Johnny B. Merciful

Why did this guy show up right after “Black Friday?”

Sometimes, reading Orthodox literature can be dangerous. For example, I came across this quote from Monk Moses the Athonite: “You see, holiness has many aspects. Those in the world will not be judged because they do not do a lot of prayer, though there are some who do more than monks. St. John  Chrysostom said: ‘the laity will be saved by almsgiving.”

St. John, are you for real?  I know you have a golden tongue and Monk Moses agrees with you, but I thought…well, never mind what I thought. Alms giving and mercy-these concepts have traveled around in my mind for many years. As a young man, I wondered at the stories and teaching of the Lord on mercy and giving alms.  From the Widow’s mite to the Good Samaritan, it seemed to me that the Lord turned the world and all it valued upside down. After all, I live in a society that is proud of its commercial and financial activities. Capitalism had created the largest and most well-to-do middle class that the world had ever known. We reaped, and would continue to reap, the benefits in health, in science and technology, and in an ever improving standard of living. All young people were to be trained to find their place in this brave new world and strive to be a successful as possible in both personal wealth and professional achievement.  Greed is good, they say, and my personal success would help to improve the lot of others.

Some people seemed to be outside of this dynamic, so we created programs such as Welfare, Medicare, and Social Security. By paying our taxes, we give our alms to the poor. We provide not only financial support for housing and food and medicine, but also programs for training so that the poor would not have to remain poor. Churches and non-profits fill in gaps that might occur.  It seems to have worked pretty well, because unlike some poorer countries, we don’t have the poor standing at our church door every Sunday asking for bread or the sick and lame laying around Walmart crying for mercy.

My problem has been that while I am a beneficiary of this capitalist society, it all seems so far from the Gospel whose messages seems so uncompromising and radical. “Sell all that you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.” “And who is the real neighbor?” the Lord asked. The answer was “the one who showed mercy.”  These words can really haunt you.

Over the years, I’ve traveled with  some historical people who answered this call to mercy. Let me name just a few.  My first historical companion of Francis of Assisi. I read everything that was written about him. I found his “evangelical poverty” to be quite compelling as well as a judgment on my own greediness. Yet, try as I might, I just couldn’t seem to follow his program. Still, he was a constant companion that reminded me that mercy and charity was what was needed.  Francis was saying to me, “Johnny, be merciful.”

Then, I traveled with Mahatma Gandhi, not because I had a desire to be Hindu, but his lifestyle and its impact on India intrigued me. So, I read everything I could about him, and he is still a bit of a companion these days. Where would Martin Luther King have been without him? I walked a while with people like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, but I will let these suffice. All of them, in their own way, said to me, “Johnny, be merciful.”

When I came to the Orthodox Faith, I met a whole new group of people who answered the call to mercy and alms giving. I find them to be even more of challenge than my previous companions. Some of these disciples are living and I’ve had a chance to spend some time with them at Holy Cross Monastery. Its a remarkable thing to spend time with those who have given up everything for the Lord – poverty, chastity, obedience.  Some of my new Orthodox companions are historical. I first became aware of St. John Chrysostom and how “the Golden Mouth” got into trouble not because he did so much for the poor, but because he offended the wealthy in sermons about mercy and alms giving.  He said to me “Johnny, be merciful.” In fact, he seemed to say that without mercy, real and tangible, I wouldn’t make it into heaven.

The latest companion in this journey is John the Merciful. I invite you to read about his life and wonder at the man. Here is an example: “At the beginning of his reign , John summoned the stewards of the patriarchate and gave them this command: ‘Go through the entire city, and make a list of all who are my lords.’ The stewards asked him, ‘And who, O Master, are your lords?’ Answered the Patriarch, ‘Those whom you call the poor are my lords, for it is they who can prepare a dwelling-place for me in eternity and assist me greatly to attain salvation.'”  In a dream that he had as a youth, a fair maiden came to him and when he asked her who she was, she replied that she was the daughter of the Great King. She was mercy and compassion. Now what am I suppose to do with such a spiritual companion?

Like the rest, St. John the Merciful says to me “Johnny, be merciful.”  More than fasting, more than worship, even more than prayer, I am to show mercy. I know that this can be done in many ways. I can be merciful to someone who has offended me. I can be merciful in not passing judgment on a brother or sister. I can be merciful by giving of my time and attention to someone who is lonely and fearful. But St. John the Merciful did not leave it at that. Mercy must also be shown in a physical and practical way – it must be shown by giving alms.

So, I am back to my previous dilemma. When asked for financial help, I wonder if the poor are worthy of my assistance. Why don’t they get government help? After all, I pay my taxes.  Will they pay the money back or am I only making the matter worse by helping them? So many requests come in the mail or over the phone, how can I address them all? And besides, if I give too much away, what will happen to me? How will I be able to afford the next car, or the next gadget, or even pay the next light bill if I give away too much of my resources?

To all of these concerns, St. John joins with the others saints of the Orthodox Faith and cries out, “Johnny, be merciful.” So, I wonder why do I keep clothes in my closet that I haven’t worn for years and probably won’t wear in the coming year? Are there no poor people in need of such things? Johnny, be merciful. What do I do with the money I save when I fast-give to the poor, or go to the movies? Johnny, be merciful. What about all those canned goods that I haven’t opened and probably won’t-leave them for a rainy day or take them to the Food Bank? Johnny, be merciful. Do I really need that new car, that new phone, that new shirt, etc.? Johnny, be merciful.

Ok, I get it, but God please show me how to do it. I have a selfish streak, you understand, and I usually only give when it doesn’t hurt me to give.  I promise that when I have more abundance, I will be a paragon of mercy (sigh-that Widow’s mite thing again!)  As I look around at all my stuff, I kind of wish that it depended more on things like prayer and fasting and attending services.  The Lord has to spoil it all by saying the he desired mercy more than sacrifice.

Why did this St. John  guy have to show up right after Black Friday?

OK. From now on call me “Johnny B. Merciful.”  And may God help me to make it more than in name only.

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