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.

Humility as Being Human

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness Sunday: Starting the Journey Home

Great Lent is often metaphorically described as a journey.  It is not a journey that we embark on by ourselves, but we do sojourn with our community of fellow believers.  It is a strange journey though.  Often when groups start on a sojourn more people begin the journey than finish it, as some always drop out along the way.  Lent is not like that.  For today we will begin the Lenten journey, officially it begins at Forgiveness Vespers tonight.  And while we all should be there to wish each other a good journey, sadly only a few well wishers will show up.  But at Pascha, the end of the journey, suddenly everyone wants to be there even if they didn’t sojourn at all.

The Lenten Journey is strange for another reason – for all of the spiritual hymns suggest that we are not beginning our journey today, but rather are headed home.  We are now far away from home, we are in exile in this land we call home – like the Prodigal Son, we find ourselves far away from home.  Where we are is a land of exile, even if earth is the only planet we’ve ever been on – and yes even the United States of America turns out to be a land of exile, not paradise.  And we only have to pay attention to the news to remember this – this is a land in which we use guns to murder our children.

But out true home is God’s paradise, and that is where we are headed, to the kingdom of God.    We are not leaving home, but going home.  And the foods we will eat on the way – Lenten foods – are not foreign foods, but the foods of paradise.  We have been away from home so long that we have forgotten what God gave to us.   Our Lenten sojourn is to revive in us that sense that we are in exile here and we need to find our way home, to our heavenly Father’s home.  In the Narnia books, if you read them, you might remember that the witch gave the children a candy delight which they loved so much that they forgot their true home.  That is the world which seduces us into wanting this to be the only world there is.  We think America is great again, so we aren’t even looking for our true home.

In a few hours we will embark on that noble journey which will last 7 weeks.  Few of us are ever willing to travel for seven weeks to get somewhere.  But Great Lent is a 7 week sojourn which is worth every minute, if we make it so.   We will be challenged by the duties we are to perform – forgiving one another, fasting, repenting, praying, maintaining sobriety, loving, being spiritually vigilant, attending the weekday church services.

Sometimes when we think about this great voyage of Lent, the image which comes to mind is that Pascha is all light, the light at the end of the tunnel.  The tunnel which we must pass through to get to the light is darkness.  This is often how we feel about Great Lent.  But the image is not correct.  In today’s Epistle we heard these words:

Romans 13:11-14:4
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.

The imagery of today’s epistle is not that we are moving into darkness, but rather we are putting the darkness behind us.  The darkness is ending and the light is dawning on us.

In Lent we are moving into the Light.  So one of the hymns of Vespers tonight says:

The Lenten Spring shines forth, the flower of repentance!

Let us cleanse ourselves from all evil, crying out to the Giver of Light:

Glory to You, O lover of mankind!

We are to awaken from our spiritual hibernation and joyfully embrace the Light of Great Lent who is Jesus Christ.

One image to keep in mind – it is said in dealing with alcoholism and other addiction that the definition of insanity is to do the same things over and over but to expect that one will get a different result.  Nothing changes unless we do something different.  Great Lent is the time to stop the insanity, to stop our addictions and to do things differently:  repent, forgive, pray and love.

Forgive others from your heart and God will forgive you.   Treat people as if you have forgiven them.  Do it not to change them but to change yourself.

This past week in our country we had yet another instance of gun violence in which 17 people died in in one shooting incident.  A  young man with a gun inflicted untold pain on so many families in Parkland, Florida, but really across our nation.

Today is forgiveness Sunday and I want us to think about another story of a young person who lost her life to violence in an event that happened over 100 years ago in Italy.

Maria Goretti, an 11 year old Italian girl who was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.  Maria’s father died when she was 9 years old, and her mother and siblings lived in poverty, sharing a house with another family.  On July 5, 1902, Maria was home sewing and watching her younger siblings when the teenage son of the family whom they shared the home with attacked Maria with the intent of raping her.  Maria resisted her assailant and he stabbed her 14 times.  She lived about 24 hours after the assault and before she died she forgave her attacker who because he was a teenager was spared the death sentence and instead was sentenced to 30 years in prison.   While in prison, her assailant had a vision of Maria who came to him to say she had forgiven him.  She handed him a bunch of lilies but as soon as he took them in his hand they wilted and died.  He repented of his sin against Maria and when after 30 years  he was released from prison he became a lay monk and even attended the service in which Maria was declared to be a saint.

