The Talent for Serving God

In Homily Two [John Chrysostom] adverts to the parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30), from which the appropriate lesson for an Antiochene is that we must all make our own contribution if we are to win God’s favor:

“What is looked for by God even among human beings, you see, is not whether we come up with little or much, but making an offering that is in no way less than the ability we have.”

(Robert C. Hill, :St, John Chrysostom as Biblical Commentator,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 2003, pp. 317-318)

St. John Chrysostom says it is not how much you start with that matters, it is what you do with what God gives you.  We need not be jealous of what others have or even what they do with what they are given.  We can be grateful for what we have and for what God gives others as well.  Anthony de Mello offers the following story:

“Here is the Good News proclaimed by our Lord Jesus Christ:

Jesus began to teach in parables.   He said:

The kingdom of God is like two brothers who were called by God to give up all they had and serve humanity.

The older responded to the call generously, though he had to wrench his heart from his family and the girl he loved and dreamed of marrying. He eventually went off to a distant land where he spent himself in the service of the poorest of the poor. A persecution arose in that country and he was arrested, falsely accused, tortured and put to death.

And the Lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You gave me a thousand talents’ worth of service. I shall now give you a billion, billion talents’ worth of reward. Enter in the joy of your Lord.”

The younger boy’s response to the call was less than generous. He decided to ignore it and go ahead and marry the girl he loved. He enjoyed a happy married life, his business prospered and he became famous and rich. Occasionally he would give alms to the poor.

And when it was his turn to die, the Lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have given me ten talents’ worth of service. I shall now give you a billion, billion talents’ worth of reward. Enter into the joy of your Lord!”

The older boy was surprised when he heard that his brother was to get the same reward as he. And he was pleased. He said, “Lord, knowing this as I do, if I were to be born and live my life again, I would still do exactly what I did for you.”

(The Song of the Bird, pp. 117-118)

Arise, O Lord, Confront Them and Us?

 Psalm 17

Hide me under the shadow of Your wings,
From the wicked who oppress me,
From my deadly enemies who surround me.
. . .
As a lion is eager to tear his prey,
And like a young lion lurking in secret places.
Arise, O LORD,
Confront him, cast him down;
Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword,
With Your hand from men, O LORD,
From men of the world who have their portion in this life,

The Psalms are filled with appeals to God asking for protection from enemies, for overthrowing adversaries and requesting justice in dealing with oppressors.  While they have a “literal” meaning, and sometimes the inscriptions at the beginning of each Psalm tell us a little bit about the circumstances in which they were written, the Psalms don’t always tell us how we are to pray them, use them or understand them.

When we read Patristic commentary on the Psalms, we find that the Fathers made a wide variety of uses of the texts, interpreting them in various ways, depending on their purpose of their writing.  The Psalms could be read as prophecy about Christ, as well as expressing the mind of Christ and His understanding of the world.  The Fathers found in the Psalms defense for dogma and doctrine.  They found in Christ the meaning of the Psalms  and the revelation of God and pure theology.

Various Psalms made it into the fixed portions of the Church’s liturgies, Vespers and Matins.  The Psalms were seen as expressing the spiritual warfare which all Christians found themselves in – during every epoch and in each geographical place on the planet.

The Fathers often saw in the more warmonger Psalms a call to greater spiritual struggle against Satan and all his demonic hosts.

In the earliest days of Christianity and in other times when Christians found themselves being oppressed, the Psalms appealing to God for justice against oppressive forces were comforting.  They offered the hope that one day, perhaps only in the Kingdom, evildoers would be overthrown, the workers of iniquity would get their comeuppance while the poor, oppressed and downtrodden would find themselves being lifted up by God and given the blessings of which they had been denied on earth.

Martyrs Andronicus, Probus, Tarachus

Two Psalms which made it into Matins focus on the troubles a Christian might face in the world.  If we look at some verses from two such Psalms –

Psalm 3

Lord, how they have increased who trouble me!
Many are they who rise up against me.
Many are they who say of me,
“There is no help for him in God.”

But You, O LORD, are a shield for me,
My glory and the One who lifts up my head.
I cried to the LORD with my voice,
And He heard me from His holy hill.

I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people
Who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O LORD;
Save me, O my God!
For You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone;
You have broken the teeth of the ungodly.
Salvation belongs to the LORD.

Psalm 63

Your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek my life, to destroy it,
Shall go into the lower parts of the earth.
They shall fall by the sword;
They shall be a portion for jackals.

