This little parable was sent to me in a Facebook posting:
“A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’ So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’ The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’ He replied, ‘No.’ The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, ‘Apostles, saints and righteous men.’ He returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’ And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’ The brother said, ‘No.’ The old man said to him, ‘you know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.'(St Macarius the great)”
How often our actions arise out of our feelings. Or to use scriptural language, paraphrasing St. James, “your passions make war within your members.” It is out of jealousy and selfish ambition that that disorder occurs and evil happens. In other words, when our feelings are hurt, we react. We have the example of this past anniversary of 9/11. Our embassy in Libya was attacked and four people killed because of a reaction to a movie: TO A MOVIE. Not to a threat on someone’s life, not to a defense from an attack, not to protect innocent life—people rioted and killed others because they perceived that a dead prophet was offended—BY A MOVIE (which by the way, the prophet probably has not seen).
Please understand me; I do not advocate the denigration of another person’s beliefs or faith. I was offended when John Mapplethorpe published his infamous photographs. I was offended when a playwright portrayed Jesus and the disciples as participating in a homosexual orgy. I am offended when people assume that because one priest does something criminal or sinful, all priests do the same. But I don’t start a riot or kill others because I was offended.
When I was a youngster, I learned the adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” However, in the year 2012, the opposite sentiment seems to be the norm. It seems as though an eleventh commandment has been found: “Thou shalt not hurt someone else’s feelings.” Anything and everything is acceptable, as long as you don’t offend me or injure my delicate feelings.
It is perfectly acceptable for a woman to have nine children out of wedlock by nine different men, but unacceptable to use a derogatory slur. It is OK for a man to execute poor performance at his job, but if he is fired for that poor performance, he can sue for defamation of character because of what the supervisor wrote in the performance appraisal. If a thief breaks into your house and injures himself, you, as the homeowner, can be sued. A woman can spill hot coffee on her lap at a fast food restaurant and get burned, but it is not her fault; rather, it the fault of the fast food restaurant for not providing proper protection against burns.
The parable from St. Macarius is appropriate in light of this week’s readings. We should act as dead people when it comes to listening to people’s praises or abuses. While it is wonderful to receive positive comments, don’t let them go to your head. On the other hand, when people say hurtful things, don’t allow those negative comments to rule your life either. Jesus’ admonition to be child-like (not childish) is a reminder that we need to get back to basics: return to those simple rules we learned as children: play nice, say “please” and “thank you,’ respect one another’s property and person, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
When we run into difficulty (as we will), remember the words from the Scriptures: God will take care of the just ones because the Lord upholds their lives. Moreover we should not let petty ambition and overactive passion cause us to lose perspective. As I learned in seminary: “don’t sweat the small stuff…and it is all small stuff.” While we should make a stand against injustice and tyranny and war, while we should protect the lives of the innocent and the marginalized, before acting, we need to analyze whether our reaction is commensurate with the action that we are trying to correct. In other words, when I feel offended by someone’s words or actions, does my response invite a conversion on their part or encourage dialogue? Or does my response further fan the flames of disharmony, discord, and dissention? Ultimately, I am in control of my life. If I allow someone’s comment or behavior to affect how I act or feel, I am giving that person control over me. The only one that I should allow to have control over me is God Himself.