The Unforgiving Servant

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.  . . .  We love, because he first loved us.  (1 John 4:10,19)

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“We cannot continue without mentioning the parable of the destitute servant (Mt 18:23-35)–and we are all destitute servants! A man owed the king a tremendous sum of money which we was unable to repay. So, he was to be sold into slavery together with his entire family. But the king was moved to put and forgave him his debt. No sooner had this servant gone out then he came upon another who owed him a small sum and fiercely grabbing him by the throat, he had him cast into prison. The master having heard this brought harsh justice upon him saying; ‘You wicked servant! I forgive you all that debt because you besought me; and should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?

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We must carefully note the progression of the parable. It is not because I forgive the sins of those who are in my debt that God forgives my own. I cannot exact God’s forgiveness. It is because God forgives me and leads me back to Himself, because He enables me to exist, in freedom, in His grace and because I am so overwhelmed with gratitude that I then free others from my egocentric ways and let them live in the freedom of grace as well.

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We are constantly expecting something from others. They owe us their love, their attention, or their admiration. My interest is not in others but in my self-gratification, which they provide. The stuff of which I am made is vanity and irritability. And since others are a perpetual disappointment, since they cannot settle their debts with me, I pursue them out of spite and bear towards them dark and negative feelings, I get lost in a wilderness of ill defined ‘vendettas.’ Or else, nursing my offended dignity, I remove myself, taking on an air of proud indifference and pay myself for the offenses of others…in fool’s gold!”   (Olivier Clement, Three Prayers, pp. 33-34)

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Obey Christ by Forgiving Others

Many Orthodox saints are known for their rigorist asceticism.  We also see them taking a maximalist point of view when it comes to fulfilling Christ’s Gospel commandments.  They did not shy away from taking Christ’s teachings quite literally.  For example, the 11th Century saint, Symeon the New Theologian says:

“If someone, whether justly or unjustly, should insult you, or revile you, or slander you, and you do not bear the slight meekly, or, grieved and wounded at heart, you fail to endure it and rein in the movements of your soul, but instead insult in turn the one who insulted you, or revile him, or do something else against him, or, again do none of these things to him, but instead go away carrying a grudge against him in your heart and do not forgive him with all your soul and pray for him with all your heart, behold! you have at once taken up arms against Christ by doing what is opposed to His ordinances and have become His enemy. You have as well destroyed your own soul by falling in with and putting the seal on your former sins and making them ineradicable.” (St. Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses Vol. 2, p 149)

Forgive us as We Forgive Others

“For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”  (Matthew 7:2)

In our Orthodox Church we begin Great Lent with Forgiveness Vespers and within the parish mutually asking each other for forgiveness and forgiving others.    If Great Lent is a season of repentance – seeking God’s forgiveness, Christ would tell us the first step along this path is to forgive others.   Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev expands on this theme while commenting on one line in the Lord’s Prayer.

“ ‘And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Prayer is inextricably bound up with a person’s way of life. The reason for the difficulties a person experiences in prayer lies in an incorrect, unspiritual, and non-evangelical life. We sense this especially when we say the ‘Our Father’. Each petition of this prayer places us in front of a given reality, as if we were being judged – judged by our own conscience. And this prayer, if we pray from our soul and heart – if we really think about what is written here – should constantly force us to change our lives.

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:21-35)

We say:

‘And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,’

that is, we ask God to forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are in debt to us. When we speak these words, we should ask ourselves: do we forgive our neighbors? Are we ready to place our own forgiveness by God in dependence on whether we forgive others? Isn’t this too frightening? Isn’t this too much responsibility?”

(Prayer: Encounter with the Living God, pp 117-118)

It indeed is both frightening and tremendous responsibility.  The way we will be judged by God is totally dependent on how we treat other people.  God judges us by our own criterion of judgment.   This is no doubt why in the church we pray constantly, “Lord, have mercy.”  God’s judgments are righteous, we constantly ask Him to remember to be merciful.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

God Moved by Compassion, Forgives

At that time, Jesus said to Peter, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

 

But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and   besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you   besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

(Matthew 18:23-35)

“The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23-35) or, what the kingdom of heaven is like:

Moved with compassion, a king forgives his servant who owes him a ridiculously large sum of money. The king releases him from debtor’s prison. But when this servant won’t forgive a fellow servant a small debt, he shows he doesn’t really understand the king’s action.

