on the Mount
Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
Translated by Seraphim Larin/ Nicolas and Natalie Semyanko
Edited by Donald Shufran
Contents: The significance of the sermon on the mount. The beatitudes. Christians — the light of the world. Two measures of righteousness. Harmony between the internal and the external. The Lord’s Prayer. The eternal treasure. Not judging others and safekeeping the sacred. Consistency in virtues and hope in God. False prophets. How to stand firm in times of trials.
of the sermon on the mount
The Savior’s Sermon on the Mount is remarkable in that it appears a distillation of the Gospel in its entirety, condensing all that is important and essential for every Christian to know and to do. The Evangelist St. Matthew recorded what appears to be the entirety of the sermon, in the 5th, 6th, and 7th chapters of his Gospel, and the Evangelist Luke gives several parts of the sermon in the 6th chapter of his Gospel. The Lord preached the Sermon on the Mount in his first year of public service, on a small mountain located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, near the town of Capernaum.
The Lord begins the Sermon on the Mount with the nine beatitudes, which set forth the New Testament law of spiritual rebirth. He then speaks of the beneficial influence Christians have on the society they live in, and of the fact that His teachings do not negate the Old Testament laws, but rather supplements them. The Lord teaches us to overcome malice, to be chaste, to remain faithful to one’s word, to forgive all, to love even our enemies and to strive for perfection here.
In the next part of His sermon, the Savior teaches that it is necessary to strive for true righteousness, which is found in the heart of a person, in contrast to the ostentatious Judaic righteousness prevalent in those times. By examples, the Lord explains how one must show mercy, pray and fast in order to please God. Further, He urges people not to hoard wealth but to hope in God.
In the last part of His sermon, the Lord teaches us not to judge others, to safeguard what is holy from desecration, and to be consistent in good works. Concluding his sermon, the Lord shows the difference between the "wide" and "narrow paths," warns against false prophets, and explains how to fortify ourselves for overcoming the inevitable trials of life.
The Lord Jesus Christ characterized the teaching which He brought to all mankind from His Heavenly Father in this way: "Heaven and earth shall pass away: but My words shall not pass away" (Mark 13:31). Truly, the eternal, heavenly truth — which does not deteriorate with time, and which applies equally to people of all races and cultures — is given in the Sermon on the Mount. The conditions of life and people’s understandings of morality change, but the Laws of God are immutable. For this reason, Christians, striving for eternal life, should first of all master the eternal laws of goodness laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, and construct their life on them. We will now discuss these eternal laws.
— the path to Heaven
The Sermon on the Mount begins with the nine Beatitudes. These laws supplement the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Old Testament laws speak of those things one must not do, and emit a sense of severity. The New Testament laws, on the contrary, speak of those things which must be done, and they breathe of love. The ancient Ten Commandments were written on stone tablets and mastered through external education. The New Testament laws are also written on the tablets, but the tablets of a believing heart, by the Holy Spirit. Here is the text of these eternal laws:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven" (Mat. 5:3-12).
It is noteworthy that each of these New Testament laws begins with the word "blessed." While the Old Testament laws work through the path of prohibition and the threat of punishment, the New Testament laws urge one to goodness, leading upward to a never-ending joy in God.
From the time of the original sin of our foreparents, people have lost both true happiness and even the correct notion of it. The word "happiness" itself began to sound like an unrealizable dream, an unattainable ideal. But the Lord Jesus Christ offers people happiness as a concrete, attainable reality. And here the promise refers not only to a heavenly life in the future, but to something which begins to be realized even now, by the measure of how much a person is liberated from the oppression of sin, gains peace of conscience and becomes worthy of the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is precisely the Holy Spirit which gives a person such happiness beyond words that it cannot be compared to any worldly pleasures. When reading the lives of the saints, we see that true Christians were ready to face any sacrifice for the sake of protecting and strengthening the grace of God within them.
Delving deeper into the meaning of the Beatitudes, it becomes apparent that they are laid out in a definite sequence. They show a person the way to true happiness and explain how to travel on this path. They can be compared to a heavenly stairway or plan for a harmonious house of virtue.
The fact that each person (without exception) is damaged by sin, and thus destitute and pitiful, serves as the starting point for the Beatitudes. The tragedy of the original sin of Adam and Eve is the tragedy of all humanity. Sin clouds the mind, weakens and imprisons the will, and constricts the human heart with sorrow and despondency. For this reason each sinner feels unhappy, but, at the same time, does not understand the reason for his grief. In his sufferings he is ready to blame everyone and all of life’s circumstances. The first beatitude gives the correct diagnosis: the reason for the dissatisfaction of any person is his or her own spiritual illness.
The Lord Jesus Christ came into the world in order to heal man. He calls on all to turn to God, to enter into His Kingdom of eternal joy. For humanity, the call of Christ sounds like the voice of a loving Father, calling his lost son to return to his home. When a person returns to God, he does not come to Him with bags filled with virtues or the riches of earned talents; he comes impoverished, like the prodigal son who has wasted his father’s property.
The first beatitude calls upon a person to understand his spiritual illness and to turn to God for help. This first step is difficult! It is not easy for the "prodigal son" to come to his senses, to admit his guilt and helplessness, and to begin upon the path of return. For this reason a great reward is already promised to people for their effort of will, for the good beginning alone: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." It is worth noting that while the fall of humanity began with the haughty desire to be equal to God (the seducer promised our foreparents, "Ye shall be as gods," Gen. 3:5), the restoration of a person begins with the meek confession of his helplessness.
Being poor in spirit does not mean a material poverty, or a lack of spiritual talent. Just the opposite — someone "poor in spirit" may be very rich or very gifted. Spiritual poverty is a humble way of thinking which comes from an honest confession of one’s own imperfection. But Christian humility is not despair or pessimism. On the contrary, it is full in the hope of God’s mercy, and of the real possibility of becoming better. It is permeated with the joyful expectation that with His help we will become virtuous and pleasing children to Him.
The recognition a believing person has of his own poverty and sinfulness is expressed through a penitent frame of mind — in the denouncement of one’s past and in the intention to reform. True penitence, which is often accompanied by tears, possesses great divine strength. After one gains it, one feels a great lightness, as if a heavy burden had been lifted from one’s shoulders. The second beatitude calls us to such sincere repentance, saying: "Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted."
