Word Magazine June 1999 Page 4-5
BEWARE OF WOLVES IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING
By Seminarian Steven C. Salaris
In the passage of Luke 17:11-19, we read about Jesus and the healing of the ten lepers. After responding to their pleas, Jesus sends them to the priests and along the way they are all healed, but only one of the former lepers returns to Jesus to give thanks (euchariston). Jesus responds to this situation by saying, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?” Interestingly enough, nine of the lepers were Jews, Jesus’ own people to whom Jesus was originally sent. Only the Samaritan — one of an outcast sect of Judaism, considered foreigners like the Gentiles — returned to thank Him for his healing. The other nine, being Jews, correctly followed the Law regarding leprosy (Lev. 13:1-59), but failed to realize that the healing came from Jesus, their Messiah and the Incarnate Word of God.
St. Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on this passage states that Jesus sent the lepers to the priests along with the healing so that they could indeed fulfill the prescribed sacrifices and directions as stated in the Law; but the nine Jewish lepers, “ . . . falling into a thankless forgetfulness, did not return to give glory to God; by which he shows that Israel was hard of heart, and utterly unthankful: but the stranger — for as being a Samaritan he was a foreign race … returned with a loud voice to glorify God. It shows, therefore, that the Samaritans were grateful, but that the Jews, even when benefited were ungrateful.”
Blessed Theophylact’s commentary on this passage adds that the ten lepers represented all of mankind in its sinful and fallen state and that Jesus healed all of fallen human nature. Blessed Theophylact also points out that the Jewish lepers, showed themselves ungrateful and did not return from the path of their vain foolishness to give glory to God Who saved them, that is, to believe in Him Who is God and Who endured the extremes of Suffering. For this is the glory of God; His flesh and His Cross.”
So we see that, despite the overall message of healing in this pericope*, there is also a second more subtle message: even though one encounters Jesus and is healed by Him, it is easy to be led astray, continuing on a “path of vain foolishness” and not understanding and recognizing who Jesus is.
How does this text apply to us today? Are we the Jewish lepers or the Samaritan leper? As Orthodox, we are most likely to jump up and say, “We are the ‘tithe’ of the whole group; after all, we’re Orthodox, we give the ‘right glory’ to the Saviour!” Unfortunately, Scripture doesn’t work that way. It convicts us. We should in repentance admit that too easily we identify with the nine: thanklessly forgetful, ungrateful, vainly foolish, and not confessing the Incarnate and Crucified God of Glory as we should.
If we really seek Christ and seek to be Orthodox, then we must be watchful. We must be willing to recognize Jesus Christ and understand who He really is — the Incarnate Word of God. That understanding only comes through the Church and living the life of the Church! This requires commitment and obedience to the life and teachings of the Church. Yet too often, we go astray like the nine and as a result, fail to offer God the correct glory —the “orthodoxa.” In other words, WE FAIL TO BE ORTHODOX!
Many reasons exist for this and I offer three.
1. Disobedience to the Church’s hierarchy. Too often, we disregard the bishops, the very overseers (episkopoi) of the Church. In the Epistle to the Hebrews 13:17-21, the author states, “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls.” St. Ignatius of Antioch states, in his epistle to the Ephesians, that the bishops represent the mind of Christ and that we are to show no disloyalty to our bishops and clergy so that with undivided minds we can share in the one eucharist. In his epistle to the Trallians, St. Ignatius further states that we must obey the bishop as though he were Jesus Christ. St. Athanasius states in his biography of St. Anthony, that great among monastics, that he “was willing that all the clergy should be honored above himself. For he was not ashamed to bow his head to bishops and presbyters.” When St Anthony was falsely accused by the Arians and summoned by his bishop, he came down off his mountain retreat and came to Alexandria. He didn’t disregard the bishop, claiming he was too busy doing his own thing; rather, St. Anthony demonstrated obedience to the Church’s hierarchy. The message here is simple: obedience to the hierarchy of the Church is an icon of our obedience to Christ.
