In his classic work, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky, painted a picture of Hell that was reminiscent of Dante’s earlier classic, The Inferno. In a kind of dream sequence, a wicked woman uncharacteristically performed one single act of kindness in her life. A poor beggar walked by her garden and asked for a handout. She tossed him a freshly harvested onion which he immediately consumed. After this one act of kindness, she returned to her ways of spite and violence.
Many years later, she died and received the fate of the wicked. She was consigned to float in a sea of misery along with the other ruined, wicked souls of world history. One day, the beggar from that afternoon in her garden, was allowed to visit her in that place of torment. He stretched out his hand toward her. In it, there was her onion, given to him decades earlier. He motioned for her to grasp it. She lifted her hand from the scalding sea, and held fast to the bulb.
With her hand firmly wrapped around the onion, she began to be lifted from her miserable caldron. As she ascended Heavenward, she looked down in horror to notice that another miserable soul was clinging to her ankle. The further up she traveled, one hand still grasping the onion, she noticed that yet another soul was holding the ankle of the man who held fast to her own leg. At this rate, an untold number of souls would soon be dangling from her onion.
With that realization, she croaked in a loud voice, while she flailed her legs violently to loosen the chain of human souls that clung to her, “This is my onion!” With that, she mysteriously lost her grip. She plummeted downward to resume her eternity of misery.
Dostoyevsky was clearly influenced by the Gospel passage proclaimed from the sanctuaries of Christian churches this Sunday (Matthew 25: 31-46). The hearers of this selection learned that the ticket for passage into God’s Kingdom is the care of the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner, and the sick. Even the smallest act of kindness performed for one of God’s little ones, ripples out like a pebble cast into a pond, creating ever-widening circles of saving grace. For the spiritually committed person, serving the poor is at the center of whole-hearted living. This week’s Gospel passage asks, “When was the last time you gave away one of your onions to the poor?”
My response given on behalf of my family goes something like this, “The poor may be blessed, but poverty is not.” And so, like other moms and dads, my wife and I invest a lot of our time, treasure, and talent to protect our family from experiencing the ravages of poverty. We have done all that we could to live in a safe neighborhood with well-maintained homes.
Unlike when my grandparents were raising their children, our society has become more sorted out where the poor are concerned. In our day and age, those in the middle class are more and more cordoned off from the poor. Our choice to live in a middle class suburb, has meant that the poor are largely absent from our daily experience. For most of us, the poor are out of sight. Unfortunately, what is kept out of sight, normally stays out of mind. Unlike the woman in Dostoyevsky’s novel, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for the poor to stumble past one of our gardens to beg for one of our onions. As a Christian man and parent, this Sunday’s readings have me asking, “Where are my kids and I getting the opportunity to know and serve the poor?” Their development of an intimate relationship with God depends upon it.
As a counselor committed to a transcendent view of personhood, these readings have me asking myself a chilling question, “In a world where we are all connected in a seamless web of destiny, what are the spiritual and psychological consequences of consistently avoiding relationships with the poor?” Is it possible that the human heart, built for an infinity of love, when denied the opportunity to love and serve the poor, will latch on to superficial substitutes such as consumerism, entertain-me-ism, sports-ism, conservative-ism, liberalism, various addiction-isms, and other forms of narcissism?
This Advent, begins with a challenge to identify Christ in our poor brothers and sisters. Advent will end with a challenge to identify Christ as an infant born as so many other infants are born into our world—into the lives of an impoverished family in a foreign land.
This Advent, what kind of opportunities will you seek for you and your family to form a relationship with someone who is poor? What are some creative ways where you and your family can invest treasure where no moth or rust can touch it? Whose hand is just now stretching out toward you waiting for one of your onions?
More Discussion Questions
- Can you think of a time when you felt like Dostoyevsky’s beggar?
- Was there a time when someone gave you an onion? What form did that onion take?
- Can you think of a time when you gave away an onion to someone in need? Would you be willing to tell that story? What did you take away from that experience?
- What have you done to educate yourself relative to the systemic issues that keep whole groups of people in poverty?
- This Sunday’s Gospel spoke of Christ’s presence being manifest in the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, and prisoner. At this moment in your life, what are some of your hungers? What is your heart thirsting for? Is there some dimension of your life where you feel like an outsider? Is there some situation that really burdens you?