And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ “And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves? And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
St Augustine writes:
God our Lord wished to be called our neighbor. The Lord Jesus Christ meant that He was the one who gave help to the man lying half-dead on the road, beaten and left by the robbers. The prophet said in prayer: “As a neighbor and as one’s own brother, so did I please” (Ps 34.14). Since divine nature is far superior and above our human nature, the command by which we are to love God is distinct from our love of neighbor. He shows mercy to us because of His own goodness, while we show mercy to one another because of God’s goodness. He has compassion on us so that we may enjoy Him completely, while we have compassion on another that we may completely enjoy Him (Christian Instruction, 33).
At the center of human life is the compassion and mercy of God. These are not at the center of our lives because we are sinners. While they certainly do reflect God’s gracious care for us in our sinfulness, we error if we imagine them to be merely the response of God to us. No, divine compassion and mercy what calls us “out of nonexistence into being” as we pray in the Liturgy of St Basil. God’s mercy and compassion are that which cause me to be rather than not be.
To borrow philosophical language, I am constituted in all my uniqueness by God’s mercy and compassion.
Part of the struggle we have as sinners is that we forget that our existence is the free gift of God. I do not own my own life; life comes to me from outside as a grace. Grace, in this sense, is not something added to me, as if it were possible for me to exist separate from God. Grace, like mercy and compassion, is what makes it possible for me to exist at all.
Too easily we reduce mercy and compassion to a mere response—as if God feels sorry for us. We likewise tend to imagine mercy and compassion in our own lives as a mere response—something I offer to you in your moment of need or you offer to me. But in either case, mercy and compassion are otherwise optional, something transitory rather than that which makes me to be, well, me.
St Augustine is clear, God show mercy to me because He is good, and my own acts of mercy reflect not any transitory need in my neighbor, much less any moral superiority on my part. Rather, mercy and compassion find their true meaning and value as my response to God’s goodness. If I am merciful or compassionate at all, it is not because you are in need (though your need ought to matter to me) or because I am virtuous (though I should strive for virtue). If I am merciful or compassionate at all it is first and foremost because God is good.
None of this should be taken to mean that we are not in need. We are. But our need is precisely this: In each moment of our lives we depend absolutely on God and relatively on each other. For to be human means to always and everywhere be in need; I am always depend on God and my neighbor.
My dependence on God and neighbor is the context out of which arises everything that is good in my life. This is why Augustine can say with such conviction that the fruit of God’s consideration of us in our weakness is joy and that our own personal entrance into a joyful life found only through our compassion one for another.
The great tragedy of sin is not that it makes me a “bad person” in a narrow moral sense. The tragedy, the horror, of sin is that I am willing to be a “good person” who uses my moral goodness to justify my refuse to participate in the web of human interdependence that is my life. This is what we see in the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In their indifference to the man who they found naked and beaten on the side of the road they revealed themselves as the true thieves in the story.
But what did they take?
In leaving the man on the side of the road, they not only failed to care for him in his great need, they also robbed the man and themselves of joy. More to the point, through their lack of compassion and mercy, they revealed themselves as joyless. Like the thieves, they imagined that a good life, a satisfying life, could be had separate from their neighbor. That they no doubt justified their indifference by an appeal to religious obligations or some other lofty motive only reveals the depth of their own depravity.
Ironically, it the Samaritan, the one outside the Chosen People, who reveals himself to be the one in whom “the life of Jesus [is] manifested in . . . mortal flesh (2 Cor 4:11). Whatever may have been his life until that point, when he reached out to care for the man fallen among thieves, he made manifest the mercy, compassion, and joy that are the hallmark of the Christian life.
Unfortunately for many of us these three are often lacking in us. For many of us who carry the Name above every other name, being Christian has become identified with any and everything under the sun but mercy, compassion and joy.
Let me illustrate what I mean by offering you some thoughts about how I have come to understand what it means for me to be a priest.
For most of my 11 or so years as an Orthodox priest, I have served people and communities more on the margin than the center of the life. While not without its struggles, frustrations and disappointments, I don’t think I would have had it any other way. Though not without their own sins, those who are on the margin of society, or for that matter the life of the Church, are often more open to mercy of God than people more secure in their social or ecclesiastic position.
As a priest I have been entrusted by God and His Church with a great gift. Standing on the margins, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, I have come to realize that in each moment of my priesthood, the exercise of this gift is dependent upon the good will, the trust, of other human beings. I cannot become “great,” If you will, unless I am willing to care for my needy neighbor. But more than that, I also have come to realize I must acknowledge my need for my neighbor.
While not in any manner denying the necessity of God’s grace, I have come to realize that part of that grace, is the trust of others. It is only the trust of others that make it possible for me to be a priest. Without the invitation from others to serve them, what am I? Without the willingness of others to open to me the door of their heart, there is no value to the gift of the priesthood. And woe to me if, by word or deed, by action or inaction, by desire or indifference, I close myself off to that invitation. Worse still is my condition, if I discourage others from opening to me the door of their heart.
God in His mercy and compassion has not simply called us into being, He has called us to entrust ourselves to Him and to one another. The Samaritan in the parable grasped this and so becomes for us a figure of Christ. The challenge before each of us, before me, is whether or not I can accept that nothing good in me is mine apart from the grace of God and the trust of my neighbor.