How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners? ( 26.07.2009 )
Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. And when the scribes and] Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”
When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mark 2:15-17).
It is not that the Pharisees and scribes wanted to sit with the Godman Christ, and so they said and asked this out of jealousy and envy towards them who were already sitting together with Him, rather they were merely looking for a reason then to accuse Him and blacken Him before the people. Such behavior is a higher degree of malice than the need to have someone for ourselves only and refuse to share the one with others. The highest degree of malice is when the one we could not have only for ourselves and whom, after we left him, we did not manage to blacken before the people, we now want to remove in any manner from our life or kill. Malice, too, has its stages of development.
Imagine, children, if this sitting at the table by Christ’s side were only eschatological state? What an unpleasant surprise and what shame for all who harbor a great idea and high opinion of themselves and yet are not among them who are together with Christ in the Kingdom. However, the above-depicted, as well as the time we live in, still belongs to the antinomical ‘already, and not yet’. If it were only eschatological state, instead of being historical at the same time, who knows whether the scribes and pharisees of that time, or the ones like them at present, could have asked at all or would have wanted to ask Christ’s disciples any ‘why’ whatsoever. “[Because] between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us” (Luke 16:26). Still, this not yet, at the same time already is: “tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). This eschatological state can be easily checked by all who will find the Kingdom of Heaven within them, as well as in the Holy Liturgy of the Church. The Holy Liturgy itself has been written and imbued with this spirit. I wonder what to choose first from its text: look down on me, Your sinful and unworthy (!) servant... and I implore You: do not turn Your face away from me, nor cast me out from among Your children; but account it worthy to offer gifts to You through me, Your sinful and unworthy servant…
If, therefore, our aim is Christ and His Kingdom, we must constantly bear in mind that He came to heal the sick rather than the healthy—that is, them who consider themselves healthy and with no need of a physician; that Christ came to call the sinners to repentance and bestow His mercy on them—that is, them who have become aware of the fact that they are sinful, not them who consider themselves righteous. Thus, no one should forget he is sinful and sick. If someone has overlooked something so essential, let him seriously ask himself on what ground he will build his personal relationship with the Godman Christ? Let such one know that immediately, with the very thought that he is righteous or healthy, he obstructs his relationship and union with Him. Christ warns us personally, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (cf. Matthew 9:12-13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31-32). And the overlooking can be discerned by the way of life.
An unchangeable personal criterion of examination of any Christian’s spiritual state is the Godman Christ and His words, “Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). On the basis of this criterion even the ones who are deified consider and experience themselves as greatly sick and sinful and therefore, unlike us, they ceaselessly cry out from their heart, “Have mercy on me!” certainly, they who are at a higher stage of spiritual development know from greater personal experience God’s perfection and their imperfection, in love. If this is the case with the deified, then let me not mention at all what it is like with them who still purify their heart from passions and them who still illumine their mind. It is interesting that the lower we are on the ladder of spiritual development, the greater the idea of ourselves we have; and, the higher we are, the more this great idea diminishes. The content of the idea of ourselves is in inverse proportion to the personal-catholic understanding and experience of the Mystery of Salvation.
Hence, it is necessary that every Christian, with the help by his spiritual father, becomes aware of and comes to know the fallen and sick state of the nature he has inherited. At that, not only should one have the awareness and knowledge he is sinful and sick, but also what disease he has and to what extent it has developed, in order for him to receive the right medicine, suitable for his disease and sinfulness. For, the remedy, too, can do much harm instead of helping if it or its dosage is not proper. Thus, every ascetic should know as precisely as possible with what, why, and how ill he is. We can come to know ourselves only through the struggle for fulfillment of God’s commandments, under the direction of the spiritual father; after the endurance of many defeats and victories alike. It is better if instead of through committed sins we come to know ourselves and our disease through struggle. This is a concrete way of getting acquainted with oneself, with one’s imperfection, it is not a merely theoretical way, as the one that may initially arise from the faith in God’s assumed perfection.
