Amassing Mercy

Reflecting on Matthew 18:15-35

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

The Lord Jesus gives us a teaching about how we should deal with a person who sins against – who fails us, or falls short of what we need or expect, or who doesn’t live up to their obligations.  The simple teaching is you work for reconciliation, you go talk to them about how they failed you with the hope of restoring a right relationship.

But a simple teaching rarely can cover all the nuances and variations we can imagine.  It doesn’t even tell us how often we are to do it.  We want quantifiable directions – we then know when we have tried “enough” and when it is time to give up or move beyond the current situation.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

 

Jesus teaches us to love, to show mercy, constantly to work for reconciliation.  The Apostle Peter probably thought he was being generous in forgiving someone seven times for offending him.  Jesus blows away Peter’s magnanimous offer –  not seven times but 70 times 7 times.    But then Jesus decides to show Peter how small minded he really is being, and He tells this parable about what we likely are to experience in the Kingdom of heaven:

“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 (a debtor) him ten thousand talents;

Jesus in telling a story about someone who owes ten thousand talents is immediately moving into the world of exaggeration and overstatement.  Remember, one talent could be worth as much as 15 years worth of wages!   This servant owes his king, $63 Billion!  You don’t see numbers like this in all of the Scriptures.

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,

Have patience” -literally the Greek text has the man asking the King, “Defer your anger with me...”

Interestingly, so far at no point has the parable mentioned the king being angry – this is the assumption of the servant that the king is an angry with him or that the king is somehow an unfairly demanding person.  But the whole parable is so ridiculously exaggerated to  show us the king is anything but an angry judge.  The king has time and time again lent money to this worthless servant.  He has lent him 63 billion dollars!  This is not the behavior of an angry, unfair ogre.

The servant doesn’t ask the king not to be angry with him, he knows the king has every right to be angry, but he asks him to defer or set aside his anger for a time to give the servant a a chance to repay.  More to the point, the servant takes no personal responsibility for his own borrowing this ginormous sum of money.  The servant sees the problem purely as the king is an angry man and that is why he wants to be repaid!  His thinking is so warped and distorted.  It apparently never occurs to him that he himself is responsible for the debt he has incurred.  He is really a warped individual and thinks the king wants repayment, not because the king is just but because the king is angry!

Our parable continues:

So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’

The servant is asking the King to defer, to delay his anger for 150,000 years!  Again we recognize the absurdity of the story/parable.  It is not meant to be heard literally.  How would a servant amass such a huge debt?  Either the servant has been playing the king for a fool, or the king has already shown himself to be incredibly generous, patient and forgiving.

This servant can never possibly repay this debt, no matter what he promises.  He is lying to the king, right to his face, when he says he will repay everything.  Not only has he bilked the King out of fortune, but now he lies to the king to attempt to ward off the king’s anger!  The man is as wicked as he stupid.  But the king forgives him everything!  The king doesn’t just defer his anger and say, OK, I’ll give you time and opportunity to be true to your word and repay me.  The king realizes this lying scumbag, thinks I am a fool.  But then the King does the most improbable thing of all and totally cancels the debt.  You do not have to pay your debt.

And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt (the loan).

The king remains consistently moved by mercy.  He is not reacting to the man, but acting toward him according to the inner nature of the King.  Most incredible, the king accepts the intention of the man – “I will repay you” – even though the king knows the man could never pay this debt.

The king finds the man’s expressed intention to be sufficient.  St John Chrysostom in the sermon we read each year at Pascha says that God “both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering.”

There is a message here that even if we don’t know how to change our life or to repent of our sins or to repay God for all the bad we have done or to thank him for all the good blessings He has bestowed on us – God will accept us if we just acknowledge we need to do so.  If our intention is right, God will accept us, even when He knows we can’t or won’t live up to what we intend to do.  This isn’t a matter of our pretending or lying about it.  We need to be sincere in our intentions to do God’s will even if we realize we will fail.  This is a message of tremendous hope for those of us who chronically repeat our sins and failures.  Strive to do good, faithfulness in the effort will be rewarded even if you don’t succeed in achieving the goal.

