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.

 

The Unforgiving Servant

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

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

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

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

God Moved by Compassion, Forgives

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

 

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

(Matthew 18:23-35)

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

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

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

The Harsh and Inhumane Servant

The Gospel Parable of the Forgiving Master and the Unforgiving Servant, Matthew 18:23-35

At that time, Jesus said to Peter,

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.

So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

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

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) writes:

Great is God’s loving kindness and beyond all telling: when the servant practiced his wiles in playing the suppliant, he released him from his obligation; but when he saw him proving harsh and inhumane, then he revoked his characteristic generosity for the future to show him through the events themselves that he had wronged him more than he had his fellow servant. Just as he had thrown his fellow servant into prison until he paid what was owing, so likewise the master handed him over to the torturers until he should repay his debt in full. These words, however, about talents and denarii he did not speak idly; instead, his words are about sin and the immensity of our failings, so that we may learn that, though we are due to pay a debt to the Lord for our countless faults, we receive from him a remission of them on account of his ineffable love. If, however, we prove harsh and inhumane towards our fellow servants and our peers and those who share our nature with us, and do not cancel the faults they commit against us, but rather act badly on the grounds of those peccadillos (after all, whatever the difference between a hundred denarii and ten thousand talents, so much the greater the difference between our sins against the Lord and those done us by our peers), then we will call down on our own heads the Lord’s anger, and for the debts of which we have received remission we will force him to require strict accounting under torture. You see, for us to learn precisely that the Lord constructed this parable for the benefit of our souls, listen to this epilogue: ‘This is what your Father in heaven will do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother his failings from his heart.’ Great is the gain from this parable, if only we are prepared to heed it; how could we extend as much forgiveness as is extended to us by the Lord? Whereas we extend forgiveness to our fellow servants – and then only if we are in the mood – it is from the Lord that we in turn receive remission. Notice also the precision of the expression: he did not simply say, If you did not forgive people their sins, but what? ‘If each of you does not forgive his brother his failings from his heart’. Notice how he wants even our hearts to have the good fortune to enjoy peace and quiet, our thinking to be undisturbed and rid of every passion, and ourselves to demonstrate great loving kindness towards our neighbor. Elsewhere too you can hear him saying this: ‘If you forgive people their failings, your heavenly Father will also forgive you’. So let us not think when we do this that it is to someone else we are doing a good turn or bestowing a great favor on them. It is we ourselves, after all, who reap the benefit of our good deed, and accord great gain to ourselves from the action, just as, if we fail to do it, we likewise do not manage to wrong them but lay up for ourselves the unspeakable torment of hell fire.” (Homilies on Genesis 18-45,  pp 178-180)

 

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 18:23-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Parable of the Unforgiving Forgiven Servant

The Unforgiving Forgiven Servant  (Matthew 18:23-35)

At that time, Jesus said to Peter, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same   servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and   besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you   besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Commenting on this parable, St. John Chrysostom wrote:

Because the man who did not forgive his debtor ten denarii did not injure his fellow slave but made himself liable to the debt of ten thousand talents of which he had formerly been absolved. Therefore, when we do not forgive others, we do not forgive ourselves. Let us not, then, merely say to God: ‘Do not remember our sins,’ but let all of us address to ourselves the words: ‘Let us not remember the offenses of our fellow slaves committed against us.’ ( St. John Chrysostom     Homilies on St. John 1-47, Vol. 33, pg 400)

Forgiving From the Heart

In commenting on Matthew 18:21-35 (the unforgiving servant), St. John Chrysostom focuses on the idea of forgiveness of sins taught by Jesus:  

The Prodigal Son embraced by His Forgiving Father

These words, however, about talents and denarii he did not speak idly; instead, his words are about sin and the immensity of our failings, so that we may learn that, though we are due to pay a debt to the Lord for our countless faults, we receive from him a remission of them on account of his ineffable love. If, however, we prove harsh and inhumane towards our fellow servants and our peers and those who share our nature with us, and do not cancel the faults they commit against us, but rather act badly on the grounds of those peccadilloes…then we will call down on our own heads the Lord’s anger, and for the debts of which we have received remission we will force him to require strict accounting under torture…Notice also the precision of the expression: he did not simply say, If you do not forgive people their sins, but what? “ ‘If each of you does not forgive his brother his failings from his heart.’” Notice how he wants even our hearts to have the good fortune to enjoy peace and quiet, our thinking to be undisturbed and rid of every passion, and ourselves to demonstrate great kindness towards our neighbor. (St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 82, pg 179)

Facing God’s Final Judgment

Giotto's Last Judgment (1305AD)
Giotto's Last Judgment (1305AD)

Among certain Christian groups, (especially apocalyptic, end times and sectarian traditionalists), it is addictively popular to conjure up images of the Last Judgment with sinners and unbelievers being subject to eternally excruciating tortures as they pay for their sins; all this despite proclaiming that Christ died for our sins and paid the price on the cross that God should be exacting from sinners.   As St. Paul wrote:

 “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. …  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us”  (Romans 5:6-8 RSV).

Paul’s words seem to mean not so much that Christ died in place of us (a substitution) but that He died on our behalf in order to spare us all from the coming judgment of God. 

St. Matthew in his Gospel offers us a few other images about the Last Judgment which certainly put the basis for God’s judgment against humanity in terms very different than sin and unbelief.

First there is the rather well known imagery of the Last Judgment Parable in Matthew 25:31-46 in which the sheep and goats are separated before being judged.  In this parable however it is not sin which leads to condemnation by the Judge, but the failure of people to minister to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters – the failure to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless, or to visit the sick and imprisoned.   The judgment is not based upon committing sin but rather upon omitting acts of charity and ministry when they were in the power of people to do so.   Righteousness in the parable is equated not with sinlessness, nor even with repentance, but rather with compassion, charity, kindness, mercy and ministry. 

Another imagine of the Last Judgment can be found in Matthew 18:23-35, the Parable of the unforgiving servant.  The king forgives the debt of a servant who owes him a fortune so large it could not possible be repaid, but then the forgiven servant refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow servant who owed him a significant but certainly repayable amount of money.   St. Matthew wrote:

At that time, Jesus said to Peter, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. … Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you   besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my    heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

crucifixion2The king’s final judgment of the servant is clearly based upon the servant’s willingness or unwillingness to forgive  his fellow servant.  The image is one of the servant being forgiven by his Lord and King (not his equal!) but his own unwillingness to forgive his fellow servant (his equal).   Christ concludes the parable saying God will not forgive us at the Last Judgment if we are unforgiving and unmerciful.  It is not sin and unbelief that will cause the judgment but our willingness (or unwillingness) to forgive and be merciful.

These two parables in Matthew’s Gospel give us additional insight into God’s final judgment and move that judgment away from simply being about condemning sinners.  God in Christianity is not the enforcer of karma, but is Lord of the universe and can lay aside justice in an act of love, forgiveness and mercy, which He demonstrated His willingness to do by sending His Son into the world to die on the cross for us.  This is an act of God’s love for us and His desire to overcome death and our own sinfulness.

The failure to forgive, the failure to be merciful, the failure to be charitable and compassionate:  these are the failures that bring about God’s judgment and wrath according to Jesus Christ our Lord.   Images of God venting justice and revenge on sinners and unbelievers do not reveal the full picture of God’s Last Judgment, nor are they faithful to the images Christ gave to us through His own teachings.   To have such a narrow view of vengeful God is to risk falling under the same condemnation as Job’s “friends” (Job 42:7-8) who were so certain that God’s judgments are always just and who end up condemning rather than comforting God’s servant only to find themselves condemned by God.