There is an interpretive question which can be raised.  While these Psalms quoted above might be an appeal for justice as well as mercy for one who is being oppressed, or perhaps for an entire people who are being cruelly coerced, what happens to the meaning of these Psalms if one is in the ruling class, in the majority, with those who are in power?  What happens when the troublemakers and wicked are in the minority?  They can be a plague, even if they the few.  Sinners and malcontents, people who hold minority viewpoints or who adhere to other religious beliefs might all be a nuisance at best but totally undesirable in a society.

So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.  (Matthew 7:12)

The early Christians, being persecuted because of their faith in Christ would certainly have prayed these Psalms in a particular why, asking God to help them against their more powerful oppressors and enemies.  They are a prayer asking for justice and deliverance.  The Psalms are being prayed because of a belief in God’s mercy, compassion and loving kindness.

However, when the Christians ceased to be in the minority, among the oppressed, but now were in positions of power and able to determine the fates of not only themselves but of others, these same Psalms can be turned away from a cry for mercy and help into a demand for punishment, domination, brutality and persecution of others – not just the criminals, but anyone deemed undesirable.  These same Psalms which are appealing for God’s mercy against evil oppressors can be turned into justification for pogroms, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and forcing people into exile.

If we pray for mercy and justice for ourselves, we need to work for mercy and justice for all.  We are to interpret the Psalms through Christ’s Gospel commandments:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:43-48)

Mercy is Justice

“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”   (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

“Since justice insists that all people get their due, and since mercy implies that at least some receive what is not their due, how can the two claims avoid contradiction?

Wisdom and Justice

The answer lies in the biblical understanding of our relation to God. He does not owe us our existence but grants it as sheer miraculous gift. There is nothing we could possibly do to compensate for this gift, to make it something deserved – not even to return it. We would be totally indebted even if we were unfallen. Sin hugely magnifies our obligation to the triune God. His deliverance of us from bondage through Israel and Christ and the church makes the debt absolute.

Elijah, Christ, Moses

In the deepest sense, therefore, God’s mercy precedes his justice and serves as its very basis.

His judgement is but the enforcement of his mercy: God insists that we live by the same merciful measure wherein we have been created and redeemed.  [Author JRR] Tolkien repeatedly demonstrates his understanding of this profound paradox that mercy is not contrary to justice but the true realization of it. Over and again we encounter characters who have done wrong and who deserve punishment, but who receive justice in the form of mercy – as their bad deeds often issue in surprisingly good things.” (Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, pp 96-97)

SS Peter & Paul
“Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

(James 2:13)

God’s Love and Judgment

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev shares a theological truth, which he learned from St. Isaac the Syrian. He encountered the teaching while reading the works of Vladimir Lossky.  It was an idea that stood out in Metropolitan Hilarion’s heart and mind.

“I was particularly struck by some words of Isaac, quoted by Lossky, about the suffering of those in hell. According to Isaac those who endure torment in gehenna are chastised, not by divine anger, not by any desire on God’s part to exact retribution – for there is no cruelty or vindictiveness in God – but ‘with the scourge of love’. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart that has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God…But love acts in a double way, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed. Lossky comments:

‘The love of God will be intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.’

Once more, as with Isaac’s description of the compassionate heart, it was as if someone had suddenly opened a window in my mind and flooded my whole interior world with light. Here, I felt, is the only interpretation of judgment and hell that makes any sense. God is love, and his love is inexhaustible; and this inexhaustible love is present everywhere, even in hell. But ‘love acts in a double way.’” (The Spiritual Word of Isaac the Syrian, pp 9-10)

The Ocean of God’s Creative Love (II)

St. Isaac of Nineveh, a Christian mystical theologian of the 7th Century,  who wonderfully paints for us a vivid mural of the ocean of God’s love for us.   In my previous blog, The Ocean of God’s Creative Love (I), we encountered one such portrait of the vastness of God’s love.  St. Isaac uses the image of the ocean to give us a sense of the depth and great expanse of God’s love.   Had he lived in the modern world, he might have appealed to the infinite space of the cosmos.   Here is another quote where he broadens our minds in understanding God’s love.  For God who is love, does not withhold His love from His creatures.  God’s infinite love fills every moment; a drop of God’s love  is no less than the ocean of His love.

“In love did He bring the world into existence;  in love does He guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed  up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.

And since in the New World the Creator’s love rules over all rational nature, the wonder at His mysteries that will be revealed (then) will captivate to itself the intellect of (all) rational beings whom He has created so that they might have delight in Him, whether they be evil or whether they be just.  With this design did He bring them into existence, even though they among themselves have made, after their coming into being, this distinction between the just and the wicked.

