". . . a very profound thought that should overturn some of our silly ideas about ‘How does a merciful God send people to hell, condemning people who do not know him?’ Absolutely perish these thoughts, because God has no desire to send people into hell. Think rather about how not to end up in hell yourself, because you know a great deal more than they do . . ."
Sermon By Archpriest Andrei Tkachev, Translated by Erich Makarov
Editor's Note: Fr. Andrei Tkachev comes from the city of Lvov, meaning “Place of the Lion”, in western Ukraine. Lvov is a Slavic city that has been particularly influenced by Polish culture and western ideas for centuries. After the 2014 coup and war in Ukraine, Fr. Andrei moved to Moscow. There, he rapidly became one of Russia’s most beloved priests.
Fr. Andrei's talks are truly unusual and impressive because of how much they encompass. He educates the audience on literature, films, sports, songs, and history, as well as a treasure trove of Biblical teachings.
Gospel reading for this Sermon:
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”
39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
41 The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
42 The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In today’s Gospel reading we heard the Lord Jesus Christ’s reproach to the people searching for signs and miracles. And the Lord said that these wicked people would not receive a sign besides the sign of the prophet Jonah who was sent to Nineveh.
This story is doubtlessly known to all godly people — some know more, some less — the story of Jonah the prophet who was thrown into the sea from a ship because the sea raged over his flight. He was sent by God’s will to Nineveh, a pagan city, but dodged his mission and fled on a boat headed for Tarshish.
He got on the boat at Joppe, today known as Jaffa, a suburb of Tel-Aviv. He wished to sail to Tarshish, in modern Spain. He wished to flee across the entire Mediterranean Sea from God’s assignment. But a tempest arose, and the sailors were a peoples very sensitive to danger. They had a saying, ‘he who has never sailed, has never prayed to God,’ and living in constant fear of danger, they were particularly sensitive to sin. They decided that the cause of their predicament was the presence of a sinner on board their ship, and Jonah revealed to them that it was most likely his fault — that he was a servant of God who was fleeing from the presence of the Lord and from his mission. He was thrown overboard, and some kind of giant sea-creature swallowed him.
Do not be puzzled by this, brothers and sisters, because in the 19th century an English whaler hunting in the North Atlantic was swallowed by a sperm whale. Whaler meaning the person of course and not the ship. This is a real story that was reported on in newspapers, and it is in the annals of history. The sperm whale is an enormous animal, it is a mammal and not a fish, it breathes through lungs, it can dive nearly a kilometer deep into the sea, its teeth are approximately the size of a bottle of champagne, it can even break a boat in half. And this sperm whale swallowed a sailor. But the whale had been seriously injured before he escaped from the ship with the victim in his bowels. The next day, the whale was finished off by the whalers, his stomach was cut open, and inside was the sailor. He was sleeping out of fear, and went slightly off his rockers when he regained consciousness.
He went on to write about his ordeal, how he flew into the slippery and pitch-black digestive tract of the whale. There was enough oxygen inside the whale's system for the sailor to survive the ordeal. However, the whale’s stomach acid turned the sailor into an albino — all his hair and skin turned white, and his body was covered in spots.
Afterwards, he no longer hunted whales, but was able to live the rest of his life without fear of poverty, telling the story of his 24 hours inside the whale’s bowels. This was a living miracle, proof that the story of Jonah was not a lie. Jonah was swallowed in the same way — but he prayed while he was inside in the whale. The sailor, as we know, was not praying — I don’t quite remember his name, but this story is very well-known and easy to verify. If I’m not mistaking the name of whaler (ship) was Blue Star. This happened approximately in the 6th or 7th decade of the 19th century. In any case, Jonah’s prayers result in him receiving God’s mercy and being spit out by the whale. And he came to Nineveh, and the inhabitants of that city came to believe in God.
And this story, by the words of Jesus Christ, is a prophecy for Christ himself. Just as Jonah was in the bowels of the whale for three days and three nights, so too would the son of God be in the bowels of the Earth for that time. And as Jonah was able to escape the whale, so too would Christ escape his tomb — this is a prophecy.
