When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:34-40)
Sometimes, by happy synchronicity the gospel reading lines up with the events of the day, and this is one of those times. I’m not sure I could have chosen a more suitable reading on the day that my ministry here concludes and we officially part ways – but I am going to respond to it a little differently today, in the form of a story that I think speaks to it better than anything I could propose…. so with apologies to Leo Tolstoy for altering and abbreviating his masterpiece, this is called Three Questions.*
There once was a very conscientious king who wished to do the best he could do for his people. A thought occurred to him one day, that if he always knew when the right time was to do something, if he could figure out who to be involved with, and if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, then he would never fail in anything he would undertake. And so he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to anyone who could teach him how he would know the right time, the right people, and the right thing to do in any situation. And so, over the next months, people wise and not-so-wise from all over the realm came and offered their advice. But of course, none of them agreed on the answers to the questions, and at the end of the consultation, the king was even more confused than ever, and so not being happy with any of the answers, he decided to consult a hermit living deep in the woods, a man who was widely known for his wisdom and good sense.
Now because the hermit normally received only the common folk who lived in the forest, and wanting to go incognito, the king put on workman’s clothes, and before reaching the hermit’s hut, dismounted from his horse, left his bodyguard behind, and went on alone. As he approached, the hermit was busy digging in the garden in front of his hut. Seeing the king, he greeted him, but kept on digging. The hermit was old and frail, and every time the spade hit the ground, he wheezed and groaned. The King went up to the hermit and said, “I have come to ask you three questions: How can I learn to discern the right time to act, the right people to respond to, and the right thing to do? The hermit listened to the king but only shrugged and went back to his digging.
After watching for a moment or two, the King said, “You’re tired. Let me take the spade and I’ll dig for a while.” “Thanks”, said the hermit, and giving the spade to the king, he sat down on the ground to rest. After working for a while, the king stopped digging and asked his questions again. As before, the hermit gave no answer, so the king kept digging. Hours passed, the sun started sinking in the sky, and still the hermit was silent. At last the king stopped digging and said to the hermit, “I came to you hoping for an answer to my questions. If you can’t give me answers, tell me so, and I’ll return home.” But at that very moment, someone came running toward them out of the forest, and the hermit said, “Hold on, here comes someone; let’s see who it is.”
A man came running toward them and fell down a little way from the king and fainted. They could see that the man was badly wounded and bleeding, so the king tended to him as best he could, and bandaged him up. When at last the man revived a little, he asked for something to drink, so the king brought some water from a nearby stream and gave it to him. Meanwhile the sun had long since set, and the night had become chilly. So between the king and the hermit, they carried the wounded man into the hut where they placed him on the hermit’s bed. The king, tired by this time from his day’s exertion, fell to the ground and slept soundly through the night. When he awoke in the morning, the wounded man was gazing at him.
“Forgive me!” said the wounded man to the king.
“But I don’t know you, and have nothing to forgive you for,” said the king.
“You don’t know me, but I know you,” said the wounded man. “Last year you made a judgement against my brother, and confiscated his lands and property. I was angry and swore revenge against you. I knew you had gone into the forest to speak with the hermit, and I was lying in wait to kill you when you came back out of the forest. But your bodyguard caught me and wounded me. I escaped from him, and would have bled to death if had you not looked after me. I wanted to kill you, but you saved my life. Now if I live, and if you wish it, I will be your servant. Again, I say, forgive me.”
The king was very glad to have made peace with an enemy so easily, and to have gained him for a friend, so he not only forgave him, but also promised to have the royal physician tend to his injury, and said as well that he would restore his brother’s property.
Having concluded his conversation with the wounded man, he went outside and prepared to take his leave from the hermit, who was up and busy sowing seeds in his newly dug garden. The king made one more attempt – “For the last time, are you able, in your wisdom, to answer my three questions?”
“But you have already been answered,” said the hermit.
“What do you mean?” said the king. “How were my questions answered?”
“Don’t you see?” answered the hermit. “If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had you not dug these beds for me, you would have gone on your way, and that man would have attacked you. So the most important time was while you were digging my garden; and at that moment I was the most important person; and to do me good was your most important business. Then afterwards, when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not attended to his injury he would have died without making peace with you. So at that moment he was the most important person, and what you did for him was your most important business.
“Remember then, there is only one time that is important – and it is Now! The very moment we live in. It is the most important because it is the only time when we have any real power. Yesterday is gone, and tomorrow lies in an unknown future. Today is all that we truly have to work with. The most necessary person is the one you’re with, for we can never predict when we will have dealings with another. And the most important thing to do is to do good for the other person… because for that purpose alone, were we sent into this life.”
Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest? Jesus said to him, “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. A second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Interim Priest in Charge, St. James Westminster
July 2016 – October 2017