Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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The unmerciful debtor


The Savior said more than once, "Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven" (Luke 6:37; cf. Mark 11:25-26), setting our forgiveness of our neighbors as the condition for our forgiveness by the Lord. In one of Christ's talks with His disciples about forgiveness, His instruction on the loving and cautious reproval of a brother who has sinned provoked a question from the Apostle Peter, concerning how many times one must forgive someone who has offended.

The Scribes taught that one could forgive only three times. The Apostle Peter wished to exceed the righteousness of the Old Testament, so raised the number to seven. But Christ, Who urged us to make one's heart pure and bright by all-forgiving love, answers, that one must forgive until 70 times seven, that is, without any limit at all. To make this clear to Peter, Christ told the parable of the unmerciful debtor.

"Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshiped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow-servants, which owed him an hundred denarii: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou begged me: shoulds not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every brother his trespasses" (Matthew 18:23-35).

The meaning is clear. The king is the Lord, "to Whom all power is given . . . in heaven and in earth" (Matthew 28:18). The king's servants are we insolvent debtors to the Lord. Although our sinfulness makes us unworthy of God's loving kindness, the Lord, through the death of His Son on the Cross, has forgiven us our offenses.

The Kingdom of Heaven is compared unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. Whatever takes place in the Kingdom of Heaven, in the Church of Christ, can be likened to the occasion when the king in the parable wanted to settle accounts with his servants, that is, to require an accounting from them. The King of Heaven has the right to require an accounting of all our thoughts, desires, words, and deeds at any time. We must give Him this accounting, which means to live according to the laws of the Gospel. A great mercy from God is for Him to let us settle our accounts, to pay our debts through repentance. It is most fearful to depart from this world with debts that we cannot pay or repent of in another world.

And when the king had begun to reckon, one servant was brought unto him, who owed him 10,000 talents. The servant brought to the king stood before the face of God. In the parable, 10,000 talents was an enormous sum and a metaphor for an uncountable sum. The debt weighed upon the servant, who wanted so much to be debt free. He may have been glad to stand before the king and to ask for an extension. We may say that he was not brought forcibly, but came after an insistent invitation.

Our fall is so great that we cannot come to God alone. Only a few people, pure in heart, can come to Him alone. Most sinners are brought, by the prayers of the saints, or by misfortune, illness, and other trials that help break us away from passions of this world and remind us about theafter life. The Lord also sends us experienced spiritual directors, both living people or the Holy Fathers in their books.

According to Blessed Theophilact, Archbishop of Bulgaria, the unusual debtor is not one man, but all of humanity. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov writes that each of our sins is significant, since each offends God. Our sins are as numberless as the talents in the parable. The 10,000 talents are our sins against God's Ten Commandments, our total debts of ingratitude for God's countless mercies toward us. We live in sin and each day increase our debt to God.

Inasmuch as he could not pay 10,000, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, to make payment. This seeming cruelty of the king is disturbing to some. Why did the lord sell both the wife and the children and all that the servant had when their loss means he could never pay his debt.

Hierarch John Chrysostom explains: "Not out of cruelty or inhumanity, but in order to frighten the servant, and thereby to spur him on to submissiveness, without any intention of selling him! For, if he had had this in mind, then he would not have heeded his request and would not have shown him his loving-kindness. He only wanted to make the servant understand how many debts he was forgiving him, and through this means to compel him to be more lenient toward his fellow-debtor. For, if, having realized both the weight of his debt and the greatness of the forgiveness, he nevertheless began to choke his fellow servant, then what extent of cruelty would he not have reached, if he had not previously been made to understand by such means?"

In desperation, the servant fell down, and worshiped him, saying, "Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all." Terror provoked humility in the servant. Then the lord of that servant was moved to compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. The same thing takes place with every sinner, when he realizes the whole depth of his fall and the extent of his debt before God.

When we turn to God with repentance and a sincere promise to correct ourselves, then the Lord is ready at that second to grant us complete remission of sins. Hierarch John Chrysostom remarks concerning this: "what power prayer has! This debtor showed neither fasting nor indifferent to riches--nothing of the kind; however, when he, bereft and devoid of every virtue, only asked his lord, then he succeeded in inclining him to mercy. Let us not weaken in our prayers. Dost thou not have boldness? For this, then, approach, in order to acquire great boldness. He Who wishes to be reconciled with thee is not a man before whom thou must be ashamed and blush; it is God, Who desires more than thou to free thee from sin. Thou dost not desire thy safety so much as He seeks thy salvation."

The Lord's forgiveness is heavenly grace, which does not act automatically, but only after the participation of the believer. Of course, the Lord could forgive His servant unilaterally, without repentance, but He wants the debtor to learn from experience and to forgive debts in his own life too.

But this same servant goes out [that is, from repentance and humility], and finds a fellow-servant who owes him 100 dinarii. The first servant forgets about God. If he has remembered about God, then he would be kinder. But he lays hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, "Pay me that thou owest." This sum was so insignificant that it is awkward to name it. The desire to get the sum brings the ungrateful servant to choke his fellow-servant. He claims his own judgment by one standard, but he uses another standard to judge his debtors. He enjoyed the King's love and mercy, but he himself shows no mercy toward others.

Often we see such behavior towards debtors, when we are angry or we remember some offense by someone, and when we mutter offensive words, to choke our neighbor. Our hostile gaze, unnoticed by us ourselves, can harm someone. We can harm his good name when we spread all kinds of false stories about him, choking our neighbor.

We should relate the ungrateful words "pay me" to ourselves. After all, we may demand that someone who has sinned against us offer us satisfaction. If he has caused us material injury, we want him to reimburse us immediately; and if he has offended us, then we demand an apology, We may want him to suffer for his sin to satisfy our self-love. We forget the Savior's words: "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Matthew 7:2).

"And his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all." Who does not recall that heartfelt sympathy which we experience when someone asks forgiveness of us? At times we feel awkward; we are ready to forgive and forget everything immediately. But it was not so with the servant: And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. He was implacable. He was blinded by his pitilessness, not at all realizing that by this he is condemning himself. Such blindness always accompanies one who becomes stern and cruel, who "departs from God," that is, leaves the true path and forgets God's mercy. When we demand immediate satisfaction from one, we are confining ourselves in the prison of alienation from God. We can no longer recite the Lord's Prayer-"Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."

God does not accept prayer by a man unready to forgive his neighbor. The specific words of the Lord are - "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there remember that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." (Matthew 5:23-24).

We learn that bystanders sympathized with the fellow servant who suffered because of the ungrateful servant: "So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done." Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky), following the Holy Fathers of the Church, writes that parable fellow-servants are angels and saints, our benefactors in heaven.

"Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou begged me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him." Usually, the words "delivered . . . to the tormentors" are taken to mean that God consigns His debtors to eternal torment. But then who can be saved? One must understand tormentors as temporal afflictions, misfortunes, illnesses, and so forth. When we sin, we are directed by desire for enjoyment. Affliction is a fitting redemption of that sin.

But only Christ gives complete redemption. "I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?" These words mean that our lack of desire to forgive our neighbor offends God's loving-kindness and His trust in us. We must soften our hearts, while we can. We must remember God's mercies. Let us heed the meaning of this parable to fulfill Christ's commandment: "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive and ye shall be forgiven" (Luke 6:37).

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