God’s Love for the Good and the Bad

…the divine love of the Sermon on the Mount, a love that shows its perfection in being directed toward good and bad alike. It is precisely this love, which draws no distinctions but loves all its fellow men equally – the distinctively Christian form of love (agape)…that is, for Maximus, the purest reflection of God, as he has revealed himself in his incarnate Son and in his Holy Spirit. So the unity that the Church realizes on earth is the first and most exalted image of God in the world, precisely as a unity of love.”

(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, p. 103)

Jesus Proclaimed

Jesus Christ whether as the historical person or the one proclaimed through the centuries by the Church is the same, yesterday, today, forever (Hebrews 13:8).  The Gospel is not about Jesus, Jesus is the Gospel.

Who Jesus really was, what Jesus really thought of himself, and who really were included among Jesus’ closest associates – such titillating questions have in recent years occupied the front covers of national news magazines and prompted television documentaries. This is fascinating since the church looks to the Gospels as authoritative witnesses to the one gospel, who is Jesus Christ, and not to the Jesus reconstructed by even our best historians.

(Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth, p. 109)

From, Through and to God

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him

and through him

and to him

are all things.

To him be glory for ever.

Amen.

(Romans 11:33-36)

Peace in the Epistles of St Paul

Previous Post:  Christ Proclaims Peace. Christ is Our Peace.

Peace, peace, to the far and to the near, says the LORD…  (Isaiah 57:19)

“For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”  (Ephesians 2:14-22)

Willard Swartley (COVENANT OF PEACE: THE MISSING PEACE IN NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY AND ETHICS) contends that some modern biblical scholars and ethicists do not treat “peace” as prominent  a  theme as it deserves based on how frequently the word “peace” occurs in the New Testament.  These scholars fail to see how “peace” is a lens through which we need to read the New Testament.  In this  the last post in this series we will look at a few things which Swartley notes from the epistles of St. Paul the Apostle.    As mentioned in the previous posts, the word “peace” occurs 44 times in the  greater Pauline corpus,  while  ‘God of peace’ occurs seven times in his writings.  Paul never uses  ‘God of wrath’ or ‘God of judgment’ as titles for God.  Says Swartley: “Paul, more than any other writer in the NT canon, makes peace, peacemaking, and peace-building central to his theological reflections and moral admonition” (p 190).   Just in the above quote from Ephesians 2:14-22, Paul uses the word peace 4 times and also uses the word reconciliation – this is Paul’s understanding of who Jesus is and what salvation He brings to the world.  In Christ God is reconciling the world to Himself, as well as reconciling and bringing to peace both Jews and Gentiles.  Additionally, Paul in using Isaiah 57:19 in his theology  clearly ties the Messiah to the promise of peace which God made through the prophets.

In Ephesians 2:14-17 Paul draws on Isaiah, just as Jesus and the Gospel writers also did.  Paul sums up Jesus’ life and work by joining two Isaiah texts, 52:7 and 57:19.  Christ proclaims peace is from the rich Isaiah declaration, ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace’ … This oracle continues by describing further this messenger as the one ‘who announces, who says, to Zion, “Your God reigns.”’  It concludes with the universal vision: ‘all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God’ (52:10b).  (p 200)

As noted in Ephesians 2:14-22, for St. Paul not only does Christ proclaim peace, He is our peace.  It is in Christ that we are reconciled with God – made one with God, ending our enmity with God due to our sin, making us at peace with God – and also ending the division between Jews and Gentiles, making us all into one people again.  We are all united to one another in Christ and made into the people of God who turn out to be a living temple for God.  Salvation is thus for St. Paul not just something individualistic – something that happens between “me” and God – it is social and relational in its full dimension, establishing a proper relationship between each human and God, but also between every human with each other as well as with all humans and the rest of creation itself.  God’s peace brings an end in each of us to personal desire which is opposed to the good of all because God’s peace also means loving everyone as well as all of God’s creation.  The denial of self that Christ taught is so that we can love everyone else and live at peace with them.  In this we imitate Christ who is our peace.

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.   (Ephesians 2:11-13)

If we live in Christ, we live in Christ’s peace, because He is our peace.  St. Paul describes what this means for us –

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.    (Romans 12:17-21)

As with the idea of shalom in the Old Covenant, we the people have to live this peace.

