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A Shortcut to Heaven and a Shortcut to Hell
A Sermon on the 11th Sunday After Pentecost
My brothers and sisters, we have just heard one of the most important Gospel parables which the Lord ever spoke. At the heart of the Christian religion is forgiveness — and how our hearts yearn for such forgiveness! For who among us does not know — at least somewhere in the depths of our heart — that we too owe just such an immeasurable debt as did the servant in today’s Gospel? Who among us does not feel — at least from time to time — the same sense of complete desperation, the sense that it is utterly beyond our power to set aright all the countless mistakes we have made in our lives, to mend all that we have broken, to heal all the harm that we have done? Who among us does not realize — at least in moments of honest sobriety — that there is nothing left for us to do than to fall down before God and beg for mercy?
If this is so, then today’s Gospel parable should inspire in us immeasurable faith and hope in the boundless compassion of our God. For though the “ten thousand talents” was a truly incomprehensible sum (by some estimations the wages of thousands of lifetimes), and though the servant begged only for more time to be given for him to repay it, yet the king freely chose to instead forgive him his immeasurable debt entirely. And so we too ought to have firm faith and unwavering hope that there is no sin so grievous, nor any lifetime of sins so numerous, that the Lord God is not both able and willing to forgive, entirely and instantly. Even the vast sum of the sins of every generation of the human race, from our First Parents Adam and Eve to our own “wicked and adulterous generation” (cf. Matthew 16:4), our All-Merciful Savior willingly bore and freely forgave. And He forgives each of us, individually and personally, when we fall down before Him in the Mystery of Baptism — and yet again, time and time again, after our countless sins and backslidings, when we fall down before Him in the Mystery of Repentance. Truly, today’s parable ought to give to us all unshakeable faith and boundless hope.
Yet it ought also to give to us all a godly fear. For although the mercy and forgiveness of God is offered to us freely and unstintingly, yet it is not given to us automatically and irrevocably. It is up to us to decide how to respond. For just as it is freely given, so too must it be freely received, and the love of God is such that He will not force any of us against our will. And so we ought to fear lest, having been offered such a great and unspeakable gift, we should insensibly choose to squander or to spit upon it, and so deprive ourselves of eternal and heavenly riches in exchange for the petty baubles of our passions and the worthless trinkets of this earth.
And as today’s parable warns us, the most surefire way to squander and to spit upon the great gifts of God is to be unmerciful to those around us. My brothers and sisters, it is absolutely and categorically impossible to hold on to grudges and resentments, to refuse to forgive all people for all things (no matter how greatly we have been wronged), and at the same time to truly be a Christian. Because to be a Christian means to be “a little Christ,” it means to be a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit of God. And there is nothing so completely antithetical to the Spirit of God, there is nothing so wholly unfitting to be His temple, as an unmerciful heart.
Therefore there is no more powerful way to refuse the great gift of God’s forgiveness than to refuse this same gift to others. There is no better way to destroy whatever small efforts and progress we may have made in the spiritual life than to harbor resentment in our hearts. There is no quicker shortcut to hell than condemn those around us, for any reason whatsoever. Truly, today’s parable should fill us all with great fear.
But at the same time, this shortcut to hell also reveals to us the shortcut to heaven. For just as being unmerciful renders every virtue and every spiritual gift totally worthless, so too does becoming merciful completely annul all of our countless passions and sins and mistakes. And so if we find ourselves overcome by our weaknesses, enslaved to our passions, unable to cast off “the sin which doth so easily beset us” (Hebrews 12:1) — in short, if we fear to be called to account for the ten thousand talents which we owe — then let us at least strive with our whole hearts to forgive one another for the far smaller debts which we ourselves are owed. If we do this — even if imperfectly, begging all the while for God to soften our hardened hearts — then we can have absolute confidence that the Heavenly King will be faithful to the great promise that He gave to us along with His great commandment:
Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: give, and it shall be given unto you… for with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again. (Luke 6:35-38)
So sure is this shortcut to heaven that it can even avail those who, like myself, live daily in a manner totally unworthy of the high and angelic rank of monasticism, as the ancient holy fathers bear witness:
A monk of a large monastery, negligent in spiritual things, fell gravely ill and the hour of his death arrived. The abbot and all of the brothers gathered around him, to give him courage in his last moments. To their surprise, however, they observed that the brother was facing death with great quietude and calmness of soul.
So the abbot said, “My child, all here know that you were not so diligent in your duties. How is it that you leave for the other life with such courage?”
“It is true, Abba,” murmured the dying monk, “that I was not a good monk. I have, however, observed one thing with exactness in my life: I never judged anyone. Because of this, I intend to say to the Master Christ, when I present myself before him, ‘You said, Lord, not to judge, in order not to be judged,’ and I hope that He will not judge me strictly.”
“Go in peace on your eternal journey, my child,” the abbot told him with wonderment. “You have succeeded, without toil, in saving yourself.”
My brothers and sisters, though God gives us so much, yet He asks of us so little. All He wants is for us to forgive one other. All He wants is for us to show each other a little mercy. If we only do this one small thing, then even all our innumerable sins and our most unspeakable depravities will not be able to bar the gates of Heaven against us. But if we do not do it, then neither a lifetime filled with countless virtues, nor any righteousness possessed by even the holiest of saints, will be able to help us to escape from the jaws of Hell.
Why? Why is it so singularly important for a Christian to possess a merciful heart? To understand this, let us listen with care and attention to the words with which St. Isaac the Syrian describes such a heart:
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.
Here is our answer, as clear and as simple as can be: only in mercy can the human heart attain unto the likeness of God. And as our Holy Church teaches us through the mouth of St. Athanasius, salvation consists precisely in “becoming by grace what God is by nature.”
If we become merciful, we become like God. If we reject mercy, we reject God. And that is why, before going to His Voluntary and Life-giving Passion, our Lord gave to us but one commandment: “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).
In this one commandment, we see the path to heaven and the path to hell laid bare before us. So let us love one another. Let us forgive one another. Let us show one another a little mercy. And in doing so, let us become each day a little more like God.