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How Not to Perish Eternally
A Sermon on the 11th Sunday After Pentecost
“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. Indeed, He came to lift us up far higher even than that: 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 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. But He did not abandon or destroy us, as we so undoubtedly deserved. Instead He labored tirelessly, unstintingly, and by any means possible — throughout all the many long centuries — not merely to return us to the lost Paradise, but 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 far precious than the entire universe itself — 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 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 likewise, 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 of our lives.
But despite all this, the love of God is so great that He is moved with tender 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, and 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 Kingdom of Heaven.
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 — despite everything — to 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 completely. 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 indeed 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 utterly demolish 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.
The answer is precisely this: a merciful heart is the likeness of God. And if we reject such a heart, then of necessity we 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 to withhold; rather, salvation is union with God Himself, as the Lord 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.
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 his entire 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 the Athonite:
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?
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 can 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 therefore 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. Amen.