Why was Jonah so afraid of going to Nineveh ? He was afraid of being torn apart by the pagans. Imagine a random Jew walking into a pagan city and telling its people the the end is nigh — do you think they’d listen to him for a very long time? Best case, they would beat him and throw him out, worst — they would simply destroy him. That is why Jonah was afraid. But the people of Nineveh, instead of beating him or arguing with him or throwing him out, grew afraid and came to repent. They began to cry out to God for their sins, stopped eating and drinking, and left their livestock hungry so that even the animals would cry with hunger. For three days they prayed to God for forgiveness rubbing their tears into their faces, and God forgave them.
And so in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that the people of Nineveh will rise up on Judgment Day and be accepted by God—more than the Jews—because they came to believe from the words of Jonah, but the Jews had much more than the words of Jonah. He is of course, speaking of himself. ‘I am more than Jonah. Jonah is a prophet, and I am the God of prophets. I am greater than Jonah, and yet the pagans listened to my slave, but the Jews are unwilling to listen to me.’
The Lord also says that the queen of Ethiopia, coming from a distant corner of the world, traveled all the way to Solomon to hear his wisdom. ‘I am greater than Solomon’. If Solomon is a great king, then Christ is the king of kings.
When Christ says that he is greater than Jonah and greater than Solomon, we see his indication that he is Lord, who is greater than all. One might think, "Who can possibly be greater in this world than Solomon?"—The son of a King, sitting on the throne, adorned with wisdom that transcended all time. There was never a kingdom in the world as glorious as that of Solomon. Gold was traded at the price of copper, and copper was traded at the price of simple stone. There was no fighting, and all the people of Israel lived in prosperity under the shade and fruit of their trees. There was no war, no one was threatened. People came from all over the world simply to see and hear King Solomon. And for the sake of his wisdom—that flowed from his lips like honey—he was listened to by kings, and princes, and the most honorable people of the Earth. There was never another such king in history. And the Lord says, ‘I am greater than Solomon. Pagans came to Solomon to hear his wisdom, and I am greater than he, yet I am not listened to.’
And so we have an interesting situation. The pagans of Nineveh will be justified before God, more than the Jews who surrounded Christ. And the Ethiopians, with their queen, on Judgment Day will be elevated above those who heard Christ but did not listen. Therefore, pagans who listened to God’s servants will be accepted by God. But woe to those people who heard God but did not accept Him into their lives, and did not follow his teachings to the proper conclusions.
And here we have a very important moment. So many Christians are bothered in their tender hearts about the following question:
How will God judge those people that do not know Christ? What kind of judgment awaits those who did not hear the Gospel, did not kneel before the cross, do not celebrate the resurrection of Christ, did not wash away their sins in the sacrament of baptism, and do not have confession, the Bible, or liturgy?
There are of course many people who do not have access to any of these things, even today. Various tribes, on the wayside of civilization — people who were born in foreign places, taught in different religious traditions not knowing Christ.
And we ask ourselves, ‘how is it so that we will be saved, and they will perish?’
It turns out that we shouldn't worry about their souls at all. Because, it turns out that many pagans will be justified before God much more than some of us who know Christ and saw him, and heard him, and felt him, and participated in his sacraments. You absolutely should not worry about this. The people of Nineveh—implying various pagans—will be justified before God more than some believers well-educated in the miracles of Christ. Therefore, stop worrying about whom God will punish and whom he will spare. Rather, think about this:
How do we, people who have everything, and are aware of everything, and know everything, and saw everything, and flew to Jerusalem, and went on pilgrimages, and read books, and go to church — how do we not become worse than pagans?
This is what you should be thinking about. Not about how God will judge pagans, something completely beyond our understanding, but rather about how we, knowing all, avoid becoming worse than they are.
To whom much is given, from him much is expected. This is not the only time that this thought from Christ is sent to us as lightning from a cloud. It is like lightning because it brightens our understanding of Christ. We are worried about the wrong things. We need to worry about the fact that we, knowing all, might become worse than those who know nothing.
In another sermon, Christ described the cities which had seen many miracles. He said,
"Woe to you Chorazin, woe to you Bethsaida. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes."