When the conscience is cleansed of sins, an inner harmony is instilled in a person — complete order in his thoughts, feelings and wishes. The irritability and animosity he had had before are replaced by a feeling of peacefulness and quiet joy. A person with such an attitude no longer wants to argue with anyone. He will even prefer to suffer a loss in any given worldly matter than to lose his spiritual peace. Thus, penitence raises a Christian to the third step of virtue — meekness: "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth."
Of course, sometimes malicious people ill-use the meekness of a Christian. They take advantage of it by deception, theft, or humiliatiton. God comforts the Christian with the hope that in the future life he will receive much more than he could lose in this life from the schemes of brazen people. If not always in this life, then in the future, without doubt, justice will conquer, and the meek, as promised, will inherit the "earth" — that is, all the blessings of the renewed world, in which the truth will reside.
Thus the first three beatitudes, calling a person to humbly appeal to God, to penitence and to meekness, lay the foundation on which a house of Christian virtues is raised.
As the reappearance of the appetite in someone who is ill serves as the first sign that he is beginning to recover, so the desire for righteousness is the first indication that a sinner is beginning to heal. While in sin, a person hungers for riches, money, honors, and physical pleasures. He never considers spiritual riches, or may even disdain them. But when that soul is freed from the illusions of sin, he begins to long for spiritual perfection. The fourth beatitude describes this striving for righteousness: "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled."
The desire for righteousness can be understood as the next phase in the construction of a house of virtues — the building of the walls. By using the words "hunger and thirst" here, the Lord tells us that our desire for righteousness should not be lukewarm or passive, but the very opposite, that it must be energetic and active. A hungry person does not only imagine food, he uses all his energy to appease his hunger. Only by yearning for it actively can one receive righteousness, or, as described in the beatitude, "be filled."
When he reaches the fourth step of virtue, a person already possesses a certain degree of spiritual experience. Having received from God the forgiveness of his sins, peace of soul and the joy of adoption, the Christian now feels His great love for himself. This love warms his heart, and there arises then in his heart an answering love for God and compassion for others. In other words, he becomes kind and gracious, and with these attributes rises to the fifth level of virtue — mercy: "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy."
The beatitude about mercy is very extensive! Mercy must not be expressed in material help only; it must be expressed in forgiving offenses, visiting of the ill, comforting the suffering, giving kind advice and tender words, praying for others and many other ways. Literally every day offers us many chances to help our neighbors. For the most part, they are a chain of hardly noticeable and "insignificant" incidents. But the spiritual wisdom of a Christian consists in having the discernment not to scorn "small," good deeds, for the sake of what may appear to be "great" deeds — in the future. Great plans usually remain unrealized, while small good deeds, by their number, add up to a considerable spiritual capital by the end of one’s life.
Active love so purifies the depths of the human heart of pride, and brings a person so much nearer to God, that his entire soul is transfigured with spiritual light. A person begins to sense the fluttering of grace; already begins in this life, as it were, to see God with his spiritual eyes. Here the soul of such a Christian can be compared to a lake, which, in the course of many years of neglect, had become overgrown with weeds, filled with scum and clouded, but later, was cleaned out and changed so completely that rays of light could penetrate deep into its crystal-clear waters. The sixth beatitude speaks about people who achieve such a level of spiritual purity: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." Examples of such spiritual purity, carrying over into sagacity, were such righteous saints as St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. John of Kronstadt, the Elders of Optina and many other saints of the Orthodox Church.
God makes righteous persons such as these into tools of His providence, using them to save other people. For this end He gives them wisdom and especially spiritual sensitivity. In their calling to convert people to the path of salvation, these righteous individuals begin to resemble the Son of God, Who came into the world to reconcile sinners to God. The seventh beatitude speaks about such spiritual peacemaking: "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." Of course, all people should try to be peacemakers in their own family circle and among their friends, but the higher form of this virtue requires a special gift from above, which is given to those with a pure heart.
In order to resemble the Son of God in good deeds, a Christian must be prepared to imitate Him in patience. The last two beatitudes speak of the sad fact that the world, "laying in evil," cannot tolerate true righteousness and revolts against its bearers: "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake." Just as light, dispelling darkness, shows things as they truly are, so the virtuous life of a true Christian reveals the moral ugliness of the wicked. Jealousy arises out of this, on the part of sinners toward the righteous; they desire to revenge themselves for the reproach of their conscience. This animosity toward the righteous can be found throughout world history, beginning with the tale of Cain and Abel and extending to the modern persecution of believers in atheistic countries.
People of weak faith are ashamed to show that they are believers: they are afraid to be subjected to persecution for their religious beliefs. But truly righteous persons and martyrs gladly accepted suffering for Christ, because their hearts burned with love for God. They even considered themselves lucky to be deemed worthy to suffer for their faith. In the days of trials, a Christian should consider their example and comfort himself with the words of Christ, Who promised: "Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven!" for the greater the love, the greater the reward.
To sum up the last five beatitudes, we see that they all call upon us to love. Love takes its initial form in mercy for people. Spiritual peacemaking is a higher form of love; for its success purity of heart and insight from God are needed. Remaining faithful to God under ridicule and persecution, as well as willingly giving one’s life in the name of Christ, is the highest expression of love for God. In this way, the last five beatitudes, showing the Christian more and more perfect forms of love, sketch before him a plan for the upper arches of his or her temple of virtue.
In conclusion, it is necessary to say that a Christian, striving toward love, should not in the process forget and ignore the foundation on which his house of virtue stands: that is, humility, the purifying of his conscience and meekness. For if his spiritual foundation begins to weaken and crack, the entire building may fall. The Lord will speak about this danger in the last part of His Sermon. The next parts of the Sermon on the Mount, which we will present below, can be examined as the development of the spiritual principles given in the Beatitudes.
Christians — the light of the world
"Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Mat. 5:13-16).
Ending the beatitudes with a warning of the possible persecution for one’s faith, Christ shows how dear to Him and how precious for the world true Christians are with the following words: "Ye are the salt of the earth ... Ye are the light of the world." For in ancient times salt was very expensive, and was even used instead of money. As there was no refrigeration then, salt was also used to preserve food from spoilage. Christians, like salt, keep society from moral decay. They are its start to improving spiritual health.