…in Philippians 2:1-12 … (v.12) exhorting recipients of Christ’s salvation-work to ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling.’  God’s gift of salvation-peace is thus matched by the human responsibility to ‘work it out,’ to do those things that manifest the new life of peace with God and peace with one another.  (p 211)

 

Quote of M.L. King

We are to work out our peace with God, with neighbor, with enemy and with all of the created order.  Thus being in Christ changes everything for us.  No longer are we to live for the self, but rather we live in love for all and everyone which and whom God loves.  St. Paul’s ideas of salvation are thus opposed to ideas that “I” am to be concerned about my salvation as opposed to everyone else’s.  The Church isn’t set up for me to work for my salvation with no regard for anyone else.  I am to work out my salvation in love for others and for creation itself.  I am saved with others and with all creation.  The “us vs them” thinking which sometimes almost seems to be a defining mark of various Christians denominations is thus not the life in Christ which St. Paul imagines.  All dividing walls come down in Christ, which makes is possible for all to be reconciled in Christ.  I am to live in peace with everyone and everything, not become disinterested, neglectful or indifferent toward others.  Nor is it correct for me to see myself working out my salvation as disconnecting me from the rest of humanity.   “I” work out my salvation with the rest of humanity.   The freedom Christ brings us is not freedom from others, but the freedom to work out my salvation with all others.  “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.”  (Galatians 5:13; see also 1 Peter 2:16).  The Church opted in its history for a “catholic” vision rather than a sectarian one – for the life of the world (John 6:51) as Fr. Schmemann so famously proclaimed .  As Swartley points out:

The aim of atonement is redemptive solidarity, not penal substitution. (p 193)

Christ dies for our sins not mostly to fulfill some legal demand by a wrathful God that someone has to suffer for our sins, but in order to end the walls of enmity that pitted us one against the other and against God Himself.

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.   (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)

Not only are we reconciled to God in Jesus Christ, but we are to be actively reconciling the world to God.  This is the very vision, mission and purpose of the Church.

God’s act in Christ reconciles humans to God (not God to humans by pacifying divine wrath) and that reconciled-to-God humans are then enlisted into the ministry of reconciliation.   . . .  Christ, who knew no sin, but became sin for us in dying on the cross, ‘so that we might become the righteousness of God’ (cf 1 Pet 2:24).  (pp 203-204)

Salvation in Christ does not pit us against others – “we” are saved but “you” are not.  Rather, in Christ, we work to be reconciled with all others in the world, so that we might bring all to Christ.  Those tendencies in Christianity which cause us to want to run away from the world and not be tainted by the world, fall short of St. Paul the Apostle to the Nations vision of what it means that Jesus is Messiah and Savior of the world.  Christ Himself proclaimed that His Body given as food is not just communion for the faithful few but is given as life for the world.

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  (John 6:51)

We are to go into all the world, for the life of the world and to make disciples of all nations (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:19).  We are not called to withdraw into the salt shaker, but to be the salt of the world.  We are not blessed to hide our light under a bushel, but rather to be a light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16)

In Christian terms, a prayer for world peace is a prayer that Christ will prevail – not only in the world but especially in our hearts and minds.  We pray constantly in Orthodoxy “in peace”, for the peace of the whole world, for the peace from above, that we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.  This peace we pray for is Christ.   If the words of our prayers are not to be emptied of all meaning, then WE have to live in peace with each other, with God, with neighbor, and even with our enemies.  Peace is not something God will impose upon us, but rather something we must  choose and we must will, for the kingdom of God is within us.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”   (Luke 17:20-21)

Christ Proclaims Peace. Christ Is Our Peace.

You know the message, [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is the Lord of all. (Acts 10:36)

For he [Christ] is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…   (Ephesians 2:14)

Because I thought Willard Swartley’s book, COVENANT OF PEACE: THE MISSING PEACE IN NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY AND ETHICS , was such an excellent look at “peace” in the New Testament as well as a superb scripture study, I decided to comment on the book in a couple of posts, hoping to encourage others to read the book.  The previous post is The Covenant of Peace.

