How Can I Tell if I Have Forgiven Someone?

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

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

(from In Communion, Issue 42: Summer 2006)

Forgiveness and Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sunday of the Loving Father

A connoisseur of fine wine pays attention to the details of the texture and flavor of the wine.  Because Jesus teaches us using parables, we have to become connoisseurs of the stories, noting the various hints and contours of what Christ has created for us in order for us to fully savor what He is revealing to us.  His parables are not meant to be guzzled or gulped down but rather are to be slowly imbibed in order to experience and enjoy the complex and deep lessons.

Though the Gospel text Luke 15:11-32 is commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it probably is better termed the Parable of the Loving Father.  Note how Christ starts the parable:  “A certain man had two sons..” – the “man” of the parable, the father of the two sons, really is the central character in the story.  Christ doesn’t begin by saying  there were two brothers or that there was a man who had a father and an older brother.  Christ is telling a parable about the man, the father, the character who holds the whole parable together.  The story is like an icon triptych with the two brothers being the side panels, but the father being the central panel and the main focus of the triptych.

There are many details in the parable we could focus on to understand either of the two brothers, and in Orthodoxy the most frequent reference point is the younger brother coming to his senses and deciding to return to his father – an image of repentance in these pre-Lenten days.

One thing we might explore is how what the younger son asks from his father compares with the Lord’s prayer – both are addressed to the Father.  The younger son says: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”  Contrast this with the Lord’s prayer in which we say:   “Our Father … thy will be done … give us this day our daily bread.”  In the Lord’s prayer, we ask for enough bread for the day not for everything our Father might give us in a lifetime in one day!   The Prodigal is not interested in his father’s will and certainly he is not concerned about having his needs met for the day, he just wants to self-indulge right now.

When the younger son returns to his father, he says:    ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy (Greek: axios) to be called your son.’  The Prodigal Son acknowledges his own unworthiness to be called a son.  He uses the word “Axios” which is used of the candidate at an ordination service in the Orthodox Church.    We also see in this the son defining in his mind the nature of “sonship” – it is about worthiness, about earning the position (this actually is also going to be the same attitude as the older brother – both brothers misunderstand their father and his love and the nature of sonship!  They don’t see the father giving them his love, they see themselves as earning their way and thus deserving  his  gifts – they really both are hired servants).   The Prodigal realizes as a result of his own behavior,  he is not a very worthy child, certainly not worthy of his father’s favor.  He thinks that at least maybe he can be a hired employee of his father.  But he has a very distorted view of what it is to be child of his father.  He sees his father as the big daddy with the big bucks – the man who has all the power and he is trying to wrest some of that power to his own advantage.  This by the way is what many ancient people thought was how to approach the many gods who infested their world – manipulate them to get things from them.  They didn’t love their gods, they used them to get what they wanted from them, and so too the gods used the people for their own purposes and needs.  No love in that religion.

But note that the younger son does not ask for forgiveness from his father nor does he do anything to seek reconciliation with his father.  In his mind there is no way he can earn sonship back so he skips seeking reconciliation and looks to get hired on which is how he basically sees his father; besides he has already taken all the property and wealth that he could claim.   He fails to understand what it means to be a child.  What he still doesn’t understand is his father’s love is given freely, it is not earned, it is not deserved.  In the whole parable, the father has not run out of love for his son.  The son may have taken away half his father’s property and all the wealth he, the son, is entitled to, but he has not taken away all the father’s love nor could he ever squander all the love his father has.  The father is still full of love which he eagerly gives to the son.  That should be obvious in the parable. The father continues to treat the son as son and shows that for the father sonship is a relationship of love that can’t be lost or taken away.  If being a child is defined in terms of inheritable property this young man is in trouble, but this father has little concern for the property value which has been lost.  That is nothing compared to the relationship he has with his child.

Quite literally: The father has nothing but love for his child.  He has nothing but love to give to his child.