As for the "light of the world," the word "light," in its most primary meaning, refers to Jesus Christ, Who enlightens every person coming into the world. But believers, inasmuch as they reflect His perfection, can also be called light to a certain extent, or rays of the Sun. This does not mean that they should put their deeds on display. (The doing of good deeds "in secret" will be discussed in the next part of the Sermon on the Mount). The given passage illustrates the fact that their virtuous life — like a candle burning on a candlestick, or a city set on a hill — cannot be hidden, but exerts a good influence on their surrounding society. Truly, the good example of Christians assisted the spread of Christianity and the elimination of crude, barbaric customs.
People always appreciate a person who knows and loves his work. No matter what the profession, if he handles it well and works honestly, he is needed by society and deserves respect. In a similar fashion, everyone expects a Christian way of life from a Christian. They want to see in him an example of non-hypocritical faith, honesty, a spiritual attitude and love. On the other hand, there is nothing sadder than seeing a Christian who lives only for worldly, mortal interests. The Lord compared such a person to salt which had lost its savor. This salt is no longer good for anything, but to be cast out and trodden upon by people.
Two measures of righteousness
— the old and the new
"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Mat. 5:17-20).
This following part of the Sermon on the Mount, which goes up to the end of the 5th chapter of the Gospel from Matthew, is devoted to explaining what true love is. For clarity, the Lord compared His teaching with the existing religious views among the Jews. The Jews, accustomed to hearing detailed discussions about rites and customs from the lips of their law teachers, might have thought that Jesus Christ was preaching a new faith running counter to the laws of Moses. The Lord Jesus Christ explains further on in His sermon that He is not preaching a new teaching, but revealing a much deeper meaning of the laws they already knew.
Because they did not possess the blessed restorative power, the Old Testament laws could not lead a person to perfection. It could not help a person overcome the evil within himself, but mainly drew a person’s attention to his acts. At the same time, the Old Testament laws had a negative character: "Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not bear false witness." The Old Testament law was powerless to renew the spiritual nature of a person. The very understanding of righteousness in that time was simplified. A person was considered righteous if he did not commit crude or obvious crimes, and observed the prescribed ritual laws; the scribes and Pharisees boasted of their thorough knowledge of all the ritual laws.
It is known that while the roots of a wild and harmful plant remain untouched, to cut off its branches only temporarily slows it down from spreading. Likewise, while the passions hold fast in a person — sin is unavoidable. It was for this that the Lord came into the world, to destroy the very roots of sin in a person, and to reestablish in him the image of God which had been tarnished. In the New Testament, the external and potentially ostentatious execution of the directives of the law appear inadequate, for God requires love from a pure heart.
The Lord Jesus Christ addresses this issue, speaking to the Jews: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (Mat. 5:17). Further on, the Lord shows in metaphoric comparisons what the "fulfillment," or true implementation of the law consists of. The Lord dwells on those laws which forbid murder and the violation of marital fidelity, as well as the fact that the Jews considered oaths, revenge and hatred toward enemies admissible. The Lord shows them the superiority of perfect Christian love.
"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (Mat. 5:21-22). The sixth law of Moses forbade the taking of a person’s life. The Lord takes the idea of the sixth law deeper, and calls attention to the evil feelings which prod a person to kill, such as anger, malice and hatred. In essence, these unkind feelings urge a person to insult and demean his fellow human being. A Christian should restrain himself from any expression of malice against his fellow man, such as insults and humiliating words.
So that we do not hold malice in our hearts, the Lord calls us to forgive, and to hurry in reconciling ourselves with those who offend us: "Therefore, if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou are in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing [i.e., small change]" (Mat. 5:23-26).
The Lord then pauses on the seventh Old Testament law, which states: "Do not commit adultery." He calls attention to those unclean feelings which give rise to marital infidelity and other physical sins: "But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Mat. 5:27-28). In other words, the sins of adultery or dissipation arise in the heart of a person. For this reason, any sinful desires must be severed at their origin, so that they are not given the opportunity to take control of our thoughts and will.
The Lord, who sees the hearts of men, knows how difficult it is for a person to fight with carnal temptations. For this reason He teaches us to be decisive and ruthless toward ourselves when we see that someone or something is leading us to sin. "And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell" (Mat 5:29). This, of course, is metaphoric speech. It can be rephrased in this way: if anything (or anyone) is so dear to you as your own eye or hand, but it is tempting you, rid yourself of this thing decisively and stop all associations with the seducer. It is better to lose a friendship than to be deprived of eternal life.
After explaining how to fight sinful desires, the Lord pauses on the indissolubility of marriage. The Lord returns to this topic later in His discussion with the Sadducees, and explains that a mystery of God is fulfilled in marriage, in which two — husband and wife — become one flesh. For this reason, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Mat. 19:6). In other words, no one has the right to grant a divorce between two people. Once the promises are given, the marital tie is completed. The spouses must then find a common ground and work out their differences.
The Lord then returns to the theme of anger. He pauses on one of the varieties of this passion, revenge, which the Jews had made lawful. For overcoming it the Lord gives Christians the weapon of love, saying thus:
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Mat. 5:38-48).
While it permitted revenge, the Old Testament law did in fact try to limit it. In the event that one person willingly or accidentally caused another some physical harm, the law did not permit the injured man to repay evil to the offender without limits. The law tried to limit revenge by "repaying in kind": for a lost eye, an eye; for a tooth — a tooth; and so on. During the times of Moses, the law limiting revenge was very timely, for without it revenge exceeded all boundaries; the person who accidentally caused someone a loss or injury found himself in danger of receiving any injury from the angry party. However, limiting revenge did not resolve the main issue: eradicating animosity between people completely.
The Lord gives us the opportunity to eradicate animosity at its very outset. Toward this goal, He orders us to forgive offenders and to refuse to enter into mundane arguments with people. "Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." Just as fire cannot be extinguished by fire, anger cannot be rooted out by revenge. The only weapon against evil is love. Perhaps a fellow man will not immediately come to his senses from our condescension. We have submitted physically but are victorious spiritually; for this victory we must thank God — it is an eternal victory.