We are to forgive those who trespass against us – we forgive the sinner, we don’t forgive the trespass, for we cannot always undo the trespass.  Maria forgave her assailant but not what he did to her, for in the end he murdered her.

Maria understood the words of today’s Gospel that we are to forgive.  Maybe you feel someone you know has offended you and you can’t forgive them, maybe they even stabbed you 14 times by their deeds and comments.  Eleven year old Maria Goretti shows us it is possible to forgive such a person.

Our sojourn begins with forgiveness.

The Christmas Spirit: Time for Reconciliation

 

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  (Matthew 5:21-24)

In the 4th Century, Evagrios of Pontus, a Christian monk, was a prolific writer concerning the spiritual life.  Unfortunately, at times his theology drifted away from what the Church officially taught and approved through the Ecumenical Councils.  Nevertheless, his writings on the spiritual life were very influential and his spiritual advice continued to be passed down through Christian history.  In the short few stanzas below, Evagrios offers us advice about what we should do before going to Communion: forgive and be reconciled with your fellow parishioners.

God is in want of nothing

and shows no particular favoritism,

but he certainly did not want to receive that man

who came to him with a sacrificial gift

until he had first been reconciled with his neighbor

who had a grievance against him.

So think, and discern carefully

how you ought to offer spiritual incense to God

on the altar of your spirit,

so that it will indeed be an acceptable gift.”

(The Book of Mystical Chapters,Translated by Anthony McGuckin, pp 36-37)

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”  (Luke 2:14)

The birth of Christ is announced by angels with a message of peace among people with whom God is pleased.  Where does that message of peace begin?  In your heart, as you think about your neighbor, fellow parishioner, relative or co-worker.  Let the peace of Christmas take root in your heart this year and establish that peace and reconciliation which the Nativity of Christ means for us who believe.

 

Confession as Love and Communion

“Our culture encourages us from an early age to be strong and assertive, to handle matters alone. Yet, for the spiritual wisdom of the early desert, such a way is false; it is, in fact, the way of the Devil. For ‘we are members one of another’ (Rom. 12:5), not islands unto ourselves. And the Orthodox spiritual way proposes a variety of contexts within which we may begin to open our hearts and affirm the communion that exists among us: these include the sacramental way of confessing to a parish priest and the spiritual way of sharing with an experienced elder, whether male or female. People need others because often the wounds that they feel are too deep to admit to themselves; sometimes, the evil is too painful to confront alone. The sign, then, according to the Orthodox spiritual way, that one is on the right track is the ability to share with someone else. This is, of course, precisely the essence of the sacrament of confession or reconciliation. Yet repentance (or metanoia) should not be seen in terms of remorse, but rather in terms of reconciliation, restoration, and reintegration. Confession is not some kind of transaction or deal; it defies mechanical definition and can never be reduced in a juridical manner merely to the – albeit significant – act of absolution.

Confession is not some narcissistic self-reflection. Sin is always understood in Orthodox spirituality as a rupture in the ‘I-Thou’ relationship of the world; otherwise metanoia could easily lead to paranoia. Instead, genuine confession always issues in communion; it is ultimately the ability to utter, together with at least one person, ‘Our Father’. It is the sacrament of the Eucharist, the mystery of communion, lived out day by day.” (John Chryssavgis in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p 160)

Reconciliation and Holy Communion

Sts Peter and Paul

Preparing ourselves to receive Christ in Holy Communion requires us to bring peace to our own soul.   We may not be able to bring peace to the world, but we have an ability to bring peace to our selves, to our hearts.  In the following comment, St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) exhorts us to make ourselves be at peace with our fellow parishioners.   He speaks about one’s enemies, but it is obvious in what he writes that he is not talking about some distant, external  enemy of the nation.  He is referring to a friend, fellow parishioner, acquaintance, or someone you interact with on a personal level who has in some way offended you or caused you hurt.

“You are going to receive your king in communion. And when your king comes into your soul, it must be very tranquil and still. Your thoughts must be marked with the deepest peace. But you were treated most unjustly and you cannot bear to put aside your anger.

