Continue in the Things That You Have Learned! The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

After having considered the cycles of troparia, kontakia, and theotokia, we resume our reading of the Scriptural passages for Divine Liturgy in the light of the Old Testament.  This year we will be focusing on the epistle readings, which are so often neglected in favor of the gospels, and seeking to understand them in the light of the Old Testament and the Church fathers.

Today’s passage will be read in the light of Psalm 118 (MT 119), and with reference to Old Testament figures who suffered for their faith.

Recently on a Facebook discussion group composed of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestants, someone asked the question, “Is there anywhere in the Bible where it says that laypeople should read the Scriptures?”   It was clear to me that this question was intended as a challenge to the Protestants of the group, and was being posed by someone who considered the Scriptures to be the particular purview of the clergy.  I don’t know if the questioner was Orthodox or Catholic, but if Orthodox, he or she was woefully unaware of the long tradition in the Church that encourages everyone to read the Scriptures, as it encourages everyone to fast, to pray, and to live as Christ would. There is to be no theological, ethical or spiritual divide between us, as though there were professional and the amateur Christians! The answer to the poster’s question is, of course, no—there is no proof text commanding laypeople to read God’s written Word.  Why would there be? It wouldn’t have entered the mind of people who prayed the Psalms regularly that they should not diligently read them, along with the other books.

Our epistle reading for this Sunday, as we begin our preparations for Great Lent, nicely complements our reading concerning the Publican and the Pharisee.  Jesus’ story about that contrasting duo in the Temple provides a cautionary tale concerning the dangers of hypocrisy and surface religion. For the successful faster, there is the temptation to accentuate one’s own actions, as did the smug Pharisee, rather than looking to God.  We want our time during Great Lent to be fruitful, and to increase our devotion to the Lord, so that we learn to cry out with the Publican, “Have mercy on me, O Lord!”

Paul’s instructions to Timothy in his second letter remind us that being a Christian involves the whole heart, and mind, and soul.  Of course, he is speaking specifically to a young leader, and helping to fortify him against a world that is hostile to God, and even against members of his own congregation who may be tempted to apostasize or to scorn the young man’s leadership.  Here is the passage:

But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, long-suffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra – what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.  But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  (2 Timothy 3:10-15)

Of course, we can see immediately how this applies in a specific way to a leader of the Church. But what the apostle says to this young man is excellent advice for every Christian: “You must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of.”

Which things?  The apostle outlines them in some detail for Timothy.  “You have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, long-suffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, and afflictions.”  We might think at first glance that this is a prescription only for apostles and leaders, especially when we get to the final two items of “persecutions and afflictions.”  However, the apostle closes off that escape route from us, saying, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”  This is because, of course, we are called, all of us, to follow the pattern of Jesus in our lives. Earlier in the letter we learned of whom he had first heard these things—from his mother and grandmother, who had faith before him.  This was not a matter of special knowledge for the experts, but of the common faith of his family, and indeed of the Christian family.  These things were shared.

Notice that St. Paul does not play off doctrine against manner of life and love: these are all joined together in his commendation of Timothy, and thus in his prescription for the fruitful Christian life.  Notice also that he doesn’t simply mean that Timothy has been aware of what Paul has been going through —“following”  it, as in being interested in a FB thread, or a news items.  No, this following is much more concrete, and means that Timothy has actually followed him like a guide, putting into practice what he has seen in his mentor. This Greek word means to accompany, to go alongside, to attend someone or something, to make it one’s own.

The idea of imitating a mentor, and of constant attention to what is happening in the mind, heart, and life, would not be a novel thing to Timothy.  After all, there are ample instructions in the OT for a young person with regards to cultivating the godly life.  In particular, there is the type of literature which scholars label ‘wisdom’ books, that are replete with instructions, parables, and wise brief words to guide the young.  Frequently these words refer the young person to the Scriptures, or the word of God, just as St. Paul’s words do here.

