Stories have an interesting ability to help us understand incredibly lofty ideas with relative ease. Try telling a child about the importance of preserving your reputation through honesty along with the dangers of losing credibility after being caught in repeated fabrications, lies, or falsehoods, and you’ll quickly run into an existential crisis as you attempt to define terms and explain concepts that are possibly beyond the level of the child to articulate in the abstract. However, tell the story of the “Boy who Cried Wolf” and you’ve planted a seed of understanding that will surface again and again and blossom into a fully developed understanding of integrity and credibility as the child continues to grow and mature.
Now, once we reach adulthood, we may pride ourselves in the ability to explain and understand abstract concepts, but in the end, we all benefit from analogy and story to truly grasp and internalize loftier concepts and frames of mind. It is no wonder that throughout much of human history information has been passed from one generation to the next through story, and it is no wonder that Jesus employed the story-telling of parables to express His teaching on the Kingdom of God and to describe to his followers the characteristics that are to be exhibited by citizens of that Kingdom.
Our Gospel today is one such example of the power of story telling. If I tell you, “hey, you’ve been forgiven a lot so you should forgive others too,” you’ll likely agree with that statement, but there will be unanswered questions, concerns, and issues related to this idea of forgiveness that you likely won’t even know you have until sometime down the road, when you’re ability to forgive is being tested, when you’ll think, “well, surely I don’t have to forgive THAT.”
Jesus tells the story of a man, a servant, who has an exorbitant debt. He owes the king not only a lifetime worth of wages, but multiple lifetimes worth of wages. In other words, he owes the king an amount that is beyond comprehension and beyond any ability the servant has to repay. It is literally and completely impossible for the servant to pay back to the king the debt he has incurred. The king, though, forgives the debt. He forgives it without qualification, without any extra work needing to be done by the servant, and with no strings attached. This in and of itself is a marvelous thought that we sometimes fail to recognize. The amount of mercy and love that is displayed by the king is indescribable and incomprehensible to us. It speaks of the extent of the king’s love, compassion, kindness, and mercy.
Insofar as this is a parable intended to give us insight into a greater and more profound reality, this encounter shows us the immense mercy and compassion of God almighty, who himself, as envisioned through the death of Christ on the cross, was willing to forgive the insurmountable debt of the sins of the whole of the human race. What we take away from this, therefore, is an appreciation for the immensity of what transpired on the cross when Christ, hanging in agony, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Father forgive them, for their rebellion against you is so great that they can’t even begin to comprehend the extent to which they have rebelled against you, but Father, forgive them anyway. Forgive them without qualification, without any work or merit on their part, and without any strings attached. Father, forgive them. And when He breathed His last, with the words, “it is finished,” still hanging in the air, the terrible rebellion of humanity against the Creator was forgiven.
If the parable stopped at that point we would be able to go home today and bask in the wonder of so amazing a grace, and at times that is just what our souls need and what the teaching of Holy Scripture encourages us to do. However, this particular parable does not stop and we are forced to recognize that, although there are no strings attached or work needed from us for God to have granted us His forgiveness, that does not mean that there is not an expectation that this tremendous and marvelous reality will impact the very foundation of our approach to life itself. In other words, if we truly understand and accept and appreciate the forgiveness we have been given then our outlook on life will change utterly and completely.
In the parable, this is understood through the response of the servant. After having been forgiven an insurmountable debt he turns around and tries to force a fellow servant who owes him money to repay him by throwing him in jail because of the debt. Where the king had extended, from the servant’s perspective, infinite grace, mercy, and forgiveness, the servant was not willing to even consider the thought of extending grace, mercy, and forgiveness for a debt that was owed to himself. The comparison is intended to be stark and jarring. Compared to what the servant had been forgiven, the amount he himself was owed was exceedingly small.
The parable sets up this comparison in an interesting way, though. If the only intention of the comparison was to show the difference between what the king forgave and what the servant was owed the parable could have set up the equivalent of something like the king forgiving a 12 billion dollar debt while the man was owed only a single dollar. That would definitely get that point across. However, that’s not what Jesus does with the parable. Rather, Jesus describes the forgiven servant being owed the equivalent of about 100 days of wages. While this is a minuscule amount when compared to the 60 million days worth of wages that the forgiven servant was owed to the king, it is noteworthy that it was, in everyday, practical terms, still not a small amount.
Here’s the point. The forgiven man was owed a costly debt by this other servant. I don’t know about you, but if someone owed me 100 days worth of salary I would not be able to shrug my shoulders very easily and say, “meh, whatever, don’t worry about it.” Rather, I would be very tempted to count the cost, and to recognize that there was a significant amount still owed to me. This is the point I want to highlight for us this morning. This parable is not comparing the king’s forgiveness of an insurmountable amount with the servant’s failure to forgive an inconsequential amount. Rather, the parable is showing that because of the insurmountable amount that was forgiven, the forgiven man should have been willing to forgive even the substantial amount that he himself was owed.