The servant rejects the sort of ‘economy’ found in the kingdom of heaven. This economy is not a market economy in which we are encouraged to make as much money as we can for ourselves. It is not a barter economy in which we trade with others who can give us something in return. It is not a tit-for-tat or you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-your-back economy. It is not an economy in which we do business only with those dear to us or who can do something for us. The economy in the kingdom of heaven is a gift economy in which we are all invited to participate. When he compassionately forgave the debts of the servant, the king gave a gift of forgiveness and compassion to the servant. The servant, however, did not pass that gift on by forgiving his fellow servant. He wasted both the compassion and forgiveness given to him. So, he excluded himself from the kingdom of heaven.”  (Fr. John D. Jones in In Communion:Journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Spring – April/June 2012, pp 8-9)

Forgiving From and For One’s Heart

God shows his love for us

in that while we were yet sinners

Christ died for us.

(Romans 5:8)

“What do readers discover? Simple, basic things, such as the fact that the person who does the forgiving gets the first benefit from doing it. They may have heard that forgiving is a hard duty God lays on Christian people. Then they discover that forgiving is an opportunity for injured people to heal their own wounds. They discover that forgiving is something that happens inside the injured person’s mind, and that sometimes the person they forgive never even hears about it. That if we wait to forgive people until they say they are sorry we make ourselves hostages to the very person who wronged us to begin with. They discover that forgiving does not turn us into doormats. And that when we forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free was us.

In a way, forgiving makes up for what God could not give us when he made us. What he could not give us was the power to change the past; he could not invent a delete button for the bad things that happen to us. All he could give us was the power to remember them. This would be no great problem if the past had not saddled us with wrongs that people have done us, wrongs we can neither undo nor forget, wrongs that infest our memories and make us sick. Once we are wounded and wronged, the gift of memory becomes an inability to forget. And our inability to be glad about life. We all know that persistent resentment of a wrong we cannot forget is a toxin that poisons, not just one person’s memory, but the whole human system. It poisons the life of tribes, of nations, of families, of friends, as well as the lives of wounded individuals. Resentment escalates into grudge, grudge raises the ante to rage, and rage can drive people crazy. It sets brother against brother, gang against gang, and people against people. Most of all, it sets a wounded person against himself and compounds his pain. We are discovering that the only way to get over the misery of resentment for remembered wrongs is to forgive the people who did them. Only when we heal ourselves can there be a healing between us and the person that did the wounding.” (Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget, pp x-xi)

Forgiving Others: The Greatest Lenten Practice

Liturgically, we Orthodox enter Great Lent at Forgiveness Vespers.  The first thing, the most important thing we do for Great Lent is to forgive from our hearts our fellow parishioners and our family members.

The sign of sincere love is to forgive wrongs done to us. It was with such love that the Lord loved the world.   (St. Mark the Ascetic, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 3609-10)

St. Peter of Damaskos reminds us that it is forgiving others, more than anything else we do as Christians, which will lead to God forgiving us.  Nothing, not fasting, nor even repentance more quickly brings about God forgiving us than our forgiving others!

Moreover, if we do not forgive others their debts, the Father will not forgive us our debts (cf. Matt. 6:14). Indeed, nothing leads more swiftly to the forgiveness of sins than this virtue or commandment: ‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven’ (cf. Matt. 6:14).” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 26234-40)

We of course read in the Orthodox Church the Matthew 6 Gospel about forgiveness on the day before Great Lent begins.  We are reminded of the utmost importance of forgiveness to our own spiritual lives.   The way to being forgiven our sins, the way to repentance, the way to Pascha, the way to the Kingdom of God is to forgive others.

Indebted to Christ for Being Freed of Debt

SS Peter and Paul

“It is evident from the Scripture that forgiveness of offences – debts – is central to the teaching and ministry of Christ, and fundamental to our own salvation, and the inclination to forgive even appears to be ingrained in our nature, though frequently it is not manifested and often it is ardently resisted. Moreover, Christ is firm and absolute in telling us that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. It is evident, therefore, that any failure on our part to forgive, forms a barricade between us and the heavenly kingdom, a wall between us and God. Forgiveness of others and sincere repentance are intimately related, for when we search our own souls and examine our own sinful disposition and the condition of our own characters, it is easier to forgive others.  […]  

St. Paul converted by Christ

One who has not forgiven others absolutely has not repented of his own sins. He is still in bondage to Satan through his own malice and bitterness; he is still judging his neighbor. Those Christ warns, ‘Do not judge, let you be judged in the same manner.’ Which one of us could survive if we were truly judged with the same measure, criterion and rigidness with which we dare to judge others? Not only is it perfect and all-wise justice that we should be judged by the same standard with which we judge others, and that we should not be forgiven if we have not forgiven others, but no matter how present and available God’s mercy is, one who does not forgive cannot receive forgiveness, because he has not even begun to repent and not even truly sough God’s forgiveness.” (Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, Not By Bread Alone: Homilies on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, pp 54-54)

Forgiveness Sunday (2014)

The forgiving father embraces his prodigal son.

