Seeking the Mercy of God

 Jesus said  “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (Matthew 18:21-35)

The parable challenges purely rationalistic logic by saying love is of extreme importance, far more important to Jesus than justice.

Note, the Master does not call the servant wicked for accruing a 10,000 talent debt (the amount of money is phenomenal, 10,000 years worth of wages), but calls him evil when he refuses to forgive his fellow servant. Think about that – what was really the great problem, the important problem, the insurmountable problem of the parable? The debt is far beyond anyone’s ability to repay, the servant had indebted himself beyond all reason, and just that foolishness deserved punishment, but the Master forgives.  Why?  Because he is of that up-side-down Kingdom of heaven, where love reigns supreme to such an extent that it is almost absurd.

The fellow servant uses exactly the same words the servant used in begging for mercy from the master, but the servant does not recognize himself or his own words!  What about u?  We hope for God’s mercy daily, yet do we show mercy to others in our daily transactions? How many times do we ask for God’s mercy in the Liturgy? Lord, have mercy! How many times do we have opportunity to show mercy to others each week?

Christ demands more from us, His disciples.  Even forgiving isn’t enough – we must forgive from out hearts. We are to drop all claims to those indebted to us.  This isn’t saying, “Forget about it.” Rather, it is acknowledging the debt, the loss and the pain but then still forgiving with that trespass.

We know how people can get under our skin and just irritate us.  Christ though says forget about them just getting under your skin –  instead allow them to get into your heart, where despite their foibles and failures you forgive them.  You turn your heart into the Kingdom of God.

If we cannot behave in a manner befitting the Kingdom of God right now in this life by practicing love and forgiveness, we will find no entrance into that Kingdom. We will not find the Kingdom either welcoming nor a place we want to be. We will find instead only that bitterness of exact justice that we demand in this world being given to us for all eternity.   That is unlike the Kingdom in which complete and undeserved and unearned love and forgiveness is how God runs His Kingdom.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  He didn’t say blessed are the peace lovers.   We have to take the action that brings about peace, not evade or avoid the problems of community.

What the Kingdom of Heaven is Like

The Gospel lesson of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) is fascinatingly inserted between two teachings of Jesus on forgiveness.

42177591130_2aaca87ebdThen 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.    Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like(18:21-23)

 . . . 

So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (18:35)

It all starts with the Apostle Peter asking a wisdom question:  At what point if someone sins against me repeatedly do I stop forgiving that person?   The question is more complicated, because Peter is not asking about just any person – a stranger or a foreigner or a rival or an enemy.  Peter asks particular about when do I stop forgiving my brother/sister?   It is an interesting question because it recognizes that even if we try to live together as brothers and sisters in Christ, we can and do annoy each other, disappoint each other, fail each other, sin against one another.

What if someone simply repeatedly fails you (sin implies “missing the mark”, but such failure can occur from a poor aim or lacking the needed skills, not just by intentionally missing the mark).  Peter wants to know what does wisdom teach us about holding someone accountable and not just enabling them to continue in failed behavior?   Jesus as He often does seems though to direct Himself to something slightly different (think about the Good Samaritan parable which is how Jesus answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?“).  Jesus turns Peter’s question into an exposition on what brotherhood/sisterhood/community means, philadelphia.  Can brotherly/sisterly love ever end?   Forgiving seven times might seem quite generous, but is not enough – if you want to quantify then think more in terms of 490 times.  However, at the end of the parable Jesus simply says when it comes to a brother/sister, you simply are to forgive from your heart.  There is no quantification, every time a brother/sister sins, you maintain brotherly/sisterly affection, concord, unity, the bond of peace or community.