Of course, with the words "resist not evil," Christ did not teach us to submit to evil, to accept its right to citizenship — as Leo Tolstoy cunningly misinterprets these words of Christ. Here the Lord only prohibits settling scores for personal motives. In instances where there is a direct violation of the laws of God, and in particular, when there arises a temptation for the faithful because of this, the Lord orders us to fight evil, saying: "If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault... If he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more ... witnesses ... And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican" (Mat. 18:15-17). This is to say that one must try to make a sinner understand his error. If, however, the person is so numb in his sin that he will not give in to any admonitions, then one must cut off all contact with him. The Lord does not give the Church any other weapon against the rebellious but banishment and excommunication.
In concluding His teaching about overcoming all enmity and vengeance, the Lord shows us what the highest expression of love is. The Old Testament law is not devoid of the understanding of love, but limits its to relations with those near (Lev. 19:17-18). The scribes cunningly supplemented the order to love those near to you with the permission to hate those who are not near, especially enemies. The Lord explains that love toward those who are near is so elementary that even sinners are capable of it. A more perfect love is expected from a Christian, and the Lord says: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:43-45).
In this manner we see how the Lord, teaching us to overcome all the forms of anger, gradually raises the thoughts of a person higher and higher, bringing them nearer to imitating the unlimited love of the Heavenly Father. Love has many forms and hues of expression. The most elementary expression of love is to prevent hatred among people, then — to overcome the desire of vengeance and to make efforts to forgive those who offend us. Later, higher forms of love appear as meek patience which endures unpleasantness from people, and giving help to those whom we do not like. Finally, we are brought to the highest forms of love: the feeling of sympathy for our enemies, love toward them, prayer for them and desiring good for them. An example of such perfect love was shown by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, when he prayed for his persecutors on the Cross.
Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord raises the Christian to the peak of righteousness: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect!" (Mat. 5:48) Here is the ideal, here the highest goal of a Christian — to resemble His Heavenly Father! At the same time, the Christian must remember that he rises to perfection not through his own efforts alone, but mainly with the assistance of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
the external and the internal
"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him" (Mat. 6:1-8).
The Lord wants a person to do good selflessly — from the desire to please God or to help his neighbor, not for personal gain or praise. The Lord wants even the intention of a person to be as irreproachable as his words and deeds. During the time of the earthly life of the Savior, virtue was held in great esteem, and the Jews often competed among themselves as to who prayed more often and longer, who fasted more strictly, or who gave alms more generously. Sometimes in this competition, especially among the scribes and Pharisees, good deeds became a means of seeking praise. Such a utilitarian approach to religion led to hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Thus, only the appearance of good deeds remained — a shell, with nothing within. The Lord warned His followers of ostentatious righteousness, intended "for export," and calls on us to serve God with a pure heart.
By presenting examples of good deeds, the Lord teaches us how to pray and give alms so that our good deeds will be accepted by God: "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven" (Mat. 6:1). In this and similar phrases, the Lord directs attention to the aim with which we set about doing a good deed. Good deeds done "in secret," that is, not for show, but for God, earn a reward from Him. Here it should be noted that the law, "pray in secret," does not, of course, rescind communal prayer; the Lord urged communal prayer also, saying: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Mat. 18:20).
The command to avoid unnecessary words teaches us not to see prayer as some kind of incantation, where success depends on the number of words. The strength of a prayer is contained in the sincerity and faith with which a person appeals to God. Lengthy prayer, however, is not forbidden but, on the contrary, encouraged: this is because the more a person prays, the longer he is in association with God. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself often spent whole nights in prayer.
It is imperative to pay attention to the fact that (later in this part of the Sermon on the Mount under discussion) the Lord speaks of fasting with as much detail as he speaks of prayer and alms. Fasting is therefore necessary. Unfortunately, modern Christians completely disregard this feat of abstinence, in order to please their sin-loving flesh. They love to cite the words "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth" (Mat. 15:11). Meanwhile, it is impossible to reform one’s heart without restraining one’s stomach and physical lusts. For this reason, other virtues, like prayer and compassion, cannot reveal themselves in due measure without the feat of abstinence.
Of course, we now live under completely different conditions and moral standards. It is unlikely that anyone would praise a person for his feat of fasting or prayer in these days — sooner would they laugh at him for being so eccentric. For this reason the Christian may need to conceal his virtues. But this does not mean that hypocrisy has ceased to exist in our day. It has just taken on different forms. Now it is veiled in the form of affected politeness and insincere compliments. Often disdain and malice are hiding behind sweet words and smiles. To one’s face, there is praise, but behind one’s back, there is disparagement. In this manner, only the sorry appearance of Christian well-wishing and love remains. This is also hypocrisy, but in different clothing. Thus, Christ’s teachings about insincerity is directed against all forms of hypocrisy, both ancient and modern.
The Lord’s Prayer
"Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one" (Mat. 6:9-13).
Teaching us not to say more than what is necessary, the Lord gives us an example of prayer. This is the "Our Father" or, as it is often called, "The Lord’s Prayer." This prayer is noteworthy because it encompasses in a few words the main spiritual and material needs of a person. Besides that, the Lord’s prayer teaches us to organize our tasks correctly, showing which is more important, and which is secondary.
"Our Father, which art in Heaven." In addressing God with the words "Our Father," we remind ourselves that He, like a most loving Father, continually works for our good. We remind ourselves about Heaven, so that we turn our thoughts from the mundane bustle and direct it to where our life’s path should be leading to, to our eternal homeland. Let us turn our attention to that main detail, that all the requests in the Lord’s Prayer are found in the plural form. That is to say, we are praying not only for ourselves, but for all those near to us by blood or faith, and, in some measure, for all people. In this way we remind ourselves that we are all brothers, children of the Heavenly Father.
"Hallowed be Thy name." This is the first request, in which we express the desire that the Name of God be honored and glorified by us and by all people, that the true faith and piety spread throughout the world. The second request, "Thy kingdom come," expands upon the first. Here we ask God to rule in our hearts, that His law govern our thoughts and deeds, and that His grace enlighten our souls. In this mortal life the Kingdom of God is not visible to the physical eye: it is born in the souls of Christians. But the time will come when all who have the Kingdom of God within them will also earn the right to enter the Kingdom of His eternal glory with both their soul and their renewed body. No earthly riches or pleasures can compare with the bliss of the Heavenly Kingdom, where angels and holy people dwell. And that is why the believing soul languishes in this world and thirsts to reach the Heavenly Kingdom.
