To the young man who asked “What must I do to be saved”, Jesus first instructed him to keep the commandments. When the young man replied that he had indeed done so to the best of his ability, then Jesus answered, “If you would be perfect, then go and sell all that you have, give it to the poor … and come and follow me.” The young man, since he was wealthy went away sad for this was a difficult saying. Now if Jesus had said that to you or I, even though we might not be wealthy, would we not “go away sad” as well? We have so many things in this life that we treasure, so many little comforts, conveniences or pleasures that we just can’t live without, that to suddenly be asked to do away with them becomes almost insurmountable. And yet that is what our Lord said and it applies to us as much as to this young man. If you would be perfect, He said, sell all that you have, give it to the poor that you might have treasure in heaven and come and follow me (remember that at another time he said to a would be follower, “the foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”) Does God then only want poor homeless people in heaven? No, to think this misses the point of our Lord’s words entirely. There are a number of important things here that we should look at. First, before the radical step of “sell all that you have, give it to the poor and come and follow me”, there is the requirement to keep the commandments. Second is the importance of almsgiving and third is the idea of “voluntary poverty” which is in and of itself a great ascetic labor. Finally after all this is the call to “come and follow me.”
Too often we overlook the necessity in the Christian life to keep the commandments. We tend to think of the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament as something that is outdated or not really applicable to us now. But this is not the case. The Old Testament commandments were given to the Hebrew people in order to preserve them in a state to receive the grace of God when it would be given to them. The commandments show us a Godly way of life, a way of life that is in harmony with the righteousness of the saints. If we would be “like Christ” then we must begin by living a Christ like life – a life of keeping the commandments. This is basic Christianity; this is where we begin – to follow the Law of God, whether it is the Ten Commandments of the Law of the Beatitudes of the New Testament, both of which boil down to the two primary commandments to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
Next we come to the virtue of almsgiving. Jesus said to the rich young man that he was to give to the poor, that he might have treasure in heaven. Almsgiving is a very important part of our Christian life – it is not just something we do occasionally when we have the means or the time or the opportunity, but it is a necessity that we must incorporate into our lives at all times. In this way we “build up treasure in heaven”. What this means is that in the next life – in the life that we live in eternity in the presence of God – there are different states and conditions of the people in heaven. Just as there are different ranks of angels, so there are different “ranks” of saints. We even recognize this when we name some saints Apostles, and “equal to the Apostles” or Martyrs (or even Great Martyrs), or Venerable Fathers and Mothers, or Hierarchs, or unmercenaries, and so on. There are indeed different ranks of saints in heaven and each one has its place there in the Kingdom of God. But in order to fully enter into this variety and fully enjoy the place that has been assigned to us, we must also build up heavenly treasure. Thus almsgiving – and not only almsgiving but all the virtues – are the means by which we acquire and build up this treasure. We heard in the Epistle today of the various fruits of the Holy Spirit and indeed it is these qualities in us which are the evidence of our heavenly treasure.
Third we come to the idea of “voluntary poverty”. When Jesus said in the beatitudes, “blessed are the poor in spirit”, some of the fathers of the Church understand this to mean “blessed are those who have made themselves poor for heaven’s sake”. And here we see that our Lord has instructed the rich young man to “go and sell all that (he) has and give it to the poor”. In other words, Jesus was instructing this young man to undertake the ascetic labor of voluntary poverty. In order to illustrate this more, let us look at the life and labors of St Philaret the Merciful. St Philaret was a wealthy nobleman who was known for his generosity. His generosity and almsgiving were so great that the saint eventually gave more than he had to spare and was soon giving away even those possessions which were necessary to his life – his last ox, his last horse, even his last shirt. Everything that he had, he considered to belong not to himself but to God and as he gave everything away, he had full dependence upon the providence of God. Even though the only thing left to the family was the grand house in which they lived, the family lived in poverty. But God in His great lovingkindness provided for St Philaret in a miraculous way. The emperor was searching for a bride for his son, the heir, and sent throughout the kingdom representatives to bring back eligible young women from whom the heir would choose his bride. Two of the saint’s daughters traveled to the capitol and there one was betrothed to the prince while the other was betrothed to another nobleman. The emperor, hearing of St Philaret’s labors bestowed upon him a generous gift and once again, the family was no longer impoverished. But rather than be satisfied with his past generosity, the saint once again desired to resume his almsgiving. This time, however, he provided first for his wife and family and taking only a share of the wealth that had been bestowed upon him he resumed his practice of giving alms of all that he had. This is the virtue of “voluntary poverty” as it worked in the life of a saint. Such ascetic labor is not within the strength of all, however, it is within our strength to give back to God all that He has given us and to rely on His provision.
