True Self, False Self
Sermon preached on Sunday, October 18, 2015 by Fr. Antony Hughes
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (10:16-21)
I wish today’s reading hadn’t ended at verse 21 because the point of it all comes in the parable beginning with verse 25. I want to draw this connection today because it we fail to see it the real point of the Gospel reading is lost. Today is a perfect example of the Lord’s genius at work.
Jesus welcomes the seventy disciples back from their first missionary journey. They are giddy at their success. “Even the demons are subject to us,” they tell him. Jesus rejoices with them as a gentle father and slowly begins to teach them their first lessons in the spiritual life. He begins with a redirect.
“Yes, yes, the spirits are subject to you, but don’t rejoice over that! Rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven.” Jesus distracts them from attachment to their recent and now past success and brings them back into the present and overriding reality. God is aware of you, he loves you, he has your names written in his heart right now. Focus rather on that. Rejoice in that. Come back to reality. What are demons in comparison to this?
The Lord was a master psychologist. He looked and listened and recognized the subtle rise of ego. There is nothing more dangerous to spiritual effort than the ascendency of ego, that is, the false self. The fall of many has come because of it. The false self is propped up by things that are impermanent, our biographies, our families, our friends, our credit cards, our titles, our wealth or lack of it, our notoriety or lack of it. Its intrinsic impermanence makes this self false. The true self is gifted by God with the potential for immortality and is supported by God, but not the false self who will die when we die and be forgotten.
Then the Lord, seeing the moment’s great need, gets to the point and weaves a parable. It is the parable of the Good Samaritan, perhaps no greater story about the contrast between the false self and the image of God in all the Lord’s teaching. We see the contrast between them. We see how they work and what each is able to accomplish told in a tale that had to have shocked and confused the disciples.
Parables are not told to confirm the listeners, but to confound them. They are often confusing and hard to understand. They were meant to leave the listeners with questions and even confused for if we are to learn anything what we think we know often must be discarded. No growth, no change can come if we are not open to allowing them to happen. The new wine demands new wineskins. In this instance Jesus was determined to teach something new and alter his disciples’ understanding.
The false and egoic self is represented by the Levite and the priest. This in itself would have shocked the disciples. How do we know that they were governed by the false and egoic self? Simple. They had no compassion. They were self-centered. Blinded by their own elite perfection, they did not notice or could not even see their own countryman lying wounded on the road. My first spiritual father, Fr. John Namie, once told me to be cautious with priests, “For there are many demons in black robes.”
Jesus makes the hated, culturally impure and heretical Samaritan into the hero. In spite of how he is viewed by his listeners he is the one in whom the image of God shines brightly. How do we know? Courage, compassion, goodness poor from him, unsolicited and spontaneously. His heart opens as well as his purse to this man who was an enemy of his people. That didn’t matter. The true servant of God acknowledges the insignificance of external hindrances and acts without regard to them.
The true self, the image is free and unencumbered by anything. A true believer Jesus says is like the Spirit and the wind “blows where it wills.” Utterly liberated from the things that hinder most of us - our past, our sins, our fears, our desires and the whole plethora of things that condition us from our youth up – the Samaritan does the work of God. When we experience this unmitigated freedom, we know that the Spirit of God is moving in us. When we feel ourselves constricted and unable to respond with compassion, we know that the false self is leading the way.
Fr. Alexander Elchaninov boldly defined Orthodoxy as “the element of absolute freedom” echoing in some sense the words of St. Paul in in Titus, “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.” The true self knows that everything is good and to live is holy. The false self sees only impurity.
Those who have learned how to connect with the image of God within experience freedom from judgment, from convention, from law. They are creative and courageous and compassionate and their compassion flows without hindrance both outside of them and inside of them. “Out of such flow rivers of living water.” They are invariably joyful people and treat all, including themselves, with lovingkindness. Titles and awards and degrees and wealth and the respect of the world mean nothing to them for they are aware that their names are written in heaven.
Perhaps this is the key. Do we dare to believe that our names too are written in heaven? Do we dare to allow ourselves to fully embrace the truth that God loves us without condition demanding and asking nothing of us but to be open to receive his love? Do we realize that there is nothing we need to do except be open for salvation is a gift from God given freely? We do not need to rejoice in what good we have done in the past we only need to open our eyes and see with sacred mindfulness all that God is doing right now, at this present moment, to have an infinity of things to make us glad.
If we know this and put away all the nonsense about being worthy, which is, you know, utter nonsense, then we are able to rejoice not in anything we have done, but in all that God has done. Then we are free. Then the truth of who we are will flow from us like living water and we will be able to respond at every present moment to the need of that moment in whatever form it appears.
This is what Jesus wanted for his disciples and that is why he corrected them so quickly before they could descend any deeper into falseness. Just as the God who can be thought or imagined is not the God who is; the self constructed of thoughts is not the true self.