01 - Parable of Unforgiving Servant, Sept 4, 2016 (with audio)

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I Corinthians 9:2-12

Matthew 18:23-35

Last Sunday, we considered practical, everyday ways to get into the boat of the Church and build ourselves into a temple of God. Hearing them, it would be easy to be like the rich young ruler and, after checking them all off, say to the Savior: All these I’m doing. What do I still lack?

The LORD’s answer comes back to us this morning; and, it is, I think, the most difficult thing to hear, let alone to do: “Each of you, forgive his brother, from your heart.” Who is our brother? Listen to the Paschal Hymn: it is all those who hate us. “Let us call brother even those who hate us.”

“From your heart” puts this commandment “deep beyond all things” (Jer 17:9 LXX); but for all that, not out of reach, because “deep beyond all things” is where precisely we would find ourselves if we could but find the entrance into our heart. Yet, it is not possible for us to do this by ourselves because in our heart we are dead in our sins and trespasses. To forgive all things and to call “brother” even those who hate us is a mighty act of God because it comes from His extreme humility even to the point of death on the cross and His Holy Resurrection. This is what is impossible for men and possible only with God.

So, let none of us claim to have forgiven our enemy – those who hate us and who, quite frankly, we hate – from our heart when we have not. God knows our heart and we fool only ourselves. Yet, this is what would make complete and perfect the image of God in whom we were made – Jesus Christ Himself, as the Image of God in Whom we were made, Who is Himself the very principle of our nature. It is in Him that we are made to be like God. We become like God not by imitation – for then we are still outside of God, alongside Him, not in Him – but by participation, for then we are in God and are becoming perfectly one with Him. We are able to become perfectly one with Him because He became flesh and became perfectly one with us in His death on the Cross and His burial in the tomb, the tomb of our heart where we were dead in our sins and trespasses, our idolatry. By His death and burial in the flesh, the Word of God Incarnate penetrated all the way to the division of soul and spirit and into the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12). There, He forgave us our sins. Let’s understand what this means. The Greek word, translated here “to forgive”, means “to let go” or “send away”, or to “deliver from” as from captivity, but even deeper than that, it means “to dissolve” so that it is no more. By His death and burial in the flesh, the LORD forgave us all our sins: He didn’t just let them go or overlook them as if they weren’t there. He didn’t even just liberate us from them as He liberated Israel from their slavery in Egypt. He dissolved them. He absorbed them into Himself, into the all-consuming fire of His divinity, and He burned them up completely so that they are no more, leaving us thoroughly cleansed all the way down into our heart “deep beyond all things”, restoring us back to our original beauty and raising us up, a new creation, into the divine life, the Fire of Glory of His Holy Spirit in His Holy Resurrection, so that we, in Christ, are not just clean, holy, pure, but we are ourselves all fire like the bush that burned that was not consumed, like the Theotokos! We who were gods, yet who died like any prince (Ps 81:6) because of the idolatry of our disobedience, have been born again in the Spirit of Christ as children of God (cf. Lk 3:38), temples of God united to the Body of Christ that has conquered death, so that we are now “overshadowed” by the Divine Glory of the Holy Fire of God.

So, when the LORD says, “From your heart,” He gives not only a command; He also reveals how we go about attaining to such divine perfection that we are able to forgive all things and to call “brother” even those who hate us. It is by denying ourselves and taking up our cross – the ascetic life of the Church: prayer and fasting – and following Christ into the tomb of our heart, there to unite ourselves to Him in the likeness of His death.

The likeness, I believe, is in the self-denial that I practice when, for the sake of Christ, I observe the ascetical disciplines of the Church in accordance with my strength and circumstances. In that likeness, I am, to be sure, imitating Christ until I observe the ascetical disciplines mindfully, with inner attention, the eyes and ears of my mind fixed on Christ. This is the inner attitude of faith. By it, I am working to remember Christ in the anamnesis of the Church; i.e., I am calling Him to my inner awareness constantly. This is how I pass over from imitating Christ in the likeness of His death to participating in Christ’s death in my heart. Now, I am becoming perfectly one with Him in His death in the tomb of my heart; for there, I am working to put to death what is earthly in me by keeping my inner awareness firmly fixed on Christ. Only in that union with Christ that is from faith, i.e., from the heart, am I able to forgive all things, and to call brother even those who hate me; for only in this faith of the Church am I uniting myself to Christ so that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, Christ who is working and doing in me according to His good pleasure, which is the salvation not just of me but of all, even of those who hate me and those who, well, those who I hate; for in the fire of Christ’s divine love and visceral compassion, the sin of my hatred is being dissolved, liberating me from captivity to that which is contrary to my nature – hatred and anger – and restoring me to my original beauty in the grace and truth of the love of Christ God, the Image in Whom I was made to exist.

This is why I do not pretend to forgive my enemy when I haven’t. It is impossible for me to forgive my enemy on my own strength, because in my own strength, I am not united with God. This is why I take up daily the Church’s ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting as my cross: to deny myself and to put to death what is earthly in me, viz., my self-love, my self-will, my idolatry, that I may unite myself to Christ, that I may become perfectly one with Him in His death on the Cross and so become perfectly one with Him in His Holy Resurrection, perfectly like Him because I now live and move and have my being in the Image of God, Christ my LORD and Savior.

This is the “mind” that was also in Christ Jesus. It is this mind that prevents the doing of the Church’s asceticism from becoming a façade of self-righteousness. At the same time, in that these ascetic disciplines engage me in my body and in my soul, they enable me by their physicality to lay hold of my will and to subject it in obedience to Christ by doing them. And, when I do them, Christ Himself who is in them, leads me into the tomb of my heart and, as I put to death what is earthly in me, He transfigures the tomb of my heart into the Bridal Chamber of His Holy Resurrection in the Glory of His Holy Spirit.

Again, let me offer practical ways we can work to keep constant remembrance of Christ when we are in the world. In whatsoever you do, do it all to the glory of Christ. Conduct yourself with grace and truth, treating others with respect and kindness. Keep the days and seasons of the Church’s fasts and observe her feasts. Read Holy Scripture, guard your thoughts and your tongue. Be honest. When reviled or insulted or slighted, if you can’t bless, at least do not return evil for evil. Fight the temptation to give into anger and to rest in a grudge. Even if you can’t forgive from the heart, pray for your enemy, even if it’s through clenched teeth. That is a small way to deny yourself and to do what God commands, not what you want to do in your anger. Treat your enemy with dignity, respect, honesty, nobility, humility. This is to keep the inner, unseen part of our fast in the mind of Christ. This, too, is a real denial for the sake of Christ. This keeps us actively trained on Christ in our inner man. It makes the sin done against us into another stepping stone leading into the tomb of our heart where Christ is found in the Glory of His Resurrection. When we are clothed in that Glory, that is when we are able to forgive all things and to call even those who hate us, “brother”. Amen.