Seeing God in the “Other”
Fr. Luke Veronis
In his book “The Brothers Karamazov”, Dostoevski describes well the tremendous responsibility and influence a Christian has on his neighbor. The character Fr. Zosima offers advice to Alyosha saying, “The criminal in your community may be less guilty for his crime than you, his Christian neighbor. For you could have been a light to the evil doer, yet you were not, for the man remained beside you in darkness. Had you been the kind of example you ought to have been and allowed your light to shine on that lost man’s path, perhaps he might not have stumbled into his crime. If you had loved your neighbor as yourself and lavished upon him some of the care you generously lavish upon yourself, shared some of the warmth God has privileged you to possess, that criminal might have changed in time.”
Today’s Gospel lesson of the last judgment also implies the responsibility we have in caring for the “other.” In fact, our judgment and salvation depends on how we treat our neighbor. The Philokalia says, “Blessed is the one who rejoices in his salvation. But more blessed is he who rejoices in the salvation of the other.”
Here is the heart of the Gospel, and of all the teachings of Christ. We know that the greatest commandments are to love God and love one another, but today we realize that such love can never be simple theory, instead the two loves are intertwined in concrete actions. In fact, through these actions we come to understand that love for God and love for the other are one and the same, precisely because God lives within each person, each person reflects His image.
We have all heard many different stories which portray this great truth. When St. Martin of Tours was entering a city on a cold winter day, he saw a beggar shivering from the elements, asking for alms. Although Martin had nothing to give him, he offered the little he had, his ragged old army coat. During the night, as Martin dreamt, he saw a vision of Christ walking in the glory of his kingdom with a ragged, old army coat. And when an angel asked the Lord, “Lord, why are you wearing such a ragged, dirty coat?” Christ responded, “My beloved child Martin gave it to me today.”
I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was alone in prison, and in the hospital, and you visited me. Come you who are blessed by my Father. For whatever you did for one of these least of my brothers, you did for me.
What is so intriguing here is that according to this passage, we will not be judged by our number of prayers, our Church attendance, or our ability to fast, or by following some other religious regulations, but we will be judged by one factor – our ability to love in a concrete, yet simple manner. And no person, no matter how poor they are, can find an excuse for not fulfilling this command.
Christ doesn’t say, “You didn’t solve the world problems of hunger,” but “I was hungry and you fed me.” Jesus didn’t say, “You didn’t heal me from my illnesses,” but “I was sick and you visited me.” And he didn’t complain, “I was in prison and you didn’t free me.” No, instead, he judges us because we didn’t do what was within our ability – a simple visit.
God waits, and seeks for us to do little acts, but with great love!
And remember, no where do we see God telling us to offer love to only those who deserve it. It doesn’t depend on us to analyze and determine whether we should help the other – our acts of love need to be spontaneous acts springing from a heart full of the love of God! We don’t need to judge why one is in prison, why one is hungry, why one is naked. Maybe they made some mistakes in their lives, and one day they will have to give an account before Christ for themselves. But we also will be judged for what we know God expects from us, and for our inability to fulfill His commandments.
From this Gospel lesson we also find an answer to a commonly asked question by skeptics. Some wonder, “Where is God in the midst of tragedy? If God is love, why does he allow suffering, pain, and sorrow?” The answer we hear today is that God has acted, by sending us. God is in the midst of suffering, when we fulfill our role as His ambassadors, wiping the tears away from those struggling.
I remember during the Kosovo War in 1999, when 500,000 Kosovar refugees flooded into Albania, in total bewilderment and desperation. Many came with nothing but the clothes on their backs. No matter what position they held before – doctors, professionals, wealthy businessmen – many fled their homes and instantly entered the category of beggars. One of the blessings of this crisis, however, is how we were able to act as the hands of God. I understood in a new way the saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And we felt so blessed to have the opportunity to offer help – giving food, passing out mattresses, simply visiting the abandoned and lonely in the refugee camps.
One week after the war ended, when most of the refugees had returned to their homes, I received a call from one of the men whom I had met at our refugee camp. His name was Ramadan, obviously a Muslim, and he and his entire family had been touched by the love they witnessed at our camp – from our seminarians who visited there regularly, to our Diakonia Agape office staff that set up the camp. Ramadan asked to meet me at my office in the Archdiocese. When I saw him, he gave me a big oil painting and said this was a small token of his appreciation for all that the Church had done for him. And I’ll never forget these words he said, “Through the love that you and your students showed us, I came to understand what Christianity is all about. You visited us. You sat with us. You helped us both materially and spiritually. Although I have seen terrible evil these past months, I have also witnessed the beauty of God’s love through his followers.”
Although the war initially created within this man a negative perception about Christians in general, and Orthodox in particular, from the tragedy of the war came an opportunity for Christ’s disciples to offer concrete love without questions and without judgment – simple love through visits and basic aid. From this experience I realized more than ever that we truly are God’s hands and feet, we are His presence for many people!
As we Orthodox around the world prepare for the great journey of Lent, a journey that partially begins today on Meatfare Sunday (from today we no longer eat meat), let us remember one of the most crucial elements of our Lenten Journey. Sure, fasting, self-discipline, and ascesis are important TOOLS needed to help us prepare for our destination of Pascha, but today’s Gospel lesson clearly portrays not the means, but the ESSENCE of what we are called to do and be. Let us use these tools of the Lenten season – fasting, discipline, ascesis – to help us cultivate more the essence of our faith – CONCRETE LOVE THROUGH SIMPLE ACTIONS TO ALL PEOPLE!
Mother Maria, an Orthodox nun who helped many destitute and needy people in Paris during WWII, including many Jews, was herself arrested and imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps because of her actions. Before she died, she stated, “At the last judgment I shall not be asked if I was successful in my ascetic exercises or how many prostrations I made in the course of my prayers. I shall be asked one thing – did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners: that is all I shall be asked.”
“Blessed is the one who rejoices in his salvation. But more blessed is he who rejoices in the salvation of the other.”