come unto me, all ye who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). The person who has been carried by the heavenly shepherd will never again be lost. The Good Shepherd carries the sheep home here meaning Paradise and calls his friends and neighbours to rejoice with him for having found the sheep that was lost. Friends and neighbours suggest that in heaven there are various ranks of heavenly dwellings apart from the angels. Notice also that Christ does not say that he found the sheep that he lost but rather that he found the sheep that was lost because the sheep was lost through its own negligence and recklessness, whereas in the case of the woman finding the coin she lost it through her negligence. But also notice how with satisfaction and deep affection Christ says I have found my sheep.

The parable is very similar to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. There the Father never gave up hope that one day he would see his son again and one day, seeing him in the distance, he is so overcome with joy and love that he doesn’t sit and wait for him to approach, but runs out to meet him and there face to face with his long lost son, he embraces him and smothers him with kisses. The father’s joy was so great; his love was so overwhelming that he never once considered punishing his son further than what he had punished himself. He had been to hell and back and he came back a new person, a new son with knowledge of good and evil. This was a time for celebrating. He orders the servants to bring forth the best [first] robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And kill the fatted calf, to eat, and be merry, saying: "For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."

Similarly in this parable of the Lost Sheep, Christ tells the Scribes and Pharisees of what happens in heaven to those sinners they considered were polluted and untouchable. For each sinner that repents there is joy and merriment by all the inhabitants of heaven much more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. If we understand here that the ninety nine just persons refers to people already saved and therefore are on the right road and have no need of repentance, this doesn't mean that God does not rejoice and love the righteous. The passage is a human expression, we rejoice when we find something that we thought we had lost more than for the things that we haven't lost. Another image is parents with their children. When one child is seriously ill the parents love and attention is more concentrated on that child more than on the other children who are in good health. The parents love all their children, but the necessary attention to the one child might seem to the others that they have been neglected. When the child recovers the parents rejoice because the child in once again in good health, but that doesn't mean that they love the child more than the others.
The parable of the woman and the lost coin is almost identical in meaning but with the difference that the good shepherd is replaced with a woman and the sheep that was lost through its own negligence with a silver coin not lost through its own negligence but through the woman's and therefore cannot feel the consequence of being lost as could the sheep. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Shepherd represents Christ, but in this parable the woman cannot also represent Christ for the very fact that she lost the coin through negligence, something that Christ would never ever do.
Some of the Church fathers have said that the ten coins represent the angels and men, as there are nine ranks of angels, and mankind making up the ten. The silver coin has an image on it which represents the image of God that is in man. The coin representing the human race seduced by the devil falls from the grace of God and is lost somewhere in the house collecting dust which conceals the image of God. The coin remains lost in the dark house until Christ came to earth to seek and find that which was lost. The candle that the woman lit can represent Christ who came as a light to those in darkness. The woman now enlightened with the divine light sweeps the house meaning that she sweeps away the dust collected through sin and finds the coin, the likeness of the Creator is restored in man.
Both Parables teach us that Christ desires that we would imitate his love for every man. In each man, we must see a brother in Christ and an image of God. No matter how a man might fall and darken God's image in himself, the image is still there and through repentance and God's divine light, love and wisdom, man can once again regain the true image of his creator.
With this we have come to an end to our study on the Parables. Over the ten weeks of this study we have covered most of the Parables. If we have understood the majority of them and applied them to our lives then those we didn't have time to see will become clearer and self explanatory during our private readings of the Gospels.
This is also our last talk of the season because as always we break up for Great Lent and Easter and begin again the week after Bright Week. So with that I wish you all Kalo Stadio. Enter the arena of Great Lent as fearless soldiers of Christ with drawn swords ready to battle against the twenty thousand strong enemy. Great Lent is a battle, but remember also that it is a spiritual journey taking us to Pascha, the celebration of our return to Paradise our true homeland and our return to God and eternal salvation.