In the desert fathers we find the same teaching is a story that appears in several versions.  The gist of the story is that a group of monks sets off on a journey through the desert to another monastery.  Traveling through the desert is always dangerous as the environment is inhospitable and life threatening.  As the story goes, the young monk appointed to guide the fraternity of monks gets lost, but the others continue unquestioningly to follow his meanderings, realizing their lives are at risk.  Maybe the young monk is the proverbial male and he refuses to ask for directions, but eventually he is forced to acknowledge he is lost.  “We know,” reply his brothers.  The young monk is amazed that no one complained or criticized him and realizes they all thought maintaining the fraternal unity was more important than pointing out his faults and failures or proving themselves right.

The counter intuitive nature of the story occurs because it holds love to be the highest good – even more important than being right.  Americans might dismiss the story as impractical and foolish, but the real point of the story is not to reward wrong behavior and sin (missing the mark) nor to tolerate bad leadership, but to force us as Christians to consider how important brotherly/sisterly love and the bond of peace in the community is to our Lord.

It is what the Kingdom of heaven is like.

 

How Can I Tell if I Have Forgiven Someone?

Remembrance of wrongs is consummation of anger, the keeper of sin, hatred of righteousness, ruin of virtues, poison of the soul, worm of the mind, shame of prayer…you will know that you have completely freed yourself of this rot, not when you pray for the person who has offended you, not when you exchange presents with him, not when you invite him to your table, but only when, on hearing that he has fallen into bodily or spiritual misfortune, you suffer and weep for him as for yourself. (St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent)

But I say to you,” the Lord says, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.” Why did he command these things? So that he might free you from hatred, sadness, anger and grudges, and might grant you the greatest possession of all, perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all equally in imitation of God. (St. Maximus the Confessor)

(from In Communion, Issue 42: Summer 2006)

Ezekiel 33:11

Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11; see also Ezekiel 18:31-32)

St. Romanos the Melodist offers us Christian insight into Ezekiel‘s prophetic words:

“Now I shall make all known to you and I shall prophesy to you, All-Holy, unblemished.

For fall and resurrection,

your Son is set, the life and the redemption and the resurrection of all.

The Lord has not appeared so that some may fall while others rise,

for the All-Compassionate does not rejoice at the fall of mortals.

Nor has he now come to make those who stand fall,

but rather he is here hastening to raise those who have fallen,

ransoming from death what he himself fashioned,

the only lover of mankind.

(On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 31)

And from the desert fathers we find a very motherly and earthy understanding of the Ezekiel prophecy:

A brother asked Abba Macarius, “My father, I have fallen into a transgression.” Abba Macarius said to him, “It is written, my son, ‘I do not desire the death of a sinner as much as his repentance and his life’ [see 1 Tim 2:4 and 2 Pet 3:9].

Repent, therefore, my son; you will see him who is gentle, our Lord Jesus Christ, his face full of joy towards you, like a nursing mother whose face is full of joy for her child when he raises his hands and his face up to her. Even if he is full of all kinds of uncleanness, she does not turn away from that bad smell and excrement but takes pity on him and lifts him up and presses him to her breast, her face full of joy, and everything about him is sweet to her. If, then, this created person has pity for her child, how much greater is the love of the creator, our Lord Jesus Christ, for us!   (St. Macarius The Spirit Bearer: Coptic Texts Relating To Saint Macarius, Kindle Location 269-279)

The unconditional love of a mother for her child is a most exquisite image of God’s love for us.  God is not repulsed by the filth of our sins but desires to embrace us with God’s eternal love if only we will allow ourselves to be so embraced.

Confess Your Sins to Enlist God’s Mercy

Do you see the physician’s prodigality which excels the loving concern of all human fathers? It is not something burdensome and demanding that he requires of us, is it? No, simply heartfelt contrition, a lull in our wild ideas, confession of sins, earnest recourse to him; then he not merely rewards us with the curing of our wounds and renders us cleansed of our sins, but also puts to rights the person who beforehand had been weighed down with countless burdens of sin. O the greatness of love! O the extent of his goodness!

