In our lives, we encounter many difficult questions. Should we give alms to someone who we believe is exaggerating their needs? Should we make compromises even in situations when this may appear as a concession to evil? What course of action in these situations should we take as Christians, and in which Christian commandments should we take our guidance?
On 25 November, we celebrate the memory of John the Merciful. He showed us with the example of his life that all these questions have straightforward answers grounded in these words of our Lord: “ Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48). There is no other basis for virtue than our conscience. It is not grounded in some particular socio-political or moral system but rather is a calling to infinite perfection.
As Patriarch of Alexandria, Saint John never ignored the pleas of those who approached him for help. One day, as he was on his way to the infirmary, he met a beggar and gave him six silver coins. The beggar changed into new clothes and came before the Patriarch again, asking him for alms. The saint gave him another six silver coins. But when the same beggar approached the Patriarch a third time, and his servants were about to chase him away, he instructed them to give him twelve silver coins, saying, “Perhaps he is Christ putting me to the test”.
Many who find themselves in similar situations worry about the implications of our choices for the good of society. We fear that by making concessions to evil, we might facilitate its multiplication. To justify our choices, we often say that we are not prepared to turn the left cheek if anyone slaps us on the right cheek. (Matthew (5: 39). Yet we often forget that the commandments of the Gospel also instruct us to give to the one who asks us and to hand over our coat to anyone who wants to sue us and take our shirt. (Matthew 5: 39, 40, 42). God gave us these commandments to save us from sin.
In doing so, He did not seek to make our life on earth more comfortable, just or kind. Instead, He says to us, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5: 13, 14). He emboldens us to bring to surprise the world by bringing in it something it has not known or experienced. We exist to astonish the world, not just to make it better.
A certain citizen insulted the saint’s nephew George, who asked him to avenge the wrong. Saint John promised to do so in a manner that would astonish all of Alexandria. Having reassured him, he began to teach his nephew about the need for mercy and humility. Then he called the offender and announced that he would not charge him rent for one year. Everyone in Alexandria was amazed by such revenge.
With this episode, the saint tells us that our long and painstaking fight for worldly justice often does not make our lives any more just or fair. Worse still, the more forcefully we impose justice on the world, the more misunderstanding and bitterness we seem to create. With his humble life, Saint John teaches us to see the basis of the truth not in ourselves or our lofty goals, but our Lord the Creator and His word. By trusting His commandments and following them, we project more kindness and justice on others than by wielding the power of our minds and physical prowess.
His message reached the heart of his nephew George. As we commemorate the life of Saint John the merciful, we pray that we, too can give more trust to those who ask us, forgive the wrongs of others even when we think that they are unfair, and never cease to amaze the world around us.
By Roman Savchuk