When the father talks to the slaves (Greek: doulos), he commands them as slaves (doulos) to dress the son and adorn him and prepare a feast for the son.  The father has plenty of slaves who have to obey him, but he is not interested in another obedient slave.  He wants a son, a child not another hired servant.  The father loves his son and the father clearly treats his slaves like slaves.  But the father wants this child to be his child, not just a hired servant.

The older brother also has trouble understanding what it is to be a child of his father.   First, I would note that the slaves in the parable do understand there is a difference between themselves and the brothers.   The slaves say, “your brother has returned”.  Your father is celebrating the return of your brother.  The servants know they are servants, but this missing child of the father, the prodigal, he still is his father’s son.  The slaves know there is a difference between themselves as servants and a child of the master, but the father’s own children don’t understand this distinction.  They act as if they are nothing more than hirelings themselves.

When the elder brother hears the party for his brother in full swing,he refuses to go into the father to talk to him but  rather, makes the father come out to him (In effect, he treats his father like his servant!  Come here, I want to talk to you!) (Note the father also went out to greet the prodigal on his return – the father is willing to leave his home, to leave everything behind, in order to maintain or restore the relationship with his children).  The elder brother says “these many years I have served (douleuo) you, I have never transgressed one of your commandments.”  The elder brother sees his years of living with his father as nothing more than servitude.  The elder brother whines that for all these years I have been your slave and totally obeyed you, though I resent it.   He has not been a son acting in love but a slave.  And it bears repeating, the father doesn’t want another obedient slave, he has plenty of those.   He wants a son, a child, one who shares his life, his love and all his earthly goods.   [St Symeon the New Theologian, in one of his poems has God saying this: “… ‹to learn› precisely that I am God creator of all things, (Sir 24.8) to know and understand that the person sitting in the deepest pit has been reconciled to Me, (Ps 87.7) and converses with Me without mediation like a friend to a friend, (Ex 33.11) having passed beyond the rank of hired servant and the fear of slavery, serving Me tirelessly, attending Me with love, associating with Me by obedience to the commandments. I do not mean those who serve Me as employees, nor again those who come to Me as slaves, but I speak of those who are my friends, familiars, and my sons by their actions.”   (Divine Eros, Kindle Location 9096-9108)   A very similar theme to what we see of the loving Father in the ‘Prodigal’ parable.]

The Elder brother harshly accuses the younger brother of consorting with prostitutes (15:30) yet early on (15:13) all the text says is that the younger son lived as a prodigal (wasteful, extravagant, excessive, self-indulgent) life.  The text doesn’t list any sins of the intemperate younger brother.  The older brother is sure that his younger brother is not merely foolish but a sinner and evil.

The father accepts his lost son back, but the elder son sounds just like the Pharisees at the beginning of this chapter in  Luke 15:1-6  –

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’

The elder brother is a Pharisee – he accuses his father of receiving sinners and eating with them.  The father is the good shepherd who goes out to seek and find the lost and celebrate being reconciled with them, no matter why they left to begin with.

The father says to his elder son:  Child (teknon, child, but this time doesn’t call him  my son!), you are always with me and own everything  (note in vs 12 the father divided the proper and gave it to them (autois in the plural, not just to the younger son but to both sons!).  The father is saying,  you are my son, not my slave!   Be merry and rejoice!   I don’t want your obedience I want your love and joy.  I want to be with you.  The father says, by law all that I have is yours – but what he wants his son to have is love and joy which no law could make him accept or do!  The father wants a relationship with his child that is based in love not law.  The father is quite willing to do whatever the law requires, but his heart is in loving his children.

There are many lessons for us to learn from this parable and we can like wine connoisseurs savor the many lessons offered to us.   We might also think about applying the lessons to ourselves.  Which of three people in Christ’s parable are you?

The prodigal child – initially wasteful and foolish, who repents and begs mercy but who doesn’t believe he could ever be a child of the father because he is unworthy.  The father loves him anyway and embraces him despite his faults and despite the fact that he can’t buy or earn the father’s favor.

