Parable of the 10,000 Talents

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Forgiveness : the Core of the Orthodox Way of Life
11th Sunday after Pentecost
31 August, 2008
1 Corinthians 9:2-12 ; Matthew 18:23-35

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Obviously, today’s Gospel is about forgiveness. There is no doubt about it. However, I believe that there are a few things in today’s pericope which we are not so clear about unless we read the footnotes. For instance, in order to understand the amounts of money that we are talking about in this Gospel – talents and denarii – we have to know what this means. What is a talent ?

When we are reading the Holy Scriptures, it is always important to look at the footnotes where they are available. In fact, it is best to have a good annotated version such as The Orthodox Study Bible. The footnotes help us not only to know what talents and denarii are, but they also most often tell us what other ancient authorities say about the Scripture readings that we have available to us. It just so happens that these ancient authorities are Orthodox authorities. It is important that we pay attention to what they have to tell us. Because so many of the easily available texts of the Bible are published by Protestants, the translation of the text therefore prefers words which support Protestant ideas. Therefore, we ought to be careful not always to take the printed text as it stands as the “final word”. We have to look at the footnotes in order to understand properly. Very often, there are extra verses, and different words provided there in the notes. The italics underneath are what our Orthodox Scriptures say.

After all this, let us look at the footnotes regarding today’s pericope. The footnotes tell us that a talent is more than fifteen years’ worth of income for a labourer. The bond-servant, who is in debt, owes 10,000 of those talents. Thus, we are talking about astronomical amounts of money here. As we see, the bond-servant who was forgiven his debt, is not ready to forgive the debt of his fellow-servant who owed him a paltry sum, a mere 100 denarii. The footnotes in the Gospel reading tell us that a denarius is about a day’s wage for a labourer. This can be translated into any culture proportionally. Let us say that the daily wage of a Canadian labourer nowadays is around 100 dollars. That would be a lower possible number for us. However, there are many in the world who do not even earn 1 dollar per hour.

We notice, too, that in this Gospel, the Lord is telling us that the king, the original lender of the 10,000 talents, was not asking for repayment of this money on a proportional basis with a certain amount of interest, or anything. Asking for forgiveness, the man wept before him and said : “'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all'”. We see that he was forgiven the whole debt because the king had compassion. This is an important word for us to remember. The king had compassion, and he forgave him everything – the total, incomprehensibly immense debt. He forgave him an astronomical amount of money. However, the bond-servant was such a pinch-penny person that he could not or would not do exactly the same for this other man, his fellow-servant. He put the man in the debtors’ prison (something we used to have even in Canada, but we do not have any more, thank God). We have to remember, too, that the king, when he found out what had happened, took back the forgiveness. Then he delivered the bond-servant to the prison-keeper, so that he would thoroughly learn his lesson until he should repay the 10,000 talents. Let us pay close attention, then, to this man’s impossible situation.

Our Lord then says to you and to me, in effect : “The same thing is going to happen to you if you do not, from your heart, forgive your brother”. The point of this parable is for you and for me to understand that forgiveness is not merely an option. Forgiveness is required. Let us pay attention to how many times a day we are saying the “Our Father”. This is usually many times. What are we saying to our Father in Heaven ? We are asking Him to forgive us our debts as much as we forgive our debtors. However, even more pointedly, in the Gospel according to Matthew, the exact words in Greek are “as much as we have forgiven our debtors” (see Matthew 6:12). Because in Matthew the Greek verb is in the aorist tense, we are asking God to forgive us as much as we have already forgiven. Therefore, if we do not forgive, we can by no means expect God to forgive us for anything. Forgiveness is, as goes the popular idiom, “even-steven”. Again and again, our Lord shows us in different situations in our Christian lives that forgiveness is no option. Forgiveness is the foundation and the core of our Christian life : past, present and future. So much is this so that the Evangelist Luke uses the present tense in this phrase of the “Our Father” : “for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). By doing so, he shows that our Lord is emphasising how important it is that, at all times, we forgive instantly and immediately. This verb means “remit”, “forgive”, “pardon”, “dismiss”, “pass over”, “send away”, with reference to the debt. If we will follow our Lord, then we will forgive. It is He who gives us the ability, the power, to do this.

