This Sunday’s readings are like a prelude to a prelude. What do I mean?
Let’s get a handle on the prelude to which this Sunday’s readings are a prelude. Next week is the Sunday of Zacchaeus when the lowly Zacchaeus seeks Jesus’ mercy. This marks the beginning of the five-week preparation for the Great Fast. The following Sunday we will hear about the haughty Pharisee who thinks he is too good to need God’s mercy and the lowly Publican who begs God’s mercy. The following Sunday we will hear the Parable of the Prodigal son who begs his father’s mercy. That will take us up to Meatfare Sunday when we learn the fate of those who do not follow Jesus’ way of mercy. Finally, we will find ourselves on the cusp of the Great Fast: Cheesefare Sunday when we will be reminded of the importance of forgiving others. And as that day draws to a close we begin the Great Fast when we come together as a community to pray Forgiveness Vespers asking God His forgiveness and asking one another forgiveness for the offenses we have committed to one another. Forgiveness may be the most difficult act of mercy to perform.
That will be our prelude to the Great Fast. Today may be considered a prelude to the prelude because thereadings we heard are about the mercy of God.
Saint Paul wrote to Saint Timothy that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom, he said, he was the greatest. Saint Paul reasoned that since he was the first among sinners, Jesus displayed all his patience as an example to all who would come to believe in him for everlasting life. Jesus, our Brother, manifests the infinite mercy of the Father.
In today’s Gospel, as Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man – who the Evangelist Mark identified as Bartimaeus – was sitting by the roadside begging, and hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what was happening. The people in the crowd told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” He shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He repeated himself once again: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” When Jesus asked him what he wanted, he said, “Lord, please let me see.” The blind Bartimaeus had faith that Jesus could and would heal him. So Jesus told him, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.” And immediately he received his sight and followed him, giving glory to God.
There is a beauty and simplicity to this story. We can take away at least three important elements from this event in the public ministry of Jesus:
First, the blind man certainly believed that Jesus was merciful and could make him see. Second, Jesus healed the blind man in response to the blind man’s plea for mercy. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus heals those who have faith in him and invite him into their lives. He is a merciful God to those who actively seek his mercy. Third, Jesus’ mercy demands a response from the one who is healed. Bartimaeus’ response to being healed was to follow Jesus, giving glory to God. Following Jesusdoes not mean that Bartimaeus literally walkedbehind Jesus wherever he went. Bartimaeus’followed in the way of Jesus, the way of mercy.
To follow Jesus in the way of mercy is to have a merciful heart. Rather than four chambers, the merciful heart is composed of fourteen interconnected chambers– one for each work of mercy. There are the seven corporal works of mercy and the seven spiritual acts of mercy.
The corporal works of mercy are those kind acts by which we help our neighbors with their material and physical needs: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead, and giving alms to the poor. In last Sunday’s reading from Luke, Jesus was speaking about corporal acts of mercy when he told the rich young man who had kept all the commandments and wanted to know how he might inherit eternal life: “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
There are also acts of compassion by which we help our neighbors with their emotional and spiritual needs. These are the spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting those who sorrow, forgiving those who hurt us, bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead.
On January 30th we will commemorate the Three Holy Hierarchs: Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint John Chrysostom. It is safe to say that these three Fathers of the Church are teachers for all time; their words as relevant today as they were in their day.
Saint Basil followed Jesus’ way of mercy: “All the destitute look to our hands just as we look to those of God when we are in need.” Basil opened the first hospitals for the sick and the poor, called, at that time, basiliads in his honor.
Saint Gregory the Theologian followed Jesus’ way of mercy: “We are all one in the Lord, rich and poor, slaves and free, healthy and sick alike; and one is the head from which all derive: Jesus Christ. And as with the members of one body, each is concerned with the other, and all with all.” And very pointedly he wrote that the one salvation for our flesh and our soul is to show people in difficulty charity.
Saint John Chrysostom followed Jesus in the way of mercy: “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” The man with the golden mouth never minced his words, did he?
Each of the Three Holy Hierarchs found the True Faith. Each, like the blind Bartimaeus, asked God for His mercy, and our Lord generously extended it to them. Each, like the blind Bartimaeus, then followed Jesus in His way of mercy.
As the Church helps us prepare for the Great Fast over the next several weeks, listen to the stories of God’s mercy. Let these stories inspire you to go ahead and take the risk to make the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner – your own every day and throughout he day. Don’t underestimate the power of prayer. Allow His Holy Spirit to show you how to imitate Jesus’ way of mercyevery day of your life and in every situation you encounter. See where God leads you. And pray for the intercession of our Three Holy Hierarchs – Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint John Chrysostom.
By Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck