Pulling Onions

"Once upon a time there was a peas­ant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a sin­gle good deed behind. The dev­ils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and won­dered what good deed of hers he could remem­ber to tell to God; ‘she once pulled up an onion in her gar­den,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beg­gar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Par­adise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’

The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her; ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cau­tiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sin­ners in the lake, see­ing how she was being drawn out, began catch­ing hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kick­ing them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’

As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burn­ing there to this day. So the angel wept and went away."

--Grushenka's fable, from The Brothers Karamazov

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9 thoughts on “Pulling Onions”

  1. I found it very poignant as well.

    Here's one thing I take away from it (although I'm hesitant to reduce something so emotionally and theologically evocative to a "point"):

    God doesn't need much to save us. Just once handing an onion to a beggar will do. It's enough for God.

    What damns us (in this life or the next) is a lack of generosity, a "me first" attitude when it comes to salvation. The onion would have been strong enough to pull them all out. Such is the strength of God's grace.

    But how many Christians, when it comes to salvation. say to the world, "It's my onion, not yours."

  2. John 3:16 is about the intensity and grandeur of God's love, the 'point' to be taken from the parable is the selfishness of man in spite of the revelation of God's love.

  3. David, I ask this as a sincere question-

    How do you go about distinguishing the difference between the world view and actions of Adolph Hitler and your God?

    What I see Hitler and his followers do--when you boil it down--is group people not of their alliance and force them into ovens.

    One key difference I can see off the bat, is that the Jews could never be admitted into the Third Reich, even if they affirmed the validity of the Third Reich. In this case God will let anyone in regardless of their genetic heritage as long as they affirm an alliance. Here, the Roman Caesar differs from the Third Reich as well; as long as one affirmed the deity of the Caesar, they may not be granted the rights of Roman citizenship, but they could be assured of not being executed.

    So I guess I just linked the Roman Caesars into this question of the distinguishing characteristics of your God, but I don't think this adds complication to my question.

  4. David

    What a curious response. I am loathe to proof-text, seeing as it is a mostly fruitless, divisive and pedantic bit of word play. But that caveat aside, I have to correct you and point out the scripture heaves with onions of grace, and parables of perplexity. Your abstract reference to John 3:16 is surely misplaced. A more fitting proof-text would be Matthew 25:31-46.

    Of course there are texts that fly in the face of onions, sheep and goats. My point is simply that your claim "it is completely absent from Scripture" is wrong. It is a wilful misreading against the wonderful diversity, complexity and beautiful bewilderment that lurks in the canon. I hope you can have fun exploring the passages that problematise your proof text.



  5. Drew,

    Sorry to have misled you; but, John 3:16 was not intended as a proof text. It is a profound passage that has been reduced to the level of a bumper sticker. So, I assumed that the person I was responding to had probably read it.

    You say: "My point is simply that your claim "it is completely absent from Scripture" is wrong."

    Proving that my assertion is wrong ought to be simple. All one would need is a passage, not taken out of context, that shows that giving onions (or the like, of course) to the needy leads to the declaration of righteousness. Do you know of any such passages?

    Certainly the Matthew passage you have already mentioned provides no such support. That passage talks about what the ones who were saved had done. Onions, if you will. However, it does not talk about how it is that they were declared righteous. That's the main point here; onion giving does not lead to justification.

  6. David, Your note about our sincerity is true. I couched my question this way because all too often the Hitler analogy is dropped thoughtlessly and recklessly in political situations where for instance, someone like Obama is equated to Hitler.

    Maybe more accurately, I'm trying to be profound in centering my question around the Hitler Event. The main reason being, I think the Christ Event changed the face of God in a way that is utterly profound. The Christ Event, I think, forces us to compare the behavior of God to the behavior of Emperors; and since ovens are analogous to hell, I thought that Hitler as a comparative Emperor was an apt choice for our day.