Here is where we should remind ourselves of what is, according to the Holy Fathers, man’s first and main disease. It particularly becomes obvious in the monastery community, as a special place of living and struggle. Because, in the monastery avarice and pleasure-indulgence are not a spiritual problem for the monastic; for these two passions there are usually neither an opportunity nor a temptation. It is even possible there to be no manifestations of these two passions in a monastic, yet at the same time his heart to be completely closed and he to be denied of the gift of the mind-and-heart prayer. Precisely by his closeness to the prayer within him do we find out and know that his heart is bound and defiled by some passion. If that passion is neither pleasure-indulgence nor avarice, then the only one left is vainglory. Hence, at least theoretically, we know that the main and basic disease of the monastic is vanity, high opinion of oneself, conceit—in a word, the problem is the captivity to the passion of vainglory and pride. The same, more or less, applies to them who struggle in the world.
What is the remedy for the disease that obstructs our entry into the Kingdom of Heaven inside us—in our heart; the disease that makes us captives to the world and part of the world? We all know: it is the wholehearted obedience. Through obedience solely do we place our proud, distracted, and darkened mind into the healing process, through which we attain a humbled, prayerfully collected in the heart, and illumined mind. However, as we have said, we must first become aware that we are fallen and a failure. Only he who is aware of his sinfulness, who is aware of how remote he is from God, can feel fear, feel the need or lovingly yearn after Him. Otherwise, how do we expect from someone who thinks he is illumined (that he is not sick and sinful), because of the few books read, to place his mind into a healing process through obedience? Or how can we expect from him who, due to the unfounded great idea of himself (notwithstanding its origin), considers himself not sick and sinful, to place his mind into a healing process through obedience? It goes without saying, we cannot. Such ones have neither the reason nor the motive. The delusion under which, due to many reasons, they are, does not allow them this. First, such ones do not sincerely believe in the existence of God, let alone of mind-heart-prayer, etc. now, let us see what the Holy Fathers say about this unnatural way of life and what is it that is natural for us.
“grace is divided into three stages: purifying, illuminating, and perfecting [deifying]. Life is also divided into three stages: contrary to nature, according to nature, and above nature. Man ascends and descends within these three stages” (Elder Joseph the Spilaioti). You have noticed, children, that this time I have used this division of the stages of spiritual development instead of the usual one—purification of the heart from passions, illumination of the mind, and deification. This classification, used by many of the Holy Fathers (I shall not name them), absolutely matches the usual one, yet the term ‘contrary to nature’ used to describe the way of our life instead of the term ‘purification of the heart from passions’ is stronger, more impressive, and more suitable to use when we like to stress how our nature is sick and fallen. And this time I would like to emphasize that because I see how today’s Christians live and behave as though they lacked nothing and were worried by nothing—that is, they live contrary to nature as if it were natural to them.
What does it mean to live contrary to nature? It is contrary to nature if with our way of life we nurture our passions instead of healing them. For instance, rather than, since we are ill with pride and vainglory, place our impassioned mind into a healing process through obedience, we do all contrary to this instead: identify ourselves with our thoughts, desires, and feelings; guide ourselves; do not confess properly; gossip, judge, and condemn; justify ourselves; think we are right about everything; live without a struggle, in despondence; design plans for our own promotion, outside God’s plan; fight for ranks, for the first place, and honors; envy, do not forgive, and even hate etc. These are appalling examples of the disharmony of our way of life with the lowest stage of the assumed spiritual development at which we are. And, the worst of all, everything I have listed here we have turned through the habit into our second nature and feel as our natural state to be fallen. I simply wonder: do we love Christ? Or better: do we believe in Christ? Here I would only like to mention that obedience is a struggle that encompasses much more than merely the relationship with the spiritual father; yet, some other time about this.
What does it mean to live according to nature? Everything opposite to the way of life that is contrary to nature. Adam was created at the level of illumination. This is the stage of a way of life according to nature. His heart was not bound by passions. He had the gift of the mind-and-heart prayer and the gift of illumination of the mind, to a sufficient extent. He should have only through fulfillment of one commandment rounded up God’s Dispensation of Creation. To this way of life according to nature and to this level of illumination we are all called to prepare ourselves and receive them through the Holy Mystery of Baptism. To this way of life according to nature and to this level of illumination we are all called to prepare ourselves and receive them through the Holy Mystery of Repentance or monastic dedication to God. Therefore, Most Holy Theotokos, through Whom we receive every gift of God, illumine my darkness so that I can see better how sinful I am and how far away from my Lord Jesus Christ!
Well then, let us now get back to the above-raised question: How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners? Because, they are the ones who seek Him.
Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica