11th Sunday After Pentecost
In the Gospel reading for today, we hear of a man who was deeply in debt, owing a great fortune to the king. The king wanted to settle his accounts with his servants and therefore demanded the payment of this debt. The poor servant could in no way pay back this great amount and so the king ordered that he and his wife and children should be sold into slavery to repay the debt. The man fell on his knees and begged the king for mercy and patience to give him time to try to pay back what he owed. The king was moved to compassion by the cries of the debtor and, with a loving heart, forgave him everything.
When this man went out he found one of his fellow servants who happened to owe him some small amount of money. This time, the one who had just been forgiven so much, showed no mercy and threw the debtor into prison. When the king heard about this, he called the first man before him and said, ‘You wicked servant, I forgave you the great debt that you owed and you have turned around and shown no mercy on he who owed you so little.’ In anger and righteous indignation the king put this man into prison until he was able to pay back all that he had originally owed.
Our Lord Jesus Christ concludes this parable telling us that this is how our Heavenly Father will treat each of us unless we forgive our brother from our heart. The message is very clear – if we expect to be forgiven, then we must forgive and show love toward others.
I believe I have shared the story before of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who as a young man went to confession and admitted that he could not forgive some offense that had occurred. His spiritual father, hearing this admission of a lack to forgive, resolutely forbade the young Anthony to recite the ‘Our Father’ prayer. He underscored that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are specifically asking God to forgive us as we forgive others. If we are unwilling to forgive those who have offended or wronged us in some way, then we dare not pray this prayer since we are basically asking God to no longer forgive us!
It is very easy for us to withhold a spirit of forgiveness and instead to get hung up on a false idea of justice. If someone wrongs us, we become indignant and full of self-righteousness. We demand that justice must be served.
A story is told of a mother pleading with a king to spare her condemned son's life. The king said the crime was dreadful; justice demanded his life. ‘Your majesty,’ sobbed the mother, ‘Not justice, but mercy.’ ‘He does not deserve mercy,’ was the answer. ‘But, sir, if he deserved it, it would not be mercy,’ replied the mother. ‘Ah yes, you have spoken the truth,’ said the king. ‘I will have mercy.’
St. Isaac the Syrian said: ‘Never say that God is just. If he were just you would be in hell. Rely only on His injustice which is mercy, love and forgiveness.’
We should thank God that His judgment of us will not be based on our worldly conception of justice. We are mistaken if we think that our good deeds, our fasting, our prayer, our almsgiving, all of the things that we do in our Christian life, are going to earn us our place in the Kingdom of Heaven. If we have this expectation, then it is simply more evidence that we still think WE are the ones in control. If I do everything right, then God will be compelled by justice to reward me.
St Seraphim of Sarov instructs us: ‘Prayer, fasting, vigil, and all other Christian practices do not constitute the aim of our Christian life… the true aim of the Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.’
If our good deeds, our prayers, our fasting, do not bring about a change in our heart, then we are missing the point.
All of those tools of our faith: the prayer, the fasting, the vigilant watchfulness over our selfish passions – these things are critically important. But they are important not because they make the case for us before the judgment seat of Christ. They are important because they are the means by which our heart and mind and soul are transformed.
When you and I stand before the judgment seat of Christ our Lord, we will stand before the One Who sees directly into the heart and soul of each person. The criterion of God’s judgment is not going to be human justice… a sense of ‘karma’ that demands that we get what we deserve. God help us if this were the case! No, God will look directly into our heart and soul to discern to what degree there is an image and likeness of God therein.
Let us bring this understanding back to our Gospel lesson today… Justice demands repayment of a debt, but the king forgave his debtor because he had a heart full of mercy and compassion. The forgiven debtor then turns around and wrings the neck of someone who owed him a small amount. The ungrateful debtor ends up in prison because there is no reciprocal mercy and compassion within his heart. We may correctly say that he was already imprisoned by the coldness of his heart.
This, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is our fate as well. God is the merciful King Who forgives our debts, our sins, and the tragedy of our fallenness. There is no cold justice in this… it is an outpouring of the warmth of Divine Love! We don’t deserve such mercy… it is a gift from the abundance of the unfathomable and limitless compassion of our God. If we, then, are offered such forgiveness and generosity… how can we not extend the same to all those who may offend us?
The whole point of our earthly life is to grow in the mercy and compassion of our heart so that our heart may more and more reflect that image and likeness of the mercy and compassion of God. May God grant that we live our lives such that we can pray with complete sincerity: ‘forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors’.