Why, then, do you do even greater wrong and more serious harm to yourself? Whatever your enemy may do to you, he will not treat you as badly as you treat yourself if you refuse to be reconciled to him and if you keep trampling underfoot the laws of God. Did your foe outrage you? Tell me, is that why you outrage God? To refuse to be reconciled to the enemy who has caused you pain is not the act of a man who is taking revenge on his foe. It is the act of a man who is outraging God, who gave us these laws.

Therefore, do not look back on the foe who is your fellow servant; do not look back on how deeply he has harmed you. Rather, put God before your mind and the fear of him which you should feel. Force yourself to be reconciled to the enemy whose countless evil acts have caused you pain. Then, consider that the greater the violence you will endure in your own soul, the greater will be the honor you will enjoy from God, who gave these commandments. Just as you receive him here with great honor, so will he receive you in heaven with great glory. He will give you an infinitely richer reward because you obeyed his laws. May all of you come to this reward by the grace and loving-kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom be to the Father glory, honor, power, and worship, together with the Holy Spirit for ever and ever, world without end. Amen.” (On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, p 183)

Images from the Prodigal Son

Typikon DecodedThe second of the Pre-Lenten Sundays is that of the Prodigal Son based on the Gospel Lesson of Luke 15:11-32. 

According to Archimandrite Job Getcha, THE TYPIKON DECODED, this Gospel in a more ancient tradition was read on the second Sunday of Great Lent in Jerusalem.  The Prodigal Son became a pre-Lenten Gospel lesson in Constantinople in the 9th-10th Century.  It was mentioned as being used in Palestine by St. John of Damascus in the 8th Century. 

I found a few of the hymns from the Saturday evening Vespers to contain interesting imagery, somewhat only tangential to the Gospel lesson.  The first has a theme of planting and the harvest.  The earth is portrayed as being “rich and fertile” – in other words, there is nothing wrong with the earth we live on.  But all that we humans planted on earth were “the seeds of sin” and thus could harvest nothing but “the sheaves of evil.”  In the hymn we humans fail to use sorrow/repentance to properly thresh the harvest, so now we have to beg God to allow His love to “become the breeze to winnow the straw of our worthless deeds.”  God has to do the work that we should be doing for ourselves.

“RICH AND FERTILE WAS THE EARTH ALLOTTED TO US, BUT ALL WE PLANTED WERE THE SEEDS OF SIN. WE REAPED THE SHEAVES OF EVIL WITH THE SICKLE OF LAZINESS; WE FAILED TO PLACE THEM ON THE THRESHING‑FLOOR OF SORROW.

NOW WE BEG YOU, LORD, ETERNAL MASTER OF THE HARVEST: MAY YOUR LOVE BECOME THE BREEZE TO WINNOW THE STRAW OF OUR WORTHLESS DEEDS.

MAKE US LIKE PRECIOUS WHEAT TO BE STORED IN HEAVEN, AND SAVE US ALL!”

The hymn ties in the theme of Adam being cast out of the Garden of Eden by God and being sent to cultivate the ground of earth out of which Adam had originally been fashioned (Genesis 3:23).  The earth is fertile but humans end up planting only the seeds of sin.  But in the end of the hymn there is a prayer for God the Lord of the Harvest (Matthew 9:37) not to accept any offering we might make from the fruit of our labors, but rather to transform us humans so that we might be “like precious wheat to be stored in heaven.”  (see Matthew 13:30).  No longer is the fruit of our labor the issue, but rather we become the harvest which God is really concerned about and which He will store in heaven.  The hymn is a metaphorical marvel with the most interesting images.

“BRETHREN, OUR PURPOSE IS TO KNOW THE POWER OF GOD’S GOODNESS, FOR WHEN THE PRODIGAL SON ABANDONED HIS SIN, HE HASTENED TO THE REFUGE OF HIS FATHER.

THAT GOOD MAN EMBRACED HIM AND WELCOMED HIM: HE KILLED THE FATTED CALF AND CELEBRATED WITH HEAVENLY JOY!    

LET US LEARN FROM THIS EXAMPLE TO OFFER THANKS TO THE FATHER WHO LOVES ALL PEOPLE, AND TO THE VICTIM, THE GLORIOUS SAVIOR OF OUR SOULS!”

