Today we hear a beautiful reading, one of the parables of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In each of these parables we are fortunate enough to receive a glimpse into the mind of God and His kingdom. In fact in this particular parable our Lord says “the kingdom of heaven is like…” and He continues from there. The point of this powerful parable today is regarding forgiveness. There is nothing quite so powerful in the life of a child of God as forgiveness. This year Great and Holy Lent was quite unique and it was interrupted in some ways by our focus on covid and the changes that each of our families had to make at the time. But right before all of that happened we did what we do as Orthodox Christians at the beginning of Lent. We came together on a Sunday night for forgiveness vespers. If you have never experienced forgiveness vespers, I am not sure what I can tell you to help you understand and appreciate this event. It is one of the single most important days in the life of an Orthodox Christian community. It helps us to solidify our love for one another and our utter need for mercy from one another and from God. It is our admission of failure before God and all men. It is difficult and yet it is necessary and liberating and truly special.
There are good reasons why some cannot participate in any given year, but it is a tragedy when we are not all together for forgiveness vespers. Why is this the way that we start our lenten struggle every year? Because the Church is teaching her children that forgiveness is the key to the doorway of the kingdom of God. Without forgiveness, everything is lost. Without forgiveness we cannot even begin to make a start at repentance and the foundation that we are building upon is not solid ground. It will all crumble. So it really is very sad when people choose not to attend that amazing service.
We talk a lot about forgiveness, but what does forgiveness actually look like? Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory once wrote “The first commandment is that you love God with all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and the second is that you love your neighbor as yourself. The only way you can prove you love God is by loving your neighbor, and the only way you can love your neighbor in this world is by endless forgiveness.” How much forgiveness? Endless forgiveness.
The safe way to deal with everyone is to quickly ask forgiveness when you have wronged others. It is even better to ask forgiveness when you have not really wronged others but they believe that you have. It is a great form of humility when you ask forgiveness although you may not have done wrong, as long as you do it with the proper spirit and joy.
St. John of Kronstadt writes “Besides loving each other, we must bear with each other and pardon and ‘forgive them that trespass against us’ in order that our heavenly Father may ‘forgive us our trespasses’ (Mt. 6:14). Thus, with all your soul honor and love in every man the image of God, not regarding his sins, for God alone is Holy and without sin; and see how He loves us, how much He has created and still creates for us, punishing us mercifully and forgiving us bounteously and graciously. Honor the man also, in spite of his sins, for he can always amend.”
In marriage this is often the case between a husband and a wife. Regardless of who is actually right or wrong, what is first necessary is to ask forgiveness and to actually forgive so that healing can begin. Instead of competing for justice or our personal rights, the husband and the wife should compete to outshine one another in mercy and forgiveness. We also live the life of the Church as a family and this practice helps to keep the whole church healthy and stable. You may have noticed that twice during the Divine Liturgy, the priest will turn around and bow low. Each time he is asking the Lord to forgive the people and asking the people to forgive him of all his sins, so that he can approach Christ at the holy table, with a pure conscience having fulfilled the requirements of the gospel to reconcile with all men first.
As I mentioned a moment ago, it is a great form of humility when you ask forgiveness although you may not have done wrong, as long as you do it with the proper spirit and joy. What we are saying in effect is this “I am sorry for whatever I have done, knowingly or unknowingly to hurt or wrong you. Please forgive me.” Conversely, it is the ultimate pride and delusion when someone comes to you to ask forgiveness and you attach conditions to your ability to forgive them, or you refuse to do so. Can you begin to imagine the sin that you have committed before God?Is God’slove conditional? Certainly not. He pours out His mercy on His creation and on mankind, the pinnacle of His creation. So we have to learn to do two things, approach others and ask forgiveness of them and also accept others with generosity when they approach us. If we don’t learn those two things we are still a long way from the kingdom. But if we learn them, God will be near to our hearts and will make His home in our hearts.
Listen to the words of the holy elder Sampson of Russia “The drunkard, the fornicator, the proud – he will receive God’s mercy. But he who does not want to forgive, to excuse, to justify consciously, intentionally … that person closes himself to eternal life before God, and even more so in the present life. He is turned away and not heard.”
Siblings, forgive one another. Friends, forgive one another. Spouses, forgive one another. Children, forgive your parents and parents forgive your children. If you have been causing strife online or in social media, even there you should ask forgiveness. If people have offended you by their thoughts or opinions or way of life, forgive them also, because only then will you be open to receive God’s forgiveness. So it is not a laughing matter that we learn to forgive one another. Let’s take this seriously and approach it with joy because the Lord Jesus is teaching us out of His love for us and He is giving us a roadmap to peace in our lives and to a swift entrance into His kingdom! Glory be to God forever AMEN.