Forgiveness is a bookend on both sides of the Great Lenten season.  The Sunday immediately before Great Lent begins is called “Forgiveness Sunday.”  On this day, we Orthodox take time to mutually ask forgiveness of our fellow parish/community members and to grant them forgiveness for any ways they may have offended us.  We are to enter Lent in a forgiving spirit.  And no doubt even if we poorly keep the food fast of Lent, if we manage to forgive from our hearts someone who has offended us, we have spiritually accomplished more than all the food abstinence could ever do for us.   Satan never eats and never forgives.   For the fast to be spiritually purposeful, we have to do more than Satan!  We are to forgive others from our hearts.

The other “bookend” of Great Lent is Pascha itself – this is the Feast in which we celebrate God’s forgiving us humans our sins as demonstrated in the death and resurrection of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.   All of Lent, the season of repentance and forgiveness, prepares  us for celebrating our being forgiven by God for our sins . . .  with this caveat:  we must be willing to forgive those who sinned against us.  More important than denying ourselves food, Lent is a time for us to let go of grudges, to forgive those who have offended us, to free ourselves from such resentments, so that we can in fact celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the destruction of sin and the forgiveness of sinners.  The abstinence from food is a way to learn to deny ourselves – even when we don’t want to forgive and don’t want to give up our ‘righteous’ anger – we teach ourselves to overcome our passions in order to love neighbor.

The Gospel Lesson for Forgiveness Sunday is Matthew 6:14-21, in which Jesus lays down for us the Gospel command regarding forgiveness:

Then the Lord said, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your   trespasses.”And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Icon for the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

So we find in the desert fathers a meditation on God’s forgiveness of our sins and how we should be joyously willing to forgive others:

“ ‘If you say [to God], ‘Have mercy on me,’ God says to you, ‘If you want me to have mercy on you, do you also have mercy on your brother; if you want me to forgive you, do you also forgive your neighbor’ [Mt. 6:14]’

A basic question about forgiveness was whether one could be forgiven by God for one’s sins. A story is told of a soldier who came to Abba Mius and asked him ‘if God accepted repentance.’ The old man responded to the soldier with great tenderness by putting a question to him in the soldier’s own language: ‘Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away? He replied, ‘No, I mend it and use it again.’ The old man said to him, ‘If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about his creature’ [John 4:10]’

On another occasion, a brother, probably a new convert to Christianity, asked Abba Poemen a very similar question, ‘If a brother is involved in a sin and is converted, will God forgive him’ Poeman responded with a question of his own, ‘Will not God, who has commanded men to act thus, do as much himself and even more? For God commanded Peter to forgive till seventy times seven [Mt. 18:22].’”

(The Word in the Desert, Douglas Burton-Christie, pg. 276)

Confessing Sins so that We can be Healed

“The sacrament of confession is metanoia or transformation more than penitentia. Confession is understood as a ‘clinic,’ that is, a place of healing. That prayer before confession says: ‘You have come to the physician, may you not return without being healed.’ The epitimia or penance corrects, it is not a punishment. Once again, it is not so much the juridicial principal of ‘satisfaction’ as it is the fact of healing. St. John Chrysostom describes this quite precisely: ‘Time is of no matter. We do not ask if the wound has been treated often but if the treatment has been successful. The state of the wounded one indicates when the disease has been removed.’ ” (Paul Evdokimov, In the World, Of the Church, pgs. 12-13)

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 18:23-35

At that time, Jesus said to Peter, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.

When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and   besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt.

When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.

Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you   besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Most of us are aware that in the Lord’s prayer there are two possible translations of Matthew 6:12 in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive…” or “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.”   Sins were considered debts.

 The Gospel lesson of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18) can be understood as the King forgiving the servant sins which he committed against his king.  The sins by a servant against a king are considered enormous because of the social inequality of the two: the severity of sins was often determined by the social rank of the one offended.  Thus in the Kingdom of heaven, our sins will be forgiven us if we ask for forgiveness, but the caveat is we then must be willing to practice forgiveness of our fellow human beings who have sinned against us (become indebted to us).   The parable is not so much about forgiving cash debts as about forgiving sins.  It fits very well into other lessons Christ offers on the same theme.

St. John Chrysostom gleaning the lessons from the above Gospel reading tells us:

“When we come to the church, we must enter in accordance with God’s liking, having no malice in the soul, nor praying to our detriment when we say ‘Forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ For this statement is terrible, and he who says it is exclaiming to God something like this: ‘I remitted; Master, you remit. I loosened; you loosen. I forgave; you forgive. If I retained, you retain. If I did not forgive my neighbor, then do not annul my sins. With the measure I used to measure, let me be measured as well.’ ” (St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: On Repentance and Almsgiving, pg. 128)