How Not to Perish Eternally

The Ungrateful Servant
The Ungrateful Servant

“God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17). Our Lord Jesus Christ came to dwell among us sinners in order to heal us, to forgive us, to save us, to lift us up once again to our primal glory, and indeed far higher: He came to exalt our human nature to the very throne of God itself, to deify us, to make us in very truth “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

So when we hear the Lord threaten to revoke every single one of these gifts, to rescind every single one of the innumerable blessings He has bestowed upon us, and to instead deliver us to dreadful and eternal torments, we should immediately — with much fear and trembling — take great heed to what our Savior is trying to tell us. Scarcely has a more necessary injunction ever been given in the holy temple of God than when the deacon exclaimed just before today’s Gospel passage: “Let us attend!”

Our Savior begins His parable by telling us the story of ourselves, of every single Christian who has ever repented before Almighty God. He speaks of a servant owing a great and unfathomable debt, one which he does not have even the slightest hope of ever repaying. In the parable of the talents, the Lord described those who were given one, two, or perhaps even five talents; truly the gifts of God are great and precious, and some have calculated a single talent to have been worth the wages of six years of labor. So when we hear today that the servant owed ten thousand talents, we must understand that such a sum was utterly impossible for him to acquire.

We must also understand that even such an estimate is actually a mere pittance in comparison to our true debt to God. He created us out of nothing, in His own image and likeness, and set us to rule over all creation. Then, after we scorned His love and, maddened by desire, trampled upon even the one tiny and easily-fulfilled commandment He had given to us for our own good, He did not abandon or destroy us as we so undoubtedly deserved. Instead He labored tirelessly and unstintingly and by any means possible — throughout all the many long centuries — not merely to return us to the lost Paradise, but rather to raise us up infinitely higher and to bestow upon us the very Kingdom of Heaven itself! Can ten thousand talents purchase Paradise? Can ten hundred thousand talents purchase the Kingdom of God?

And this is to say nothing of the many and grievous sins which we commit daily, not only those done in ignorance before our baptism, but also even after our illumination, and very often even on the days when we have received into ourselves a gift more precious beyond compare than the entire universe many times over — the very Body and Blood of Christ Himself! No, my brothers and sisters, ten thousand talents do not begin to cover even a single day’s interest on the true debt that we owe to God.

Yet all this has been given to us freely, though we would never have dared to ask for half so much from the Lord. The servant in today’s parable asked only for patience, for an extension in order to pay the remainder of his unpayable debt. Indeed, it seems that the servant was unable to grasp the insurmountable magnitude of his predicament; and we too, when we pray to the Lord, very often have little comprehension of how great our sins truly are, or how much gratitude we really ought to have for all the many mercies and compassions which our loving God pours out so richly upon us every moment of every day.

Yet despite this, the love of God is so great that He is moved with compassion, and freely grants all of these things which I have mentioned — the forgiveness of sins, the bestowal of the Heavenly Kingdom, and union with God Himself — merely because we humbly ask for His mercy. And make no mistake: this is not something which He promises to do in the future, in some far-removed time and place, but right here, right now, most especially during the Divine Liturgy. We stand already in the Eschaton, beyond time and beyond space, entered even now into the eternal worship of the Heavenly Kingdom.

So as I said, all of these things have already been given. Yet the terrible truth that Christ speaks to us in today’s parable is that it is possible to lose all of them in an instant, and to — despite everything — perish eternally.

Truly, “let us attend!” Because the Lord reveals to us in today’s Gospel the one sin that has the power to destroy us so instantly and so totally. Most of our sins, as terrible as they are, are not capable of driving away God’s mercy, as St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “just as a strongly flowing spring is not obstructed by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures” (Homily 51). But there is one sin that does have the power to drive away God’s mercy. That sin is mercilessness. That sin is the lack of love.

It is as St. Paul wrote:

Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

I Corinthians 13:2-3

Why is this sin so terrible? Why does this sin have the power to demolish utterly not only every virtue which we may have managed to acquire, but even all the many and countless efforts which God Himself has made on our behalf? Let us turn again to the words of St. Isaac the Syrian:

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy… because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.

Homily 71

The answer is precisely this: a merciful heart is the likeness of God. And if we reject such a heart, then we of necessity reject God Himself. And how then can we be saved, how then can we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven? After all, salvation is not some state of arbitrary pleasure or reward which God chooses to bestow or withhold; rather, salvation is union with God Himself, as the Lord Christ has said: “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent“ (John 17:3).