This is where this parable touches on the greater truth of what it means to forgive in the divine economy. We pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What we are praying, in this prayer that is given to us by Jesus Christ himself, is that the offenses and wrongs that we have done against God will be forgiven in the same way as we have forgiven the offenses and wrongs that have been done against us. To put this in terms of the parable, we are acknowledging, as citizens of the Divine Kingdom, that because of the insurmountable forgiveness God has already given us that we have no choice, if we are to follow after the example of Christ and if we are to live according to His character of love, compassion, mercy, and grace, that we have no choice but to forgive others. Period. Without qualification and without them needing to do anything to earn that forgiveness.
This parable shows us that even if, from our practical perspective, in the chaotic and nitty gritty turmoil of this world, we are owed a significant amount, we are to follow the example of the King and grant forgiveness. Even if we have been wronged in a serious, bitter, and even violent, demeaning, and vile way, we are to be a light to the world that the work of Christ on the cross brought forgiveness to humanity’s violence, rebellion, and chaos.
St. Peter of Damascus states,
The merciful person is he who gives to others what he has himself received from God. . . This is perfect mercy; for just as Christ endured death on our behalf, giving to all an example and a model, so we should die for one another, and not only for our friends, but for our enemies as well, should the occasion call for it.
In other words, there can be no boundary on our love, our mercy, and our forgiveness of others because there was no boundary on the love, mercy, and forgiveness we received from God through Christ. We cannot begin to claim to be servants and followers of Jesus, whom we meet on the altar each Sunday, if we do not strive for this reality.
This is an especially hard calling given the chaos and turmoil of the world around us. If I am owed a dollar, I can’t imagine giving someone a hard time about paying it back. If I’m owed $10, I may start thinking of how that would help put a bit of gas in my car or help me go to dinner with my wife and daughter, but still, I’m not going to sweat it. Once we start talking about $100… $1000… $10,000… $100,000… $1,000,000… well, now we’re getting into a realm where forgiveness becomes costly. Again, this is the point of this parable and is the point of what I read a moment ago from St. Peter of Damascus.
It becomes especially poignant when we move from the realm of the abstract into the realm of the practical. The person who abused you, the person who betrayed your trust, the person who stabbed you in the back, the person who took advantage of you. Our lives can become entangled with seemingly insurmountable offenses that have been committed against us. Atrocities that have been committed. Violence that has ruined lives and ruined communities. The world around us is full of chaos and we are to be ambassadors of the peace of God that surpasses all understanding as we carry His grace, His mercy, His love and forgiveness into the world, forgiving others the same way Christ, hanging on the cross, bleeding from the wounds caused by the injustices done against him, was able to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they’ve done.”
As I have said before, this is why it is so necessary that we are indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and why it is necessary that we are rejuvenated by the grace of God through the eucharist, for this is a high calling. To love as Christ loved, to be merciful as Christ was merciful, and to forgive as Christ has forgiven. If I rely on my own strength, I will fail in that calling; but it is the calling that each of us have as children of the Divine Father and citizens of the Divine Kingdom, and we must answer that calling.
St. Maximus the Confessor summarizes this entire concept well when he writes,
‘But I say to you,’ says the Lord, ‘love your enemies. . . do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you’ (Mt 5: 44). Why did He command this? To free you from hatred, irritation, anger and rancour, and to make you worthy of the supreme gift of perfect love. And you cannot attain such love if you do not imitate God and love all men equally. For God loves all men equally and wishes them to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim 2:3). ‘But I say to you, do not resist evil; but if someone hits you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek as well. . . . (Mt 5: 39-41). Why did He say this? Both to keep you free from anger and irritation, and to correct the other person by means of your forbearance, so that like a good Father He might bring the two of you under the yoke of love.
Forgiveness not only impacts the person we have forgiven, it also impacts us as the ones who are doing the forgiving. It frees us from the temptation to pursue vengeance, to search for scapegoats that we can blame or retaliate against, or to give into anger, despair, and hopelessness. Our hope is built on the truth of the resurrection and the reality that we are joined with a God who loved humanity enough to sacrifice himself in painful agony to accomplish the forgiveness of those who rebelled against him. When we forgive, we are freed to pursue that relationship to its fullest. But not only that, when we forgive, the one forgiven is also able to taste and recognize, possibly for the first time in their life, the goodness of the forgiveness of God himself. God desires all people to return to Him, no matter their crime, offense, or wrongdoing; may we help Him in His mission to redeem His creation by showing all people the unlimited forgiveness that God has provided us all. Amen.