Lord, When Did We See You Needy or Suffering?

Lord, When Did We See You Needy or Suffering?

+ Fr. Alexander Men

("Father Alexander Men (1935-1990) was a great leader, and one may say architect, of religious renewal in Russia at the end of the Soviet period.  He was a pastor, who found the time to write a great number of books including a seven volume study of world religions, ranging in style from the academic to the popular;  he lectured widely, at the end gaining access to radio and television and becoming a nationally known figure.  He founded the first Sunday school after the communist persecution, established a university, made a film strip, started volunteer work at a children's hospital.  He baptized thousands into the faith, was at home with simple people but was also called “the apostle to the intellectuals.”

His life and person and writings speak powerfully to a wide range of people, not only in Russia and not only Eastern Orthodox.  It seems that he is one of the very few who can touch and speak to and for all Christians and indeed, through his broadness of learning and heart, not only to Christians. (In this sense, Bishop Seraphim likens Fr. Men to a Russian C.S. Lewis.)

He was assassinated in 1990 but through his writings, through his memory and his spiritual heritage, he still speaks, and it may be he is an increasing presence in the world as his work becomes better known." (From an introduction by Bishop Seraphim Joseph Sigrist)).

The following is a sermon by Fr. Men on the Last Judgment.  The Parable will be read in Church on Sunday, February 23 of this year, in preparation for the start of Great Lent.

"Nowadays people often say that our world is fragile and could easily perish;  perhaps that is what will happen and you and I will witness the end of the world.  The forces of nature, which the Lord created, are surely blind forces, indifferent to good or evil.  If they are allowed to get out of control, they could sweep away all living things.  Before life or mankind appeared, these elemental forces had already come into being.  They have no pity.  When lava flows down a hill, it can crush a village or a town, together with their people and the buildings those people have constructed so diligently and over such a long period.  A hurricane, as it comes in from the sea, can destroy hundreds and thousands of lives.

Living creatures are not like that.  Hunters have often seen how a mother wolf will sacrifice her own life to save her cubs, how animals will fight an unequal battle with birds of prey in defense of their young.  Wild animals can experience fear, joy, love and gratitude;  they are not without feeling.  Of course, their feelings are not comparable to those of human beings, but all the same we know that living creatures are capable of helping each other. When a fire rages in the taiga, all creatures try to save themselves and at such a time the wolf will run beside the deer without touching it.

There are many examples of animals and plants helping each other.  However, you and I are human beings and the greatest sin against human self-respect is indifference;  when we become like the elements -- like cold rock, a devouring fire or dangerous water.  This is degrading for man, who is created not only with the power of reason, but also with emotions and feelings, enabling him to share the sufferings of other men.

The Lord tells us a Parable about how each one of us will be judged.  By what criterion, by what sign, does the King of Heaven divide all men into sheep and goats, as a shepherd divides a flock?  What is His accusation against those whom He places on the left hand?  It is that they were indifferent:  "You saw me sick and did not visit Me, hungry and did not feed Me, you saw me suffering and did not help Me."  But to those standing on His right hand, He says, "Come, ye blessed of My Father, for you comforted and helped Me."  And both the first and the second say, "Lord, when did we see You needy or suffering?"  He replies to them, "Whatever you did or did not do for the least of My brethren, that is, your own brothers and sisters, you did or did not do for Me."  That is the basic law of Gospel life.

Note that the Lord says that the Judge assembles before Himself all nations and languages, which must include pagans and unbelievers, but each of us knows this law in his conscience.  Each believer should understand that, if he remains indifferent in the face of evil and suffering, he thereby betrays his Lord.  Those who do not know God would feel that they were betraying themselves, their consciences, or some higher truth -- which shows that this is a universal law.

The Lord tells us, "It's not enough just to utter the words:  "love,"  "goodness," and "kindness."  Love must be active, it must be made manifest in life itself."  The Apostle Paul also says that the most important thing in our life is faith, which works through love -- note that it works actively.  It is not indifferent.  In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite who were walking along the road and saw a wounded man lying on the ground were certainly believers in God, but they were uncaring men.  They looked at the man who was calling for help and walked past without helping him.  It is this kind of indifference that the Lord condemns, while He blesses the heart that responds to other people -- that is the whole law of the Gospel.

So let us ask the Lord to give us strength;  to put His divine seal on our hearts, so that we may not become indifferent, like water or rocks;  so that we may be living people, responding to the sufferings and needs of those around us.

And there is something else.  In the Parable, people are divided into sheep and goats.  But in all of us can be found the two contrasting aspects -- generous and indifferent.  So division and conflict are going on in the same human heart.  May the principle that is victorious in us be the bright, good and loving one, so that we may hear the voice of our Lord:  "Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world.""