Tyre and Sidon are Phoenician cities that existed on the territory of modern Lebanon. These ruins of cities used to be centers of Mediterranean trade. These were merchant cities, immensely wealthy. And where there is immense wealth, there is usually immense moral corruption, idolatry, and filth. From wealth, many nations and individuals go insane. Thus, Tyre and Sidon were civilizations that did not get to witness Christ. And yet, Christ says, ‘woe to you Bethsaida, woe to you Chorazin’, because had those pagans of Tyre and Sidon seen what I had done, witnessed what I had created, heard my words, they would have repented. And you saw, and heard, and tasted, and took home with you, but nothing came of it. Even Bethsaida was the home of Peter and Andrew — so some people from Bethsaida followed Christ, but the rest of the city stayed. It’s the same message : Do not worry about those who do not know Christ. Worry about yourself — because you know everything, yet no good comes of it.
The Lord says,
"And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day."
Capernaum is particularly a special city. In the Gospel, it is described as ‘his’ — meaning Christ’s city. He spent most of his time in that area, and Capernaum was famed for its synagogues and its wise men. The scribes and priests of Capernaum were known as the most educated and wise elders. If someone wanted to understand the Word, they went to Capernaum to study. Naturally, the people of Capernaum should have been the most holy of all people. And Christ performed miracles there, he resurrected a centurion in Capernaum. But Jesus says ‘will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.’ They would have repented, but you do not repent.
It turns out, that on Judgment Day, there will be someone who is worse off than Sodom and Gomorrah. They already suffered their lot — they were burned, destroyed, violently killed. They had already experienced God’s fury — God hits and comforts, He does not hit twice. He will punish and He will forgive. And some will be worse off than Tyre and Sidon, and some will be worse off than Sodom and Gomorrah. Because some heard Christ’s words, saw his miracles, and refused to repent.
This is a very profound thought that should overturn some of our silly ideas about ‘How does a merciful God send people to hell, people who do not know Him?’ Absolutely perish these thoughts, because God has no desire to send people into hell. Think rather about how not to end up in hell yourself, because you know a great deal and you have seen a great deal.
Fine, there are uneducated people who do not read the Gospel, but you are educated and you do read it. And there are, for example, some people who live in such a backwater, where the nearest church is 200km away, and you have to fly a helicopter there — say, the Yakut Autonomous Okrug. And God will ask of them something very different than of you.
But let’s take someone who lives in Moscow. In Moscow we have the relics of Saint Tikhon in one place, Saint Matrona in another, Saint Hillarion over there, and over on the other side is the Kremlin full of various sacred relics. We have monasteries, seminaries, courses for catechumens, any kind of priest you want — wherever you place your gaze, in Moscow you will find yourself looking at a sacred place.
Yes, of course, there are also night clubs where drugs are sold. Yes, of course, there are drunk parties where people’s souls die. Yes, of course, there are thieves and tricksters, and dishonest rich men. But if you look for holiness in Moscow, will you find it? You will drown in holiness if you look. Because you have this opportunity, God views you in the same way as those Jews who saw Christ. You can kneel before relics every day, but God will judge you in a very different way than he would judge a pagan who lives in the forest.
To this day, you can find some tribesman in Central Africa, roaming the jungle with a bow, looking for a bird to shoot to sustain himself for the day. He is not literate, and makes his fire by rubbing sticks together. And his judgment day will be very different from yours. You, with your higher education, will be judged very differently. You who have been baptized, who have taken communion, and who have listened to many sermons—of course your judgment will be different.
Abba Dorotheus has an interesting sermon where he speaks of two twin girls stolen by brigands. One is sold to a convent, and the other to a brothel. But the two girls are born the same, same blood, same genes, same faces — it is only their predicament that differs. Let’s say they are destined to die the same day, will God judge them by the same standards? Of course not — the girl raised by nuns will be asked of very different things by God than the girl raised by prostitutes. What is there to ask of someone who was raised from birth at a brothel? There is not much you can ask, there is only grace and mercy to give to such a soul.
With some God will be strict, with others merciful. Each judgment will be different. Stop asking these meaningless questions, and stop thinking of things that are not relevant to your salvation — because we know a great deal, and soon a great deal will be asked of us. God will ask you, ‘Did you see?’, ‘I did’, ‘Were you there?’, ‘I was’.