In the above hymn, it is interesting that the Prodigal’s father is referred to as “that good man” who celebrates “with heavenly joy” – obviously the Gospel lesson is being read more as a parable than as an allegory.  For reading the father as a good man indicates he is not God the Father, an interpretation which is actually closer to the Gospel text itself.  In the Gospel parable that Jesus teaches, the Prodigal says he has sinned both against heaven and against his father (Luke 15:18, 21) which would tend to indicate that his father is his earthly father and the sin against heaven (God) is an additional offense (the Prodigal has offended both his dad and God).  We tend unthinkingly to slide into allegorical interpretation and assume the father of the parable is God the father.  But the hymn calls upon us to imitate the Prodigal’s father and “to offer thanks to the Father who loves all people”. This is a surprising take on a Gospel lesson we have so totally allegorized that we never think of ourselves as imitating the father of the parable.

 Indeed the father sacrificing the fatted calf in the parable is an offering of thanksgiving to God;  thus the Prodigal’s dad does not represent God the Father but is the earthly father of the Prodigal and his older brother.   The parable’s father, 2 sons and servants are all humans under the dominion of God.  The hymn extracts from the Gospel a number of lessons we sometimes ignore.  The hymn tells us to imitate the thanksgiving of the Prodigal’s father!  We Orthodox almost exclusively these days think we are supposed to imitate the Prodigal’s repentance, but if the Gospel pericope is read as parable (and not pure allegory) we are being taught to imitate the thanksgiving of the parable’s father as well. We are to be thankful when lapsed parishioners and sinners return or turn to the Church.  We are not to be like the older brother and judge them as fallen, but to be like the father and welcome them as full members of the family.  We are to imitate the parable’s father and try to reconcile the faithful with the lapsed.

The hymn tradition in our Church has not so narrowly pigeon-holed the parable as we sometimes do by assuming it has only a (pre-)Lenten theme.  For beyond the usual theme of personal repentance, the parable of the Prodigal Son and Forgiving Father also calls us to thanksgiving, to forgiveness and to reconciliation.  If Lent is only about fasting, then it becomes very self-centered which is just the opposite of what Lent is about.  For Lent is about learning to love God and love neighbor.   We are to love as the prodigal’s father loved in order to be reconciled with those from whom we have become alienated – even family members and those who have offended us.  This is the true story of Great Lent.  We are to become thankful for those who repent, seek reconciliation, salvation and forgiveness.  The Lord God reminds us about the true nature of fasting through the Holy Prophet Isaiah (58:6-7):

 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

Is not this the lesson of the parable of the Prodigal Son:  loosing the bonds of wickedness of the Prodigal and of his older brother.   It is a year of jubilee  parable – forgiving debts, letting the oppressed go free rather than oppressing them, breaking the yokes that bind us, sharing our bread with the hungry even with a prodigal son and brother who squandered his riches.  We are not to avoid our brothers and sisters who suffer as a result of their own sins, but we are to be reconciled with them should they ask.  They may come back as hired servants and not children, but they are to be embraced even on those terms for wishing to be reconciled to God and neighbor.

The other surprise of the hymn is the unexpected reference in the last line of the hymn to Christ “the victim” to whom we are to direct our thanks just like the Prodigal’s father does to God.  This very much ties in with the opening line of the above hymn which says the purpose of the parable is to help us learn the power of the goodness of God.  It doesn’t focus on what today we assume the parable is about: the repentance of the prodigal child.  Rather it directs our attention to the power of God’s goodness.  We can return to God, not because of our repentance but because of the sacrifice of Christ.  Christ has made reconciliation possible.

Finally, we take a look at the Ikos hymn from Matins for the Prodigal Son.   In this hymn (below) we are reminded that when we listen to the Gospel lesson proclaimed in church we are hearing the very voice of the Savior.  These are the words by which He chose to teach us.  Christ Himself speaks to us through the Scriptures so we really need to listen, paying careful heed to what we hear.

“Every day our Savior teaches us with His own voice: so let us listen to the Scriptures on the Prodigal Son who regained wisdom, and let us follow the good example of his repentance with faith, and with humility of heart cry out to Him who knows all secrets: 

We have sinned against You, merciful Father, and are not worthy ever again to be called Your children as before. 

But since by nature You are the Lover of mankind, RECEIVE ME A PENITENT AND MAKE ME AS ONE OF YOUR HIRED SERVANTS.”

