Forgiveness is not an Option

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Forgiveness is not an Option
11th Sunday after Pentecost
23 August, 2009
1 Corinthians 9:2-12 ; Matthew 18:23-35

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

This parable on forgiveness that our Lord addresses to us today came after the question of the Apostle Peter : “‘How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’” (Matthew 18:21) Then our Lord tells this parable about the king who is owed an enormous amount of money. At first, the debtor is going to be sold, with his wife and his children and all that he had, and thus payment be made. However, when the debtor does not forgive a person who owes him a paltry sum of money, the king takes back his forgiveness and sends him to the prison keepers this time, until the debt should be paid. Our Lord says to us : “‘So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses’”.

It is very important for us to remember this warning that the Lord gives us about forgiveness. Forgiveness is something that we all find quite difficult to do, and yet our Saviour is saying to us that this is not an option. It is the fundamental way of life for a Christian. So much is it so, that this forgiveness is mentioned in the Our Father in precisely the same sort of terms that we heard in the parable today. The prayer says that we are asking our heavenly Father to forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. (“As we have forgiven” is the exact translation.) We are asking God to forgive us as much as we forgive everyone else. When we are praying this prayer, we are acknowledging that if we do not forgive other people, we cannot expect God to forgive us. Everything is exactly in proportion.

What about this forgiveness ? Yesterday, the Lord was speaking to us about the necessity to maintain a loving relationship in marriage. He was speaking about how essential this relationship of love in marriage is, and how important it is to avoid, if at all possible, breaking this relationship of marriage. People who are married have to have experience, then, of this forgiveness on a daily basis. When people commit themselves to each other in the relationship of marriage and they become one (as our Saviour says), they are expressing in their love, and in their union, the love of God. Christ is in the middle of that marriage. They are expressing this love. As we all know, there is a Mr-down-below whom I nickname (at the instigation of an old friend) “Big Red”, who specialises in dividing. I have not yet encountered a marriage in which the couple was not tempted in many ways by the Divider.

The commitment in love is tested over and over again. As a result of this, I have heard from experienced married couples (including my own parents), that it is very important to follow the exhortation of the Apostle Paul, and to end every day forgiving one another (see Ephesians 4:26). If there is any sort of misunderstanding, disagreement, suspicion between the husband and the wife at the end of the day, it is essential to talk it through, pray it through, and find the way to mutual forgiveness and harmony. This is more important than sleep. If anyone does not forgive before going to sleep, the bitterness of whatever it is will be there upon rising in the morning, and it will already have festered and even swollen overnight. It will poison the next day, and it will continue to fester and swell. It is crucial, says our Saviour, that we live in this state of constant forgiveness with each other, married or not.

There is more yet to be said about forgiveness. When we hear people in Canadian society generally talking about forgiveness, it seems that they may well be implying that forgiveness means merely by determination and an act of will to put aside the pain, the grudge, the resentment. (C S Lewis reports that his mentor, George MacDonald, said that it is possible even to become a grudge.) Thus, they suppose that just by sheer will power the pain and the anger and the resentment are put in a closet, hidden away, covered up, denied and forgotten. However, things that are painfully said or done are not so easily put away, forgotten or let go. Pain from very sharp and untrue things that are said lasts a long time. What do we do ? How do we cope with this ? The Lord, Himself, has given us the sense of the way, which I keep repeating over and over again, as it is the only way I know. Saint Silouan and Archimandrite Sophrony both point out that in the words of our Saviour in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:44), the attitude of what to do is given to us. We have to bless and pray for those who hurt us and persecute us. How do we do that ? They both say that the simple way, and in fact, the effective way is to say repeatedly : “Lord, have mercy” for the person who has hurt us.

Whatever is the language of our heart is the language in which we have to say this prayer. In French it has to be : “Seigneur sois miséricordieux” (and not the shortcut “Prends pitié” or “Aie pitié”) ; in Greek : “Kyrie eleison” ; in Slavonic : “Gospodi pomilui”, and in Romanian : “Doamne milueste”. Sad to say, English does not have a very good way of saying this prayer. “Lord have mercy” in the way that we understand it popularly is not so good. We have to translate the meaning of “Lord have mercy” before we can even start praying this prayer. “Lord have mercy” does not mean that we are asking God to spare us from punishment, and to hold back on His wrath against us. Sadly, that is how most people understand this prayer.

This prayer really means that we are asking the Lord to be present in His loving-kindness to us, and to whomever we are praying for. We are asking Him to be present in His love. When we are asking Him to be present in His love, we are not asking Him to do anything in particular. We are not telling Him what to do. We are simply asking Him to be amongst, between, and in us. When I am praying for people who have hurt me, asking the Lord to address it, to be there, to be with us, and in us, the Lord’s healing does come to my irritated heart. Peace can come to my disturbed and perturbed heart. The more I feel tempted to be irritated or upset about something someone else did or said, the more I should say this prayer, asking the Lord to be present, and allowing His peace to come into my heart. When this is occurring, and the peace is arriving in my heart, the Lord is also changing the relationship between me and the person who has hurt me. This is possible for each and every one of us. This is the way the Lord has given us to achieve this forgiveness. We cannot simply forget something. However, the Lord can heal it. The Lord can change the character of the memory, and the Lord can actually bring a change to the other person, too.

I still love to repeat the example of Saint Juvenaly, the priest-martyr of Alaska, and the effects of his forgiveness of the people who were killing him. The people who were shooting arrows at him thought that he was crazy because it looked to them as though he were waving his hands as if to brush away mosquitoes. In fact, he was blessing the people with his hand. He was blessing the people who were killing him. However, the fruit of that blessing in his death is that there are people in that part of Alaska who have an oral tradition alive to this day of how their families came to Christ after the death of Saint Juvenaly. There are still Orthodox Christians there to this day (about 200 years later) because their families embraced the forgiveness that was extended by Saint Juvenaly, the priest-martyr, to them and their ancestors. This forgiveness has many fruits in the deaths of other martyrs, but this example is “close to home”, and that is why I like to talk about it so frequently.

For us, forgiveness is not an option. Forgiveness is a way of life. It is our way of life, because our way is Christ. He, Himself, forgave everyone from the Cross. He forgave His killers. He forgave those who were mocking Him. He forgave His betrayers. He forgave everyone from the Cross. It is our way as Christians to find the way to live every day in the way of forgiveness in Christ. Let us follow the example of our Saviour, involving Him in every minute in every relationship in which we are engaged, in every action, and reaction. In so doing, may we glorify Him, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.