When we take a close look at the gospel lessons prescribed for the first Sundays after Pentecost it seems that they all have one thing in common – they all deal with faith.
It is here, after all, among these readings, that we hear about the centurion who comes to Jesus asking that his servant be healed and Jesus is amazed at his great faith. We are given the reading of our Lord walking on water and St. Peter who fails because of his lack of faith; we read about the apostles’ lack of faith once again when they ask Jesus to send the multitude away because it was late and they should get something to eat and Jesus feeds them with only five loaves and two fish. Then there is the reading where we are told not to “worry about what we will eat or what we will drink…”. And so on.
However, when we hear this morning’s gospel reading we realize that a shift in themes has occurred. Indeed, this morning’s reading is not about faith, but undeniably about forgiveness. Perhaps this shift is not altogether coincidental and maybe, when we look at it again, it deals with faith after all. Although not directly about faith I would go so far as to suggest that this morning’s reading is connected with all of those we have heard in the previous weeks inasmuch as it’s message is that faith does not exist without forgiveness.
St. John says in his epistle: “If someone says ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (I John 4:20).
The gospel story this morning is just that, it’s a story, a parable that our Lord told. But more than just this it is also an answer to a question posed two verses before this morning’s reading begins. Namely, we read: “Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seven times seventy.” And then he begins His story, “the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king…”.
And in this parable is a reoccurring theme of the person who can’t pay his debt. First, it’s the king himself who is confronted by one of his servants who owes him a huge amount of money so that the king threatens him saying he will be sold, together with his whole family, unless he pays. The servant begs saying, “Just have some patience with me and I’ll pay you.” Not only was he given more time to pay the debt but the text tells us that the master, out of his compassion for his servant, “forgave him the debt”.
Later this servant goes to one of his fellow servants and demands that he repay him. We note two similarities: first of all, as was mentioned earlier, the fellow servant was unable to pay and secondly he begs in the same fashion as his fellow servant did saying, “Have patience with me and I will pay you back.”
This servant is not as merciful as the king was with him. Word gets around to the king who is so enraged that he sends him to the torturers.
Certainly we all believe that we will be judged and condemned for all of our sins but as we contemplate on this morning’s gospel reading we conclude that we will be condemned more so for not forgiving our neighbors their trespasses against us. After all, I would think that the similarities among the servants in the gospel story tell us, among other things, that we are in the same boat, so to speak, praying that God might have patience with us. This is why it is most appropriate for us, as Orthodox Christians, to sing “God grant you many years” on the occasion of birthdays, anniversaries, and such. Our prayer, after all, is the same as the servant in our Lord’s parable, that is, that God might be patient with us and give us some more time to repent.
St. John of Kronstadt says: Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.
May God give us the discernment to see the good in all people just as He sees the good that is buried deep beneath our weakness, faults and yes, sins; that we might fulfill His words and “forgive those who have trespassed against us.” Amen.