June 30, 2015

Acts 28:1-10 Uncommon Kindness

1 After we had escaped, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 And the natives [“barbarians”= non-Greek-speakers] showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3 Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, when a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. 4 When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They waited, expecting him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead; but when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.

7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8 It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery; and Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. 9 And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10 They presented many gifts to us; and when we sailed, they put on board whatever we needed.

St. Paul shipwreck
St. Paul shipwrecked on Malta (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

In this unexpected interlude on Malta, after a terrible shipwreck and almost losing their lives, Paul and everyone else on board deeply appreciated the simple human kindness that the unsophisticated natives gave them. The “chief man” too was extraordinarily hospitable, giving emergency shelter and food to the 276 soldiers and prisoners. Saint John Chrysostom is struck by this care for prisoners, since in his own day there were plenty who had no sympathy for anyone in prison. 

“They showed no small kindness,” and yet some of them were prisoners. Let those be ashamed that say, “Do not do good to those in prison”: let these barbarians shame us; for they knew not who these men were, but simply because they were in misfortune they were kind: this much they perceived, that they were human beings, and therefore they considered them to have a claim upon their humanity.

When I was recently in Tbilisi (Georgia) on Metropolitan Tikhon’s first official visit, one of the leading priests, a highly respected scholar, amidst all the hoopla attendant upon big ecclesiastical events quietly spoke with me and was talking about his life. He said, “My mother died when I was 3, my father died when I was 10 and I was raised in an orphanage. I know the value of kindness. Nothing is more important in our life with one another.”

Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia

Metropolitan Kallistos
Metropolitan Kallistos at Fordham University

Over the past few days I had the privilege of being at various events in the New York City area where Metropolitan Kallistos was speaking, most notably at a conference at Fordham University co-sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center there and the Orthodox Theological Society of America. But on Sunday evening he also gave a lecture at Saint Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church in Greenlawn, NY, not far from the Chancery. He spoke on “Divine Compassion: Does God Suffer When We Suffer?” I was caught in bad traffic coming from New Jersey and arrived just as the lecture was ending. But the Question and Answer session was inspiring, and I took careful notes.

Metropolitan Kallistos
Metropolitan Kallistos at St. Paraskevi Church, Greenlawn, NY

Why does God allow us to suffer?

Paradoxically, God allows us to suffer because he loves us.  He could have chosen to create a world without suffering, but then it would have also been a world without any freedom or love. He gave us the possibility of choice, of saying yes or no to God. And that freedom to say “no” introduces pain, evil and suffering into the world. A world without freedom is also a world without love, because authentic love requires authentic freedom, the free choice to say yes to love.  This is a risk, but God wanted love to be at the heart of His creation.  Because of the fallenness of our human race, the long record of saying “no” to God, we have been burdened with the multitudes of generations before us and the effects of this.  Love, freedom, the possibility of making mistakes and therefore the possibility of suffering: all these are bound together. We then bear this burden of suffering, but we are to “bear one another’s burdens.”

There is a mystery to innocent suffering, and verbal explanations are inadequate. But we start with this connection between each other.  We can also say that there is a mystery in suffering that reveals a depth that is impossible to find otherwise.

How to explain the forgiveness offered by the families of victims in the recent Charleston shooting?

Forgiveness is the only path to overcome the suffering caused by others. As Ghandi said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth makes all the world blind.”  Forgiveness is the only way forward. If we cannot forgive we inflict suffering on ourselves through resentment and bitterness.  On the other hand, we don’t say as Orthodox Christians “Forgive and forget.”  Forgiveness means to remember, but to remember with love. It is striking that in the Lord’s Prayer, which is very short, about one-fifth is devoted to forgiveness.  Our Lord emphasized this because he knew how hard it is. One needs courage to forgive.

How are we to react to the persecution of Christians?

First, be aware. Secondly, pray.  But also reflect with a sense of repentance on the suffering we as Christians have inflicted on others (for example, on the Jews as the chosen people of God.) And third, do not return evil for evil.  We are to bless. The way forward is to forgive, as Jesus from the Cross said, “Father, forgive them.” We are to reject destructive anger against persecutors.

You mention the Jews as “God’s chosen people.” How is that still possible?

See Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chapters 9-11. The first covenant has not been revoked.  God has not cancelled the calling and vocation of the Jewish people.  Saint Paul looks with hope to the future turning of Jews to Christ.  God continues to have a place for his “old people” even if Christians are the “new people.”

Do what extent does God suffer with those who are not Christian, immoral and even enemies of Christianity?

All human beings are created in the image of God. There is a personal relationship with every human being, no matter how wicked. The image is still there. There is a special treasure in each human being not given to any other. We may not be able to see it, but He is.  St Isaac says that the person with a compassionate heart feels compassion even for the enemies of truth.  As St Paul says in 1 Timothy, “God desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4.)

How can we increase our compassion?

Read the Gospels again and again and imprint on our own hearts the image of Jesus. Take time for other people, don’t hurry by on the other side. Let them feel they have been heard. We may have no answers, but begin by being a good listener.