The elder son – diligent and hardworking, faithful, but lacking in mercy, love and forgiveness, but who also thinks the father’s love must be earned.  He too doesn’t s believe the father freely gives his love.  Thus he is angry that the father shows himself to be loving, merciful, forgiving and generous to both his undeserving brother and to himself.  He doesn’t believe in the father’s grace or love.  He won’t forgive his brother or his father or himself.  Really he rejects his father freely giving him or his brother good things.  The elder brother is saying, “I earned your favor, you aren’t giving me anything, I worked for it.”

The father –  full of hope, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness who is ever striving to bring about reconciliation and unity and to uphold what he values so dearly for his family?  He gives freely and generously to those who are his children, and he holds no grudges, and he forgives all debts.

Jesus tells us to love one another as He has loved us.  He has loved us like the father in the parable loves his children.  Are we willing to do the same?

Zacchaeus (2019)

Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.

And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”   (Luke 19:1-10)

The Gospel lesson of the tax collector Zacchaeus, at least in the Slavic Orthodox tradition, is always the last Sunday Gospel lesson of the Lucan Gospel cycle of readings (basically autumn into winter).  As such, in the Slavic Orthodox tradition it also foretells the coming of Great Lent for with this Gospel we bring the old year to a close and will now move into the Pre-Lenten Sunday Gospel cycles – known in Orthodoxy as the beginning of the Triodion.   [Non-Slavic Orthodox tradition proclaims the Gospel of the Canaanite woman before the Lenten Triodion begins.  In Orthodoxy variation in practice is quite normal on so many levels.  Orthodoxy is not a monolith with all Orthodox always doing all the same things.  This has for many centuries been the accepted practice and received Tradition of the Church.  What is being done in one Orthodox parish or tradition differs from what is being done in another parish or tradition.    This is not seen as dividing the Church or breaking the unity of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”]

In past years in my sermons I often joined the chorus of those who trampled on Zacchaeus as a sinner who has a miraculous conversion in his encounter with Christ.  It is how the story is often interpreted and because in Slavic Orthodox tradition it is the precursor to Great Lent, a theme of a sinner who repents is often read into the story.  But there is another possible interpretation of this Gospel lesson.  If one pays close attention to the text, one sees that the Jewish crowd certainly reacts to Zacchaeus as if he is a terrible sinner.  They smell the stench of sin on him and are repulsed by the fact that Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house.   But note what Zacchaeus says to Jesus when Jesus is in his home:

Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”

Usually this is interpreted that Zacchaeus has a change of heart, a conversion, and the text is saying “from this moment I wlll give and I will restore.”

But in the Greek text Zacchaeus speaks in the present tense – not I will begin doing this, but he states what he is doing.  Zacchaeus says he gives half his income to the poor.  The crowd has wrongfully presumes Zacchaeus is filthy rich, greedy and dishonest because he is a tax collector.  They have judged him harshly without knowing the facts.  The crowd is guilty of judgmentalism and presumption.  Christ shows the crowd, “you are guilty of misjudging this man.”  You are guilty of sin, not him.

The Gospel lesson is thus not so much about repentance but about reconciliation. Zacchaeus was doing the right thing all along, but in secret.   The people misjudged him because they saw him as rich and a tax collector, so presumed he was dishonest.  But what Christ shows the people is that Zacchaeus is a good man, a true son of Abraham.  Christ offers reconciliation between Zacchaeus and the Jewish crowd.    Zacchaeus was lost because the people had wrongly rejected him, not because he was a sinner.  Christ is thus not converting him from sinner to saint, but revealing the diamond that was hidden beneath the dirt the people had dumped on him.  Christ shows the people, he really is more righteous than you who judge and reject him.

It reminds me of a story I read long ago about a hardworking blacksmith in a town whom the people loved because he was known to be so generous in giving charity despite just being a working class person.  There also was a rich man who lived on a well-manicured property on a hill above the blacksmith’s shop.  This rich man was hated by the townspeople because they thought him miserly – he didn’t associate with people and was not known to ever give in charity.  The rich man died and no one attended the funeral just to spite him.  The blacksmith simultaneously stopped giving generously in charity.  People confronted him about why his behavior changed.   He replied, “Did you really think for all these years that I was giving my money in charity?  I’m not rich, I never had that kind of money to give.  The rich man gave me the money and asked me to distribute it but to never tell anyone its source.  I did as he asked for all these years.  When he died I no longer had any money to give, for I’m poor like you.”  Everyone in the town was amazed by this revelation and shamed by how they had treated the rich man as they realized how badly they had misjudged their benefactor.