Swartley argues that peace – shalom – is a central theme of the Covenant that God made with Israel.  That peace/shalom comes from God for His people, but the people have to uphold their part of the covenant by living the peace that God commands.

… shalom is a gift of God, but the people must actualize that reality by living in accord with the righteous and just statutes that God gives and prescribes in the covenant (Ps 119; Exodus 20; Deut 18:16-18).  (p 30)

Thus the New Testament use of peace is not introducing something to people of God which didn’t exist in the first covenant, but rather expands upon it and fulfills it.  Swartley offers many examples of the New Testament building upon and expanding the theme of peace found in the Old Testament.  The New Testament often focuses on a peace theme that may not be mentioned directly in an Old Testament text but which the New Testament writers draw out of the text.  So, for example, Genesis 14:18 reads:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.

Hebrews 7:1-2 making use of  this Genesis text in reference to Christ makes a clear connection between Melchizadek  and peace:

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God… is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. 

Swartley notes:

Heb 7:1-3 is plainly Christological in its use of eirene.  As commonly recognized, it is a midrash on Gen 14:18-20.  (p 254)

In another instance Swartley looks at Acts 10:36 –

You know the message, [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is the Lord of all. 

Swartley points out:

The key phrase in [Acts] 10:36, ‘preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all’ … Its significance is …  First it is a quotation from Isaiah 52:7 (LXX)… This is one  of the Isainic texts announcing that God’s good news of peace will be heralded to and embraced by those at ‘the ends of the earth.’ (Isa 52:10; cf Acts 1:8).   (p 161-162)

What the New Testament does is link God’s good news promised through the prophets with Jesus the Messiah.  Jesus heralds the coming of God’s peace.  The notion of peace/shalom is part of the covenant with Israel, but the New Testament fully connects this peace to Jesus Christ and expands upon the ideas presented in the first covenant.

Jesus as the Messiah shows Himself to be the King of Peace.  Unlike earthly kings he does not rely on weapons of war to establish His Kingdom.  He does not rely on threats of violence, on revenge, on self preservation or self defense.

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly.  (1 Peter 2:23)

He shows Himself to be the Son of God precisely by acting in humility, willing to suffer for and because of humanity.  Commenting on Mark 15:39, Swartley notes:

  For this is the treasure of the Gospel: the One who did not retaliate against the evil plots of the leaders, but willingly offered himself as suffering servant, in accord with God’s purpose… is the true Son of God. (p 115)

Swartley says this same idea of the suffering Messiah – the One willing to suffer but not afflict suffering on His enemies shows Himself to be from the God of Love.  Even in the Book of Revelation, Swartley claims the same theme is evident.

The theology is similar to that of John’s Gospel, in which death and exaltation are viewed as one: in being ‘lifted up’ Jesus fulfills his commission to glorify God.  The drama of Revelation is of the same moral fabric: through the Lamb’s suffering and the suffering of the believers God’s victory over evil is won. (p 334)

The paradoxical image of victory through suffering love forms the heart and soul of Revelation’s Christology.  Suffering love marks the authentic followers of the Lamb.  (p 343)

The up-side-down Kingdom of Heaven is inaugurated by a King whose weapon against evil is humility, suffering and the cross.  Indeed as we sing in Orthodoxy, “the cross is the weapon of peace.”  The incarnate Son of God chooses to suffer as his weapon and warfare.  He teaches his followers to deny themselves and to take up the cross to follow Him.  We are to stand our ground against evil, but not with weapons which can kill, but by laying down our lives because we completely trust God and see ourselves as belonging to His Kingdom more than to this world and its way of war.

As Swartely nicely states it:

Rather than thinking first and foremost about peace with security, the exposition leads one to think about peace through repentance.  (p 2)

The Gospel is a challenge to how we want to deal with evil through self preservation and self protection rather than through self denial.  Many an Orthodox saint thought self-preservation did not prevent evil but rather was the cause of much evil – making us think that killing and harming others is a good.