When people are reading the Gospel, it is possible that they could think that forgiveness might be conditional : “I do not have to forgive until I am asked to forgive”. There are all sorts of psychologically-orientated persons who will probably say the same thing. For the Christian, however, that is absolutely not enough. In the way of Christ, we do not wait to be asked to forgive. In the way of Christ, in the compassion which comes from the love of Jesus Christ, forgiveness is already there. The father of the prodigal son, even before the son had left home, was already living in forgiveness towards his son. He was waiting for that son, praying for that son, the whole time the son was away. The father was always looking for his lost son, so that when the son was returning, the father did not need to be told. He saw him. He ran towards the son, and he heartily embraced him.

The Lord, in His love, forgiveness, and compassion for us, is like this. We must be the same, because we must be like Christ. Our love must be like Christ’s love. We have to reveal Christ. We have to show Christ. He is only shown in love and compassion, because God is love. Love is the essence of God. Saint John the Apostle says so in his Epistle : “God is love” (1 John 4:8). We have to embody this love if we are going to be authentic Orthodox Christians.

It is not for nothing that this parish is named after Saint Aidan. If we are going to be serious Orthodox Christians, and a sign of the Truth in n (there is only one Truth, and that is Jesus Christ), then Saint Aidan is the perfect intercessor for you. His whole life was an expression of compassion and love for people round about him. He gave away everything to people who were in need. He did not give away to people who were higher than he, people who had everything that they needed. However, he did give them love. He always gave to the people who were in need. It did not matter what it was. If he had something, and a person was in need, he gave it. This is a wonderful, clear expression of the love and compassion of Jesus Christ, which holds nothing back, which hides nothing.

An expression of this, also, is shown in normal, Orthodox hospitality. When I was in Romania, I was taught that hospitality is the Orthodox expression of the way of “terrorising” people. We “terrorise” each other with hospitality. That is, of course, the usual Orthodox way of hospitality. A nun once asked me this question about Orthodox hospitality : “Have you noticed that whenever we come into a house, we have to eat something ?” Indeed, no-one can escape without being fed in an Orthodox household, often even if the person has come only to do work there. Another nun commented that her spiritual father (who was a martyr under Khrushchev) had told her that a good guest has to taste a little of everything on the table (although he does not have to eat everything that is there). The principle behind all this was taught to me by the first nun. She said : “Why is this table full of everything, and it all does not necessarily match and go together ?” If we come to someone’s house, sometimes we are going to see all sorts of things there that are not connected with each other. It looks as though the host emptied the cupboards and put it all on the table. She said : “In fact, that is likely what did happen. They emptied the cupboards and put everything on the table, so at least there is hope that there is something that the guest might like and enjoy. The guest does not necessarily have to eat everything. The host is demonstrating, in the context of Christian love, that he is holding nothing back, and that nothing is hidden from the guest. He has put in front of the guest everything that he has, and he invites the guest to have what he or she likes”.

A group of us experienced this in a very poignant and touching way about fifteen years ago, the first time I went to Ukraine on a pilgrimage. We fat-cat Canadians went there, thinking that we were so great by making this pilgrimage. However, we visited Ukraine at a time when there was a famine, and when people really had nothing. Nevertheless, as we were making some visits, the people were insisting that we had to eat. What had they done ? These people, in the villages that we visited, had gathered everything that they had to eat amongst themselves, and they put everything they had on the table in front of us, who had come from so far to be amongst them. We had to be careful that we did not succumb to Canadian-style gluttony and eat everything up, because then they would have had nothing left to eat. We can see here the true expression of openness, and the real expression and meaning of Orthodox hospitality : love and compassion. It reveals itself in hiding nothing, in holding nothing back, but in offering everything. This is Orthodox hospitality with which we had better “terrorise” each other if we are going to be honest.