So when we, like the wicked servant, take our brother by the throat and begin to make demands, when we refuse to show even a small reflection of the mercy which God Himself has bestowed so abundantly upon us, then it is not so much God’s choice that condemns us to eternal torments, but rather our own choice to reject mercy — the very substance of salvation — that casts us into “the fire that never shall be quenched (Mark 9:41).

Christians! Let us never — not once in our lives — demand to be given anything by anybody. Not love, not honor, not respect, certainly not material goods, and not even justice — for as St. Isaac the Syrian writes, “justice does not belong to the Christian way of life, and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teaching” (Homily 51).

Our world today is filled with the voices of those who are making demands of one another, those who cry out for some sort of justice, those who insistently demand what they think they are owed. Let us never forget that as soon as we raise our voices with them, we have already hurtled ourselves into the abyss, we have already rejected the living and most-merciful God! It does not matter one bit if we really have been wronged, if we really are “owed” something by someone. The wicked servant demanded a debt of one hundred pence — in English it sounds like a small amount, but in reality it was almost a third of a year’s wages, not an insignificant sum at all. And certainly, the servant was truly owed such an amount. But St. Isaac the Syrian spells it out quite clearly:

If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot co-exist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul.

Homily 51

Away with all notions of justice! Away with all concern for our “rights”! In the Epistle lesson we have just heard, St. Paul himself renounced all of his rights as an Apostle — and even as a human being — out of his great love for Christ, for the Gospel, and for all those whom he labored throughout all his life to save. Let us then follow this godly example, imitating his faith that we might also receive some small portion of his heavenly reward.

Besides, what is our alternative? We will never be able to correct every injustice of this fallen world, nor even the tiniest portion of them. And so when we continue to insist on justice, when we continue to remember wrongs, we only fill our souls with bitterness and resentment — and resentment, in the words of St. Augustine, is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. When we follow such a path, even our own virtues and good deeds will avail us nothing, for as St. Isaac the Syrian also writes: “Good works and mercilessness are before God like a man slaughtering a son before his father” (Homily 51).

And after all, who ever told us to expect justice? Who ever told us that we ought to be treated well? Listen to the words of St. Paisios of Mt. Athos:

From now on, I will pray for others not to ever have a good opinion about you, for this will be to your benefit, my good child. God provides for people to wrong us or tell us some disturbing word that may help us redeem some debt of sin or to add to our treasure in Heaven. I cannot understand what you expect the spiritual life to be. You have not yet come to realize what is to your spiritual benefit, and you expect to be paid in full here; you leave nothing for Heaven. Why do you see things this way? What are you reading?

“Spiritual Struggle”

To insist therefore on justice is the result of unbelief and lack of faith in the future life. It is the province of those whose only hope is in this fallen and swiftly-passing world. It has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, and Christians must have absolutely nothing to do with it — on peril of our eternal souls.

For let us also heed the warning of Elder Arsenie of Romania: “One of man’s greatest mistakes is that he runs away from the Cross, he flees suffering.” We must never forget that a Christian should never expect anything from anyone in this world other than the Cross: the spitting, the scourging, the mocking, the ingratitude, the derision, the pain, the torment, and finally — death. The Cross is the only thing that a Christian is owed in this world.

But there is nothing in all the wide world that is greater.

Let us then embrace the Cross not bitterly, not with resentment, not with regret, but rather with profound joy and the greatest gratitude, for truly “through the Cross joy has come to all the world.” It was the Cross that the Savior meant when He said: “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). But we must first take it up willingly and gratefully before we will begin to experience the truth of these words.

Today’s parable is not, however, a warning only. It is also a great and holy promise, and a source of boundless hope and joy to those who take heed to it with their lives. Because it reveals to us the swiftest shortcut and the easiest pathway toward salvation. Just as those who have every virtue but lack love and mercy will undoubtedly perish, so too those of us who are filled with countless sins, passions, and vices can nevertheless be quickly and easily saved, if only we show mercy to others. If only we forgive others, then even our most grievous sins and all of our innumerable failings will be blotted out in an instant. Though we may say in truth with St. Andrew of Crete that “all the demon-chiefs of the passions have plowed on my back, and long has their tyranny over me lasted” (Great Canon), though we may be overcome many times each day by our passions, though we may be the slaves of various sins, though we may be negligent monks and sorry excuses for Christians, yet nevertheless if only we forgive others, if only we show mercy to others, if only we renounce the few small and petty claims which we may have against one another: we will be saved.

