Orthodox America

  The Measure of Mercy

“The quality of mercy is not strained…”

                                                William Shakespeare

            Before Christ's appearance on earth, man measured the universe against himself.  God was also measured against man;  it seemed that God depended upon man for His worth.  Man’s closeness to others was measured by blood, ideas, nationality, religion, and in other ways which could be logically calculated.  Yet none of these ways really brought people closer to one another.  The only real measurement of a man’s value can be in how close he is to God.  The only real measure of how close we are to each other is in our mercy and grace toward each other.

            The attributes of mercy and grace were all but unknown under the Old Testament law.  And when Christ tried to implant them in human hearts, how difficult it was for men to absorb them as this demanded a drastic change of perspective.  Those who continued to cling to the security of the Old Testament law were often baffled by Christ’s message.  Some, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, saw in this a weakening of their status; they were unwilling to accept Christ’s revolutionary law of love which threatened to overturn their legalistic values.  They tried to tempt Christ with their questions, but they only succeeded in stumbling over their own earthly logic which blinded them to the higher laws of mercy and grace.

            And behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted Him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?   (Luke 10:25-27) 

            The lawyer knew the Old Testament commandments.  He also knew that our Lord was speaking about eternal life and he was trying to find some easy formula which would enable him to obtain that life.  The Saviour asked, “What is written in the law?”  Knowing well the Books of the Law, the lawyer was able to answer at once:  “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.”  The lawyer was told that by obeying this commandment he could obtain the eternal life for which he sought.  For all his knowledge, however, he could not penetrate the spiritual meaning of these commandments of love.  “Who is my neighbor?”  he asked, as though unwilling to be held accountable.  Christ answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.  On the way he met some thieves who stripped him of his possessions, wounded him, and left him half dead.  A priest came by and walked away.  A Levite likewise came by, looked upon the wounded man, and continued on his way.  Then came the Samaritan who saw the wounded man, tended his wounds with wine and oil, put him on his animal and took him to an inn and cared for him.  In the morning when the Samaritan departed he left two silver coins with the innkeeper asking him to take care of the wounded man, promising that if he spent more he would return on the way back to Jerusalem to pay the expenses.

Spiritually interpreted, Jerusalem, in this parable, is our spiritual height, our heaven, and the traveler represents those who travel along the path of life.  The robbers represent the devils who try to strip us of every gift of God.  The priest represents Moses’ law, which understood mankind’s sickness but could not cure it.  The Levite represents the prophets who tried to help mankind but who did not have the proper medicine to cure him.  This is a picture of Old Testament man.

Now comes the Samaritan.  The Samaritans were the last people with whom the Jews wished to have contact; they were considered inferior to the Gentiles.  Using this example, Christ emphasized that the liberation of the Jews - and of all mankind - would not come from Rome or from any other earthly power.  Liberation would come only from God, and that liberty would be not of blood or nation, but of the spirit.  For this reason, Christ represented Himself as the Samaritan.  His return to pay the innkeeper represents His Second Coming into the world as the mighty Judge Who will judge all according to their deeds.

But whom does the innkeeper represent?  He is the Church - the Apostles, bishops and clergy to whom Christ left His people.  The two silver coins are the Old and New Testaments which Christ gave in order to care for us until His return.  If the Church faithfully follows Christ’s commandment of love, it will recognize immediately the Good Samaritan - Christ - upon His return.  The innkeeper - the Church - will not wait for reimbursement of his expenses.  Christ’s righteous judgment will be the wage promised for the guidance of the people, for having taught them to love God with all their souls, with all their hearts, with all their minds, and their neighbors as themselves.

When Christ asked the lawyer who tempted him, which of these three - the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan - was a neighbor unto the wounded man, the lawyer, in spite of his upbringing and his habitual way of thinking, had to answer:  “He that showeth mercy on him.”

It is mercy that heals wounds just as it is mercy which binds us to God - and to one another.  Our Holy Father Abba Dorotheus gives us a good illustration of this in his image of the circle.  Imagine a circle with a center point.  Suppose that the circle is the world and that God Himself is the center; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of men.  The closer one follows these radii to the center, the closer they draw to one another.  Just so, if we are merciful towards our neighbor, we come closer to him and, at the same time, closer to God.  This is the true measure of a man.

Our Lord Jesus Christ lived among us and left us His teaching that we might change our standards of value and strive to be like the Samaritan, rather than the priest or Levite, who merely fulfilled the external aspects of the law.  May we all live thus, in firm hope that the Divine Judge will meet us with mercy - for His mercy knows no measure.

Fr. Peter Burlakov
All Saints of Russia Church, Denver

Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society