Even though this is so, nevertheless in the Creator’s design there is none, from among all who were created and who have come into being – that is, every rational nature – who is to the front or to the back of (God’s) love.  Rather, He has a single equal love which covers the whole extent of rational creation, all things whether visible or invisible: there is no first place or last place with Him in (this) love for any single one of them, as I have said. … there is no before or after in His love towards them: no greater or lesser amount (of love) is to be found with Him at all.

Rather, just like the continual equality of His knowledge, so too is the continual equality of His love; for He knew them (all) before they (ever) become just or sinners.  The Creator and His love did not change because they underwent change after He had brought them into being, nor does His purpose which exists eternally (change).  And if it were otherwise, He would be subject to change just as created beings are – a shocking idea. …  But we know that everyone is agreed to this, that there is no change, or any earlier and later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser (place) in His love, no before or after in His knowledge.

For if it is believed by everyone that the creation came into existence as a result of the Creator’s goodness and love, (then) we know that this (original) cause does not ever diminish or change in the Creator’s nature as a result of the disordered course of creation.”   (THE SECOND PART, pp 160-161)

The Invaluable vs. The Valueless

Our Lord Jesus Christ taught:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  (Matthew 5:44-45)

As recorded in THE PHILOKALIA,  St Peter of Damaskos writes:

“I marvel at God’s wisdom, at how the most indispensable things – air, fire, water, earth – are readily available to all.”

St. Paul the Apostle says in his Letter to the Romans (6:23), words that have become well known to most Christians:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

How hard we work for the valueless; how freely available is the invaluable.  St. Peter of Damaskos continues:

“And not simply this, but things conducive to the soul’s salvation are more accessible than other things, while soul-destroying things are harder to come by. For example, poverty, which anyone can experience, is conducive to the soul’s salvation; while riches, which are not simply at our command, are generally a hindrance. It is the same with dishonor, humiliation, patience, obedience, submission, self-control, fasting, vigils, the cutting off of one’s will, bodily enfeeblement, thankfulness for all things, trials, injuries, the lack of life’s necessities, abstinence from sensual pleasure, destitution, forbearance – in short, all the things conducive to the spiritual life are freely available. No one fights over them. On the contrary, everyone leaves them to those who choose to accept them, whether they have been sought for or have come against our will.”

The Lord Jesus commanded:

“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”  (John 6:27)

Staying with the same text from THE PHILOKALIA, we find St. Peter of Damaskos next says:

“Soul-destroying things, on the other hand, are not so readily within our grasp – things, like wealth, glory, pride, intolerance, power, authority, dissipation, gluttony, excessive sleep, having one’s own way, health and bodily strength, an easy life, a good income, unrestricted hedonism, lavish and costly clothes, and so on. People struggle greatly for these things, but only a few attain them, and in any case the benefit they confer is fleeting. In short, they produce a great deal of trouble and very little enjoyment. For they bring to those who possess them, as well as to those who do not possess them but desire to do so, all manner of distress.”

In the bible, we find these words attributed to St. Paul the apostle:

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4:4-5)

The text from St. Peter of Damaskos concludes with these words:

“None the less, it is not the thing itself, but its misuse, that is evil. For we were given hands and feet, not so that we might steal and plunder and lay violent hands on one another, but so that we might use them in ways agreeable to God.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 28332-56)

The Restorative Justice of God

Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom

“If you want to understand God’s justice in an unjust world, says the prophet Isaiah, this is where you must look. God’s justice is not simply a blind dispersing of rewards for the virtuous and punishments for the wicked, though plenty of those are to be found on the way. God’s justice is a saving, healing, restorative justice, because the God to whom justice belongs is the Creator God who has yet to complete his original plan for creation and whose justice is designed not simply to restore balance to a world out of kilter but to bring glorious completion and fruition the creation, teeming with life and possibility, that he made in the first place. And he remains implacably determined to complete this project through his image-bearing human creatures and, more specifically, through the family of Abraham. […] The Old Testament never tries to give us the sort of picture the philosophers want, that of a static world order with everything explained tidily. At no point does the picture collapse into the simplistic one which so many skeptics assume must be what religious people believe, in which God is the omnicompetent managing director of a very large machine and ought to be able to keep it in proper working order. What we are offered instead is stranger and more mysterious: a narrative of God’s project of justice within a world of injustice. This project is a matter of setting the existing creation to rights rather than scrapping it and doing something else instead. God decides, for that reason, to work through human beings as they are – even though their hearts think only of evil – and through Israel, even though from Abraham onward they make as many mistakes as they do acts of obedience. Both in the grand narrative itself, and in many smaller moments within it, we observe a pattern of divine action, to judge and punish evil and to set bounds to it without destroying the responsibility and agency of human beings themselves; and both to promise and to bring about new moments of grace, events which constitute new creation, however much they are themselves necessarily shot through with ambiguity.” (N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, pgs. 64 & 73)