People possess the most varied of interests and desires, usually proud and sinful ones, and in human relations these interests and desires clash. From this, all sorts of friction, displeasures and reciprocal offenses arise among people. With such conflicts of human desires, we cannot expect everything in our life to go smoothly and according to our wishes, particularly if we ourselves often err in our goals and ventures. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us of the fact that only God knows perfectly what we need, and teaches us to ask for His guidance and help: "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven."
In the first three requests of the Lord’s Prayer, we ask from God the most important things for ourselves: the restoration of good in our souls and in our life’s conditions. The next requests shift to more personal and secondary necessities. Everything which is required for our physical existence is delegated to this category: "Give us this day our daily bread." In Old Church Slavonic, the word "daily" correctly translates the original Greek word "epiusion," which means "essential." To ask for our "daily bread" is to request food, a roof over one’s head, clothing, and everything necessary to live. We do not list these items separately, because the Heavenly Father Himself knows what to send. We do not ask anything for the morrow, because we do not know that we will be alive.
The next request for the forgiveness of our debts is the only request limited by a condition: "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." In a wider sense, the word "debts" means "sins." Of sins we have many, but debts even more. God gave us life so that we could do good for others and increase our abilities, or our "talents." When we do not fulfill our earthly purpose, then we, like the lazy servant in the parable, are burying our talent and will find ourselves debtors before God. Recognizing this, we ask that He forgive us. The Lord knows our weaknesses and our inexperience, and He pities us. He is ready to forgive us, but with one condition: that we forgive all those who have wronged us. The parable about the merciless debtor (Mat. 18:24-35) clearly illustrates how the way we forgive those who offend us is related to the way we receive forgiveness of our debts from God.
At the end of the Lord’s Prayer we say: "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." The "Evil one" means crafty or cunning, and this name refers to the devil — the main source of all evil in the world. Temptations may arise from many different sources: from people, from unfavorable living conditions, but, chiefly, from our passions. For this reason we meekly confess our spiritual weakness at the end of the prayer to our Heavenly Father, asking Him to keep us from sin and to defend us from the intrigues of the prince of darkness — the devil.
We end the Lord’s Prayer with words which express our full faith that God will fulfill our request because He loves us, and how we submit to His Almighty will: "For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and Glory..." The closing word "Amen" in the Hebrew tongue means: "truly, let it be so!"
About laying up
Apredilection for riches strongly interferes with a person’s ability to become virtuous. In His teachings and parables, the Lord Jesus Christ often warned people about having an excessive attachment to worldly goods. In His Sermon on the Mount, the Lord directly forbids a Christian to become rich, saying:
"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon [i.e.,riches]" (Mat. 6:19-24).
This admonition, of course, does not apply to the effort that is necessary for feeding oneself and one’s family. It is forbidden here to indulge in excessive and oppressive troubles for the sake of becoming rich. The Holy Scriptures speak thus about the necessity of work: "If any would not work, neither should he eat!" (2 Thes. 3:10).
In order to avert people from an excessive attachment to material goods, the Lord reminds us that they are not permanent but mortal: they can be ruined by rust, moths and all sorts of unfortunate events; they can be taken by malicious persons and stolen by thieves; finally, a person has to leave them behind on earth when he dies. For this reason, instead of using all of one’s strength to gather fleeting blessings, a person would be better off attending to storing up internal riches, which are truly valuable and which will be his eternal inheritance.
The internal wealth of a person includes his so-called "talents"— the mental and spiritual abilities given to him by the Creator for development and perfecting. First and foremost, the spiritual wealth of a person must include the virtues, for example, faith, courage, abstinence, patience, constancy, hope in God, compassion, magnanimity, love and others. These spiritual riches should be acquired through a righteous life and good deeds. The most valuable spiritual wealth is the moral purity and holiness which are given to a virtuous person by the Holy Spirit. A person must zealously ask God for this wealth. Upon receiving it, he must painstakingly guard it in his heart. The Lord summons people to the acquisition of this many-faceted internal wealth in His Sermon on the Mount.
To the same degree that spiritual riches illumine a person's soul, oppressive cares about worldly, material goods cloud his mind, weaken his faith and fill his soul with tormenting confusion. Speaking of this metaphorically, the Lord compares the mind of a person with an eye, which must serve as a conduit for spiritual light: "The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single [undamaged], thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness." In other words, like an injured eye which deprives a person of the ability to see light, a soul dulled with excessively worldly cares is not in the condition to accept spiritual light; it cannot understand the spiritual essence of events and its purpose in life. For this reason, to be a lover of wealth is identical to being a blind man. In the parables of the foolish rich man, and of the rich man and Lazarus, the Lord portrays clearly the spiritual darkness and ruin of two rich people, who in other ways, apparently, were not bad people (Lk. 12:13-21; 16:14-31).
Is it possible to have both spiritual and material wealth? The Lord explains that it is as impossible as serving two demanding masters at the same time: "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon!" In ancient times, Mammon was the pagan patron god of wealth. In mentioning this idol, the Lord compares the miser to an idolator, and thus shows how mean this passion is. The Gospel tale of the rich young man shows how a person attached to wealth is not always capable of parting with it, even if he sincerely desires to serve God. His attachment to his wealth suppresses all his good intentions, and he has more trust in his own money than in help from on high. That is why it is said: "How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! (Mark 10:24)" Here it should be clarified that the people who sin by loving wealth are not only those who are rich, but those who consistently dream of wealth and see their happiness in it.
In concluding this part of His sermon, the Lord explains that everything good that is necessary for life does not come so much from our efforts as from the mercy of God, Who, as a kind Father, perpetually cares for us.
"Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Mat. 6:25-33).
Truly, the gift of life and the amazing composition of our bodies, the earth with its natural wealth of flowers, fruits and various grains, sunlight and warmth, air and water, seasons of the year and all the external conditions necessary for our existence — all this is given to us by our merciful Creator. For this reason, most animals — birds, fish and other creatures — do not work at all, unlike people, but only gather for themselves already prepared food, because Nature provides them with dwellings and shelter also.
