by Fr. Joseph Allen


Whether one is priest or parishioner in the "symphony" of the Orthodox Christian parish, the question which strikes at the fundamental nature of our life together is, "Who cares?" If we are serious about our parish life being a reflection of the perfect Community, the Trinitarian Community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then this question becomes that much more critical to the Church.

When the Prophet Micah asked that same question, "Who cares?" he quickly answered it by telling us how to care with this formula:

And what does the Lord require of thee? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

Such are the components of what St. Basil the Great called an "atmosphere" in which a true caring community grows: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God. And when God became human in the flesh of Jesus Christ, "when he pitched his tent among us" (John 1:14), this atmosphere of care received its ultimate affirmation: it is God who cares first (1 John 4:19). And so today we speak not only of a community, but a veritable Christian community.

But does all this mean that the atmosphere can exist today without our own efforts? Can the proper symphony of clergy and laity function so that this atmosphere prevails, without our own work? Of course, we already know the answer.

Depending on our individual experiences, however, each person will probably be able to note when he or she saw that Christian atmosphere break down. In turn, this breakdown in atmosphere can occur between clergy and laity or simply among the laity. And when it does occur, the question will again be raised: "Who cares?" The atmosphere rapidly degenerates.

Allow me two examples, one which is contemporary and specific, and a second, ancient and universal.

The first example is specific to the clergy-laity breakdown, one in which the atmosphere was not Christian but pharisaic: The young priest was sent to his first assignment as pastor of a long-established community. He knew "what the Lord required: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God." His intention was to create just such an atmosphere where the Holy Spirit could take root. But the parish council in that community told the Bishop that they would "put him to the test." The Bishop knew the young man and had every confidence that he could stand any test put to him. After Liturgy during his first month there, the parish picnic was scheduled, and they all went out to the local lake as was their custom. They normally would all gather on the boat with all their supplies and cross over to the island. And so they did. However, this time as they were halfway over, a member of the parish council suddenly said, "Oh no, we forgot the hot dogs!" Someone would have to swim ashore to get them.

The new pastor realized that this was one of those tests, and recalled that the Bishop did warn him that they would indeed test him. Finally, he closed his eyes like St. Peter, when at the raging of the sea he asked Our Lord to "call him." That young pastor then opened his eyes, got out of the boat and walked on the water to the shore, where he retrieved the hot dogs. The parishioners were stunned, forgetting Our Lord's words:

"These things will you do, and greater things will you do!" They stood amazed and in silence, until, that is, the leader of the pharisees among them, still seeking to find some fault, said, "See, I told you the Bishop would send us someone who could not swim!"

The atmosphere needed in our parish is one in which each of us will see the good intent of the person who, when asked "Who cares?" will respond "I care!" We simply will need "eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart to perceive" (Isaiah 6:10, Mark 8:18), rather than a cynical pre-judgment which is the hallmark of the pharisee's attitude.

The second example is an ancient one which has a universal meaning, that is, for all of us, clergy and laity alike. It is a story which we have all heard, but which I should like now to frame in our present context regarding that atmosphere which answers the question "Who cares?" It is found in the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter Ten, and the scriptural scholars claim that in their encounter we probably get the clearest example of the interactions in which Our Lord participated.

"A certain lawyer came to Jesus and asked, 'What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?' " The scholars say this is the trickiest question in the Mosaic law. But Our Lord, being a good Middle Eastern man, answers the question with a question: "Well, you know the law: what does it say?"

The lawyer: "The law says, you shall love the Lord your God with all that you are: your mind, heart, soul, etc., and your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus says: "Fine." That's all he says: "Fine! You've got it right."

But this is a shrewd lawyer, and he is trying to "justify himself," trying to "entrap" Jesus: "But who is my neighbor?"

And we all know what Our Lord does in response: He tells the story of the Good Samaritan. The Levite passes by. The Priest passes by. The Samaritan crosses over. And Jesus ends the story with another question: "Now, who proved to be the neighbor?" "The one who showed mercy." "Good, go and do likewise!"

It is the Samaritan, the least likely one, who answers "Who cares?" with "I care." He is the one who shows the lawyer — and all of us — what the atmosphere must be like in our parishes. At each point in the story, there is a movement from the abstract to the concrete, and this is critical because our faith is no longer Christian Faith until it becomes concretized.

When this lawyer asks "Who is my neighbor?" he would love to get Jesus up in that beautiful web of the mind. "Well, let's see: my neighbor is the one who is within shouting distance, or that I can reach within sixty steps, or who comes to the same synagogue." Those kind of "law" questions, those kind of "mind" questions. But he can't get away with that: Jesus will not stay up there in the ice of the mind. He tells the story of the Good Samaritan, what is called perhaps the most concrete of stories in the entire New Testament.

Pay close attention: with each step of the story into the concrete, we are taken ourselves into the concrete: the Samaritan picks up the man, rubs oil on his wounds, puts him on the donkey, takes him to the inn, pays - pays again for that day, pays for the next day — and will pay for whatever that room and board will cost when he returns. All very concrete factors. And slowly the lawyer is forced out of the abstract ice of the mind into the concrete reality of living — there, where he cannot "play with it" like philosophy. And we learn, do we not, the real message of ministry, whether of clergy or laity: ministry is as time-consuming, as expensive, and as "messy" as this process is! That is the message which is pushed into the lawyer's mind and into our minds.

And so, both examples, the contemporary one of the young pastor and the ancient one from Luke's Gospel, are reminders that if the clergy-laity symphony is to work at all in our parishes, then we will have to do what the Lord requires of us: "to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God."

In this way we create that atmosphere in which the question "Who cares?" can be properly answered, "I care!"

Father Joseph, Director of Theological and Pastoral Education in our Archdiocese, is North American Chaplain of The Order of St. Ignatius and Pastor of St. Anthony's of Bergenfield, NJ.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
June 1998
pp. 8-9