But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii;

A denarii is one day’s wages.  So he is owed 100 days wages.  A sizable amount, but not an impossible amount to repay.  But compared to his own debt, this debt is a trifle.  This servant has just been forgiven a debt of $63 Billion.  Seems like he can now afford to forgive a few debts himself, but he is not willing to forgive $12,000.  He acts as if he can’t afford to forgive this amount of money.

and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’  So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience (defer your anger) with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt.

The fellow servant begs for mercy and uses the exact phrase that the forgiven man used before the king.

He refused –  The Greek could be translated: he was not willing, he did not wish to do what was requested of him.  He willfully refuses to show mercy despite having just received unmerited and undeserved mercy on a transcendent scale.

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!

The King is not fooled, he knows exactly what this servant it – wicked.  Yet he had forgiven him originally everything.

I forgave you all that debt because you besought me;

I forgave you for no other reason than you asked me to

and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’

Mercy – this is what we constantly petition from God:  Lord have mercyKyrie eleson.

We are right to ask God for mercy, as He is phenomenally merciful, ridiculously merciful, merciful beyond measure.    But the caveat is that if we want God to continue to show mercy to us – for all time, unto eternity, now and forever and unto ages of ages – we also have to show mercy to those indebted to us, or those who sin against us (miss the mark, fail us in some way) or trespass against us.

Here, we might call to mind two other passages from Matthew’s Gospel:

Matthew 6:12  –  And forgive us our debts , As we also have forgiven  our debtors;

and also

Matthew 6:14-15 –   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.

So now how does the king behave?

And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.

Now for the first time, we are told of the king’s anger.  He was not being angry when he set out to collect the debts owed him.  Then he was simply being just.  Now he is angry.

And when would the servant be able to repay this debt?  Never.  So when will he get out of prison, away from being tortured?  Never.  Because he wouldn’t be merciful in one instance or for one moment, he loses the King’s mercy forever.

The anger of the king is not over the amount of the man’s debt, but his unwillingness to forgive or to change his ways.  God’s anger is not over our own sinfulness, but He certainly can be angry that we don’t repent or don’t want His forgiveness or that we refuse to forgive others.

The King is angry, not because of the servant’s debt and his inability to repay the debt, but because the servant was unwilling to show mercy despite being shown phenomenal mercy.

So what’s the lesson of this parable?  The moral of the story?

So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

This whole Gospel lesson started with Jesus teaching how we are to deal with someone – a brother or sister, someone we feel close to – who betrays us, who fails us, who falls short of what we expect or needed from them.  Jesus says we should go and talk to them and try to restore the brotherly or sisterly or neighborly relationship with them – a relationship with they broke or betrayed or denied.  They broke the relationship, but Jesus said, our response should be that we will try to fix it.  We don’t go to them to condemn and criticize them and vent our wrath.  We go to restore a relationship, to seek reconciliation.

The Apostle Peter then asked Jesus a reasonable question – how often do we need to try to reconcile with someone who betrays us, or fails us or disappoints us, or sins against us – 7 times?   Jesus replied to that saying not 7 but 70 times seven times.

But even that exaggerated number doesn’t do justice to describing the mercifulness of God.  For then Jesus tells us this parable of the unforgiving servant – a man who is so far in debt he will never ever be able to repay all that has been given to him, even if he had 3000 lifetimes to do it.

Love is not based in mathematical logic or reason.  If we focus on “reasonable” questions, we won’t choose to love as Jesus tells us to.