The spiritual life is really quite simple. Ask for God’s mercy. Show that same mercy to others. And the God of Love will Himself take care of everything and will lead us like the Prodigal Son into His Heavenly Kingdom, though we have done nothing to deserve it and have done no good deed in this life. Truly He is a merciful God, and the Lover of Mankind. Let us, therefore, imitate His mercy. Let us struggle with all our might to acquire His love. We need only open our hearts a very little, and the grace of the All-Holy Spirit will not hesitate to come to our aid.

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.

27 comments:

  1. Your message has come to me at a most opportune time in my Orthodox walk. The Providence of our Lord humbles me. Thank you Father. Please include me in your prayers today and forgive me if this request seems presumptuous.

  2. Glory to Jesus Christ!
    How very true are your words about life and the cross! However, as hard as the sacrificial life can be, can you speak on how harmonis and contented it is also? Can we hear some words about how the yoke is light when we are being truly human?

    1. Glory forever!

      Thank you. I tried to touch on this briefly at the end, but you are very right that it needs to have much greater emphasis. And even more, it needs to be lived. What we lack more than anything else is the presence of holy men and women. Words have their uses, but we need above all to be inspired by the living example of the peace and joy of holiness — whether in the person of those still in the flesh, or in the lives and mystical presence of the saints who have gone before us.

      I am far from being such an example. But with God’s help I will strive to correct both my sins and the imbalance of emphasis in my writings on the spiritual life. Pray for me!

  3. Glory to God that through the words of St Isaac and St Paisios, you have brought us closer to an Orthodox understanding of social justice and human rights, the expectation of which negates our real need: learning how to yield ourselves to the suffering allowed by God, that He might raise us up in our himility unto His likeness – even though we have no right to such honor.

    Orthodoxy stands so much of what our culture teaches us, right on its head!

  4. Fr,

    I don’t understand why you are so critical of rights. Are you saying that the right to free speech is a bad thing?

    Forgive me but this is very difficult for me to understand. I look around and I see the right to free speech being stolen. I am actively involved in trying to maintain the traditions of this country whilst also being Orthodox. Your article comes across as quite mocking of those that want to maintain the freedoms of this country.

    Surely, freedom of speech is something that you yourself use in writing this blog and the right to religious freedom is coming under threat.

    Why is the right to freedom of speech and the traditions of the country that you live in such a bad thing?

    1. True, we are losing our rights to freedom of speech. People are being shut down in many aspects of life – schools, blogs, youtube, facebook, business organizations, hospitals and even news broadcasts which are limited and watered down – I have heard and seen where this is going on. We can’t be so closed minded as not to see this happening – even casually. There is a control tactic taking place.

      1. Yes, this is absolutely correct. But let us look to the Holy New Martyrs of the 20th century. No government can take away Christ from us! The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. They can never take away from us our deaths, which Christ has made into the doorway to life eternal!

        1. Yes, I understand. We cannot ignore it completely though while living in it -it will affect everyone from all walks of life. God said that we should not be afraid of what can be done to our bodies, but to our souls! Staying focused as you are pointing out for the doorway to the eternal, is of utmost importance. We were also told not to fear hearing bad news, which seems to be increasing by the day…..dwelling on it is not healthy but we are surrounded and that kind of makes one dwell on it more. I do think we can be prepared by keeping one eye on the situation but keep going on our path at the same time – agree? Or just forge ahead in prayer and fortitude? 🙂

          1. Yes, I agree. We must be mindful of the times, we must do what is in our power according to the place where God has put us, but never losing sight of the truth that this world is not our home, and our only true goal is to reach the Heavenly homeland with as many of our brothers and sisters as possible.

    2. Dear John,

      Thank you for writing. I sincerely ask your forgiveness if I have offended you. I will strive to keep any hint of mockery out of my writings in the future.

      I am one hundred percent in favor of freedom — but true freedom, spiritual freedom, freedom according to the Scriptural and Patristic understanding. Such freedom is fundamentally a matter of the heart. St. Paul was persecuted by everyone: the religious authorities, the political authorities, his own kindred and countrymen. Yet never did there live a freer man than that blessed saint! It is this freedom that I desire all Orthodox Christians to seek.

      One of my concerns with the idea of “rights” is that it puts us in a mindset in which freedom is defined as the absence of external interference (I am actually working on an article on this very subject right now). While I certainly agree that the current persecution of Christian belief, speech, and action is to be deplored, I think that it is to be deplored fundamentally because it fights against God and the salvation of souls — not because it violates a political principle.

