Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Mercy Towards the Neighbour

This then is eternal life, that they know you the only true God and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ (John 17, 3).

Well, we’re back. We thought that the Parable of the Good Samaritan would be a good continuation of the previous post so we decided to provide it in translation.

Some remarks: It should be clear from the above quotation from John that eternal life is none other than the communion in the Uncreated Church that we discussed in the previous post, the participation in the uncreated communion of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity that we receive in seed in our baptism through our reception, by the mercy of our Lord, of the Holy Spirit, through the Cross.

Next, Luke insists that although Jesus’ interlocutor in the Parable is speaking well to Jesus, he does not have a pure heart: he is testing Jesus rather than approaching him in humility to learn (in this, compare Nicodemus in John 3).

A Levite would be similar to a monk.

Samaritans did not have dealings with Jews. For a Samaritan to help a Jew was unusual. Today, it might be the same, given people’s attitudes, if it were said that a Muslim was passing by and helped a Christian when the Christian priest and the Christian monk had passed the fellow Christian by.

Oil and wine, apart from any symbolic significance they might have had, were basic pharmaceuticals of the day. This was the proper way to bandage an open wound.

A denarius (pl: denarii) is said to have been a day’s wage for a labourer. Not a trivial amount.

Here is the parable:

And behold a certain teacher of the Law stood up testing him and asking: ‘Teacher, having done what will I inherit eternal life?’ He then said to him: ‘In the Law what has been written? How do you read?’ He then, having answered, said: ‘You will love the Lord your God from all of your heart and from all of your soul and from all of your strength and from all of your intellect; and your neighbour as yourself.’ He then said to him: ‘You have answered rightly. Do this and live.’ He then, wishing to justify himself, said to Jesus: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Taking up the thread, Jesus then said: ‘A certain man was descending from Jerusalem to Jericho and robbers fell upon him. And, stripping him and laying wounds on him, they departed leaving him in a state near death. By coincidence, then, a certain priest was descending in that way and, seeing him, passed by on the other side. Likewise then also a Levite, happening on the place, coming up and looking passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan who was travelling came up to him and seeing him had compassion. And, approaching him, he bandaged his wounds, pouring out oil and wine. Then having mounted him on his own beast of burden, he led him to the lodging-place and took care of him. And the next day, departing, taking out two denarii he gave them to the innkeeper and said to him: “Take care of him and whatever you expend in addition I will repay you when I come back.” Which of these three seems to you to have become a neighbour to him you fell among the robbers?’ He said: ‘He who showed mercy to him.’ Jesus then said to him: ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10, 25 – 37.)

Monday, 24 December 2007

The Mercy of God

In what might be our last post for this calendar year, we would like, as a summary of our posts for this year, to turn to the mercy of God:

And his mercy is upon those who fear him for generations of generations (Luke 1, 50).

We are all sinners. A trite expression of the preacher, it’s Christmas. But let us consider the mercy of God upon us. Adam sinned; so did Eve. They were expelled from Paradise. Things have gone downhill since then. End of story.

Let us consider our own sins. Is there anyone among us without sin? Is there anyone among us who can look honestly at his own past life and say: ‘I am free of sin; I don’t need this Christian nonsense?’

Usually people with arrogance say: ‘I have a right to do what I want because there is no God—and not because I have not sinned. I just don’t accept that these moral norms apply to me. I am above this petty human moral law.’

But let us suppose that such a man comes to remorse after a sin. Let’s say he’s killed someone while ‘driving under the influence’. Let’s say it’s a young mother. He’s made a child an orphan, a husband who loves his wife a widower. He knew it was wrong to drink so much and then drive.

Let’s say that he goes to prison for his sin. The law of men, especially in the United States, has a rigorist, rationalist approach to things that finds it hard to deal with people as people. That would be favoritism.

The guy does time in the slammer. Now, American justice has given up on reforming the sinner—this is standing ‘If you can’t pay the time then don’t do the crime,’ on its head so that it reads ‘We have a menu of what each crime will cost you,’—and gives our man six months in a medium-security prison.

Not having been guests of the American government in one of its reformatories, we do not know the details of either what you pay for a DUI resulting in death or what conditions are like in the prison where you pay off your ‘debt to society’. So let’s just assume six months in a medium-security joint.