We may think of, for example, of Psalm 118 (119 MT), portions of which stud our weekly vigil and liturgy— “blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me thy statutes!”  This psalm is an acrostic in the original, with each section beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It begins, in the “aleph” section, by referring in the plural to those who “walk in the Law of the Lord” as blessed, and commends those whose eyes are “fixed” on God’s word.  The second section, beginning with the letter “bet,” is given voice by one who is young (according to that culture, the “young man” at the study of Torah), who would please God.  Of course, under the new covenant, where there is no male and female in the area of learning about God, and under which Jesus commended Mary at his feet, the words apply to all who would please Him:

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to thy word.
   With my whole heart I seek thee;
let me not wander from thy commandments!
I have hidden thy word in my heart,
that I might not sin against thee.
Blessed art thou, O Lord;
teach me thy statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the ordinances of thy mouth.
In the way of thy testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on thy precepts,
and fix my eyes on thy ways.
I will delight in thy statutes;
I will not forget thy word.

Of course, the emphasis in the Psalm is on statutes, commandments, ordinances, and precepts; but the Psalm envisions a large focus, as well, referring to God’s word in general, as well as to His “ways.”  Nor is it simply a call to obedience and conformity, but to “mediation,” “delight,” “remembrance,” “fixing one’s attention,” “guarding,” “seeking,” “declaring with the lips,” and even “hiding in the heart.”   Contrary to what many think, as they caricature the Old Testament, the Torah was not simply an external Law, but a Way that addressed the whole person.  “Torah” may be translated as “Nomos” or “Law,” but it did not include simply “laws” to be obeyed.  After all, the first five books of the Bible, the section called the Torah, included the narrative of God’s dealings with humankind and Israel.  When the ten commandments are introduced, the people are told, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt.  THEREFORE, you shall have no other gods beside me….” and so on.  It is not that the Hebrews were to earn God’s favor and love, but that He loved them actively, and so they were to respond by heeding the commands.

On top of this, even the ten commandments dealt with the inner as well as the outer person.  They called the people of God to honor God, and to honor people: the first command concerns worship, and the final command concerns NOT coveting, an inward disposition.  Jesus was not doing violence to the Law when he summed it up in the commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and soul, and strength, and mind.”  And he was showing its depth and potential, when understood in the light of the New Covenant, when he instructed, “You have heard that it was said, do not commit adultery, but I say, anyone who looks at a woman in lust has already committed adultery.”  The Old Testament precepts are not things of the past, but shafts of light that pointed forward towards Christ, and guidelines that still have the force to transform us, when they are followed with love for God and with the fuller understanding of His character that comes from being in Christ.

God cares about every part of our lives, and so calls us, in these words to Timothy, to attend carefully to the apostolic doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, long-suffering, love, and perseverance.  Our pursuit of these things is likely, in a hostile age, to bring about affliction and even persecution, as it did our Master. Some people will wonder at our manner of life, and at our teaching, especially the teaching that Jesus is the Way for everyone.  Others will scoff at our faith, and consider our continuing in it (“perseverance”) to be bizarre.  Some will even misunderstand our love, when we express it by speaking truthfully about things that are inconvenient or embarrassing—like God’s design for sexuality, or the sanctity of pre-born babies, or the evils of euthanasia. Others, who think that strength is shown in anger and retribution, will misunderstand as weakness any meekness that we show to those who malign us.  We are likely to get it coming and going.  We can think of the righteous patriarch Joseph, who in his slavery was attacked on many sides, beginning with his brothers. Or we can consider Daniel, a later prophet, and all that he suffered because of faithfulness to God. And we see it in spades with our Lord.  Jesus was attacked by both the ruling Sadducees and the populist Pharisees; He was not loved by the Zealots, who preferred the sword to the Word of God; even the Essenes would have criticized Him for contaminating Himself with what was ‘unclean;” finally, He was betrayed by one of His own.

Let us not be deceived.  To continue in these things is not necessarily to set ourselves up for a peaceful life, though we must be peace-makers.  But it is to follow in the path of Jesus, which ultimately leads us to resurrection and ascension—to share in the glory of God.  Such instruction is a common thread seen woven throughout the Scriptures, Old and New Testament.  We are called to continue in what we have learned, in its many aspects, no matter what the immediate outcome.  For we know, in the end, what it will bring.  As the second epistle of Peter reminds us,

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.  For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.

Yes, we have learned and received everything that we need to grow to be like Him, including the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, if we will only continue in them. Thanks be to God!



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