We do not have to pay for our sins, Christ has already done that.  The debt for our trespasses has been paid in full.  Forgiveness was given to us with a huge price paid by God, but we didn’t pay that price.  God didn’t simply cancel our debt, He paid for it in His own blood.  Unlike the king in the parable who simply cancelled the debt, zeroed it out and wrote it off as if it never existed.  Our God chooses to pay for our sins, our debt, our trespasses.   He could simply forgive us because He is so rich in mercy, yet instead He pays for it with His death on the cross!   He chooses to suffer for us.  NO cheap grace here.  No cancelling of a debt with no consequences for the debt.  God shows His absolute love and grace for us in choosing to suffer and die for us.  By His resurrection He shows the debt is cancelled and can never be reinstated no matter how much more we sin, trespass, get in debt.  This is why grace is so amazing.

God not only gives us all we need for salvation and eternal life – God pays for it.  He doesn’t give us something that doesn’t cost Him anything.  God pays with His life that we might be forgiven and enter into His Kingdom.

All God asks from us is that we forgive one another, show mercy to one another, be patient with one another, defer our anger for as long as it takes us to get over it.

Sin is a Wound. Confession the Remedy.

“Do not be ashamed to enter again into the Church. Be ashamed when you sin. Do not be ashamed when you repent. Pay attention to what the devil did to you. These are two things: sin and repentance. Sin is a wound; repentance is a medicine. Just as there are for the body wounds and medicines, so for the soul are sins and repentance. However, sin has the shame  and repentance possesses the courage. I beg of you, pay careful attention to me, so you may not confuse the order and lose the benefit. There is a wound and there is a medicine, sin and repentance. Sin is the wound; repentance is the medicine. In the wound there is rottenness; the medicine cleanses the decay. The putrefaction, reproach, and mocking are caused by sin. However, courage, freedom, and the cleansing of sin accompany repentance. Pay attention carefully. After the sin comes the shame; courage follows repentance. Did you pay attention to what I said? Satan upsets the order; he gives the courage to sin and the shame to repentance. . . .  There exist a wound and a medicine. The wound has the rottenness; the medicine can cleans the decay. Could the decay be derived from the medicine, the cure from the wound? Do these things not have their own order and those things theirs? Is it possible for this to pass over to that, or that to this? Never!

Let us now come to the sins of the soul. Sin has the shame, sin has the contempt and the infamy as its lot. Repentance has courage, repentance has fasting. Repentance procures righteousness. ‘First tell your transgression, so you may be justified’ and, ‘A righteous man accuses himself at the beginning of his speech.’”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom On Repentance and Almsgiving, p. 115)

Great Lent: To Soften the Heart, Not Empty the Belly

Lenten Rose

However, if we pay close attention to the Lenten prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings, we quickly realize that Lent is a time when we should put greater emphasis on others rather than on ourselves as we literally lay down our life for our neighbor.

The late Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemman referred to Lent as the Lenten Spring, a new birth, where we turn away from the darkness of sin and once again turn back to God:

For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of forma, predominantly negative rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent-something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning.

This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may be open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

The grace has shown forth, O Lord!

The grace which illumines our soul.

This is the acceptable time!

This is the time of repentance!

Let us lay aside all the works of darkness

And put on the armor of light

That passing through the fast as through a great sea

We may reach the resurrection on the third day

Of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior, of our souls.

(Apostikha for Forgiveness Sunday)

(William C. Mills, Let Us Attend: Reflections of the Gospel of Mark for the Lenten Season, p. V, IX-X, 1)

The Sin of Envy

“The Christian concept of envy is twofold. It is the resentment experienced by one person when another person is perceived to have some good that he or she lacks, coupled with the strong desire that the other person be deprived of it.

Rather like vultures and flies, which gravitate toward stenches and festering sores, envious persons glory in the faults and failings of others, relishing the opportunity to broadcast such misdeeds to tarnish reputations.

Thus the healing of the illness of envy requires re-educating the mind as to what constitutes true good (i.e., virtue) and redirecting our fundamental, ambitious impulse away from the noxiousness of envy to this healthy end.”

