What don’t you understand?


One can say, I don’t understand all this high theology, I don’t understand what Liturgy is all about, I don’t understand how bread and wine can be the body and blood of Christ. One can say any of these things and be sincere. But what don’t you understand about “Go and do likewise”? It’s a simple command, and it needs no theology. And it needs no consecration of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. It’s actually a simple command that turns us into the body of Christ, and sometimes even into his blood!

If you are not a neighbor to the homeless, to the persecuted, to the refugee, then you are not following this basic command of Jesus, “Go and do likewise.” Saint John Chrysostom, whose feast day we celebrate today, understood the message, and that is why he was persecuted by the empire and the rich and powerful 1600 years ago. The church honored him after his death with the title Chrysostomos – the “golden-mouthed”. The Liturgy we celebrate today and most days of the year is named after him.

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But was he golden-mouthed only because he was an eloquent preacher? His preaching was consumed with a passion for the poor and the homeless, the ignored of society. He spoke of the oil of mercy (referring to the parable of the maidens and the bridegroom). “Who are the merchants of this oil? The poor, who are sitting in front of the church, waiting for your mercy! You have money? Buy heaven! You don’t have money? Give a cup of cool water.”

“The poor are physicians of the soul, your benefactors and protectors. You receive more than you give. You give silver and receive the kingdom of heaven. You wash your hands before you pray. God has placed the poor at the doors of the church so that before you enter to pray you wash your hands with philanthropy.”

Δύο νιπτήρες εισι προ των πυλών της εκκλησίας˙ μία του ύδατος, εν ή νίπτεις τας χείρας, και μία η χείρ του πένητος, εν ή αποσμήχεις (purify) την ψυχήν σου. Εισέρχου εις την εκκλησίαν, και νίπτε τας χείρας σου˙ επίδος εις την χείρα του πένητος οβολόν, και απόσμηχε την ψυχήν σου. Εάν δε εισέλθης και νίψης και εύξη, τω δε πένητι μηδέν επιδώσης, τί όφελος;

“There are two fonts at the entrance of the church: one with water, in which you wash your hands; and the other the hand of the beggar, in which you purify your soul. Enter into the church, and wash your hands; give your offering to the hand of the beggar, and purify your soul. If you enter and wash your hands and pray, but give nothing to the beggar, what’s the point?”

On the very first day of Lent, we read from the first chapter of Isaiah. We enter Lent with these extraordinary words. It is God who speaks:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Is there any difference between today’s Parable of the Good Samaritan and this passage written by Isaiah 700 years before Christ? God has a passion for us human beings. He desires that we have com-passion for each other, for the poor, the homeless, the refugee.

Τουτό εστιν, ώ εξισούσθαι δυνάμεθα τω θεώ, ελεείν. An amazing statement by Chrysostom: “This is the means by which we become equal to God (in the sense that we are put on the same level with God), by being merciful.”

But you will protest that we live in very different times than Chrysostom. Indeed, it is hard to tell who is really poor and who isn’t – though we all know that there is real poverty in our society. Many people are afraid of refugees – maybe some of them are terrorists. Highly unlikely, but a real, justified fear nevertheless. So what do we do? Well, you can get involved in an organized effort to help the poor, to promote social justice, to alleviate poverty in our city, state or country. For starters, you can work in a food pantry or a soup kitchen. Perhaps you might want to start something like that in our own church, in our own parish house. Perhaps you might want to help a halfway house or one of the shelters in our city for abused women. You might want to volunteer at one of our hospitals or nursing homes. Perhaps you might want to form a small group that will visit nursing homes or the Veterans Home in Scarborough. There are lonely people all around us. They might not all be poor, but they lack human companionship. Perhaps you can organize to drive people to church some Sundays, if not every Sunday. The possibilities are endless.

Icon illustrating the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with Jesus himself in the role of the Samaritan. He is our peace, our shalom.
In this icon illustrating the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus himself is the Samaritan, showing us also the path to sharing his life, by being compassionate.

We can all be good Samaritans. And all of us are in one way or another like the man who was beaten and left for dead. We need each other. This is where the gospel of Jesus Christ begins. This is always where John Chrysostom began. So we honor him as the great teacher of mercy and compassion.

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