By Fr. Demetrios Bokou
Christ once stigmatized many things of the behavior of the Scribes and Pharisees. Among other things, He mentioned that they dealt diligently and meticulously with totally secondary matters, while they were completely indifferent to the most important and basic matters requested by God.
"Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices -- mint, anise and cumin. But you have neglected the weightier matters of the law -- justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former" (Matt. 23:23).
Your whole attention, He says, is given to contributing a tenth (or tithe) of the mint, anise and cumin to the Temple, while to the heavier matters of the law -- justice, love and honesty that makes you trustworthy, you give no interest! However, it is with the latter that you should primarily occupy yourselves, without neglecting of course the minor matters.
These words of Christ remind us of a phenomenon of our time. Christians show great diligence to make the Phanouropita on the day of the feast of Saint Phanourios (as well as other days), and they run to the church to have them "read" over. This reverence towards the Saint is not reprehensible. Just the opposite. The question however is: Are they dealing with the same diligence with "the weightier matters of the law"? With "justice, mercy and faithfulness"?
Perhaps we remain in an external form of religiosity that does not cost anything? Perhaps in one part of our life we carry candles, offerings and the Phanouropita to church, but beyond these things nothing? What does God say about this? "I desire mercy not sacrifice" (Hos. 6:6). I don't want your offerings and sacrifices, but your philanthropy and compassion. I want your hearts full of love for each other. I want a sacrifice of pain by which your hearts are transformed, and not the relaxed offering of a cheap, formal and superficial religiosity.
But why does the Lord abhor offerings and sacrifices since, after all, He Himself defines in the law to offer them? Simply because the souls of those making the offerings are unclean from sin. "Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment taught by men" (Is. 29:13).
The Prophet Isaiah illustrates this elsewhere as well, because such feigned piety is unnecessary.
"The multitude of your sacrifices — what are they to Me?" says the Lord. "I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of My courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to Me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all My being. They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide My eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of My sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. Come now, let us settle the matter," says the Lord. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool" (Is. 1:11-18).
Perhaps this happens to us? Do we care about the purity of our souls from sin with the same diligence we show towards the Phanouropita? The Lord does not ask of offerings from us. He does ask us, however, to banish all evil, every sinful passion from our heart. Rather we should fill our hearts with mercy, compassion and love for every creature.
When we do this, then our offerings will have value. Without the preparation of our souls, everything loses its meaning. We will find ourselves in the position of the man who went to the royal wedding without the proper clothing, with the result that we are thrown into the worst and darkest jail (Matt. 22:1-14). In the position of the virgin girls, who, following a shallow religiosity, were excluded from the marriage feast because they ran out of oil for their oil lamps. Their vessels lacked oil (elaion, which in Greek also means mercy), because they neglected to fill it (namely their hearts) with oil (elaion) earlier (Matt. 25:1-13).
What a terrible disappointment, to run to church throughout our life with lamps, candles and Phanouropita, and in the end to hear Christ say to us: "I never knew you" (Matt. 7:23)! To enter His radiant bridal chamber and in the last moment to realize "we have no garment to enter therein". Won't this be a shame, just for some leaves of "mint and anise", to exclusively monopolize our attention on these and in the end "remain outside the bridal chamber"?
Let us make our Phanouropita in order for Saint Phanourios to show us the way. The way towards salvation, which passes through "the weightier matters of the law -- justice, mercy and faithfulness."
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.