    So yes, God being Omnieverything, entails that He sets the rules (that is, until forgiveness comes into question, then the Omnieverything has to bow to judicial justice...) and we are utterly contingent on the very character of God: Even if the ultimate character of God happens to be analogous to a Caesar of old, or a Hitler/Obama of the modern era.

    In order to bypass volleys of proof texts let me just say this:

    I count many a non-Christian as my friends and as exemplars of what it is to live a human life. So when it come to my day to stand before God, and I don't see my friends because they've been banished to hell? I'll politely decline my Christian based invite and ask to join my friends. I think this is what Jesus would have me do.

    But before I turn to leave, I'll look God square in the face and ask Him the question I asked you, "How are you as God any different than Hitler the man?" "And-" I'll add, "I don't want answers that amount to something of the order, that You don't wear pants."

  7. I think the parable wasn't trying to show that "onion giving" automatically leads to justification, but that selfishness – which includes trying to exclude other people from the grace of God – is antagonous to God. Or, to reverse the argument: love – which encompasses giving, sharing, mercy, self-sacrificing, grace, etc. – draws a man closer to God.

    "God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him." (1.John 4:16)

    Believing in Jesus entails something far deeper than the agreement with a certain creed or doctrine:

    "If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him." John 14:23

    Keeping Jesus' words is not about just following a set of rules, but loving one another, as Jesus loves us. (John 15:12)

    The woman in the parable was not yet ready to love – she had too much fear: it was the fear that, if she shared God's forgiveness with too many others, there wouldn't be enough left for herself.

    "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love." 1.John 4:18

    Note that the greek word "teleia", which is translated here as "perfect", can also mean "whole". So you see, it is not about giving onions, whether it be one or ten billion, it is about giving our whole heart, and wholeheartedely loving. The woman in the parable was unable to give her whole heart – she insisted on clutching to it, keeping it for herself.

    Let us hope that the torment in hell will teach her to let go and become more and more compassionate. As soon as she does, the hell-fire will stop for her, because whosoever has become whole and complete in love will cease to experience the torment that is caused by the hell of our own making: the hell of our fear, the fear that causes all selfishness (including all the extremely selfish theological ideas that attempt to exclude many of our siblings from the grace of God and banish them to an eternal hell) .

  8. Michael,

    You said: "I think the parable wasn't trying to show that "onion giving" automatically leads to justification"

    I don't quite know why you are addressing this comment to me since I never commented on the parable.

    I commented on the statement of the moderator: "God doesn't need much to save us. Just once handing an onion to a beggar will do. It's enough for God."

    That statement seems to directly link onions and justification, no?

  9. Michael,

    First, forgive me for giving you the impression that I was in any way whatsoever annoyed or that I thought you were wrong for anything you said. Quite the contrary.

    Just to be clear (or at least try to be so) I hold that good works have absolutely nothing to do with justification. With justification meaning the gracious declaration of righteousness by God. It is a gift that does not depend on the deeds of the individual. Now, that does not in any way detract from a positive view of ‘giving onions.’ Scripture never (to my eyes) shows a link between the two.

    Now to Noah. Clearly Scripture says he was righteous. It never gives the reason for this condition. Yes, it talks about obedience; but, not as a cause of righteousness.

    Now to Jonah. In 3:5 we see that they believed in God. In 3:10 we see what the NT would call repentance. This, of course, must follows belief. In no case however is there any explicit statement of salvation or justification for any individual. Moreover, nothing regarding ‘onions’ is here either. Nevertheless, God did not destroy their city given the level of belief and repentance He observed.

    Finally, the good Samaritan. The original question in Luke 10:25 was how to obtain eternal life (justification or salvation, no?). That was answered in Luke 10:27. And, of course, nothing about ‘onions’ was in the answer. Next, there was a question about who is my neighbor. Here we see ‘onions’ in the answer. But, this answer had nothing to do with eternal life; that question had already been resolved.

    So, yes, attitude (onion giving) is very important. I mean that sincerely. It just has nothing to do with justification.

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