(St. Basil the Great, On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p. 122, 129, 126)

Confess Your Sins so that You May Be Healed

“Confession extends the healing of baptism to the realities of sinful life after baptism. ‘Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects‘  (James 5:16).  Accountability to the other, and ultimately to the Other, is a healing act of humility, a necessary and often painful condition for real change and repentance. When one bares one’s soul to at least one other person then real accountability and potential for change can occur.”  

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 243)

In confessing our sins to another, we come to experience our human life as being truly social – we are members one of another.  “Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another”  (Ephesians 4:25).  Confession is teaching our self to put away falsehood – lies, pretension, pretending, covering up, deception, self-deception, hypocrisy, acting for show – so that we speak the truth about our self not only to our self but to those we are supposed to love.  In confessing to another, we get outside of the confines of the self, and experience our organic unity with the rest of humanity.  We realize we share a human nature not only with the sinful Adam but also with the Christ.

Every human is part of a bouquet – there is beauty in each of us, and yet when arranged with others, the glorious result is even more stunning and profound.  The individual beauty of each flower is highlighted and intensified by being in and with all of the other flowers, leaves, stems and greenery of the arrangement.

Confession: Seeking the Compassion of God

“Our tendency is to conceal and minimize our sins, thinking that God’s compassion means that He will ‘go easy on us’ and understand that ‘we’re only human.’ This section of the Canon [of Repentance of  St. Andrew of Crete] invites us to a different view: that all our sins are very serious (even those we don’t know about), and yet God is abundant in mercy. He already knows all about our sins, and is ready to rush toward us in compassion. All that is necessary is for us to admit we need his compassion. Repentance is truth telling, and ‘the truth will make you free‘ (John 8:32). What hidden sins can you begin to admit, and allow God to take away?”

(Frederica Mathewes-Green, Firstfruits of Prayer, p. 14)

Confession Not Concealment

May the infinite love and mercy of the Lord triumph, in consequence of our sincere recognition and confession of our sins; and may the sinful flattery of the Devil, teaching us to conceal our sins and not to acknowledge them, be covered with shame! May all the snares and bonds of the Devil be torn asunder by our repentance, like a cobweb!

The Devil seeks that we should conceal our sins, and thus give ourselves up to them in secret still more and more easily; but let us even here destroy his snares and wiles; let us confess our sins, in order that we ourselves and all others may see to what abomination we are giving ourselves up or have given ourselves up, and that thus, by recognizing this abomination, we may more easily amend. “Tell,” it is said, “all thine iniquities,” and do not be silent about them, “that thou mayst be justified.”

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p. 284)

The Tyranny of the Flesh

“… the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.‘”  (Matthew 4:16-17)

6849430658_240066832e_nThe first sermon that Jesus preached according to St. Matthew was a one line, straight forward message:  ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.‘   That message, a call to repentance has been central to the Christian message ever since.  At every Orthodox liturgy we pray that “we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and in repentance.

All of us who are members of the Orthodox Church have personally embraced that message and have agreed that repentance is essential to cure what ails us as human beings.  Every year we attend the “School of Repentance” – Great Lent – in order to respond to the call of Jesus Christ.  We are the ones who have said “I need to repent” – Christ’s Gospel message have resonated with us.  In the first week of Great Lent we pray the Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.”  We each acknowledge our personal need for God’s mercy and the forgiveness that Christ offers to repentant sinners.  St. Andrew’s Canon is not a dreary dirge but rather brings us face to face with Christ’s call to repentance.  It is meant to change our heart of stone into one of flesh, which feels the pain of sin and it’s result – our separation from God.  The Canon is meant to awaken in us that pain of separation so that we seek God with all our heart.

Repentance in Orthodox spirituality is normative to our daily spiritual life – instead of blaming everyone else for the world’s sorrows and problems, we acknowledge our own personal contribution to the problems and sorrows of the world.  We come to church not to blame violent shooters and sexual predators, but to repent not only of our personal sins but also of anything we do which enables such sin to continue in the world.

We can consider the words from one of the Lenten hymns for the first week of Lent:

Let us keep the fast not only by refraining from food,

But by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions;

That we how are enslaved to the tyranny of the flesh

May become worthy to partake of the Lamb, the Son of God.

