Monday, August 25, 2014

The Unforgiving Servant, again.

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. We just heard the parable of the Unforgiving Servant who would not release a fellow servant from a small debt, though his master had just released him from a colossal debt of his own. His utter lack of mercy evoked the wrath of his master, who had him thrown in prison until he should pay back every cent. The parable concluded with our Lord saying, “So also shall My heavenly Father do to every one of you, if you do not forgive you brother from your heart.” The meaning of this parable should be abundantly clear: God has forgiven us completely, so we in return must completely forgive others. Perhaps I could end the homily here and call it a day, but I think there are a few more things that need to be said. First, when trying to understand this parable we should always take it at its simplest and most obvious interpretation and avoid overthinking it, which can lead to some serious theological problems. A similar passage occurs in Matthew 6, following the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, at which point Jesus immediately said to His disciples, “For unless you forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.” Taken together these two verses clearly show that to live in the forgiveness of God we must share that forgiveness with others. If however we go beyond that clear and simple meaning and begin to overthink these passages, then we might start imagining God’s forgiveness to be a sort of whim which He can extend or withdraw at any moment. As long as we remain on God’s “good side” and forgive everyone, He will show us mercy, but if we fail to forgive anyone, His wrath will jump on us like ugly on an ape and our forgiveness will be yanked away in a fit of divine rage. I seriously doubt that this is what these verses are trying to teach us about God or His forgiveness. Our parable clearly showed the master of the Unforgiving Servant as being enraged at him. But remember that this was a parable expressed in human terms with human characters. Our Lord did not necessarily mean it to be an exact representation of God’s disposition. In fact, throughout His ministry Jesus revealed God as much more merciful and long-suffering than this. We need to understand that the forgiveness of God is a constant, much like the love of God. God always loves, and God always forgives. He cannot do otherwise. But man must choose whether to live in communion with God, His forgiveness, His love, or not. If man chooses not to love, he is not in communion with God, who is love. If man chooses not to forgive, he is not in communion with the God who forgives. So when Jesus says if you do not forgive, neither will you be forgiven, it doesn’t mean that God is going to abruptly change His character and stop loving or forgiving you. It simply means that you have entered into a state of existence in which God’s love and forgiveness and even His very life is rejected by you and can no longer benefit you. I hope we can see the difference in this. If we fail to see that difference, then we might start thinking that the forgiveness of God is entirely conditional and therefore perhaps ours can be as well. If someone doesn’t show forgiveness or ask forgiveness, then maybe I don’t have to forgive him. If he doesn't love me, then I don’t have to love him. This is all nonsense. But this kind of thinking can happen when we overcomplicate things that don’t need to be. Let’s just keep it simple and live in the forgiveness of God, sharing it with all. Another thing we need to note is that Jesus made a particular point of saying that you must forgive from your heart. Have you ever noticed that your Savior seems very, very interested in your heart? The Law of Moses was a bit more focused on external things, such as in the commandments to not commit murder or adultery. But Jesus drove that message deeply inward, teaching that bearing hatred toward your brother was equal to murder or that lusting after a woman was the committing of adultery in your heart. He commanded the Pharisees (and through them, all of us) to not just be clean outwardly, but to first clean the inside of the cup (that is to say, the heart) that the outside might be clean also. Further He declared, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” What this means in terms of forgiveness is that it must truly come from the inside, cleansing and freeing the human heart from all lingering resentment and hurt. This is not an easy thing. Until we reach that all-important point in each of our lives at which we decide to internalize our Christian faith and live it from the inside out, we will generally settle for showing an outward forgiveness, while still harboring hard feelings inside. We should not settle for living the appearance of a Christian life, but strive to live it in reality. We’d like to believe that we forgive all people, but the truth is revealed in the things that come out of our heart. Do we speak ill of the other person in unguarded moments? Do we rejoice when bad things happen to the other or are we angry or jealous when he/she enjoys good things we don’t think that they deserve? These embarrassing moments are among the little tips that show whether our forgiveness is from the heart, or only from our desire to outwardly appear forgiving. But there is more we should consider here. Like God, who is always merciful, whom the scriptures describe humanly as “slow to anger and quick to forgive,” do we strive to create an internal atmosphere that lends itself to quick and natural forgiveness and a certain resistance to anger? Let me explain what I mean. In the normal course of our daily lives, things happen. People around us often behave less than perfectly, and speak or act in ways that can potentially give us offense. In such cases, are we quick to take offense? “What did you say? Oh, you hurt my pride; you questioned my integrity; you undermined my authority; you made me feel foolish; you violated my boundaries; you showed me a lack of respect, etc. etc. and so forth.” What is our normal response to such grievous offenses? “You need to apologize to me and appease my indignation by begging my forgiveness!” Oh for goodness sakes! Who do we think we are? Why is it so easy for us to climb on our high horse and act more important than God Almighty? We carelessly offend one another all the time. So what? Why can’t we try to truly be more like God and practice long-suffering and forbearance and mercy? Must we smack down every careless or hurtful word against us like a frenetic game of Whack-A-Mole? Must we treat our closest friends and family like enemies when say or do things we don’t like? Can’t we just show love toward one another and mercy instead of wrath? The answer to that is no, probably not…unless we strive to create within ourselves an atmosphere of forgiveness. We need to humble ourselves before God and all men. We need to begin thinking of ourselves as the least important of all, and our opinions as unworthy of even being voiced. We need to become slower at speaking or offering correction or even constructive advice to others, and quicker to listen quietly, respectfully, and prayerfully. Without a doubt, we need to cultivate a much higher regard for others and a much lower regard for ourselves. And when other people give us offense, we need to forgive them immediately without fanfare or pretense, and without demanding anything further from them. Just forgive your offender as God forgives you, and love him/her as God loves you both. The world teaches us how to be self-important; how to be defensive and soundly defeat all who dare challenge us. The world cannot teach us how to be like Christ, meek and lowly of spirit. Only He can teach us that, as we leave behind our vanity and pride, and seek the godly virtues of humility, forbearance, mercy, long-suffering, and love. I pray we would all let Jesus be our Teacher, and learn from Him how to forgive one another and every person from the heart. +To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.