If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Mt 6:14-18)
The Lenten Season in the Eastern Church is embedded in the spirit of forgiveness. Lent itself is preceded by a series of Sunday Gospels, collectively called the Lenten Triodion, leading us to forgiveness in emulation of the forgiving Christ, who said on the Cross of His persecutors and executioners: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Lk 23:34).
In fact, as given by God’s Revelation to us, it would not be inaccurate to say that forgiveness summarizes the whole relationship between God and man since the ancestral sin of our first parents which broke mankind’s union with God and expelled them from Paradise. Since then, we suffer the brokenness of disunion with God and inclination to sin.
However, God has been irrepressible in waiting to forgive each and every one of us. In the words of St. John Chrysostom: “ and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until thou hadst brought us back to heaven...Who hast so loved the world as to give Thine only Begotten Son...[Who] gave Himself up for the life of the world...for the remission of sins.”i
Preparation for forgiveness
Let us start with a consideration of the Sunday Gospels of the Lenten Triodion. On the first Sunday is read the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Lk 18: 10-14) St. Luke informs us that Jesus gave this parable to those “...who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others ” (Lk 18:9). The Gospel parable tells us that the boastful Pharisee, who rightly kept God’s commandments and tithed, was nonetheless condemned by his ‘self’ exaltation. In contrast, the sinful Publican who could only look down and utter in true sorrow the words: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Lk 18:14); was seen as righteous due to his utter humility, and was thereby extolled by God.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15: 11-32), the son wants his inheritance from his father, now, while he is young. His father gives it to him and his son goes off to a foreign land and squanders it in loose living (Lk 15:13).ii Due to an ensuing famine, the son soon misses being in his fathers household.iii He had to come to his own mind, that is to say, “when he came to himself” (Lk 15: 17) and recognize the isolation of not being with his father. The Prodigal Son’s words are: “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you...(Lk 15: 18).
The link between the humility of the Publican and the acknowledgement of sinfulness by the Prodigal should be apparent. As long as a person is mired in pride and self-sufficiency they cannot see their own state of deprivation from union with God, which is the illness and infirmity of sin. St. Isaac of Syria tells us “The person who has attained to knowledge of his own weakness has reached the summit of humility.” (Brock, 1997). The Prodigal’s humility allowed him to see himself as he really was, that is to, say empty, wanting, without his father. It was his acknowledgement of being deprived of his father and his wretched state, that is to say, his humility - his coming to his own mind - which allowed him to return to his father and confess his sin.
This return and confession led his Father to, in fact, forgive him and allow him back into his household. As St Luke tells us: “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (Lk 15:20). We should note, understanding this Parable just on a human level, how much love the Father had for his son who had left him, squandered the gifts he had given him, how he was so disposed, so eager to take him back. That is to say, to forgive him. The condition for forgiveness was the son’s agony of separation, longing for re-union, confession of sin.
A chain is as strong as its weakest link
In terms of our deification, that is to say our “...[becoming] partakers of the divine nature” (2Pt 1:4), our salvation, what do the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican and the Parable of the Prodigal Son mean? Taken alone, just these two parables are but first steps. Consider the popular adage: a chain is as strong as its weakest link. No doubt, these two parables are strong links in the spiritual chain. However. there is one link missing, and without it, no matter how strong these first two may be, the chain fails. The needed link is the Gospel teaching given to us by Jesus and read on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent and which culminates with the words of Our Lord Himself while hanging on the cross.
The important third step, the third link in the spiritual chain leading to our salvation can be found, a has been said, in the Gospel of the last Sunday of the Triodion, also called Forgiveness Sunday, when we are called not only to act as the humble Publican and the contrite Son, but to act as the father ourselves in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, that we be forgiving. In no uncertain terms Jesus tells us: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6: 14-15). Because, no matter how ‘good’ we are, if one thing, one link in the chain, so to speak, is missing, all the good we do is meaningless before God. If forgiveness is missing, so is all else. St. Matthew tells us God’s will in this regard: Jesus quoting the prophet Hosea (6:6) tells the Pharisees:” ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” (Mt 9:13).