2. We can easily be led astray by those outside the canonical Orthodox Church, who claim to come in the name of Orthodoxy. False spiritual elders and/or monks, outside of the Church, can lead us away from the one Church, the one eucharist, the right glory and, ultimately, from Jesus Christ. Today, anyone, even a former Buddhist, can throw on a cassock, change his name, join a “traditionalist” Orthodox cult, move to Northern California, and become a “spiritual elder” to thousands through his writings. WARNING: EVEN A MONK CAN LEAD YOU STRAIGHT TO HELL! St. Anthony warned his own monks that even the demons can take on the appearance of a monk and stated, “ … they assume the appearance of monks and feign the speech of holy men, that by their similarity they may deceive and thus drag their victims where they will.” How often are innocent people led astray by the ravings of these types of false monks and their oftentimes prideful teachings? It happens more often than you think! We must be careful not to be led astray by these wolves in sheep’s clothing, but rather we must test them. The test requires answering only two questions, which are: a) Are they officially recognized by the hierarchy of the canonical Orthodox Church? and b) Do they have any strange and unorthodox teachings such as “Orthodoxy without hierarchy”?
3. Fundamentalisms. These are new “heresies” of the present time and include both Patristic Fundamentalism and Biblical Fundamentalism. It is now popular to quote the Church Fathers like some Protestants quote Scripture — usually out of context and without reading the verse/sentence before and after the quoted text. Now, just like Scripture, the Fathers should be read, but they must be studied and rightly understood in the light of the teachings of the Church. There is no private interpretation of the Church Fathers. Some Fathers contradict each other in their theologumena — individual theological opinions — yet too often quoted individual opinions are regarded as Orthodox absolutes. Don’t confuse opinion with dogma. We canonize saints for their holy lives and dogmatic contributions that are accepted by the universal Church. Not all their private opinions are recognized by the Church! Yet so many are leading themselves and others away from the truth by their misunderstandings of the Church Fathers — be careful and beware! Biblical Fundamentalism is the second heresy creeping into the Orthodox Faith. Scripture is in fact the undeniable and infallible Word of God, but it has a human side to it. I Thess. 2:13 states,
“ . . . we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.”
Like Jesus, Scripture is both fully divine for it is the word of God — and fully human — for it is from the inspired hand of human beings. One aspect of Holy Tradition is Scripture rightly understood. It is the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Remember, there is no inspiration without perspiration! To extract the real meaning of Scripture, we all must diligently study Scripture, understanding that it was written nearly 2000 years ago. Therefore, we must understand the culture, times, and history. We must be aware of to whom and to what situation Scripture was addressed. A great example lies in the simple use of the word “shepherd”. In the West, shepherds are behind their flock and drive them where they want them to go. Is that how we are to understand Jesus, our Shepherd? No. We understand the term shepherd as they do in the ancient Near East, where a shepherd leads his flock where he wants them to go. Doesn’t that sound more like the Jesus we know and love and follow? So much of the “orthodox” backlash against modern biblical criticism/science is senseless. The Church Fathers did it and even modern Orthodox scholars do it. Scholarly work that helps to unlock the truth in Scripture is to be respected by us, for it can only make us better recognize our Crucified and Risen Lord and Savior.
As you can see, brothers and sisters, too often we can become like those nine lepers who did not come back to glorify Christ. The Orthodox faith can only heal us if we choose to follow it and follow it obediently. We cannot follow our own version of Orthodoxy taught by whomever we choose. We must daily assess what we read, whom we listen to, and how we understand our faith. Someday soon, Jesus will come again for His Church. Yet Jesus Himself said in Luke 18:8, “Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith in the earth?” He will if we Orthodox Christians are obedient and watchful.
Living a life fully committed and obedient to the Church involves the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess. 1:3). The fruit of this exhausting work, though, is the joyous stability of the Church and the salvation of our souls. Let us pray daily with thanksgiving for our wise bishops and teachers who rightly divide the word of truth. Let us remember the elders who have led us to Jesus, and with the Samaritan leper healed by Christ fall at His feet and give Him the thanksgiving and glory due to him!
*A pericope is a reading such as an Epistle or Gospel reading appointed for a particular liturgical event or day. Editor