The guy has a lot of time to think. Now after rationalizing that he’s been shafted and plotting in his mind’s eye to off the judge when he gets out, he calms down a little with the pleasant routine of prison life and starts to think. He realizes willy-nilly, half-admitting it to himself, half-denying it, that he’s done a sin. He’s killed a pleasant young woman because he was arrogant enough to drive while under the influence thinking he is above all moral laws, because he is who he is.

He starts to feel bad. The prison psychiatrist—if there is one—might think he’s suffering from depression. He certainly is unhappy. There he is in prison; his family’s not happy; his wife—will she finally divorce him?—is icy with him on her few visits; his boss wants to get rid of him. But what really bugs him is the realization that he’s killed someone for no good reason, because of his sin.

Humanly speaking, the fellow is a jerk. And he’s killed someone.

Here’s where the mercy of God comes in. Essentially, without God, no one of us is any different from this guy. We fool ourselves if we are thinking otherwise. We all have to come to our senses and realize that we are actual sinners. Sometimes it’s a rough journey. We discussed this in this post, and this post (really the first two parts of the same post) in a completely different context.

Sometimes we die without having come to that realization. These are the mysterious and inscrutable judgements of God on us—for what is going to happen after death if we leave without repenting of our sins?

In any event, the mercy of God is something that we experience when AS SINNERS we turn to God. While it might be considered preposterous or worse to compare the repentant sinner to the Virgin Mary, Her Who Bore God, let us look at the whole text of the Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. For he has looked down upon the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold from now all generations will pronounce blessings upon me. For the Strong One has done great things for me and Holy is his Name. And his mercy is upon those who fear him for generations of generations. He has established dominion in his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thought of their heart. He has brought the mighty down from their thrones and raised up the humble. He has filled the hungering with good things and sent away empty-handed those who are gathering wealth. He has defended Israel, his servant, so as to remember to the Age mercy to Abraham and to his seed [sing.], just as he spoke to our fathers. (Luke 1, 46 – 55.)

When we turn to God in Jesus Christ, God turns to us in mercy. We too experience something of the Holy Spirit that overshadowed the Mother of God, so that we can understand a little what would move her to pronounce those words.

Mary’s experience of being overshadowed by God came to her at the Annunciation.

And the Word was made flesh.’

Why was the Word made flesh?

Because God in his mercy loves mankind and wishes all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Getting back to the guy in prison, the mercy of God is this, that if he too turns to God, God will turn to him. And even if he doesn’t get out of the slammer early, and even if his wife does divorce him, and even if his boss finds a legally valid reason to sack him, and even if his children can’t stand the sight of him, he too will say: ‘Blessed be the God who has saved me.’

The most essential act of mercy is the incarnation of the Word into human flesh so that all men might be saved.

This is the essence of the mystery. St Athanasios the Great of Alexandria put it this way: ‘God became man so that Man might be made god.’ So not only are we ‘saved’ in a juridical sense, but we are made gods by grace. This applies even to the fellow in prison. Or to us.

This is the sense of St Paul’s remark to the Corinthians: they experienced great grace—even the fullness of the grace we are talking about—but some of them were formerly murderers.

Moreover, we receive this adoption as sons and daughters of God, this adoption as gods by grace, in seed in our baptism through our reception of the Holy Spirit in that baptism.

This is what Elder Porphyrios means by the Uncreated Church: in baptism we enter into uncreated communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into the uncreated communion which they eternally have with one other, through our reception in baptism, by the mercy of God, of the Holy Spirit.

All we have to do is turn to God. He will turn to us, for his mercy is to the Age. The rest is our making an effort to draw close to Jesus and to his Father and to the Holy Spirit in their uncreated communion.

So let us not think that we are not acceptable to God. And let us not think that a method is what will save us. Yes, let us pray the Jesus Prayer but let us pray it once from the heart. And let us all say: ‘Blessed be God the Merciful who saved us in Christ Jesus our Lord, our Saviour, whose Incarnation we celebrate December 25.’

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
—Orthodox Monk

Wednesday, 12 December 2007


Blessed are those who show mercy, for they will be shown mercy. (Matt. 5, 7.)

One of our readers will be baptized day after tomorrow along with his family. By way of our final blessing, we would like to admonish him and his family: God has shown great mercy to you. Do you also in the same way.

While Shakespeare is not one of our primary sources, he has got it right on the nature of mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I.

We say again to our friend and brother along with his family: Do you also in the same way until you die.