Finally, Swartley points out that in the Tradition we have received from the people of the First Covenant, that the use of war and military weapons to achieve one’s goals is introduced to humanity by those angels who themselves rebelled against God and God’s Kingdom:

It is striking that the various conceptualizations of evil in and behind biblical thought link war and military weapons to evil itself: in the ‘Watchers Myth’ (Azazel) gives to humans the knowledge of weapons for war (1 Enoch 8:1) (p 107, n 35)

“And Azaz’el taught the people the art of making swords and knives and shields and breastplates . . .”  (1 Enoch 8:1)

Death entered into the human condition as a result of sin.  “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— ” (Romans 5:12).  It was humans who then used this sin caused death to inflict further death on other humans.  but it is Christ who uses death – His own – to defeat death and bring peace with God to all humans.

But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  (Romans 5:8-10)

Instead of death stopping us from sinning, we humans used death to stop other people from living.  In so doing we made ourselves enemies God who is the Giver of life.  Christ undoes all of this by using death – His own – to conquer death, to give life to all, and to reconcile all of us to God.  No longer are we at war with God, but in Christ we are at peace with God.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  (Romans 5:1-2)

Next: Peace in the Epistles of St. Paul

God’s Love Means Our Salvation

“If a genuine righteousness were required of human beings, then only one in ten thousand would be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, continues Isaac. This is why God gave people repentance as a remedy, for it can heal a person from sin in a short time. Not wishing human beings to perish, God forgives everyone who repents with his whole heart. God is good by nature, and he ‘wishes to save everyone by all sorts of means’.

Isaac resented the widespread opinion that the majority of human beings will be punished in hell, while only a small group of the chosen will delight in paradise. He was convinced that, quite the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to Gehenna, and even they only for the period of time necessary for their repentance and remission of sins:

By the device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But this is apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, and because these people have not been disciplined at all. For God’s holy nature is so good and so compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right: how he can forgive human beings their sins—like the case of the tax collector who was put in the right by the intensity of his prayer or like the case of a woman with two small coins or the man who received forgiveness on the cross. For God wishes our salvation, and not reasons to torment us.

Earthly life is given to everyone as a time of repentance. It is enough for a person to turn to God to ask forgiveness for his sins immediately to be forgiven. The token of this forgiveness is the Incarnation of the Word of God, who, when all creation had abandoned and forgotten God, came down to earth in order to redeem humankind and the whole universe by his death on the cross.”

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, pp. 294-295)

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.

Christ: The Light Before the Sun

The Feast of  the Transfiguration of our Lord gives us a clear understanding of who Jesus is – one Person of the Holy Trinity and the incarnate God.  Consider the words of one of the festal hymns:

Christ, the Light that shone  before the sun, was on earth in the flesh.  In a manner fitting His divine majesty, He fulfilled His fearful dispensation before His crucifixion!  Today upon Mount Tabor He has mystically made known the image of the Trinity.  For taking apart the expressly chosen disciples, Peter, James and John, He led them up into the mountain alone.  Briefly, He concealed the flesh He had assumed, and was transfigured before them, manifesting the original beauty, though short of full perfection.  For He spared them as He assured them, lest seeing, they die.  Yest they saw as far as they could bear it.  He likewise called before Him the chief prophets Moses and Elijah, who testified to His divinity:  That He is indeed the true brightness of the essence of the Father, the Ruler of the living and the dead. (Vespers Hymn)

Christ is the Light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5) and He shone before there ever was a sun.  When we read in Genesis that God says in the beginning, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and we also read that the sun did not yet exist, we are to understand this light in Genesis is not sunlight, but represents something – or rather, Someone – else.  The Word of God is the Light of the world.  Christ is the Light that existed and who brought all things into being.  He is also the One who is the image (icon) of the Father, and in whose image we each are made.  He, the Light of the world, became flesh, and yet in the Transfiguration, He concealed that flesh to show the disciples His glory and the original glory of humanity.  The three disciples were able to see what was within their own power to see of divinity.  They were able to see, however imperfectly what humans were created to be and able to experience the unity of God and humanity.

He who once spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am He Who is!”, was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the disciples.  In His own person He showed them the nature of mankind arrayed in the original beauty of the image.  Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace, He made them sharers in His joy, foretelling His death on the cross and His saving resurrection.   (Vespers Hymn)

It is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who spoke to Moses but was still concealed from Moses, who is revealed at the Transfiguration.  Christ makes it possible for us to see God and to understand what our roll is in the world.  We come to realize God really does love the people of the world and created us to share in the divine life.

