To the Depths of Sheol
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 12, 2018 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.
The reading is from the Gospel according to Matthew 18:23-35
Today we hear about forgiveness and unforgiveness. This is one of the major themes of the Good News.
We must know first of all that there is no unforgiveness in God. Unforgiveness is entirely a human thing. We decide to forgive or not to forgive. God always forgives for He is forgiveness itself. The Holy Trinity is an unfathomable ocean of compassion.
And just when I think I have nothing else to learn about it, something significant and utterly new strikes me - something that is right before our very eyes year after year after year and yet I never saw it. I will get to that in a moment.
First, let’s bring out a few elements of the parable we heard today.
The servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' Actually, no he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. It was a false promise on its face.
How much is 10,000 talents? Well, 1 talent equaled 3,000 shekels or 6,000 denarii. Thus the debt of ten thousand talents was about 60,000,000 denarii. The servant in a hundred lifetimes could never pay such a debt!
But the power of forgiveness wipes away every debt as far, says Jesus, “as the east is from the west.” We read in the First Letter of Peter that, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 4:8) Here then is an example by way of parable. And yet, as a sign of God’s limitless desire to forgive, Jesus tells us that the king had so much compassion that he forgave the whole of his astronomical debt unconditionally. In other words, the king forgives “from his heart” holding nothing back. That’s what it means to “forgive from the heart.” It means holding nothing back and refusing to put anyone out of our hearts.
Secondly, Roman society was heavily stratified. The rich had safety, security, and power. The poor had none of these. The community of Christ’s followers, the church, began as a safe haven for the dispossessed. It is no secret that Jesus loved and congregated with the poor and that they flocked to him. The parable points to the mercy of God towards all including the lowest of the low. This was something new in the world and part of the uniqueness of the Good News. “Come unto me all of you that are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest,” was a clarion call to the poor, to the devalued, and to the stranger. No one including the greatest sinner is left outside of Christ’s heart. Remember: we only love God as much as we love the person we hate the most.
Thirdly, forgiveness brings joy. Unforgiveness brings despair. The forgiven servant is joyful and yet unwilling to share his joy with his fellow servant. Thus, he angers the king and ends up being sent to the “torturers.” Unforgiveness is like holding on to burning coals. The only one who gets hurt in the end is the one who holds on. The “torturer” in the parable is no one but the Unforgiving Servant himself. When we forgive, we are filled with relief, peace, and joy. When we don’t, we suffer. The burden of hate is so heavy! It is our choice. Relief or suffering.
Finally, let me relate to you the new and beautiful thing I learned from my reading and meditation this week. I read a lot and more than one book at a time. So, I was skipping back and forth between St. Gregory of Nyssa, Joseph Campbell, and Aleksandr Solzhenitysn and was struck by something that stopped me in my tracks. It came from Joseph Campbell’s book THOU ART THAT and has to do with a wonderful insight he had about the crucifixion.
Here it is.
Jesus was crucified between two criminals. One confessed faith in him and the other reviled him. Now notice. On one hand Jesus ascended into Paradise with the thief who confessed him. “Today, you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus said to him. How wonderful is God’s love! Now see just how wonderful!
On the other hand:
With the thief who reviled him Jesus descended in Sheol. With the one, he ascended and with the other he descended. Jesus was pastor and shepherd to both!
Here are some verses that are apropos, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5), “Even if I go into the depths of Sheol, lo, you are there!” (Psalms 139:8) “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I would also refer you to the parable of the Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep. God abandons no one, even those who revile him.
This insight moved me. How deep is the power of forgiveness? It rises to the heights of heaven and lowers itself into the depths of hell. I am utterly convinced, that God never puts anyone out of his heart. And it is our calling as Christians, as well, to never put anyone out of our hearts, to embrace all of humanity, and to ascend and descend as the need may be. That is, in the words of St. Paul, to “become all things to all people.” (I Cor 9:22)