Jesus healing the hemorrhaging woman

Confession – Admitting One’s Guilt

“But it is the word’s first meaning – confession of sins – that is usually the most difficult. It is never easy admitting to doing something you regret and are ashamed of, an act you attempted to keep secret or denied doing or tried to blame on someone else, perhaps arguing – to yourself as much as others – that it wasn’t actually a sin at all, or wasn’t nearly as bad as some people might claim. In the hard labor of growing up, one of the most agonizing tasks is becoming capable of saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ “(Jim Forest, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, pg. 15)

Romans 12: Challenging Christian and Atheist America

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

St. Paul Preaching Christ Crucified

Christianity often is a challenge to Christians.  Just consider the words above from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:14).   For those who claim religion is a crutch, try supporting yourself on those words.  See if they make life easier in some way.

How many blessings have American Christians composed for their current enemies?

How many Christian politicians would dare compose such blessings?

How many Christians would vote for those who did?

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;

for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

(Romans 12:17-19)

What was St. Paul thinking when he wrote the words above?  Are we to allow ourselves to be persecuted?  What does it mean to treat with nobility those who do evil to us?

Are we to let Hitlers and Stalins and bin Ladens run rampant on the earth?   Murdering millions including children?

Certainly these teachings are not crutches for the weak.  They are rather hurdles and traps that give us little comfort in our decisions.  They do not support ideas of humans demanding retribution or revenge.

Christians will have to look elsewhere for that morality.  St. Paul allows for Christian martyrdom – the imitation of Christ, voluntary suffering – not Islamic fundamentalist “martrydom” which murders innocents and children.  There is no justice based on “an eye for an eye” here.  No just war theory.  No “holy” war.   There is an ethic here and a logic which is not a human demand for justice.  It is based in the logic of the Cross and of the Crucified God.

St. Paul sees in Christ God’s love which is unfathomable deep.   This is not human justice, but divine love.

Can we trust God to exact justice and retribution on enemies?  Are we willing to hand such justice over to Him and accept whatever He chooses to do?

No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them;

if they are thirsty, give them something to drink;

for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

(Romans 12:20-21)

Christ taught us to give food and drink to the least of His brothers and sisters.  St. Paul says we should do the same to our enemies.

This is no crutch for believers to lean on.   It is a challenge to the very ground on which we stand.  We are not to heap fiery coals upon the heads of our enemies, but rather food and drink.  Or reversing the thought we are to heap food and drink on them.  Such love according to St. Paul will be experienced by them as being burned alive.

Replace armies with generous foreign aid to repay our enemies?   Will believers believe this will really work?

St. Paul’s words in Romans 12:14-21 do not make believers comfortable, do not make life more palatable for Christians, do not prop us up by making life easier.

They no doubt for some place burning coals on our own heads.   How many biblical literalists want these words of St. Paul posted in every courthouse or read by military chaplains to the troops or pronounced by our presidents in response to terrorist attacks?

Scriptures often do comfort the afflicted, but they also afflict the comfortable.

If we take St. Paul’s words in Romans 12 to heart, who are the sinners and who are the righteous?  Agreeing to be a Christian, taking up the cross of Christ is not for the faint of heart, nor for those with weak knees, nor for the spineless.

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;  

but his delight is in the law of the LORD,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,

that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away.  

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;  

for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

(My note:  normally, 3 mornings each week I do Matins during which we read the Scripture assigned for the day according to the Orthodox lectionary.   Following the reading of the Scripture, we have a few minutes of silent meditation.   Romans 12 was the Epistle for today, and what I wrote above is the meditation I had while contemplating the words of St. Paul.) 

Publican and Pharisee (1994)

   Sermon Notes:     PUBLICAN AND PHARISEE            February 20, 1994

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’  “And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’  “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”   (Luke 18:9-15)

For those of us Orthodox who have travelled many years on the road to God’s Kingdom, the Parable of the Publican & Pharisee is as familiar as the most common street sign. This is one reading we hear every year as we prepare ourselves to enter in to the Great Fast. We know the message of the Parable – God does accept those who repent and those who are humble. And in turn God turns a deaf ear to those pride filled persons who give themselves high marks for every deed and who harshly judge their neighbors. We are asked to remember this message, not just so we can be better people, but because we believe the goal of all behavior is salvation itself.