When We Fail as Disciples

And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” And they were exceedingly sorrowful.  (Matthew 17:14-23)

It was a tough day for the Apostles.  First, they were not able to perform a miracle and heal a boy. Worse yet, the father of the boy goes and brokenheartedly reports their failure to the Lord Jesus.  Second, Jesus seemingly piles on to their woes by lamenting having to bear with them.  Third, Jesus then tells them the real bad news – He is about to be killed by these people.  Did the Apostles even fear that perhaps they contributed to people wanting to kill Jesus because they failed to heal the boy?  The crowd is turning against their Lord because they cannot do something He promised them they could do:  “These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, ‘Go . . . to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.‘”  (Matthew 10:5-8)  The Gospel lesson begins with the Apostles in dismay and ends with them being filled with sorrow.

“Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

Like the Apostles, we who are Christ’s disciples today may not be able to heal a child, or to do other miracles for those who come to us, but there things we can that will fulfill Christ’s commandments to us.  We don’t want people coming to Christ complaining to Him about how we fail in the most basic things.    We shouldn’t let it happen that people could come to Christ and say about us:   “Lord, I came to the members of Your parish and they didn’t minister to me.  We don’t need to worry about  “I was sick, and they didn’t heal me.”  But what about “I was sick and  they didn’t even visit me or pray for me.”  These are things we as Christ’s disciples must never fail in because they really are within our power to do.  We don’t need any miraculous powers to pray for others or visit them.

There are many other complaints people might make about us to our Lord:

I came to Your disciples and . . .

They weren’t patient with me or my child.

They weren’t merciful to me

They didn’t forgive me.

I was hungry, they didn’t feed me

I was homeless or poor and they didn’t welcome me.

I was sick or in prison and they didn’t visit me.

I was naked and they didn’t clothe me.

I was thirsty but they gave me no drink.

I was a stranger and they didn’t welcome me.

Or even

…. They gave me no peace.

They brought me no joy.

They showed me no kindness.

They did not practice self-control.

I was an addict and they fed my addiction .

I was an alcoholic and they didn’t help me stay sober.

I was addicted to porn and they sent me dirty jokes.

The Lord Jesus invites all kinds of people into His Church with all kinds of needs and imperfections:

And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”   (Mark 2:15 -17)

As Christ’s disciples, we are to minister to them in the ways that Christ commanded us, and many of those ways are not miraculous, but simple things well within our powers.

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”  (Matthew 8:16-17)

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.  (1 Peter 2:24-25)

God’s Son: Listen to Him

. . . lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.”   (Matthew 17:5-6)

St John of Damascus writes:

From all that has been said, may you always bear in your hearts the loveliness of this vision; may you always hear within you the Father’s voice: “This is” – not a slave, not an elder, not an angel – but “my beloved Son; listen to him!” Let us, therefore, really listen to him, as he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart.” “You shall not kill” – but you also shall not be angry with your brother without reason. “Be reconciled with your brother first, and then go and offer your gift.” “You shall not commit adultery” – but you also shall not let yourself be excited by someone else’s beauty. “You shall not swear falsely” – but you shall not even swear at all: “Let your speech be ‘Yes, yes!’ and ‘No, no!’ What lies beyond that is an invention of the Evil One.”

You shall not bear false witness.” “You shall not commit fraud” – but “give, too, to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow,” and do no prevent someone from taking what is yours. “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who hate you, and pray for those who threaten and persecute you.” “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Forgive, and you will be forgiven, so that you may become sons of your Father, perfect and merciful as is your Father in heaven, “who makes his sun rise on the wicked and the good, and makes rain fall on the just and the unjust.

(Light on the Mountain, pp. 229-230)

On Mount Tabor, O Lord, You have shown today the glory of Your divine form unto Your chosen disciples, Peter, James and John. For they looked upon Your garments that gleamed as the light and at Your face that shone more than the sun; and unable to endure the vision of Your brightness which none can bear, they fell to the earth, completely powerless to lift up their gaze. For they heard a voice that testified from above: ‘This is My beloved Son, Who has come into the world to save mankind.”    (Vespers Hymn for the Transfiguration)