This is the expression of the love of Jesus Christ. It is open. It is compassionate. It cares about the other. It is always life-giving. It is always full of joy. It brings healing. It brings wholeness. It brings conviviality, one might say. Usually, on an Orthodox table, we are not just getting food as food. There is going to be liquid refreshment, also, frequently of a “spirited” sort. “Wine makes glad the heart of Man” says the Psalmist (Psalm 103:15). This is part of our life : being together, drinking a glass of wine together with the food that we are eating. This is all part of the joy of being Christians together with each other. Just being together like this is how the Lord renews His love amongst us.

Coming back to forgiveness, we must remember that it is not an option. It is born out of love. As I was saying earlier, this forgiveness must always be there. It is a big challenge for us – how to give this forgiveness when we have been grievously hurt, offended, disappointed, or whatever else. How do we do it ? We cannot just say when our heart is broken : “I will forgive”. It is not easy like that. We cannot simply will to forgive. We cannot just forget about our pain. If we try to forget about it and hide it, the pain (or memory of injury) will eat us from inside, as it does to many people. For instance, people who are alcoholics and drug addicts are very often people who are very, very hurt, and they are trying to pretend that they are not feeling pain. They are trying to hide from it. They are trying to anaesthetise their pain and deny that there is this hurt. They are hiding from it.

The only way out is the Lord’s way out. That way is to ask the Lord, Himself, to be there, and to enable the forgiveness. A person might well ask : “How do you do that ?” The only way I have ever heard or understood that this becomes possible is to follow the advice and direction of Archimandrite Sophrony, who is the spiritual son of Saint Silouan of Mount Athos. (Archimandrite Sophrony, himself, should be officially glorified.) Archimandrite Sophrony says that the best way to enable forgiveness, and to cover every need, wound and fall, is simply to start to say repeatedly for the person or situation in question : “Lord, have mercy”. He would have said, of course : “Kyrie eleison” because he really liked the Greek, which is so expressive.

“Lord, have mercy” does not actually convey the proper meaning when we are trying to understand the meaning of “Kyrie eleison”, or “Gospodi Pomilui” in Slavonic, or “Doamne milueste” in Romanian. “Lord, have mercy” is our inadequate English translation of “Kyrie eleison”, which implies the pouring out of the oil of God’s love on whomever. Greek is very subtle, which is why my mother used to say : “The Greeks have a word for it”. She was right. “Kyrie eleison” means the pouring out of the oil of God’s love, His compassion. In other words, it is bringing His whole Self, His love to bear on this person and on this situation. Let the Lord be between this person, this situation, and me. Let the Lord bring His healing love into this situation. That is what “Lord, have mercy” really means, implies, and effects when we say it over and over again to the Lord. “Lord, pour the oil of Your love upon us”. When we are doing this, the Lord brings healing, life, and light to the person we need to forgive. In time, He brings softness and warmth to our hearts. When we say this prayer enough times, praying for the other person, our hearts are themselves healed. This is how the Lord works with us.

I exhort you, please, to remember that forgiveness for an Orthodox Christian is not an option. It is a way of life. It is our way of life : living in forgiveness, praying for those who persecute us, blessing those who persecute us. This is just what our Lord in the Beatitudes and the Apostle Paul in his letters are exhorting us to do. Blessing them, we pray for those who are hurting us.

I cannot not mention Saint Juvenaly in Alaska. It is well-know that Saint Juvenaly in Alaska was martyred. He was killed by Aboriginal people who did not understand why he was coming and what he was doing. According to our modern interpreters, the descendants of the people that killed him (who subsequently became Orthodox Christians, and are so to this day) say that their ancestors saw Saint Juvenaly coming on a boat, and they tried to ward him off, but he would not go away. He kept coming, and so they began to shoot at him with arrows. They thought that he was “cuckoo” because it looked to them as though he were trying to brush the arrows away as if they were mosquitoes. Their descendants came to understand (and the modern interpreters also understand), that he was making the sign of the Cross on himself and on the people who were killing him. He was blessing the people who were killing him. They did not understand the sign of the Cross at the time. He is not, by any means, the first of martyrs who is known to have been doing this.

There are many martyrs who have blessed those who were killing them. This is the real way of the Christian. This is the way of life and forgiveness. This has to be in the front of our hearts and our minds every waking and sleeping moment of every day. We can only accomplish this if we are living in the love of Jesus Christ, to whom be glory, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.