Recently I have even been frightened by the thought of pilgrimage, because pilgrimage is not only a factor in filling our life with spirituality, but also a factor in our judgment. For example, let’s say you were in Jerusalem at the Holy Sepulcher, you knelt before the place where Jesus’ dead body was placed, you cried there, kissed his tomb, walked around the Church for a long time, stood here, sat there, cried here, and cried there. And one day Christ will ask you, ‘Were you at the place where my body lay? Do you remember how you cried that day and promised to dedicate your life to me. I, who died for you. And where? Where did that promise go?’
Were you there? I was. Did you see? I did. Did you feel? I did. Did you cry? I did. And then what? Where? Where are the fruits of your seeing and feeling and crying? Where did my labors go?
And where else have you been? Let’s see. You’ve also been to the Seraphimo-Diveevo Monastery, and there are some who go to Mount Athos every month, and you’ve been to the Trinity-Sergius Monastery, and here, and there, and even went to a speak to a elder monk, and so on and so forth. And where? Where is the result? Where?
And over to God’s right hand will stand a little bushman, a pygmy — short, naked, burnt by the sun, unable to read, never even having heard of God. The only thing he was ever taught by his parents was to never hurt anyone, and that when you shoot a goat with an arrow you must ask it for forgiveness. That’s what these primitive tribes do — they ask their prey for forgiveness. And those Chukchi who kill whales, before they go out whaling, they perform rites of penitence for half a day. ‘Forgive us please, we just have nothing else to eat. We need you, please don’t run away from us.’ And they’ll use every single part of the whale, nothing goes to waste. And through all of this, they thank their prey for the sustenance it provides. ‘Thank you, great fish, we will eat for a whole year thanks to you. We will not die of hunger.’ They ask their food for forgiveness.
Have any one of you ever asked a cow for forgiveness? Each one of us has probably eaten an entire herd of cows by now. How much have we already eaten of the world’s creatures, without a single thought of thankfulness or repentance? We could swallow the whole world, and still think we are owed something.
Some pagans kiss the trees they are about to cut down, in thankfulness for the fuel they are provided. And look at us, we cut down entire forests — has anyone asked forgiveness from the forest, or even from God for this? Forgiveness for the godless destruction of nature all around us, for the sake of human’s sinful desires. Streams are dirtied, the air is polluted, and food is left uneaten to rot. Fridges are filled with new food as old food is thrown out. Isn’t that how we act regularly? And tell me please, who is the pagan in this situation? And which of us would God want to save? If you were God, who would you rather save? This poor little man, who lives at the mercy of nature and must hide in the corners of his narrow world, and still recognizes that there is a higher moral structure to the universe.
Europeans have penetrated every single part of the world — to photograph everything, to leave their mark, to write ‘John was here’ on the highest mountain. We cannot be content with anything less. There is a story of an expedition into the mountains in which some Westerners hired a local pagan guide. As the group trekked, the Europeans tried to convince the guide that there is no God.
Of course there is.
I see his tracks every day. Do you see the beautiful red streak in the sky? That is God’s track.
Look here, those are the tracks of a bobcat. And over here are the tracks of a deer. I know all the tracks that animals and humans leave here. But that is the track of God.
A white educated man is telling a pagan that God does not exist. Who is the pagan?
Christians will experience the harshest judgment of any other people — the most careful and strict judgment. We promised to serve God and not the devil when we were baptized. We spit at the devil, bowed before the cross. We took communion and read the Creed. We know everything we need to know. So where? Where is the result?
This is similar to what is written in Isaiah about Jerusalem:
“See how the faithful city has become a prostitute! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her — but now murderers!”
Jerusalem was the city of peace. And truly, from the root of the city’s name we know that it was a city of peace, holiness, justice, and beauty. And this could be said about the whole, much-lauded, waning Christian civilization. Because all of this was once very beautiful. Look at all those beautiful churches that adorn Western Europe. Such massive cathedrals that took hundreds of years to build. The Köln cathedral took 800 years to build. Can you imagine that? — 100 years is 4 generations, so 32 generations were building this church. For 32 generations, people prayed there, and loved there, and were married there. And for them that cathedral mattered. It was important that a person could look at an unfinished cathedral and observe its progress over the course of their life, and see the church grow.