To all, we would like to remark on the nature of mercy. First of all, the blessing in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus pronounces on those who show mercy provides us with a variant of ‘Pascal’s Wager’. As we all know, Pascal’s original wager was this: ‘We lose nothing if we believe, but if it’s true, we gain Heaven. Hence, it’s a good bet.’ Our variant: God promises us that he will show us mercy if we ourselves show mercy to others. God can’t break his own word. Therefore, even if we are arrant sinners, it behoves us to show mercy to others even if we do nothing at all else virtuous: we can’t lose because God is obliged by his own word to show us mercy.

In our last post, we discussed forgiving the other. Forgiving the other and showing mercy to him are not quite the same thing although they are clearly related.

As Shakespeare makes clear, mercy tempers justice. There is no indication in the history of Christianity that mercy treats the wrong as right or the right as wrong: the presupposition of mercy is that the other has sinned, perhaps not against us but somewhere. Mercy looks to him in whose power it is to punish the wrongdoer and beseeches of him not justice but forgiveness of the punishment which is due to the other, the wrongdoer.

Hence, it is a mistaken reading of Christianity to use Jesus’ admonition to mercy as an excuse not to treat sin as sin. That is something different, a deep confusion within us about the nature of truth.

In the case that the other has sinned against us, our Christian duty to forgive him might extend in the case of mercy to the restoration of relations of previous intimacy. But again, we ourselves would not counsel such a course willy-nilly: it behoves us to see things clearly in prudence and wisdom and to proceed not on the basis of our hurt or even on the basis of a naïve application of the Gospel, but on the basis of what is spiritually the soundest course. In the history of Orthodox monasticism this is what has been called discernment. In this post, we provided St John of Sinai’s definition of discernment:

23, 1 Discernment, first, is in beginners the true deep knowledge of things which pertain to themselves; in intermediates, then, the spiritual sense which faultlessly discriminates among that which is really good, that which is naturally good and the opposite (i.e. the bad); in the perfect, finally, that spiritual knowledge existing within the perfect which comes about through divine enlightenment and which is strong enough to illuminate that which exists darkly in others.

O perhaps most generally this is known to be and in fact is discernment: the sure possession of the will of God in every time and place and thing, which exists only in those who are pure in heart and body and mouth. Discernment is an unspotted conscience and a pure sense.

The meaning of discernment we need in the context of forgiving and showing mercy is this one: ‘the spiritual sense which faultlessly discriminates among that which is really good, that which is naturally good and the opposite (i.e. the bad)’. In other words, discernment is the spiritual sense which allows us to see correctly what the true good is in the situation we find ourselves, as opposed to the apparent good and as opposed to the bad; or which provides us with ‘the sure possession of the will of God’ in the particular situation.

Now it might be thought by the naïve that the will of God as defined in the Gospel is invariably that we forgive and get along. While it is true that the invariable will of God is that we forgive and show the other mercy insofar as it is in our power, discernment tells us what that means practically in the situation in hand.

This is true even of the ruler. In other words, someone has sinned against us, or against someone else, and it is in our power to forgive him or to show him mercy. Wisdom (i.e. discernment) tells us what that means practically in the situation in hand. We do forgive so that inter alia we are free of anger towards the other (we wonder about the quality of forgiveness of a Christian who is still angry with the other) but we don’t necessarily ‘let him go’: that depends on a discernment of what the will of God is in the case in hand.

We are reminded of a Byzantine saint, Theodore of Sykeon (April 22) we think, into whose presence was brought a condemned murderer. He ordered that the man be unbound. They said, ‘He’s violent’. The saint replied ‘Don’t worry.’ They unbound him. The man ran over and sat at the saints feet. The saint counselled him that being executed paid for the sin he had committed, if indeed he had committed it, or for other sins if he had not. The man departed from the saint’s presence in peace. He was executed. The saint made no effort to prevent his execution.

This is not a defense or condemnation of capital punishment. It is a remark that the saint discerns in the matter of hand what the will of God is in that situation. St Theodore discerned that the thing to do in the situation at hand was to prepare the condemned man for execution. When two Byzantine co-emperors visited St Maximos Kavsokalyvis (January 13) on Mt Athos, he admonished them to show mercy to wrongdoers. One of the co-emperors later became a monk.

So, to return from our general remarks to our reader who is about to be baptized: May God grant you a heart that shows mercy.

Orthodox Monk