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Orthodox Spirituality

Sermons of Archpriest Anthony B. Gavalas

Seventy Times Seven

Eleventh Sunday of St. Matthew
18/31 August 2003

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

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Today's parable follows as an amplification of a response that our Savior gave to St. Peter when St. Peter asked Him Lord, if my brother should sin against me, how many times should I forgive him? Up to seven times? And our Lord said to him Seven times? Seventy times seven!

Now our Lord knew very well that we are not going to number and sit and count -- although I'm sure that there are some people who might -- 490 times. The number that He gave to St. Peter was one of those numbers in Scripture that has to do with an infinite number, a very large number, a great number. And so it is that our Savior wanted to make sure -- because this matter of forgiveness is central to the message of Jesus Christ; it is not something that is stuck on as an afterthought, as an appendix -- the matter of forgiveness among us, among us who are children of God, and from us children of God even to the wider world -- for we must never limit ourselves in such virtue only to the household of God, to those people who are of the Church. For this is one of those virtues that must be extended by us to every living human being, to every person who has ever lived we must extend this concept of forgiveness to everyone. And we must do it with the knowledge that it is central and basic to our salvation, not something that we can take casually; it's not something that we can take if we want, and if we don't want to we can leave it. It is not optional. It is central to our salvation.

Our Lord has made it obvious that it is central by making the parable an image of the Kingdom of Heaven. He said the Kingdom of Heaven is like this, and He goes on to say the parable that we heard today, the parable wherein the King, Who is no one other than the Holy Trinity, forgives a great debt owed by a servant, a huge debt, for all of us have sinned, our holy father St. John the Evangelist says, "We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God." All of us have sinned, and when we sin against God's law, and when we sin against God's will, we sin infinitely. For the will of God, and the law of God is not like man-made laws, it is not like the will of man, but it is God's will and God's law. Therefore our sins are huge regardless of how small we might think they are.

Having been forgiven these great, these extraordinary, these infinitely terrible sins, what must our response be to God, except one of thankfulness; what must our response be to our Savior but one of gratitude; what must our response be but wanting to respond, to return this favor of forgiveness in the best way that we can?

God does not need our forgiveness; God does not need our patience; God does not need anything from us. But what He wants from us--and it is central to our salvation--He wants us to forgive one another. And He puts everything into perspective: the sins that He has forgiven us are huge; they are a thousand talents. A thousand talents is a very, very large amount of money. And the sins that people have committed against us, what are they like? They are a few pennies. Very clearly does our Lord compare the offenses that we commit against Him and the offenses that we commit against one another. He wants us to forgive each other; He wants us to forgive all of the offenses, all of the grievances, all of the insults, all of the slights, all of the damages.

But what is our response whenever we are offended? We take it so much to heart. Someone fails to greet us; someone has cost us a job or money; someone has impugned our good name; someone has said something unkind about a member of our family; someone has stolen from us. And we forget, we disregard the great offenses that we have been forgiven, and we respond in kind. And we respond with bitterness, and with harshness, and harsh words, and justification of ourselves, and any of the other fruits of our pride. Because whenever we respond to an insult or to a hurt with anything except for forgiveness, we are responding out of our pride. We act as if we are someone who deserves to be treated better, and we forget our indebtedness and our miserableness before God.

A humble man cannot be upset by anyone. A humble man cannot be insulted; a humble man cannot be grieved; a humble man cannot be disturbed. A humble man responds like that great abba, that great father of the desert, St. Moses the Ethiopian. St. Moses was a terrible man before he was converted to the Faith. He was an Ethiopian man, a black man; he was the head of a band of thieves, a band of highway robbers, a violent man, a man who was so fierce and so feared that his biographer tells us that when people would just look at him they would tremble so that they would lose their teeth. And when he became a Christian, and a monk his stature was such, and his humility was such that he became renowned among the great fathers of his time.

He had been ordained to the holy priesthood, and some fathers wished to test to see just exactly how much this humility had actually gone to the bone, if it had really taken hold in this former highway robber. There was a day then when there was to be a great concelebration of the priests among the fathers. And St. Moses went into the altar to put his vestments on like the other priests. And the other fathers to test him, one of the fathers said to him What are you doing here? Get our of here! Your soul is just as black as your skin is! You have no place here in the holy altar of the Church. St. Moses was not the least bit offended. And he took his vestments, bound them into a little bundle, and was heard speaking as he left the holy altar You know, they're absolutely right. I haven't made a beginning to my repentance, I have no place among these fathers. They did well to send me away.

Who of us would have responded in such a way? Who of us would have seen this insult as an opportunity to once again examine ourselves and forgive, forgive, and forgive? Because my beloved brothers and sisters the centrality, this teaching of forgiveness is central to my salvation. Our Savior Himself showed forgiveness when He was here upon the earth giving us an example. When He passed through a village that refused to accept Him, His disciples James and John said Why don't you send down bolts of lightening and destroy them for their insolence? From which James and John received the name by which they are known, the Sons of Thunder.

And our Savior told them I didn't come to destroy people, I came to save them. And even from the Cross, where our Savior was abused unto death Forgive them, Father, for they don't know what they're doing.

My beloved brothers and sisters, our entire day, every day of our life has to be one for forgiveness, and forgiveness, and forgiveness. Because otherwise as we're saying our prayers in the evening, and we're still bearing grudges, and we're still bearing hurts and angers, how can we say without trembling from fright And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, as we say the Lord's prayer as part of our evening prayers? For in that prayer alone we are giving God permission to forgive us just as we forgive others. And if we have not forgiven others how do we lay down and sleep knowing that in our lack of forgiveness God has not forgiven us?

The centrality of this teaching, the importance of this teaching cannot be overstated. Let it therefore not be thought of as some sort of a moral story that I'm telling you, some sort of an edifying tale. This is theology in its purest form; this is understanding of God's will and about God in the most useful way possible, for it is not speculation, and not dealing with those sublime, exalted truths with which the holy fathers were able and tried to explain to us of lowly mind. This is something that every one of us understands. Now it's for us to apply it. Someone has grieved you, someone has insulted you, someone has brought you great loss. Compared with the sins that we have committed against God's law: it is pennies. And we must forgive if we expect to be forgiven. For this is the will of God; this is His teaching; this is what we must understand so that we can be saved, so we can go to heaven, so we can keep company with the Holy Trinity and the saints.

To our God in Trinity Who has saved us, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit be glory and honor unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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