Forgiveness and the Healing of the Soul: Homily for the 11th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Matthew 18:23-35

Sometimes the truth has to come to us in an unusual way in
order to get our attention. That is because most of us are
really good at hearing only what we want to hear and
seeing only what we want to see. Unfortunately, that means
we are skilled in ignoring uncomfortable truths, including
the simple teaching of our Lord that we must forgive
others if we want God to forgive us. In today’s
Gospel text, Jesus Christ spoke a very disturbing parable
that should make that truth clear to us all.

A servant owed his ruler more money than he could possibly
earn in his entire life. When he could not pay, the master
was ready to sell him and his entire family in order to
cover the debt. But the servant begged for more time to
pay, and the master showed mercy even beyond his request.
He actually forgave the huge debt; the man then owed
nothing and he and his family were safe from punishment of
any kind. This was an unbelievably good turn of events for
the servant and his family.

Then that same servant found another servant who owed him
a much smaller sum of money. Since the second man did not
have enough to pay the debt, the first servant had him put
in prison until he could pay. He refused to show him even
a small measure of mercy or patience.
When the king heard about it, he was enraged that the man
to whom he had forgiven so much would be so cruel to his
fellow servant. So the king put the first servant in
prison until he could pay all that he owed. The Lord ended
this parable with the harsh warning: So My heavenly
Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart,
does not forgive his brother his trespasses
.

This parable gets our attention because we all find it
hard to forgive
at least some of the people who have wronged or offended
us in the course of our lives. Regardless of whether the
wrongs occurred days, years, or decades ago, it is
difficult to forgive. At times we actually enjoy holding
grudges against others; maybe it serves our pride to think
that we are better than those who have wronged us, and
thus justified in looking down on them. We sometimes hate
our tendency to remember past offenses, but unpleasant
memories can play over and over in our minds, inflame our
passions, and make us feel powerless against them.

Like everything else in the Christian life, forgiveness is
a process of healing as we participate more fully in the
life of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Notice
that the Lord concluded the parable by saying that we must
forgive others from our hearts, from the depths of our
souls. Though it is a necessary and important first step,
simply putting on a good face and not striking back is
just the beginning of the journey. Our goal is not only to
be a bit better at self-control, but to be fully
reconciled with our neighbors, to be so filled with love
that we forgive and forget, and show them the same mercy
that the Lord has shown us with a pure and whole heart.
When we realize how far we are from fulfilling that high
goal, our need for His mercy should become all the more
clear.

Even as we always want God to forgive us when we sin,
there is no limit to the forgiving, reconciling love that
He calls us to give our enemies. When St. Peter asked how
many times he was to forgive his brother who sinned
against him, maybe seven times, Christ said, no,
seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22). In other
words, we should always forgive; there is never a point
where the Christian becomes justified in judging,
condemning, and refusing to show mercy. We are instead to
be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect in His
providential love, care, and blessing for the just and the
unjust. (Matt. 5:48)

None of us is anywhere near fulfilling that divine
calling, but we must not give up and despair about our
struggle to forgive others. Instead, we must remember that
to be a Christian means to participate personally in the
life of the Holy Trinity by grace. Jesus Christ brings us
into eternal life such that we share in His victory over
sin and death. Already in this life, in the world as we
know it, the holiness, mercy, and love of the Lord must
become active in us, must become characteristic of us as
unique persons as we find greater healing for our souls.

The more we participate in Him, the more we will extend
His forgiveness to those who have wronged us. If we refuse
to do so, however, we refuse Christ and reject His mercy.
And when we refuse Him, we condemn only ourselves.

In moments of anger and pain, it is usually much easier to
judge, hate, and condemn than to love and forgive. Ever
since the fall of Adam and Eve, we humans have distorted
our relationships with one another, allowing fear,
judgment, and insecurity to divide us. Early in the book
of Genesis, their descendent Lamech brags that he will
avenge himself seventy-seven fold (Gen. 4:24). In other
words, he was like a bloodthirsty gangster who never
showed mercy to anyone. We are not that far gone, but we
probably do find it beyond our present strength to forgive
seventy times seven as Christ forgives us.

Like any other area of weakness in the Christian life, our
struggle to forgive must begin with a sincere confession
that we hold a grudge against someone else. So we must ask
for God’s forgiveness and help in being healed. We
must also pray for those who have offended us, asking
God’s blessings on them. And when we are tempted to
remember what they have done or to judge them, we must
immediately turn our attention to the Jesus Prayer and
remembrance of our own need for forgiveness from the Lord,
and from those whom we have offended throughout the course
of our lives. We are not the blameless judges of others,
but those who stand in constant need of grace, mercy, and
healing together with those who have wronged us.

It is a long struggle, but if we consistently turn away
from unholy thoughts, they will lose their power over us.
Resist the devil and he will flee from you (James
4:7). The less attention we give to our temptations,
the more they will diminish. The challenge is harder if
the others involved in these relationships continue
offending us. But remember what the one who told us to
forgive seventy times seven said from the cross,
Father, forgive them for they know not what they
do
(Luke 23:34). There is no limit to the forgiving
love of Jesus Christ. And if we are in Him, there can be
no limit on our forgiveness either. We who want His mercy
must show it to others. Otherwise, we reject Him and
condemn ourselves.

Every human being bears the image of God, including our
enemies. In that we have done something harmful to anyone,
we have done it to the Lord. Remember the words of St.
John: If someone says, “I love God,” and
hates his brother, he is a liar
(1 John 4:20). It is
only by the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and
souls that we will be able to live out our love of God in
relation to every human being we encounter.

The more we share in His life, the more His mercy will
become characteristic of us in relation to our enemies. We
fool only ourselves by thinking that we may accept His
forgiveness without also showing that same forgiveness to
our neighbors. If we do that, we will become the
hypocritical judges of others, like the servant in
today’s parable who shut himself out of his
master’s mercy. Whether we acknowledge it or not,
that is who we risk becoming every time that we refuse to
extend the great forgiveness that we have received in
Jesus Christ to those who have wronged us. So let us all
convey our Lord’s mercy to our enemies, for that is
how we open ourselves to the grace that we all desperately
need for the healing of our souls.

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