The Parables of Jesus give us a glimpse into the very mind of God, a God of judgement and mercy, of righteousness and forgiveness, of perfection and love. This is the God who says, (Isaiah 55:8) “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.

As shocking as anything in the parable is the presence of the Tax collector in the temple – the people of Jesus’ day would assume him to be an unclean sinner, not a temple goer. Not only would they assume that he did not go to the temple, but they would assume it quite proper for him to stay out of the temple. He is after all a sinner, and God is a God of rigtheousness. And the temple is the place of the Holy – the Holy God and God’s holy people. Surely a sinful tax gatherer has not place in the holy temple. Those listening to the Lord would indeed be surprised that such a sinner would dare come into the temple.

But this is part of the spiritual problem that God’s people are often tempted with. Apparently, God’s people at the time of Christ, expected the Messiah to come in order to usher in a new age of righteousness, where God would condemn sinners and judge the ungodly, and destroy all that is not in agreement with their commonly held views of what is good. They looked to God and the Messiah to be the executioners of pure justice on the world. And they saw themselves as being spared this justice and judgement as if any faults they had were merely the results of themselves being victims of the evils of the world.

But the view of many of these people was mistaken. For in their rejection of the world around them, in their hatred for all that was wrong with the world, in their righteous anger against sin and sinners, they forgot that God is love.

There is a truth about the God of love which is paradoxical.

The justice of God is based upon love and mercy. The justice of God can accept the unjust and the ungodly and can judge the virtuous.

Justice is not the highest good. Love is the highest good. Love is God’s greatest strength. In love He is willing to set aside justice in order to forgive, to show mercy, to be patient, to be kind, and even to suffer for us.

The Righteous Man in the Parable is the Pharisee. He rightfully can boast about not sinning, of praying, fasting and tithing. All the people who heard Jesus would have known this. But his righteousness is born out of a harsh judgementalism of himself and his neighbor. Because He believes in the God of justice and judgment, He harshly condemns himself for his own faults. And so feels he can also properly condemn everyone else who does not live up to his standard of piety. He comes to believe He speaks with the authority of God Himself in judging his neighbor.

The unholy and ugly man of the Parable is the Publican, that tax collector who does not even apologize for his sins or offer to make reparations for the wrongs he has done as Zacchaeus did. He stands afar off and calls himself a sinner and begs God’s mercy. And rightfully so, because he doesn’t stand a chance in you know what of laying any claim to heaven. He is a rotten sinner, a theiving, cheating, tax collector, who has gotten rich at the expense and suffering of others. And as St. John Chrysostom says, there is no particular virtue in his calling himself a sinner when in fact he is one!

So if he is such a sinner, which he himself admits, and if he is overly bold to dare to show up in the temple, kind of like Howard Stern showing up at Liturgy one day, how come the Lord says this man is the one whom God accepts?

I believe Archbishop Anthony Bloom got it quite right in his book, BEGINNING TO PRAY, when he said that unlike the harsh Pharisee, the Publican understood mercy. As a man who continually took money from others, and no doubt saw many beg him for mercy, as a man who thrived in a world of competition, cruelty, and heartlessness, he also knew what it was to unexplanably pardon a debtor, to show compassion to a desparate person, to unexpectedly and completely illogically extend a kindness to some poor, hopeless wretch. He the tax gather knew what it is to collect debts, he understood what it was to be in the power of someone else and to have nothing left to do but beg mercy. It is that man, that tax collecting sinner, who could believe in and hope for a God who is merciful, kind, and forgiving. A God who for no deserved reason, pardons all debts, purely because He is love. It is the man who understands mercy because he has granted it to some undeserving wretch, who is able to believe in the God of the Bible. Such a man can understand the great power wielded by one who is able to forgive a debt. Such a person is able to pray to God, and to go forth and show love and mercy to others because he knows God loves and forgives him for no deserving reason.

My friends, let us flee the pride of the Pharisee and let us embrace the tears and humility of the Publican. Let us truly love one another. Remember, Prayer is not an optional exercise in piety. Prayer is your relationship with God. How you pray and what you pray for reveals that relationship. If prayer is merely self assertion before God, then one is not in need of God’s mercy, grace, salvation. If one does not need anything from God, there is nothing to be received.

There are others who need your love and forgiveness even though they don’t deserve it. You need to give your love and forgiveness to them in order to open yourselves to God. As we move toward the celebration of Pascha and the complete forgiveness of our sins, the cancelling of all of our debts, the removal of all punishment for wrong doing, let us understand the great mercy and love of God, and so let us go forth and love and forgive each other, and show mercy to every person we meet. Amen.