Finally we reach the call to “come and follow me”. This is actually the point of all that we have already discussed: following the Law, almsgiving (and the practice of all the virtues), and voluntary poverty. All of these things pave the way as it were for us to follow Christ. The Law of God prepares us to receive the words of our Lord and points us in the right direction. The practice of the virtues then help us to live the life of Christ that He has bestowed upon us (as the Apostle said, it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me). And finally the point of the voluntary poverty is to break free of any and all attachments to worldly things. This does not mean that we all must live in abject poverty (although many monastic recluses did just that for this very reason) but it does mean that we must consider all that we have in this world not be our own possession, but to belong to our Lord Jesus Christ. He has bestowed these gifts upon us – no matter what they may be: material possessions, talents and skills, reputation, success (or poverty), etc. It is therefore up to us to take what we have been given and use it not for our own purposes, but for the glory of God. We must be able to say with the Holy Longsuffering Job, the Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed is the name of the Lord. This is the kind of dispassion and lack of attachment to worldly things that clears the way for us to follow Christ. We want to eliminate anything that could hold us back, anything that will tie us to this world, anything that could rise up and compete with Him.
Our Lord does not desire “poor homeless people” in heaven – what He desires is that we forsake every attachment, every competing desire, every tie to this world and to come to Him with all our heart, with all our strength, with all our soul and with all our mind. Let us then take the Law as our guide, consciously practice the virtues, cut our attachment to every worldly thing and follow our Lord Jesus Christ with our whole being. This is the path into the Kingdom of Heaven.
One of the hymns of the Church that always speaks to me, no matter how many times I have heard it, comes from the Praises sung at Matins every eight weeks: “What shall we render unto the Lord for all that He hath rendered unto us? God the Word, for the sake of us and our corrupted nature, took flesh, and dwelt among us men. To the thankless He came as Benefactor; to the captive as Liberator; to those sitting in darkness as the Sun of righteousness.”
We can give nothing in return that is worthy of such a gift, and yet what I love about this hymn is that it is a hymn of believers. The unbeliever looks at his life, and though he might have riches, a nice house, a nice car, a beautiful family, a good job and a comfortable retirement, yet he still wonders what God has done for him lately. He does so because the greatness of God is not found in prayers answered, but in God giving Himself to save a perpetually thankless people who prefer darkness and captivity to Light and freedom from slavery to the evil one.
The King in the gospel lesson this morning gave such a glorious gift to the man who owed Him a great debt. And yet, this man showed his ingratitude by trying to exact payment from one who owed him. We are commanded to forgive as we are forgiven, we are told that God will forgive us in the measure with which we forgive. We can choose not to forgive others, but we cannot choose to do so and be Christians. And yet it is one of the things that we struggle with the most.
This parable uses the concept of debt to speak of our sins against one another. This concept of debt is one that we can understand well. If we are debt-free in this life, we probably consider ourselves very fortunate, but most people have some debt -- student loans, mortgages, car loans, or credit cards -- and we understand what it is like to live under the pressure of it. We may not have to worry about debtor’s prisons or indentured servitude anymore, but we understand the weight that debt puts on our shoulders -- trying to keep up with our payments, and knowing that while we may pay it off one day, we couldn’t pay it off now if we had to.
The debt we owe to God is more like the size of the National Debt. It is not so small that we could pay it off in our lifetimes; it is a far more eternal debt. And yet despite the magnitude of this debt, we are not required to pay it off. It has been forgiven. We are merely expected to show gratitude for it by acting toward others in the same gracious manner as our God and King.