      I think we have become far too dependent on a temporal political system for our freedom. We need the freedom — the spiritual courage, determination, fortitude, and self-denial — to speak and live as Christians no matter what external circumstances we find ourselves in. Yes, we should use what we are given by the state, as St. Paul used his citizenship to further his preaching. But the martyrs did not protest that they had a right to freedom of religion or speech or assembly — they joyfully laid their necks beneath the sword (or far worse), and considered their persecutors to be bestowing upon them the greatest gift and the highest crown.

      We lose much of that, perhaps all of that, when we become focused on our rights. They can be tools of good, but never more than that: never ends in themselves, never truly good unless they lead us to God. St. Seraphim of Sarov said that even good deeds without Christ are worthless — similarly, a right that is not exercised for the sake of seeking God does us no good at all. And each of us is perfectly free to seek God just the same when others try to take those rights away from us.

      I certainly do not mock or condemn you for struggling to aid the preaching of the Gospel or the living out of the faith. But as you said, the times of persecution are coming, and are already at the gates. And only firm faith and absolute self-denial — the taking up of the Cross — will enable us to withstand the terrible days ahead. So that is what I am trying to encourage people to cultivate.

      Again, please forgive me for having offended you. If I am missing something here, or if anything I have said is unclear, please let me know.

      1. Also, I will repeat here the addendum I wrote to the main article concerning “rights” on this blog:

        I feel obliged, given some of the responses I have received to this article, to clarify that in writing against the idea of human rights, I am not at all denying the intrinsic worth and value of each and every human being. I am not denying that each one of us is obligated to do absolutely everything in our power to love and to do good to all of our fellow human beings, without exception. I am not even denying that those entrusted with political power and authority are duty-bound to treat each one of their subjects with respect and decency and care and love.

        What I am arguing against is the attitude that society owes us certain things (because that is what a right is: something which society owes to us). An attitude of entitlement — and the conviction that we have the right and the duty to extract such entitlements from society by force — is infinitely far from the spirit of true Christianity. As Christians, we are to expect from this world precisely nothing. Or rather, we are to expect to be crucified.

        Christ meant the words that He said: it is better to be poor than to be rich, it is better to weep than to laugh, it is better to be hungry than to be well fed, it is better to be despised than to be praised. He really meant it when He said to let people mistreat us, and steal from us, and enslave us. He also really meant it when He commanded us to obey those in authority, giving no caveat as to whether they are good rulers or bad, just or unjust, godly or ungodly. St. Paul wrote to those living under the rule of pagan Rome: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”

        These are radical ideas, and to the wise of this world they are folly. But let us never allow ourselves to be shaken from our faithfulness to the folly of the Cross. If anyone was ever owed anything in this world, surely it was Christ — and yet look what He received. And it is no accident that He told His followers to expect the same: “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”

        But let us also always remember what He afterward said: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

        The message of the Cross is that the path to peace and joy is not to be found in eradicating suffering, but rather in embracing with joy and faith whatever suffering the providence of God allows to come upon us for our salvation. All paths that do not lead through the Cross are wrong turns and dead ends, and those who follow them will never come to the paradise for which they seek.

        1. May the God of all Glory uphold you, as you give voice to His Word in these trying times, to we who are starving to hear It. God bless you, Father.

  5. I’m glad you said this place is not our home – haha! It just doesn’t feel homey…..This is also in scriptures that we are sojourners on a journey…..thankyou! Go bless…..

  6. Father, bless.

    In an old post of yours, you said something to the effect of “to someone with rights, everyone looks like an oppressor”. It put into words what I had been feeling but had been unable to articulate.
    Christ has told us, as his followers, what “rights” we will receive in the world: we will be reviled, we will be persecuted, we will suffer for his sake. I feel very uncomfortable when Christians fight tooth and nail (via legislation, for example) to prevent these words of Christ from coming to pass. Rather, we should “count it all joy” when we are considered worthy to suffer even a little for Christ’s sake.
    Thank you for so clearly pointing to the path of salvation. Please pray for me, a sinner.

    Mary

      1. Father bless!

        I agree with everything you have said concerning our society’s fascination with “rights”. In the past I have commented to others that there is no democracy in heaven; there is a throne, and we have no rights before it. It usually results in an incredulous response.

        May you continue to speak clearly and with God’s grace on this subject! Please pray for me, as you do all sinners.

        1. God bless you!

          I think the key is to emphasize that we don’t want something less than rights, but something incomparably greater: mercy, compassion, love. Rights are so petty and so small, so unworthy of the God-given dignity of man and the breadth of the human heart created in the image and likeness of God.

          I will pray for you, as I hope you will pray for me.

          1. I completely agree, Father. The value of humanity is not found in rights but in the grace of God and all with which He embraces us.

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