The Onion

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky tells this story:

“Once upon a time there was a wicked-wicked woman, who dies.  And she left behind her not one single good deed.  The devils seized her and threw her into the fiery lake.  But her guardian angel stood, and thought, ‘What good deed of hers might I remember, in order to tell God?’ He remembered, and told God: ‘She pulled up an onion in the kitchen garden,’ he said, ‘and gave it to a beggarwoman.’  

“And God replied to him: ‘Very well,’ he said, ‘take that very same onion and offer it to her in the lake, let her reach for it and hold on to it, and if you can pull her out of the lake, then let her go to heaven, but if the onion breaks then let the woman remain where she is now.’  The angel ran over to the woman and offered her the onion: ‘Here you are, woman,’ he said, ‘reach out for it and hold on!’  And then he carefully began to pull her, and soon she was nearly right out; but then the other sinners in the lake, when they saw that she was being pulled out, all began to catch hold of her, so they should be pulled out together with her.

“But the woman was a wicked-wicked woman, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘I’m the one who’s being pulled out, not you.  The onion’s mine, not yours.’  And no sooner had she said that than the onion broke.  And the woman fell back into the lake and burns there to this very day.  As for the angel, he began to weep and left the spot.”

Thanksgiving Day seems like it ought to be simple: we give thanks for all we have – piles and piles of onions, and everything else besides!  And there is something simple about that, to be sure.  But the Gospel cautions us against stopping there.  “Do not be anxious about what you shall eat or what you shall drink…  Your heavenly Father knows [what] you need…  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Here in America, we live in a virtual horn of plenty, where, admittedly, some hoard their onions, and others too often go without.  Still, there are onions enough to go around, and everything else besides.  So it seems a little too easy to take a long weekend, to gorge ourselves, and as we do, to look momentarily up to heaven as we say “Thanks” through our stuffed mouths.  Especially if we happen to be ignoring what’s happening underneath the tablecloth… which is to say that within this horn of plenty that are hungry hands reaching up to catch hold of us, who for one reason or another never had so much as an onion held out to them.

Seek ye first the kingdom of God.  

Dostoyevsky saw that even in the fiery lake of hell, with nothing but an onion to grab onto, a person could seek the kingdom of God – and all she had to do was stop kicking the others away.  Even in the fiery lake of hell, with nothing but an onion to grab onto, a person could seek the kingdom of God.  Just imagine, how close to the kingdom of God we might come, even in this life, with all that has been given us for the seeking, with all these onions, and everything else besides.  Just imagine!

Is it enough for us to come to the table on Thanksgiving Day, and say with sated satisfaction, “God provides; thanks be to God!”?  Or does the kingdom of God beckon us?  Do our guardian angels hold out platters of onions to us (and everything else besides), and wait to see whether or not we start to kick?

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Thanksgiving Day, 22 November 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on November 24, 2007 .