St. Botolph’s Parish, 25th Sunday after Pentecost, 14 November 2010
“Which of these proved neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” “The one who showed mercy on him.” (Luke 10.36-37)
A tower of conservatism, the Orthodox Church. The last bastion of Christian values. For fifty years, ‘conservatives’ of all kinds have come flocking to that tower: not on account of who we are, but who we are not; not for what we do – but for what we do not do. On the Last Day, I always imagine, Christ our God will ask this type of convert: ‘So, why did you unite yourself to my holy Orthodox Church?’ The convert will answer: ‘Because the Orthodox Church will never replace the Divine Liturgy with a “guitar mass”’. ‘Why else?’ says Christ. ‘Because the Orthodox Church will never ordain women as priests or bless homosexual unions’. ‘Why else?’ says Christ. ‘Because the Orthodox Church will never deny the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of the Body’. ‘You have answered rightly’, says Christ. ‘Hold this faith, and you will live. But why else did you convert?’ A certain type of convert answers: ‘Because the Orthodox Church enforces the law of God. Because the Church upholds all my Christian values: little red mailboxes, old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the mist, gloomy Sundays, traditional families with the father at the helm. Neighbours who look like me, talk like me, think like me. Conservative neighbours who obey the law. That’s why I’m Orthodox’.
‘But are you so sure that the Church prefers “the law of God” to his mercy? says Christ. ‘And are you so sure you that know who is your neighbour?’
There are converts, even convert priests, who live in a little red mailbox: they look to us, the Orthodox Church, for a fantasy of yesteryear. A real priest does not live in a little red mailbox. He lives in the holy altar. He trembles at the altar of God – as at the Judgment.
The God who stands here invisibly before him is not a cosmic police officer appointed to enforce ‘Christian values’; not an old maid, cycling through the mist. God is not mist, but fire. To offer the eternal sacrifice before the Living God – a bit more terrifying than a little red mailbox. More terrifying still, to lift up to heaven the holy chalice and diskárion, filled with particles of bread for those for whom you are asked to pray. But, the most terrifying of all for a priest: to hear the confession of a soul in pain. What happens in confession? Does the priest produce out of his cassock a manual of rules? Nothing so conservative.
He finds a soul by the wayside. Stripped of every defence. Beaten – by its own thoughts.
He hears words, whispered in strictest confidence; he honours that trust, as he honours his own life. He binds the wounds with a word. Pours on the oil of a prayer of absolution, and the wine that is the Precious Blood of Christ. He carries the burden of what is told in trust, and ‘pays’ with his own heartfelt tears – each tear, a prayer for a soul in pain.
On the Last Day, Christ will not ask the priest: ‘Did you enforce the law of God?’ but ‘Did you honour that trust? Did you pour in the oil of mercy? Did you prove neighbour to the one who fell among the robbers?’
One day, a lawyer decides to test Jesus. No mistake, it is a lawyer. He wants to test: will this teacher enforce the law of God? Or will he be… ‘soft’? ‘Tell me, teacher’, the lawyer asks: ‘What do I do to get into heaven?’ ‘What is written in your law?’ Jesus replies. ‘Ah, that’s easy. Hold the right doctrine! Love the Lord my God with all my heart and soul, all my mind and strength. Oh, yes, uh… and my neighbour as myself’. ‘You have answered rightly’, says Jesus. ‘Do this, and you will live’. But the lawyer wants to ‘justify’ himself: to prove that what he always believed, still holds: his little red mailboxes and old maids cycling through the mist. ‘Who is my neighbour? Surely, anyone who looks like me, talks like me, thinks like me. Anyone who obeys the law’. ‘Who is my neighbour?’
‘A man once fell among robbers’, Christ tells. They strip him, beat him, leave him dying. Now the law states: touch a dying man, you get in trouble. You are unclean. So a priest, passing that way, figures: ‘Better play it safe, cross over to the other side of the road’. A deacon, passing by a few minutes later, figures: ‘I’m not getting involved. I’ll pretend that I don’t see. After all, the law comes first’. But a certain foreigner passes by and sees the dying man. ‘To hell with the law’, he says. He binds up the wounds. He pours on healing oil and cleansing wine. He takes the human burden on his own donkey to a nearby inn. He pays out of pocket. Why? What does he get from it? Nothing: but he honours a trust.
He takes pity on the soul in pain. He discards the letter of the law but fulfils its intention. He gives glory, not to the law, but to the Living God.
‘Which of these’, Christ asks, ‘the priest, the deacon, or the foreigner, proved neighbour to the one who fell among the thieves?’ Even the lawyer knows perfectly well: ‘The one who showed mercy on him’.
Beloved in Christ: what is written in the eternal law? To love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. To keep the Orthodox doctrine, whole, unchanged: to cling to the apostolic faith – as to your life. But what is this apostolic faith? What is the true worship of the Orthodox Church and its unchanging doctrine but a living icon of the mercy of God? The energy that shone at creation; the light without beginning or end; the light that changes the first of sinners into a saint – what is it but the mercy of God? I can no more hide from it in my ‘bastion of Christian values’ than in some little red mailbox; no more hide from the pure flame of mercy, than turn a blind eye to ‘my neighbour’: any suffering soul, as weak and as fallen as I. So – if mercy is the divine energy of God, is it not so: that he who shows mercy is of God; and he who denies it, is of the Enemy.
Today, when you find a soul fallen among the robbers, what will you do? Whip out your ‘Christian values’? Pass over to the other side? Or, knowing that you too are weak, will you show mercy on a soul in pain? Will you prove, in your life, that the icon of the Living God is not found in little red mailboxes, or neighbours who look and act exactly like you.
It is found, not in the priest – nay, the Christian – who enforces the law, but in the one who shows mercy.