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Diocese of Charleston Bible Study + August 3, 2016

I Corinthians 7:24-35
Matthew 15:12-21

I Corinthians 7:24-35 (NKJV)
Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called. Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy. I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is: Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you. But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away. But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction.

Matthew 15:12-21 (NKJV)
Then His disciples came and said to Him, "Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?" But He answered and said, "Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch." Then Peter answered and said to Him, "Explain this parable to us." So Jesus said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man." Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

Commentary 

We are now in the midst of the Dormition Fast, as we commemorate our Lady, the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary, and prepare to commemorate her falling asleep in the Lord. Today's Scripture readings both represent important reminders to us about the purpose and nature of this, and the other fasts of the Church year. It is very easy for fasting to become an empty legalism. It is easy for us to begin to focus obsessively on the ingredients of food, to spend more time and money on meals, and to judge others less scrupulous than ourselves during this time. When we do this, we may keep the letter of the fast, but we lose the Spirit. On the other hand, it is easy to become lazy or jaded about fasting, and simply not do it. Some may even consider this and other fasts to be optional, potentially of some benefit to some people, but ultimately unimportant.

St. Paul reminds us today that our time is short. Some read this passage and will say that this is evidence that the Apostle believed that Christ was about to return, but He didn't, and so it is now unimportant or doesn't apply to us today. They forget, however, as we often do, that our life in this world is finite, it has an end, and for those who approach that end, it often feels as if it approaches all too quickly. St. Paul is, in fact, calling upon us to consider the brevity of our lives, and in consideration of our end, to shape our priorities accordingly. Especially for those of us who have families, as St. Paul points out, it is very easy for us to become so involved in day to day matters in this world, our finances, our jobs, our other obligations, while finding occasional times for relaxation, that our life in the Spirit falls through the cracks. We are far too busy to find any time for prayer, too busy or too tired to go to a service of the Church, fasting is too much hassle, and if everything seems to be going well, there's really no need to go to confession. When we have a moment to sit and take stock of our lives, however, we are forced to admit that we devote a great portion of our time to things which, in 'the grand scheme of things', in light of the shortness of our lives, are not really that important at all. Certainly not more important than eternal life in Jesus Christ.

The fasts of the Church, therefore, are first and foremost to give us an opportunity to have such moments; to consider the limits to our lives in this world, and their limits. In this fast preceding the Dormition of the Theotokos, as we remember that her life in this world, too, ended, we are called to think upon our own departure from this life. We are called for a period of time to set aside trying to please ourselves, and focus instead on what is pleasing to God. Rather than spending our time finding our next meal, to enjoy ourselves with good food and drink, we eat minimally, and use the time and money saved to worship the Lord, and to help those in need. We refocus ourselves from career, financial concerns, and other worldly obligations to prayer, and the one thing that is truly needful in our lives. At least, this is what a time of fasting can be, if we give ourselves over to the Spirit who dwells within us, rather than following after our own will and desires.

Today's Gospel, additionally, reminds us of the most important part of any fast. In it, the Pharisees had just criticized Jesus' disciples for not washing their hands before eating. This was not just a judgmental statement that Jesus' followers were poor, uncouth peasants. Ritual purity, by washings, was built into the Torah, the Law of God received by Moses. Jesus and His disciples were therefore being accused of being less than devout and pious in addition to being ill-mannered. Christ's response is two-fold. First He tells His disciples to let them alone. Though the Pharisees are judging and demeaning the disciples, they are not to follow suit in judging, demeaning, or hating the Pharisees in return. On the Day of Judgment, God will deal with them, and with us. Secondly, Christ points out that it is not what we eat, by virtue of having dirty hands, that makes a person dirty or unclean. As He says, what we eat is digested and passes through our bodies. What comes out of a person's mouth, on the other hand, flows up out of that person's heart. It is therefore what comes out of us, what we produce, which reveals whether we are in fact pure and clean inside, or impure and unclean.

The mistake which the Pharisees had made is one which we are also all too prone to making. In the Old Covenant, the laws concerned with washing and purity were there as a symbol, pointing to the need of all of us to repent, and experience the cleansing and purification of our conscience from sin and evil, just as, for example, we need to wash and cleanse our hands before we use them to eat if we don't want to consume filth. The Pharisees, however, had reduced these commandments to simply a legalistic practice. If you wash your hands, you are a law-keeper and therefore good. If you do not, you are a law-breaker, and therefore bad. They missed the fundamental point that without repentance, the ritual was empty. Having clean hands and a filthy soul accomplished nothing for them.

Likewise, brothers and sisters in Christ, every fast is first and foremost an opportunity for repentance. Being a vegetarian whose mind and heart are filled with hatred, lust, jealousy, and deceit will gain us nothing before God. Even changing our other behavior, and attending more services, or reading more prayers, without actually repenting, accomplishes nothing. When we look at our lives and find ourselves absorbed by the things of this world and its pleasures, we cannot just change our outward behavior for a short period of time, and then return to our previous pursuits. Rather, we must understand how we have failed in our spiritual lives, and with sorrow and repentance endeavor to do better in the future. While the fast ends, our desire and fervent pursuit of pleasing God must not; our repentance must not. We must seek to spend every season of our lives pursuing a pure heart before God, so that when that Day of Judgment does come, that purity will be revealed before the Lord in our words and deeds.

Questions to Ponder

  1. In today's epistle reading, St. Paul speaks to us about marriage, that we should learn to be content whatever our status, whether married or single. He then goes on to explain that it is actually more difficult to be married as a Christian, and that marriage makes our salvation more difficult, because we have to be concerned not only for our salvation and Christian life, but also our life in the world and our family. He does not say that the latter is evil, quite the opposite, only that it makes our lives more complicated. If you are single, are you content being single, and do you devote your time to the things of the Lord, and how you may please Him? If you are married, are you content in your marriage, though it may not be perfect, and do you seek to please the Lord and your spouse? Or are you living, married or single, to please yourself?
  2. In today's Gospel reading, our Lord points out that it is not what goes into us, in eating food, that makes us clean or unclean, but what comes out of us, that reveals whether our heart is clean or filthy. As we participate in the Dormition Fast, do you pay as much attention to the words that come out of your mouth as you do to what food you place in it? Are you fasting from gossip, from condemnation, from anger, and from crudeness? If all the words you spoke in the last 24 hours were recorded and analyzed, would someone conclude that your heart was pure?
  3. St. Paul reminds us today that whether our Lord returns in our lifetime, or we pass the course of our years here in this world and fall asleep in the Lord, our time in this life is short. With that in mind, he urges all of us to devote our time and our energies to the things of the Lord, to our spiritual life, to working out our salvation, and to serving Christ by serving others. How much of your time is spent pursuing the things of God, as compared to how much time you spend pursuing your career, or reputation, or wealth, or success in this dying world? Do you find your happiness in satisfying your worldly desires, eating good meals, being honored by others, pursuing hobbies and interests, or in helping those in need and in the worship of the Lord? If this is the day when you are chosen and taken to be with the Lord, would you feel cheated or disappointed about missing out on something in this world, or would you rejoice?

Questions or Comments? FrStephen@stgeorgecharleston.org

Note from the Author – No rights reserved. If you find anything good, or helpful, or worthwhile in these Bible studies from week to week, feel free to take and use it as you see fit. I do not need credit.


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