Parable of the Onion

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…

Three Hermits

A certain Archbishop heard a rumor that on a nearby island, there lived a group of Christian hermits who had been shipwrecked long ago and had taken up residence there. People said that they had lived there since they were young men and had very little contact with outsiders. Furthermore, it was said, their understanding of the Christian faith had fallen into disarray after all their many years of conclusion. It was said that these hermits could no longer recite the Apostles Creed, they couldn’t pray the Lord’s Prayer, and they didn’t know a thing about the trinity or the incarnation. The Archbishop felt a burden in his heart for these hermits and decided to search them out so that he might bring them back to Christian society.

The Archbishop set sail for the location where the hermits were supposed to be and, sure enough, he found the island exactly as described. When he came to shore, the Archbishop found a small camp where three hermits lived. They each had long white beards down to their waist. The Archbishop greeted the hermits and quickly discovered that all the stories he had heard about them were true. They knew next to nothing about their Christian faith on account of the fact that they were extremely forgetful. The only prayer they knew how to recite was, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.” The Archbishop, offered to take them to the mainland so they could be among Christian society, but the hermits had been in eachother’s company on the island so long that they had become quite happy there and they politely refused.

So the Archbishop decided to educate them before he left. He labored at length to teach them the creed, but the three hermits were so forgetful that they simply couldn’t keep any of the information in their heads long enough for it to sink in. Trying to explain the trinity and the incarnation was even more hopeless so the Archbishop focused his efforts on at least getting the hermits to recite the Lord’s Prayer. The Archbishop worked with them well into the night. The hermits were eager students. At first they slipped into their habit of praying, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.” But after hours of repetition they finally had the Lord’s Prayer down solid.  Satisfied with his work, the Archbishop blessed the three hermits and went on his way.  He had only been out from shore for about 2o minutes when  he heard noise coming from behind the boat. When he turned to see what it was, his jaw dropped. To his astonishment, the three hermits were running across the water to catch up to him. When they finally made it to the boat, they stood on the waves and called out:

“Archbishop! Archbishop! Teach us the words to your prayer again! We’ve already forgotten them!”

At that very moment, the Archbishop fell on his knees and, looking up to Heaven, he prayed, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.”

Leo Tolstoy gives this old Russian folk tale the short story treatment and it is well worth seeking out. It is easy to have disdain for those that we consider to be less knowledgable about the faith than we. It is a trap that those of us who have been in Church all our lives continually fall into. Some even make sport of critiquing the theology of others and cutting them down to size for their simplistic ideas. The truth though, is that Christ is after our hearts, not our heads. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus promises that it is the “pure in heart” who will see God. A prayer prayed in deep sincerity is answered even if it is not beautiful or learned. As the hold hymn goes, “Let not conscience make ye linger/ nor of fitness fondly dream/ all the fitness He requireth/ is to feel your need of him.” A faith that knows nothing but that it needs the mercy of Christ is a faith that can walk on water.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…