Once there was a wicked old peasant woman. She died without a single good deed to recommend her so in the next world she was cast into the lake of fire by the devils with all the rest of her kind.

Up in heaven, her guardian angel was not content to let the old woman’s story end so sadly. He racked his brain to try and remember a single good deed the woman might have committed. He was hoping he could recall a single instance of selflessness or pity or piety or anything resembling virtue. At last the guardian angel remembered that the woman had once pulled up an onion out of her garden and given it to a beggar in need. With that, the angel flew up to God to petition for the release of the old woman.

“O LORD, don’t let this woman suffer a second longer,” the angel called out, “She really can be quite selfless. Why once she gave a passing beggar an onion out of her very own garden.”

God answered: “Take that very same onion with you then to the lake of fire and hold it out to the old woman. If she takes hold of the onion, and you are able to pull her out, then she may join the saints here in Heaven. However, if the onion breaks and the woman falls back in, she must carry her sentence into eternity.”

The emboldened angel flew with the onion as fast as his wings could take him to where the old woman was suffering her torment.

“Grab hold of this onion,” he called to the woman, “and I will pull you out!”

The woman grabbed hold of the onion and the angel began very carefully pulling the old woman out. When the other sinners saw that she was being delivered, they rushed toward the woman and began to grab hold of her legs in hope that they too would be delivered. 

The woman saw them holding on to her as she was finally hovering above the lake and her heart was filled with contempt for them. 

“This is my onion,” she shrieked, “and no one else’s! No one is being saved today but me!” 

So she began kicking violently and swinging her body to shake the sinners off so that they would fall back into the flames. As she did this, the onion broke and the wicked old woman fell back into the lake of fire where she burns to this day. Her guardian angel floated above her with the broken onion. He said not a word, only wept. 

Now whenever anyone breaks an onion, they too weep though they may not know why. They weep for an wretched old woman who could not be saved by her one good deed.

I first encountered this odd Russian folktale in Fyodr Dostoevsky’s immortal masterpiece, “The Brother’s Karamazov.” In this story lies a dramatic truth. It is the inverse of Jesus’ beatitude on mercy: cursed are the merciless for they shall receive no mercy. Grace tries desperately to rescue us any way we can be rescued but in the end it is our own self centeredness that damns us. God is indeed “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” but we stand in our own way of His grace when we are quick of temper and bursting with awful hatred. As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, we know that we are not justified before God on the basis of  good deeds but on the basis of our faith. We also know that faith without deeds will shrivel up and die. We know that the merciless and unforgiving stand in their own way of God’s mercy and forgiveness. The challenge is ever before us to live with such love toward God and neighbor that when all is said and done our angels will not weep for who we could have been.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

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