For his part, Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus because he wants to see a rabbi who is teaching what he (Zacchaues) is doing all along.  Zacchaeus understands Jesus’ message is different from what is often being taught by other rabbis.  Zacchaeus wants to get a glimpse of someone who teaches the way of humility.  Zacchaeus is practicing what Jesus teaches:

Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  (Matthew 6:1-4 – this is the Gospel we will read on Meatfare Saturday, right before Great Lent begins)

Zacchaeus is living the life that Jesus taught, and Jesus reveals this to the crowd.  He reveals to the crowd how their sinful presumptuousness has caused them to misjudge Zacchaeus.  It is the crowd which has caused Zacchaeus to become separated from the people of God and to become lost, not Zacchaeus’ own behavior.  Jesus offers reconciliation to all if they will have it, if they will lay aside their presumptions.  (As we say in Psalm 19:13: “Above all, free your servant from presumption; do not let it sway me!  Then shall I be blameless free of grave sin.”)

Please note also in the prayer from the blessing of a home, we mention Zacchaeus:

O God our Savior, the True Light Who was baptized in the Jordan by the Prophet John, and Who was willing to enter the house of Zacchaeus, bringing salvation to him and his household, do You, the same Lord, keep safe from harm those of us who dwell herein; grant us Your blessing, purification and bodily health, and all of our petitions which are for salvation and life everlasting; for You are blessed, together with Your Father, Who is from everlasting, and Your All-holy and Good, and Life-creating Spirit. Amen.

In blessing the home, we bring Christ who is our Salvation into our homes, just like Christ came into the home of Zacchaeus and reconciled him and his family to the people of God.  The prayer for the blessing of a home does not mention people repenting as a result of the house blessing, but rather acknowledges the blessing of having Christ present in the home.  The prayer assumes that the people in the home being blessed want Christ to be there, just as Zacchaeus wanted Christ to come into his home.  And hopefully for the same reason – because those in the home are already practicing righteousness just like Zacchaeus!

Two final thoughts about Zacchaeus who is recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church:

First, Zacchaeus had a strong desire to see Christ, and though he had a very public position, he was willing to risk embarrassment and humiliation just to see Christ (he had no knowledge that Christ would speak to him or want to come to his house).  We who are Christ’s own disciples and family are on the other hand sometimes embarrassed to tell others we are Christian, or even to make the sign of the cross or say a prayer before a meal.  We are embarrassed to speak against abortion or racism or against pornography or dirty jokes.  We can learn St Zacchaeus’ boldness and courage to live for godly values and to stand against evil in the world.  We can pray, fast and given in charity in secret as Jesus taught.  But we can also quietly without making a show or trying to draw attention to ourselves, do the good and right things even with our friends watching us.

Second, Zacchaeus publicly admitted he was a sinner.  When Christ was in his house, he didn’t proclaim himself as sinless and perfect, rather he acknowledged that if he defrauded anyone, he then tried to make it right to them.  He publicly repented of his sins – not mistakes but the wrong things he chose to do.  Just think about our public officials today when – even when proof is offered of their misdeeds, they tend to deny, obfuscate, cover up, go on the attack.   They lack honesty, integrity, humility and courage – all traits which Zacchaeus demonstrated.  We should think about Zacchaeus as we prepare for our own confessions.  When we stand in the presence of Christ we can admit to our sins.  Christ wants to be in our presence, in our homes, in our lives and Christ does not stay away from us because He knows we are sinners.  Rather, as He himself said, He came to seek and save the sinner.  He came to seek and save all of those who have become separated from the people of God.   In confession, we invite Christ to come under the roof of our heart and to live with us.

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)