You see it in every restaurant bathroom you go to: “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.” I’ve even seen detailed instructions in bathrooms as to how to wash one’s hands properly!
In 1546 Italian physician and scholar Girolamo Fracastoro first suggested that unseen “germs” were the cause of infectious diseases, and the idea that germs caused sickness. But they couldn’t “see” the germs, so it would be years later that this theory was proven accurate.
Over and over again, we’ve seen a spiritual correlation between our physical world and our spiritual lives. So, if physical disease is caused by unseen “germs” then there are spiritual diseases, illnesses of the soul that are also caused by small things that grow into big problems. AND, if we can be aware of these “small things” and get ahead of their “infection” in our soul, we can keep our spiritual lives healthy! But, of course, you have to regularly “wash your hands!”
In today’s Gospel Lesson our Lord Jesus gives us the spiritual microscope to “see” a “small thing” that infects a man’s spirit making him vulnerable to spiritual illness.
Look at Matthew 16:6-12: “The Lord said to his disciples, ‘Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they discussed it among themselves, saying, ‘We brought no bread.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said. ‘O men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
The common practice of baking bread in Jesus’ day was the perfect illustration to show that the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” causes spiritual illness. You can’t see it. It works “inside” the heart, and it makes one unable to enjoy intimacy with God.
So, what is this leaven? Well, it wasn’t the great education that marked the Sadducees. They were the elite and educated ruling class of Jesus’ day. They were skilled in administration, in politics, and in diplomacy. And the Pharisees were meticulous observers of the Law of the Jews. They had committed prayer lives, and were always in the Temple following the Law of Moses.
But they both shared a common weakness and blind spot that festered illness in their souls. The Fathers called it “prelest” or “spiritual pride.” Both the Sadducees and the Pharisees “knew” their “virtues” and in so doing they made their virtues into vices. They undid all the “good” things in their accomplishments because they forgot gratitude, mercy, patience, and love.
The path to avoiding the germs of the Pharisees and Sadducees isn’t to avoid being educated. It isn’t avoiding pious and meticulous practice of the faith. It isn’t in reducing the faith to mere “feelings” or even “good intentions.” It is a singular focus on the Source of just how we do all this wonderful work in the first place. We remember that all good things come from God. And the best way to keep that before our eyes is to remember the central icon of our Orthodox faith: The Holy Eucharist! It is the focus on a Eucharistic life that fosters the “antibiotics” that destroy the germs of “prelest.” Because a truly Eucharistic life fosters gratitude, thankfulness, and love, and the germs of the Pharisees and Sadducees can’t live in that environment.
Today, what do you have in front of you that helps you to remember to be grateful to God? What daily practice keeps you focused on the truth that it is God Who has given you your very life. it is God Who has given you this day. It is God Who has given you the breath you breathe. Always remembering to be grateful kills the “germs” that sicken the soul. No wonder the Church keeps the gift of the Lord’s Eucharist as the central vision of a healthy Christian life!