11th Sunday After Pentecost
In the Gospel reading for today, we hear of a man who was deeply in debt, owing a great fortune to the king. The king wanted to settle his accounts with his servants and therefore demanded the payment of this debt. The poor servant could in no way pay back this great amount and so the king ordered that he and his wife and children should be sold into slavery to repay the debt. The man fell on his knees and begged the king for mercy and patience to give him time to try to pay back what he owed. The king was moved to compassion by the cries of the debtor and, with a loving heart, forgave him everything.
When this man went out he found one of his fellow servants who happened to owe him some small amount of money. This time, the one who had just been forgiven so much, showed no mercy and threw the debtor into prison. When the king heard about this, he called the first man before him and said, ‘You wicked servant, I forgave you the great debt that you owed and you have turned around and shown no mercy on the one who owed you so little.’ In righteous judgment the king put this man into prison until he was able to pay back all that he had originally owed.
Our Lord Jesus Christ concludes this parable telling us that this is how our Heavenly Father will treat each of us unless we forgive our brother from our heart. The message is very clear – if we expect to be forgiven, if we expect to receive mercy, then we must forgive and show love and mercy toward others.
This parable of the debtor brings out a very important concept about the justice and the mercy of God.
The man who owed the great debt begged the king to show mercy… to not deal with him, as we might say, ‘with justice’, which would suggest giving him what he deserved. The man was delinquent on his debt and he may have deserved to go to the debtors’ prison until his debt could be paid. Instead, the king shows mercy and forgives him everything. Later, when this same man refuses to show mercy on his servant, the king unhesitatingly throws him into the prison... meting out his just desserts.
I think many of us tend to think that mercy and justice are not really compatible. If we deal with someone with justice, the person gets what they deserve. If we deal with someone with mercy, we override that justice, in favor of forgiveness.
Yet how often do we hear in Scripture and in our Church Services about the justice and mercy of God? Throughout Scripture these two go hand in hand together.
If God is showing mercy, is he not being just? If God is delivering justice, is he not being merciful?
If we think of justice in the way our culture has taught us to think of it, we equate justice with someone getting what they deserve for a given offense. We see justice as being fair and impartial. If you commit the crime, you do the time.
This concept of justice prevailed in much of the development of Western Christianity. Oversimplifying the theology it would state: mankind sinned, God was offended, He was dutybound by justice to punish us for our offense, and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was the substitutional punishment that saves us from the justice of God. Many Christians actually think that way. God the Son saves us from God the Father. That is not Orthodox Christianity!
We always have to check our conceptions of God against what the Church and the Scriptures teach us. The unfolding revelation of God from the beginning to the incarnation of Christ to the descent of the Holy Spirit and the testimony of the lives of the saints over these two thousand years has been that God is a God of love.
It is easy to understand mercy in the context of a loving God. But what about justice?
I’ll share with you a portion from a sermon by Fr Joseph Gleason of Christ the King Orthodox Church in Illinois. He challenged the notion of justice simply meaning that we get what we deserve. He said: ‘But if justice doesn’t mean getting what you deserve, what does it mean? …suffice it to say that in general the word ‘justice’ means ‘setting things right.’ And in many, many cases, setting things right does not involve giving people what they deserve.
The ultimate focus is not payback for what you did… The real question is, ‘Have things been set right?’ Yes, this wickedness was committed, but has the relationship been restored? And setting things right does not always require retribution. In fact, I would say most of the time, setting things right requires mercy. Setting things right requires forgiveness.
Let us think about the Gospel in that way. Let us think about our families and our friends and every person in our life in the same way. Let us not be out for the jugular; let us not be out to give people what they deserve. Let us not ask God for justice in the sense of the judge bringing down the gavel… Let us seek to set things right between ourselves and God, between ourselves and our spouses, between ourselves and our children. For if we will show mercy, we will show compassion, that will not put justice into question: it will be a demonstration of justice. For God himself, who is just, had compassion and mercy upon us, and sent His son, not to bear His retribution, not to bear His tortures, but as a gift, because of mercy for His people, so that we could be restored to relationship with Him, so that things could be set right.’
The king is today’s parable sent the ungrateful man to the debtors’ prison in the hope of setting things right – primarily for him! That there, the gravity of his sin could be known, and he could repent. This is the justice and mercy of a loving God Who will do what is necessary to soften our hearts and to facilitate our salvation.
If we have a God of such generous love and mercy, then we too must join ourselves to that gracious love and mercy in all of our dealings with each other. Our objective in relations with others should not be to even the score, to make sure everything is fair… but to seek that things are set aright. It requires a generosity of heart that unselfishly seeks what is best for one another. As Christ said: ‘Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’ May God grant us this justice and mercy!