A person with little faith must learn to trust more in God than in his own strength. The Lord does not call us to idleness; He desires to liberate us from the agonizing worries and excessive efforts made for passing things, in order to give us an opportunity to prepare for eternity. The Lord promises that if we will first and foremost work toward the salvation of our soul, He will provide us with every other necessity: "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."
This part of the Sermon on the Mount thus far calls a person to avoid greed, to be content with necessities and, most of all, to take care for spiritual riches and eternal life.
Not judging others
The habit of speaking ill of others is a great evil and temptation for us. The Lord strictly forbids judging:
"Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye" (Mat. 7:1-5).
We know that spiritual rebirth does not come by itself. It demands strict examination of one’s deeds, thoughts and feelings. It is built on an active improvement of one’s self. A person honestly striving to live as a Christian cannot but notice at times the beginnings of unkind thoughts and sinful desires within himself, which seem as if to originate on their own. By overcoming these internal temptations, he begins to know from personal experience how difficult and tense the struggle with one’s weaknesses is, and how much effort goes into becoming virtuous. For this reason, a true Christian is always meek when he thinks about himself, considers himself a sinner, grieves over his imperfections, and asks God for the forgiveness of his sins and for help to become better. We can see such a sincere realization of one’s imperfection in all truly righteous persons. For instance, the Holy Apostle James wrote that "in many things we offend all" (James 3:2), and the Holy Apostle Paul asserts that the Lord came to save sinners, among whom he is the first. The Holy Apostle John, the Theologian, condemned those who considered themselves to be without sin with the following words: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (James 3:2; 1 Tim. 1:15; 1 John 1:8). Naturally, a person who is concerned entirely with his own improvement is not curious about the sins of others, and even more, finds no pleasure in their disclosure.
Still, people who only superficially know the teachings of the Gospel and do not live as Christians are often very perceptive of others’ defects, and take pleasure in speaking ill of others. Judging is the first sign of the absence of a true spiritual life in someone. It becomes even worse when the careless sinner, in his spiritual blindness, takes it upon himself to teach others. The Lord asks such a hypocrite: "Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye? (Mat. 7:4)" The word "beam" can be understood as the absence of spiritual sensitivity in the person judging — his spiritual coarseness. If he took care to cleanse his own soul, and knew the full difficulties of the righteous path through his own experience, he would not then dare to offer another his pitiful services. For it is not characteristic of a sick person to take on the healing of others!
Thus, in the words of the Lord, the absence of spiritual sensitivity is worse than other defects, as much as a beam is heavier than a mote, or a speck. A similar spiritual blindness is found among the Judean leaders in the time of the earthly life of the Saviour — the scribes and the Pharisees. Mercilessly judging others, they considered only themselves to be righteous. They found defects even in Christ, publicly condemning Him for such things as violating the Sabbath and eating with publicans and sinners. They did not understand that the Lord did these things for the salvation of all people. The scribes and Pharisees were scrupulously concerned with all sorts of ritualistic minutiae — the ritualistic cleansing of dishes and furniture, the payment of tithes of mint and anise; at the same time, without any pangs of conscience, they hypocritically hated and judged other people (see the 23rd chapter of Matthew). When they had reached a state of total blindness, they condemned the Saviour of the world to death on the Cross, then slandered His resurrection from death before the nation. And all throughout this time, they continued to go to the Temple, flauntingly praying at length! It is therefore not surprising to find that now, as before, similar self-satisfied hypocrites find reasons to judge others.
The Apostle James explains that the right to judge belongs to God alone. He is the only Lawgiver and Judge. Without exception, all people, being sinners in various stages, appear as His debtors. For this reason, a person judging others appropriates the role of the judge and sins greatly in doing so (James 4:11). The Lord says that the more strictly a person judges others, the more strictly will God judge him.
The habit of judging others has deep roots in modern society. Often parishioners, who are holding the most innocent discussion about some subject, fall into the trap of judging each other. One must remember that sin is spiritual poison. People who work with poisons are always in danger of being poisoned, whether by careless contact or inhalation of its vapors; similarly, people who are fond of sifting through the defects of their familiars come into contact with spiritual poison, poisoning themselves. It is not surprising, therefore, that they gradually become permeated with the same evil which they judge. The holy monk Mark the Ascetic admonished, "Do not desire to hear of strangers’ trickeries, because then the outlines of those trickeries are written in us." To people living at a high spiritual level, St. Mark recommended feeling sympathy for those who had not yet reached such a high measure of spirituality. This sympathy, or understanding, according to his words, is essential for preserving the wholeness of one’s personal spiritual order: "One having any spiritual gift and being compassionate for those without, with this compassion preserves his gift" (Dobrotolubie, vol.1). The great Russian saint, the holy monk St. Seraphim of Sarov, greeted all who came to him with the words: "My joy!" But he called himself only "wretched Seraphim." Here is the true Christian attitude!
In forbidding judgment, the Lord further explains that not being judgmental is not the same as being indifferent toward evil and toward one's surroundings. The Lord does not want us to be indifferent toward sinful customs in our surroundings, nor for us to give sinners equal entry to holy places along with the righteous. The Lord says "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you" (Mat. 7:6) Here the Lord calls those people dogs and swine who are morally degraded, becoming vulgar and incapable of correction. A Christian must be wary of such people: they must not reveal the deep truths of the Christian faith to them; they must not allow them access to the sacraments of the Church. Otherwise they will deride this sanctity and desecrate it. Likewise, they should not share their secret tribulations with cynical people, nor reveal their soul before them, according to the expression of the Saviour, "lest they trample them [i.e., our secrets] under their feet, and turn again and rend you" (Mat. 7:6). Thus, in this part of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord warns us against two extremes: indifference toward evil and judgment of others.
hope in God
This instruction speaks of both constancy in prayer as well as constancy in deeds. Sometimes it happens that a person with good intentions goes from one extreme to another: at first he fervently takes on some good deed; later, encountering difficulties, he leaves it and does nothing more. The reason for this inconstancy is inexperience and presumption.