When the sinner confesses his sins and begs forgiveness and gives evidence of carefulness in the future, God immediately declares him law-abiding. For clear proof of this, listen to the prophet’s words: “Take the initiative in declaring your transgressions so that you may be declared upright”(Isaiah 43:26, LXX).  He did not simply say, “Declare your transgressions,” but added, “Take the initiative,” that is to say, don’t wait for someone to accuse you, nor let the prosecutor anticipate you – beat him to the punch by having the first say, so as to deprive the prosecutor of a voice.

Do you see the judge’s lovingkindness? In the case of human courts, whenever anyone admitted to doing this and anticipated proof of the charges by confessing his crimes, he would perhaps be in a position to escape torture and the torments accompanying it, and even if the case came before a lenient judge he would indubitably receive a sentence of death.

In the case of the loving God, on the contrary, the physician of our souls, we meet with ineffable goodness and a liberality exceeding all description. What I mean is this: if we steal a march on our adversary – I mean the devil – who on that dread day will take his stand against us, and already in this present life before our entry into the court we confess our crimes, take the initiative in speaking, and turn accusers against ourselves, we will encourage the Lord not only to reward us with freedom from our sins but also to reckon us among the number of the upright.   (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 18-45, pp. 43-44)

Forgiveness and Friendship

What exactly does forgiveness look like?  There is no doubt that a lot depends on the people involved both the one forgiving and for the one being forgiven.  I don’t think there is any one result that happens.  A friend recently told me this story:

He had done something that deeply offended a dear friend, making a serious accusation against his friend that turned out not to be true.  His friend walked away from him in disgust and anger.

When he realized that he had been wrong in what he had thought and said, he went to his friend and admitted he was wrong, asking for forgiveness.  His friend told him that he forgave him, but never renewed the friendship.  This man told me he pondered that for years thinking his friend never really forgave him, for if he had really forgiven him, the friendship would have continued on as before.

After many years, he said he came to realize that though his friend had forgiven him, his friend still held him accountable for what he had done.  He said he had imagined wrongly that forgiveness was like a free pass – if you forgive me, you can’t hold me accountable for what I’ve done.  But he said he realized his friend held him to a high standard of friendship – as friends we are accountable to one another, and we should not let friends off the hook too easily if we really value the other person and want them also to learn and grow in wisdom.   We should never let someone off the hook if that only will enable them to continue to commit the same fault – for if they are really a friend they will want to learn and change.

He said he came to realize that in fact in his lifetime he had several times been let off the hook when he had done something that hurt another.   He came to realize his friend  wanted him to be the best person he possibly could be and that meant he had to learn accountability.    A really profound lesson in forgiveness and friendship.  He said he came to understand that his own apology was probably more self seeking – he didn’t want to lose his friend – whereas his apology really needed to include taking full responsibility for what he had done.

He had damaged the friendship irreparably and he had to take full responsibility for  that.  His friend may indeed have forgiven him but that meant he had to share in carrying the burden of the damage.  His friend carried his share of the damage and he had to own up to carrying his own share of the damage done.

For the Peace from Above

For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.

Jesus answered:  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”   (John 3:3)

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Jesus speaks to us about being ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ – which Orthodoxy has understood as the spiritual and heavenly birth given us in baptism.  The phrase “from above” does occur at various times in Orthodox liturgical prayers as in the petition of the litany listed above.  We come to experience the forgiveness we offer to others as the peace from above.  St. Isaac of Nineveh writes:

Consider the forgiveness of your debtors in these things as a work of righteousness.  Then you will see peace exult in your mind from two sides: namely when you are above propriety and justice in your way, and you yield to freedom in all things. (On Ascetical Life, p. 65)

For St Isaac  when someone decides to forgive, they decide that mercy trumps judgment (James 2:13).  In forgiveness, we decide to forego retribution, justice or even validation for one’s hurt because of the offense.  You choose freedom from the demands of justice.