But we treat the debts against us in a worldly way. First, we don’t accurately account for the debts against us. In Proverbs we read: “Deceitful scales are an abomination before the Lord, but a righteous weight is acceptable to Him.” We hear this same notion in the Mosaic law, and we hear it from Jesus’ own mouth: “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” When someone sins against us, we must measure that sin against us correctly, righteously, and mercifully. We must not take offense in greater measure than it was given. We must be careful not to magnify what has been done to us while minimizing our own offenses toward others.
We can see this notion clearly when we are driving. How often have we been enraged by the driving of another person, even though we were not in any particular danger? If we are driving safely ourselves, if we are paying attention to the road and the other drivers, we are usually able to account for the occasional crazy driver and remain safe; yet we take offense at their behavior. “He’s going to kill someone driving like that!” Is very different from actually being in an accident, and yet our reaction is often the same. We are not measuring the offense correctly. These are perhaps the easiest debts for us to forgive, because we know that we have a disproportionate response, and we can bear any offense easily if only we would choose to.
Our second problem with forgiving others is that we keep a ledger. We keep track of every debt no matter how small. We see this tendency most often with our spouses, parents, children, and anyone we spend a lot of time with. We suffer through offenses both small and great perhaps daily, and they are all written down in our hearts and in our minds. When we forgive a debt, we put one faint little line through that debt, but we can still see it there as a forgiven debt. The next time that person offends us, we pull out the ledger and show all the times they have offended us and include even the ones that are crossed out. We may not try to collect on that debt, but we don’t want them to forget about it. In doing so, we never forget about it either.
We must learn not to write these things on our hearts in the first place. We forgive that debt quickly so that we don’t have the chance to write it down. Allow the forgiveness of small debts to be a gift given in the moment -- a debt for which you will ask no payment, and which will never be recorded. Ask forgiveness and be reconciled and moved on. If we did this with each little slight, with each eyeroll, or unkind word, or angry grunt, we would find it easier to forgive the even greater debts. We must also take every advantage to keep crossing out those old debts. Each time they are remembered, strike a thick line through that debt until it becomes unreadable. We do this best by praying for the person any time we are reminded of the debt because anger and prayer do not go together well.
The third problem we have is that we charge interest. The longer we wait to forgive the debts of others, the more the debt grows. Our Lord says: “agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.”
The longer we wait to deal with these problems the greater they become. We need to learn to forgive while our hearts are still aflame with anger rather than letting them cool into resentment and bitterness. It is difficult to do, but while a short time may help us cool down enough to speak, too much time allows us to find more wrong, more offense, more to be angry about. If we hold on to the anger, we may find that we are no longer able to overcome it and forgive. In such a state we cut ourselves off from the forgiveness that God offers.
So don’t expect the other person to make amends or apologize. Don’t expect them to show up at your doorstep with full payment which you can begrudgingly accept. Rather go to that person and ask forgiveness for your wrongs. At least stop your debt from collecting more interest, and forgive them their debt from the generosity of your heart.
But sometimes we find ourselves in the position where the debt was great; we made it greater by our uncharitable measurement, and by collecting interest, and our ledger tells us that this debt is just one of many. We know that we are called to forgive, but our heart resists the very idea. We find it impossible to forgive.
In these moments, we must remember that the ability to forgive is truly a gift from God, and so we must go and humble ourselves before our King and ask to take on even more debt from Him that we might be able to forgive our debtors. We must pray for the ability to see our own sins more clearly. St. Gennadios of Constantinople said that “Whoever thinks about the multitude of his own sins in his heart never wants to make the sins of others a topic of conversation.” When we see clearly our own sinfulness -- our debt before God -- we become blind to the sins of others. We learn to measure the sins of others more correctly, and to realize that the interest we collect is from us, and not from our debtor. We ask God for the strength and courage to act righteously toward our debtor knowing that Proverbs says that “the ways of remembering wrongs are unto death.” We seek to not just forgive, but to throw away the ledger that reminds us of the offenses of others.
So, “What shall we render unto the Lord for all that He hath rendered unto us?” The way we repay God for what He has given us is to forgive one another. How can we hate and spitefully mistreat one another and claim to have any love for the God who loves all? We must choose to forgive all debts large and small, to wipe clean our accounts with one another, that we may stand in the presence of God and be without debts.
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