Of course the majority of people, in different degrees, are weak and inexperienced in living virtuously. But it as bad not to do anything as to take on deeds that exceed our strength. In order to avoid these extremes, one must ask God, first of all, for understanding; then later – for help, for faith that "everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." For strengthening our faith that we will receive what we ask for, the Lord gives the example of the relationship we have with our own children: "Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" To demonstrate His point that God fulfills our requests, Jesus Christ told the parable of the unjust judge. The meaning of the parable is understandable: if even the unjust judge fulfilled the request of the widow, so that she would stop pestering him, the more so will God, who is merciful, fulfill our prayer (Lk. 18:1-8).
The Evangelist St. Luke, in recording the words of the Saviour about constancy in prayer, uses the words "Holy Spirit" instead of "good things": "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?" (Lk. 11:13). It is possible that the Lord would have explained later in the same discussion that the grace of God is that great good thing which it is necessary to request. Truly, all things elevated and good have as their source the Holy Spirit, for example: a clean conscience, clarity of mind, strength of faith, comprehension of the meaning of life, vigor, spiritual peace, unearthly happiness, and especially, holiness, which is the greatest treasure of the soul.
As for the material blessings and successes which we strive for in life, we can also ask these of God. At the same time, we must remember that they have a secondary and temporary importance. As the Lord teaches further on, we strive not only for that which is pleasant and easily attained, but for that which leads to salvation: "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Mat. 7:13-14). The wide gate is a life directed toward gathering wealth and physical pleasures. The straight, or narrow, gate is a life directed toward improving one’s heart and doing good deeds.
At the end of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord gives us a commandment noteworthy for its brevity and clarity, which encompasses the entire scale of human relations: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Mat. 7:12). Herein is the entire meaning of God’s law and the writings of the prophets.
In this part of His teaching, the Lord teaches us to ask God for understanding, help and spiritual gifts constantly, once we have chosen the straight path of life and to try to do good to every person. Undoubtedly God will help us, because He is the inexhaustible source of all good and our loving Father.
The false prophets
At the end of His Sermon on the Mount the Lord warns the faithful against false prophets, comparing them to wolves in sheeps’ clothing. The "dogs" and "swine" the Lord just spoke about have a depraved way of life that is obvious; they can only be repellant, and are thus not as dangerous to believers as false prophets. False prophets present their lies as truth, and their rules of life as godly ones; one must be sensitive and wise in order to see the spiritual danger they represent.
"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (Mat. 7:15-23).
This comparison of false prophets to wolves posing as sheep was very convincing to the Jews listening to Christ, because their nation had suffered many ills at the hands of false prophets in the course of the great centuries of its history.
Against the backdrop of false prophets, the virtues of the true prophets were particularly obvious. True prophets were distinguished by unselfishness, obedience to God, fearless exposure of humans sins, profound meekness, love, strictness toward themselves and purity of life. They set for themselves the goal of drawing people to the Kingdom of Heaven, and were the creative and unifying beginning of the life of their nation. Though true prophets in their time were often rejected by the majority of the masses, and persecuted by people standing at the helm of power, their activity made society healthier. They inspired the best sons of the Hebrew nation to the life and feats of virtue, in a word – they lead to the glory of God. The activity of the true prophets did bring forth such good fruits, in which the faithful Jews of later generations rejoiced. They remembered the prophets Moses, Samuel, David, Elijah, Elisyius, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and others with gratitude.
The self-styled prophets, pursued completely different ways of acting as well as different goals — which were numerous. Because they avoided exposing sins, they were able to ingratiate themselves with people; this guaranteed them success among the masses and the favor of the powerful of this world. With promises of prosperity they lulled the national conscience to sleep, leading the society to moral degradation. At the time when true prophets did everything for the good and unity of the Kingdom of God, the false prophets sought personal glory and benefit. They did not shy from slandering true prophets and persecuting them. In the final analysis, their work served to destroy the nation. Such were the spiritual and social fruits of the activities of the false prophets. But the premature glory of the false prophets decayed faster than their mortal bodies, and the Jews of later generations remembered how their forefathers had succumbed to their guiles with shame. (The holy prophet Jeremiah complained bitterly about the false prophets who had destroyed the Jewish nation in his "Lamentations," 4:13).
During the periods of spiritual decline, when God sent true prophets to direct the Hebrews toward the good path, there appeared at the same time a great number of false prophets amid them. For example, particularly great numbers preached from the 8th to 6th centuries B.C., when the Israeli and Judean kingdoms were destroyed; they also appeared later — not long before the destruction of Jerusalem — in the 70’s A.D. In accordance with the predictions of the Saviour and the apostles, many false prophets will come before the end of the world; some of them will even perform amazing miracles and signs in nature, though false ones [see Mat. 24:11-24; 2 Pet. 2:1; 2 Thess. 2:9; Rev. 19:20]. As in the Old Testament, false prophets caused much harm to the Church in the times of the New Testament as well. In the Old Testament period they accelerated the process of moral decay by lulling the nation’s conscience to sleep; in the New Testament period, they broke off branches from the great tree of the Kingdom of God by leading people away from the truth and by sowing heresies. The contemporary abundance of all sorts of possible sects and "denominations" are, without doubt, the fruit of the activity of the false prophets of these times. All sects disappear sooner or later, and others arise in their place, but only the true Church of Christ will remain until the end of the world. The Lord spoke of the destiny of the false prophets: "Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up" (Mat. 15:13).
It must be clarified that it would be an exaggeration to consider every modern pastor or non-orthodox preacher a false prophet. Undoubtedly, among religious activists of other faiths there are many truly believing, deeply sacrificing and decent people. They belong to one or another branch of Christianity not by an objective choice, but by inheritance. False prophets are, specifically, the founders of non-orthodox religious trends. Modern television "miracle-workers," diabolical charmers in a state of exaltation, conceited preachers presenting themselves as God’s chosen, and all those who transform religion into a weapon for personal gain can be called false prophets.
In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord warns His followers about false prophets. He teaches them not to trust their external attractiveness and eloquence, but to pay attention to the "fruits" of their activity: "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit." The "evil fruit" or deeds are not necessarily to be understood as sins or evil deeds, which false prophets can skillfully conceal. The evil fruits of the activities of false prophets, common to all of them, are pride and the forcible separation of people from the Kingdom of God.