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Forgiveness Sunday is our time to choose the peace from above, to let go the demands of justice and validation and to love another as God loves us.  We enter into Great Lent with the intention to live the Gospel.  “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14).  We offer to others what we want from God.

The second theme, that of forgiveness, is emphasized in the Gospel reading for this Sunday (Matthew 6:14-21) and in the special ceremony of mutual forgiveness at the end of Vespers on Sunday evening. Before we enter the Lenten fast, we are reminded that there can be no true fast, no genuine repentance, no reconciliation with God, unless we are at the same time reconciled with one another. A fast without mutual love is the fast of demons. As the commemoration of the ascetic saints on the previous Saturday has just made clear to us, we do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family. Our asceticism and fasting should not separate us from our fellow men but link us to them with ever stronger bonds. The Lenten ascetic is called to be a man for others. (The Lenten Triodion, p. 47)

 

God be Merciful to Me

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again.”  (Luke 6:27-30)

St John Chrysostom, once asked about what kind of people would ask God to do something that goes against God’s own commandments.  He was thinking it is you and I!

“Those that make requests it is fitting for God to grant, not beseeching him for what is opposed to his laws.  And who is so bold, you ask, as to make God grant what is opposed to his laws?  Those who intercede with him against their enemies; this, of course, is at variance with the law decreed by him.  He says, remember, ‘forgive your debtors.’ (Matthew 6:12).   But do you call on him against your enemies when he has bidden you pardon them?  What could be worse than this absurdity?  In prayer you should have the appearance, attitude and approach of a suppliant; so why do you adopt another guise, that of accusation?  I mean, how would you succeed in gaining pardon of your own faults when you expect God to be the punisher of other’s crimes?”  (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 1, p 52)

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  (Colossians 3:12-13)

Empathy for the Sinner

If, during service, your brother does anything irregularly, or somewhat negligently, do not become irritated, either inwardly or outwardly with him, but be generously indulgent to his fault, remembering that during your life you yourself commit many, many faults, that you yourself are a man with all infirmities, that God is longsuffering and most merciful, and that he forgives you and all of us our iniquities an innumerable multitude of times. Remember the words of the Lord’s prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us..”

These words should always remind us that we ourselves at all times are great trespassers, great sinners before God, and that, remembering this, we should be humble in the depths of our hearts, and not be very severe to the faults of our brethren, weak like ourselves; that as we do not judge ourselves severely, we must not judge others severely, for our brethren are – our members just like ourselves. Irritability of temper proceeds from want of self-knowledge, from pride, and also from fact that we do not consider the great corruption of our nature, and know but little the meek and humble Jesus.

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p. 118)

The Sins I Cannot See

We usually think of sins as actions intentionally or purposefully done, sometimes even done with malice.  But there are also sins and offenses which people commit with no malice because they are unaware of how their behavior affects others.  In this story from the desert fathers, we see exactly this latter case, two monks who are endlessly irritated by the wrong behavior of a third monk.  The third monk’s behavior is so offensive that the two monks decide the most loving thing is simply to move away from him.  But as often is the case, we have to think about what Christian love demands of us and what constraints it puts on us.

They used to say of Abba Poemen that he was staying at Scete with two of his brothers and the younger one was troubling them. He said to the other brother: “This young fellow is our undoing; get up and let us be gone from here.” Out they went and left him. Realizing that they were a long time gone he saw them in the distance. He started to run after them, crying out. Abba Poemen said “Let us wait for the brother, for he is in adversity.” When he caught up with them [the brother] prostrated himself, saying: “Where are you going and [why are you] leaving me alone?” The elder said to him: “Because you trouble us; that is why we are going away.” He said to them: “Yes, yes, let us go together wherever you like.” When the elder saw that there was no guile in him, he said to his brother: “Let us go back brother, for he does not want to do these things; it is the devil that does them to him.” They turned round and came [back] to their place.   (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 256-257)