Tonight’s Gospel is perhaps one of the strongest and most accusing Gospels in Holy Week. We hear that Christ really gets into it with the Pharisees and the scribes, the so-called leaders of the faith at his time. He is really harsh with them. He is really critical. We never hear Christ speak like this in the Gospels. This is the only place where he calls them “serpents” and “vipers”, and he says, “Woe, to you, scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites” (Matthew 23). Many times we this, and we read all these kind of “woes”. It is kind of like he’s cursing them. Many times we read this part of the Gospel, and we identify it with ourselves. We’ve heard the common explanation that not only is Christ speaking to the Pharisees, to the leaders, but he is also speaking to us. We should take heed and warning of hypocrisy, of not practicing what we preach.
But tonight I also want to speak a little bit about the literal meaning of the Gospel. We know that Christ is not only speaking to the people, but he is specifically directing his words to the priests, to the leaders. This is why I always tell my brother priests that all of us, the priests in the Orthodox Church, should really listen very carefully to tonight’s Gospel. We’re human beings too, and many times we fall into the hypocrisies that Christ mentions in tonight’s Gospel.
We spoke two days ago about self-delusion. We spoke about how we are sinners and how we have difficulty following the path of Christ and following his word. We are sinful, and we delude ourselves into believing our own version of Christ, our own version of spirituality. And, you know what? Priests do it too. I would say that the danger is much greater for priests, because priests are placed in a position of power, in a position of authority, in a position of leadership where they are given a flock, a local church. Many times they forget that they are servants of that church, and they begin to feel that they are little gods in themselves. They make up their own rules as they go. They do things that are convenient to themselves. They make sure they don’t offend their congregations. They make sure they don’t say anything that might make them unpopular.
We hear all these criticisms tonight in the Gospel. We hear how the Pharisees of the time did all these things on the exterior. They liked to make big prostrations and large prayers in front of people, so that they looked holy. Yet on the inside, they are not truly spiritual people. We have to be very careful of that as priests.
Why do I say this tonight? Many times the lay people, the people who are not part of the clergy, want things a certain way. If the priest does not do it that way, usually they will criticize. But we have to remember that, if he is a good priest, a good leader, a good bishop, a good Sunday school teacher, a good parish president, all these people who are in leadership positions, they will do what is best for their people, whether the people understand it or not, whether the people accept that truth or not.
It’s the same way as raising our children. Many times our children want to do something, and we know as their parents that it is not correct for them to do it. We tell them “no”. Our children get angry with us, and sometimes they act out. Many times they don’t understand why we’re doing it. And yet the parent knows that, if he or she does not set down some guidelines and teach the child what is right, the child will be spoiled.
This is the great danger within the Church today, especially for the leaders of the Church—that balance between being loved by their congregation, being loved by their people, having a true family, and preaching the truth. As we see and will see during the Gospel readings of Holy Week, Christ was not treated with respect because he taught the truth. He was actually treated with the opposite. He was mocked and ridiculed. They wanted to stone him. They drove him out of the synagogues, and in the end they crucified him. Why? Because he spoke the truth.
The problem is that we don’t want to hear the truth. So sometimes, in the same way, if a priest tries to teach something that is correct but people don’t want to hear it, they call him a bad priest, or they will call him a bad chanter, or they will call him a bad Sunday school teacher, or they will call him a bad president. But the issue is not in the person who is teaching it, the issue is with us. We must try and have discretion and understand if what is being told to us is truly correct. Or are we just self-deluded?
One of the examples—and I said it in Greek—is something that happens in North America. I’m not afraid to say it, because we’re all a family here. We should discuss the good and the bad in the Church. One of the examples is the so-called Express Communion that we have, not here in St. Demetrius, but in many churches across Canada, especially in the big cities—the communion for the working people. Some of you may have heard it. It may have been done in the past here.
The priest will offer Holy Communion before Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday morning for people who do not have time to come to church, who work all the time, and they just want to come in quickly for five minutes, take Holy Communion and leave, because they don’t plan on coming to the Resurrection anyway.
This is something that has been created here in North America. Nowhere in any Orthodox country will you see this. You will not see it in Greece. You will not see it in Russia. You will not see it in the Ukraine, in Serbia or anywhere—only in North America. It is something that is wrong. I know I will get criticized by some other people by saying this, but it is blatantly wrong. Why? Because we’re not supposed to give Holy Communion outside of the context of Liturgy.
We cannot just come into the church and take Communion as if it’s something that we drive up to at McDonald’s and Burger King, and take it without preparation, without prayer, without fasting. And yet we do it. Why do the priests do it? Why do the archdioceses allow it? Because the people complain, and we don’t want them to complain, we don’t want to be unpopular.
This is one of the examples that I’m talking about. This is one of the examples where we are feeding the spiritual laziness of our people. Instead of teaching them the truth, which is difficult, instead of preaching Christ, preaching the true order of the Church, the reasons for fasting, the reasons for spiritual preparation, the reason for going to Liturgy and being on time, instead of doing that, which is very, very hard, we don’t do that. We just give the people what they want.
This is what the Pharisees were doing too. But if we do that, we become hypocrites. We are selling out to the Gospel. We are pandering to the people. Why? Because we want to be popular. We don’t want to hear the constant grumblings and complaints. If Christ did that, where would we be today? They complained to Christ every day for the things that he taught; and yet he stayed the course. We too, as priests and all leaders within the Church, have to stay the course.
We have to teach what is true. This is why I always ask my parishioners here to learn your faith well, to research your faith. Why? Because priests are people too and make mistakes. There is nothing wrong, when you hear something in church and it doesn’t seem right or it seems a little off, to go and research it. There’s nothing wrong with going back to scripture, going back to the fathers of the Church, going back to the saints, and researching it and checking if what they hear is correct or not.
There’s nothing wrong with questioning your priest—with love and respect of course—there is nothing wrong with it. If we say that we are one family, we should love each other and respect each other as a family. The priest is not a king. The priest is a human being. Sure, he’s in a leadership position, but we all too have a responsibility as Orthodox Christians.
This is why I have told many of you individually, but I always say to the Church as well, that we all have to become theologians, we all have to learn our faith and depth, so that we do not deviate from the path, so that there are checks and balances in the system, so that we do not necessarily just follow the ideas of one person. But we truly follow the true tradition, the truth that is taught through scripture and through Christ. Amen.