The Mercy Seat: Our Neighbors are Our Life

Ever let mercy outweigh all else in you. Let our compassion be a mirror where we may see in ourselves that likeness and that true image which belong to the Divine nature and Divine essence. A heart hard and unmerciful will never be pure.

–       St. Isaac of Syria

There are but two commandments that may never be broken—regardless of the circumstance. Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Against such things, there is no law.  There are no extenuating circumstances; while there may be excuse for failure, there is no justification. The whole of man’s responsibility is summed up in these truths—more constant than gravity and stronger even than death.

Love the Lord your God is fairly straight-forward. How much should we love?—that’s defined when Jesus restated the command to the Pharisee about said law—with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. How do we love God? To start, we can love our neighbor, because God loves them and God loves us—that wonderful injustice—God loves us, without qualm, reservation, hesitation or condition.

But how can we ever love our neighbor well enough to reflect the love of God? After all, while these commands are given based on importance, there is an implied proximity in their relation to us. The greatest distance in the world is not the space between our Earth and our Sun, but rather, the distance between man and God. The second greatest span is that between man and his neighbor. Perhaps this is why folks like St. Francis lived and died on the doorstep of Heaven—for he was reconciled to his Maker and he made all men his brothers and all women his sisters.

How can we love our neighbor? We must love him like God loves him. We must cover his sin with grace. We must restrain his liberty if it be for his own good. We must take it upon ourselves to make him our brother—not even our brother, but our very selves. The Good Samaritan did not treat the wounded victim on the side of the road as he would treat an acquaintance, or even a friend, but how he would want—but not expect—his very self to be treated.

And so it is preached, and so we general allow. The scandal of grace is a wonderful thing to hear. No reasonable Christian will say that God does not love all men, and that we are not to go and do likewise.

And this an easy command when we are detached from the subject of our love. Any man can say “Peace be with you” to a person he has never interacted with. Where Christians (read “human beings”) are prone to slip and stumble is when we venture out into the world—and get cut off in traffic. Or we arise early in the morning to pray and be quiet with the Lord, and walk to our car with the fire of love in our hearts—and find that our ride to work has been stolen.

Or, even worse, we sit in church and hear the Gospel of Jesus preached, and we go out into the world and deal with sinners (as if all men aren’t sinners) as the personification of their vices. When this happens, we are not only damning the object of our judgment, but we are damning ourselves, since our neighbors are our life. We are, effectively, making people worse than they are. When our hearts are hardened, the woman who has been tragically twisted into a life of sexual promiscuity, slowly compromising until her heart is a maze of hairline cracks, is no longer God’s daughter, but a slut. The man struggling with same-sex attraction is no longer a broken human being (as we all are), but a project—a problem to be fixed; if not fixed, then protested against. We must remember that even the Pharisees brought sinners before Jesus—the woman caught in adultery was publicly hurled before Christ’s feet right before they planned to stone her to death.

Mother Teresa once said that “we ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” The problem with treating our neighbors as the embodiment of vices, the infinite sin of not extending grace to our fallen brothers and sister, is that we are missing the drops for the ocean. When Jesus said “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” he did not mean “Love humanity as you love yourself.” Love of humanity is an abstract easily attained by the righteous and unrighteous alike. When Jesus said love your neighbor, he meant love your neighbor—your dirty, sinful, annoying neighbor. And if we would only but give it two seconds of thought, we would see ourselves in every one of our neighbors. If we would give it a second more, we would see God in them.

We are indeed saved through grace; the love of God comes first, and overshadows all, even our own weakness. But if we are not a reflection of the love of God, we should tread carefully as we approach the Mercy Seat of Heaven. For love covers a multitude of sins, but belief without love is the religion of demons and devils. That blessed throne from which Christ steps down from to embrace his children is the same seat from which he will cast fallen angels eternally away from his presence. The only difference is the love and mercy borne of a relationship with Christ.

Our brothers and sisters who have yet to be reconciled to their Maker do not need to be proven wrong. They do not need to be argued with. They do not need to condemned (usually). They do not need to be beaten into Heaven. What man—every man—needs is the love of Christ. And with Christ living in our hearts, if we do not show that Divine love—who will?