The hymn points to another theme of the parable: humility.  We are not asking God to restore us as His children – our sins have proven we are not worthy to be called the children of God.  Rather we can through repentance seek only to become like God’s hired servants.  In other words we embarrassingly have to acknowledge we don’t do God’s will because we love Him,  but only seek God because He rewards us – that is how hired servants behave!  We are not God’s children loyal to Him for no other reason but love.  NO, our true wish is to get paid for what we do – we want to get into heaven and avoid hell.

The parable calls us to be brutally honest about our motives!  God does accept us even on those terms just as the forgiving father welcomed his prodigal son.   We can even repent of this self-serving attitude and humbly teach ourselves to serve Him in love not for reward.  We can imitate Christ and learn how to be His loving children by denying ourselves and taking up our crosses to follow Him.

Praying (XI)

This is the 23rd  blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Praying (X).

Prayer means reconciliation with God.  This in turn implies that there is a proper attitude for approaching God in prayer: humility, admitting one’s sins, seeking God’s forgiveness, repenting and thus making the effort to change one’s heart and way of life.

 “Do not neglect prayer: it is then in particular that God will be reconciled with you when you on your own account appeal to him, when you present a mind purified, thoughts that are alert, when you do not make idle petitions, as many people do, their tongue saying the words while their soul wanders in every direction—through the house, the marketplace, the city streets.”  (St. John Chrysostom, OLD TESTAMENT HOMILIES Vol 3, p 60)

Prayer means reconciliation with your enemies. Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”  If we can reconcile to others, we can eliminate our enemies!

In prayer we bring ourselves to pray for the world, including those who have offended us or whom we don’t particularly like.

“Abba Zeno said, ‘If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that he asks.’“  (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers,  Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , kindle Loc. 3662-65)

Prayer is an action we are to do at all times and places.  We are to pray unceasingly, and we do this if we constantly remember God.  When we become so involved in our daily lives that we forget God, then we forget to pray as well.

St. Maria Skobtsova

“Those who desire to free themselves from their corruption ought to pray not merely from time to time but at all times; they should give themselves always to prayer, keeping watch over their intellect even when outside places of prayer. When someone is trying to purify gold, and allows the fire of the furnace to die down even for a moment, the material which he is purifying will harden again. So, too, a man who merely practices the remembrance of God from time to time loses through lack of continuity what he hopes to gain through his prayer. It is a mark of one who truly loves holiness that he continually burns up what is worldly in his heart through practicing the remembrance of God, so that little by little evil is consumed in the fire of this remembrance and his soul completely recovers its natural brilliance with still greater glory.”  (St Diadochos of Photiki, THE PHILOKALIA , Kindle Loc. 8687-96)

Next: Praying (XII)

Zacchaeus: A Contagious Change of Heart?

The Gospel lesson of Luke 19:1-10 is a parable which is wonderfully adaptable to many lesson regrading discipleship and the Christian life.  The Gospel parable speaks to us not only about the change which must occur within our hearts for us to follow Christ, but suggests to us that the change of heart also changes our relationships with everyone else.

“It’s an epiphany for him, and in a funny, upside-down way, he is singled out by Jesus much as Jesus was singled out by God at his own baptism. Jesus, at his baptism, is identified as the son of God, and beloved; so Zacchaeus is called on by name, a name which means ‘innocent’ or ‘clean’ – not at all how he is perceived by those around him – and clearly, he gets the message that he is beloved. From that sense of beloved-ness comes his change of heart, his metanoia. It is left for us to imagine what comes from that change. But I can only think that it will ultimately change the heart of the rest of Jericho, as well. That this change of personal fiscal policy on the part of the chief tax collector is going to change the attitudes of those around him.” (Sister Katrina – Nun of New Skete, GOSPEL REFLECTIONS, pg. 46)

See also Zacchaeus – A Change of Heart

John 3:16

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

that whoever believes in him

should not perish but have eternal life”  (John 3:16).

But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ dies for us (Rom. 5:8): God, on the contrary, shows the extraordinary degree of his love for us in that the death of Christ happened not for righteous people but for sinners.[…]After  all, if while enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more now that we are reconciled shall we be saved by his life (Rom. 5:10): if while adversaries and enemies we were granted such care that he gave over to death the Son for us, how could it be that with reconciliation made we do not have a share in eternal life?”  [Robert Charles Hill  (Tr.), Theodoret Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul   Vol 1, pg.71]