And what about now? To whom is it important? The cathedrals stand empty. No one cares about them anymore. But think of all the relics that are there, all the sacred objects from the entire Christian world. The Notre Dame in Paris houses Christ’s crown of thorns, Milan’s Duomo houses the nails which were driven into Christ, and so many other relics are there, but who cares about them? No one. The people of Europe have developed new interests, Jesus is an old fairy tale.
But Christ is real, and alive. He is exactly as he always was. As Apostle Paul says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’ As Jesus was during the times of Seraphim of Sarov, and Saint Anthony the Great, and Saint Vladimir equal to the apostles, he is the same now. But people’s attitude toward him has changed. Before, Christ was Tsar of the people. But now he is like a beggar. Before, Christ was teacher, but now people learn from philosophers and psychologists. Before people knelt before Christ, and today people kneel before Hollywood.
So what will happen when it all ends? We will have judgment, and the strictest judgment will be over those who have been baptized. Those who spit and trampled on their baptism, who don’t need Christianity. Those for whom Christianity is like a bow-tie in a pony tail — an adornment, just in case. Not once and for all, but just in case.
And so having discussed all this, let us begin to draw conclusions for ourselves. We must remember that those things which may save us, may also poison us. That which is given to us for good, can also bring great pain. Ancient doctors used to say, ‘that which cannot poison, cannot cure.’ Poison and medicine can be one and the same, one must know when to use them appropriately.
Look for example, at so many suicides that occur today. So many are the result of improper use of medication. One pill for headaches, one pill for sleep, but take 20 and you’re gone. Because that which heals can poison, and that which poisons can heal. Why do we take communion? ‘For the forgiveness of sin and for the strength of soul and body.’ And Apostle Paul used to say that many take communion and die, because they take it without faith.
And now all the self-congratulation that surrounds pilgrimage can be seen in a very different perspective. Now you might realize that much will be asked of you if you were able to access such sacred objects. St. Paisios of Mount Athos used to joke about his donkey:
"My donkey and I came to the holy Mount Athos many years ago, and neither of us have changed. He is still just a donkey and I am still just a man."
And in many ways we are like that donkey. We are surrounded by holiness, but it so often does not change us. Is that why we go on pilgrimages? Pilgrimage must be done for other reasons. The same goes for spiritual education. Let’s say you finished seminary or some religious education — it is your obligation to be a light unto the rest of the believers. You have as many thoughts in your head as all of us put together, but you choose to keep them in your head. You’ve read so many books — so teach us, educate us, share your knowledge. No, education today is used for successful careers, years of preparation for exams, and the rest of life lived in intellectual silence. Why did you get educated? Better if someone else got the education and shared their knowledge.
Everything that we are given is not only a factor in our worldly lives, but also a factor in what Christ will ask of us. 'What have you done for me with what I have given you?’
So let’s remember, once again, the names of those pagans whose judgment before Christ could be more lenient than our own — the people of Nineveh, Tyre, Sidon, Ethiopia. What an unexpected and surprising Gospel! How unpredictable it is, how it turns our preconceptions on their heads.
You might have thought that your long history of pilgrimage and church-going is something to be proud of, but it is likely also something to be afraid of. For you will be judged on the basis of what you have been given.
So humble yourself, and begin to labor for your salvation anew. Because everything that was, does not matter. These are the words of Saint Dimitri of Rostov: ‘only those who are always ready to begin anew will enter the Kingdom of God.’ He who turns back and recognizes that there is nothing behind him, and asks God, ‘Put down a new and blessed beginning for me. Give me legs so that I can come to you Jesus. Give me eyes to see you. Give me ears so I can hear you, Give me hands so that I can embrace you. Give me tears so I could cry my sins out.’ These are the words of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk. ‘Give me yours, take away mine. Take away my dirtiness, give me your cleanliness. Take away my old, give me your new. Take away my sinfulness, and give me your holiness.’
May the blessing of Christ be on all of you and those you love.”
Sermon By Archpriest Andrei Tkachev, Translated by Erich Makarov
Original Sermon (in Russian):