4446986418_6c3154f029_nStrangers to bodily passions . . .  enslaved to the tyranny of the flesh –  sounds like monastic exaggeration or extremism.  Yet, for all of us “living in the world” we can readily understand these words in our daily experience.  How often do we make choices purely because it is easy, comfortable, convenient or pleasurable?  When choices made based on any of those become our pattern of behavior, we have become slaves to them.  We avoid choosing what is good or right or godly preferring to follow that path of least resistance – what is pleasurable, convenient, comfortable or easy.   We don’t want to have to fast, or practice self denial, or attend a weekday service, or give more to charity or to have to apologize to others or forgive them.   Thus ease and convenience and comfort tyrannize us – as we don’t want to have to deal with what is difficult or important and so allow our lives to be controlled by the tyranny of the flesh =  that which is easy, convenient, pleasurable and comfortable.  Instead of doing the next right, good or godly thing, we opt for ease and convenience and let that govern our daily lives.

Lent is the chance to regain control of our choices. To recognize how ease and convenience are really tyranny of the flesh.  Repentance means changing one’s mind and heart, allowing it to be healed of the tyranny of the flesh and the passions, so that we in fact strive for what is godly.

 

Humility as Being Human

“’What is humility?’ had a simple but penetrating answer: ‘It is when your brother sins against you and you forgive him before he comes to ask forgiveness.’ One story, which illustrates this, suggests that it was only through realizing this kind of humility in practice that one could become reconciled to another with whom one had a disagreement.

A brother was angry with another brother for something he had done. As soon as the second one learned of this, he came to ask the brother to forgive him. But the first brother would not open the door to him. So the one who had come to ask for forgiveness went to ask an old man the reason for this and what he should do. The old man told him,
‘See if there is not a motive in your heart such as blaming your brother or thinking that it is he who is responsible. You justify yourself and that is why he is not moved to open the door to you. In addition, I tell you this: even it is he who has sinned against you, settle it in your heart that it is you who have sinned against him and justify your brother. Then God will move him to reconcile himself with you.’

Convinced, the brother did this; then he went to knock at the brother’s door and almost before he heard the sound the other was first to ask pardon from the inside. Then he opened the door and embraced him with all his heart.”

(Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 252-253)

Chrysostom: Interpreting the Parable of the Prodigal

There were two brothers. Having divided the paternal inheritance between themselves, one remained at home, the other squandered all that was given to him and departed to a distant land because he could not bear the shame of poverty.

I wanted to speak of this parable from the outset so that you could learn that, if we are attentive, there is remission of sins even after baptism. I do not say this to put you in a state of inertia, but to distance you from discouragement, because discouragement produces worse evils among us than inertia. Therefore, this son bears the image of those who suffer the fall after the Laver. That he represents those who fell after baptism is obvious from the parable. He is called “son”; no one can be called a son without baptism. Furthermore, he inhabited the paternal house, and took his share from all the paternal substance. Before baptism no one has the right to receive paternal things, nor to obtain an inheritance, so that through all these events he speaks to us about the status of the faithful. He was a brother of the reputable one; he would not have become a brother without spiritual regeneration. Therefore, what does the one say who fell into the workst wickedness? “I will arise and return to my father.” His father did not hinder him from departing to the foreign land precisely for this reason: so that he could learn well from the experience how much beneficence he enjoyed while remaining at home.

Therefore, since the prodigal son departed for the foreign land and learned from his own experience how much evil it is for someone to be driven out of his paternal house, he returned, and his father did not remember the wrongs that he had committed against him, but accepted him with open arms. Why? Because he was a father and not a judge. Then, there took place dances, sumptuous feasts, and festivals; and the entire house was beaming with joy and exceeding gladness. What are you saying? These are rewards of wickedness? Not of wickedness, O man, but of the return. Not of sin, but of repentance. Not of cunningness, but of change toward the better.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, pp. 11-13)