A false prophet cannot hide his pride from the sensitive heart of a believing person. One saint said that the devil can show any form of virtue except one — meekness. Like wolf’s teeth from under a sheepskin, so does pride show in the words, movements and glances of a false prophet. False prophets seeking popularity love show, to perform "healings" or "exorcisms" of demons before a large audience, to amaze listeners with brave thoughts, to drink from public exhilaration. Their performances always end with large monetary collections. How distant this cheap zeal and self-assuredness is from the meek and humble image of our Saviour and His Apostles!
The Lord further presents how the false prophets will point to their miracles: "Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?" About which miracles do they speak? Can a false prophet perform a miracle? No! But the Lord sends His help according to the faith of those who ask, not by the merits of those presenting themselves as miracle workers. False prophets ascribe to themselves the deeds which the Lord performed out of His compassion toward people. It is also possible that the false prophets, in their self-delusion, sincerely believed that they performed the miracles. In any case, the Lord will reject them at the Last Judgment, saying: "I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity!"
So, though false prophets weakened the Church, taking away careless sheep, true children of the Church should not be troubled by the sparseness of people, or the apparent weakness of the true Church, because the Lord gives preference to the small number of people preserving the truth, and to the many lost: "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!" and He promises His faithful His Godly protection from spiritual wolves, saying: "And I will give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand" (Lk. 12:32; John. 10:28).
How to stand firm
during times of trials
The Lord concludes His Sermon on the Mount by likening life to the construction of a house; He demonstrates how a virtuous life makes a person stand firm against the inevitable trials of life and how a casual way of life, by contrast, weakens the spiritual strength of a person, making him an easy prey of temptations.
"Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Mat. 7:24-29).
In the given passage, the comparison of a person’s life to a house was very understandable to those living in the Holy Land. This country is for the most part mountainous. Sudden torrential rains can fill the usually dry mountain streams and rivers with turbulent streams of water, which rush toward the valley, taking everything in its path with it. No building lying in the path of the flood can then withstand the pressure of the water, especially if the foundation under it is sandy. For this reason, prudent people always built their houses on rocky bases, which were also high enough to be above the level of the rainy floods.
In human life, different "storms" are completely inevitable. These are to be understood as: fires, earthquakes, oppression, incurable diseases, deaths of loved ones and similar ills, which always come without warning and rock human life to the core. In an instant, one can lose one’s health, family, happiness, riches, spiritual balance — everything. During such a storm, the loss of faith, despair or grumbling against God is the fall of a person.
There are internal upheavals inevitable in human life which can be more dangerous than physical storms: the raging of passions, difficult temptations, torturous doubts in questions of faith, attacks of anger, jealousy, envy, fear and so on. In the given passage, for someone to fall would be to give in to temptation, to deny God, to deny his faith or to go against the voice of his conscience somehow. These inner shocks appear not only as the result of unfavorable living conditions, but partly as the result of the actions of malicious people, as well as the devil, who, in the words of the Apostle, "as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet. 5:8).
The last trial which a person must pass through lies ahead on the day of his death. As described in the lives of several saints, when the soul leaves the body the other world opens up before it, and it begins to see both kind Angels, as well as demons. Demons try to humiliate the soul of a person by showing it the sins which it performed while living in the flesh; they are trying to convince the soul that there is no salvation. In this way they try to lead it to despair and to drag it with them into the abyss. At this time the soul’s guardian angel defends the soul from the demons and encourages it with hope in the mercy of God. If the person has lived sinfully and does not have faith, the demons can overcome the soul. This passage of the soul to God's throne, from the place of its separation from the body, is called "tribulations." It is possible that these are the trials that the Holy Apostle Paul describes when he encourages Christians to clothe themselves in the armor of God, in order to withstand the wiles of the devil in the evil day, "and having done all, to stand" (Eph. 6:13). "The armour of God," as explained by the holy fathers, is the combined virtues of a person; "the evil day" is the time of heavy temptation after the separation of the soul from the body. Being banished from Heaven, the evil spirits hover in the region between Heaven and earth, presenting obstacles to the souls of people on their way to God’s throne. Only after the Last Judgment will the demons be permanently confined to the abyss.
Who can be calm and happy with such inconstancy in earthly circumstances? He who is with Christ, and in Christ. Those living by the laws of Christ are founded upon a hard cliff and shielded from storms. Those who possess faith and love for God have no need to fear them, because the Lord will not permit a believing person to fall into temptation above his strength (1 Cor. 10:13). But those who do not fulfill the laws of Christ cannot stand when difficult trials arise. Most often they fall into despair, and their fall will be devastating for them and a warning to others. Observing this, an ancient sage wrote: "As the whirlwind passeth, so is the wicked no more: but the righteous is an everlasting foundation" (Prov. 10:25).
The Holy Fathers compared grief to fire. The one and the same fire can change straw to ashes, but burn gold of any impurities. The Lord reassures those who live piously with the following words: "There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet" (Ps. 91:10-13).
So, in His Sermon on the Mount, the Saviour gives us clear and all-encompassing directions on how to become virtuous, and how to build that harmonious and well-structured house of spiritual perfections where the Holy Spirit will reside.
With relation to God, the Saviour teaches us to put His will in the first place, always to direct our actions toward the glory of God, to try to resemble God in His perfections, and to believe firmly that He loves us and continually concerns Himself about us.
With relation to our neighbors, the Lord teaches us not to take revenge, to forgive offenders, to be merciful, compassionate and peace-loving, to judge no one, to do to other people what we would like other people to do to us, to love all, even our enemies, but, at the same time, to beware of "dogs" and, in particular, self-styled prophets and false teachers.
With relation to our internal aspirations, the Lord teaches us to be meek and humble, to avoid hypocrisy, to develop our positive attributes, to strive toward righteousness, to be consistent in our good deeds, hard-working, patient and courageous, to keep our hearts pure, and to endure suffering in the name of Christ and His Truth with gladness. No spiritual efforts that a person makes are in vain: they make him strong and steadfast during life’s storms, and prepare an eternal reward for him in Heaven.
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Missionary Leaflet #E29-30
Copyright © 2001 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)