This Gospel account, as well as the example of Jesus Himself when on the Cross, is needed to provide a greater understanding of the fullness of forgiveness and whether or not we will be found to be with favor with God. Taken alone, all the humility of the Publican and the righteousness of the Pharisee are for naught Taken alone, all the sorrow for our sins like the Prodigal who engaged in riotous living, that is to say, eating drinking and making merry and living with ‘wine woman and song’ irrespective of the cost to others is inconsequential.
The foundation of forgiveness: Love
Who God is, and the source of all He does, is given to us by St John: “God is love...God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1Jn 4:8,11). Now recall the words of St Paul: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1Cor 13:1).
Summary: God is love; we have to love as God, without this all is but “empty noise” (Morelli, 2006b). Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2000) tells us St. Isaac of Syria understood the implications of this teaching. God as ‘judge’ is eclipsed by God as ‘mercy.’ St. Isaac writes: “Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is equality on the even scale...Mercy is sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness...Mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness...justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul.”
What is forgiveness?
Now let’s get to the heart of the matter: what is forgiveness, mercy? On one hand, it is ending resentment, indignation or anger when an offense has either subjectively or objectively occurred (Morelli, 2005). But most importantly it is to love as God loves; He has unconditional love for His creatures all of them.
So let us put this in practical terms. Think of the worst sinners, offenders in history; start to name them, just based on historical fact. We might think of Hitler, Stalin, the early Roman Emperors who martyred Christians, the Zionist zealots of the modern day who have killed Palestinians and bulldozed their homes, those who have water-boarded terrorist suspects, those who crucified Christ, as reminded above, of whom He said “Father forgive them for they know what not they do.” (Lk 23:34).
Now that all of us have our list, let us add our names at the head of the list. This is how much God loves all and how we should be ready to forgive all. As St. Isaac of Syria tells us: “God has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, as much as for those who have not fallen” (Alfeyev, 2002).
Prayer the first step and act in forgiveness
What is the first step in forgiveness? To pray as Christ did on while on His Cross. Christ prayed for those who crucified Him: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk 23: 34). To the confession of the good thief next to Jesus on the cross, saying of himself and his fellow criminal of their crucifixion: “And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And He said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23: 41-43).
Throughout His public life Jesus also preached forgiveness: “...bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Lk 6: 28). He practiced his own preaching while enduring the agony on the cross to conquer sin and death for salvation. Is it any wonder St. Isaac of Syria comments: “As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy.” In this context the words of St. James are so compelling: “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jam 2:13). As Christ himself said: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk 4: 23).
Let us remind ourselves again of the necessity to follow Our Lord’s injunction to pray for those who offend us. As St. Matthew records: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...” (Mt 5:44). It just so happens that praying for someone who has offended us may be both the first act of forgiveness some may be capable of in the beginning of the forgiveness process, and at the same time lead to a deeper level of forgiveness (Morelli, 2007).
Any prayer for one who has offended us has to conform to the love that God has for all of us, as pointed out above. All prayer for forgiveness must be done with purity of heart and with the fullness of God’s love. This is to say, we must pray that they reach out to God, glorify His Holy Name and in turn God embrace them in His Bosom.
It is so easy to pray with conditional or impure prayer. I will only forgive if the other person fulfills some condition. This may be to ask or beg forgiveness. It may be to say or pray: “God send them to hell.” To do this would be to forget the spiritual insight of St. Silouan the Athonite (Sophrony, 1999). To someone who "declared with evident satisfaction that 'God will punish all [sinners]. They will burn in everlasting fire,'" St Silouan replied: "Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there you looked down and saw someone burning in hell-fire - would you feel happy?" "It can't be helped. It would be their own fault," [was the response].The Staretz answered him in a sorrowful countenance. "Love could not bear that," he said. "We must pray for all."
Interestingly, a recent psychological study suggests support for this position. In a psychological study investigating relationship enhancement Lambert, Fincham, Stillman Graham and Beach (2010) found that prayer for one’s partner who has offended contributed to maintaining the relationship. Even more striking, they found that prayer for others in general would increase selfless concern for others and simultaneously enhance forgiveness. In part, the researchers explain the findings are based on focusing on shared common goals.
For the Orthodox Christian these results should not be surprising, since grace builds on nature (Morelli 2006a). The shared common goal for all mankind is that they be enlivened by Christ and that all be with Him in Paradise. We share the knowledge that we are all made in God’s image, called to be like Him, have been re-born and put on the robe of salvation and light by our baptism, and can receive Christ, indwelling in us by receiving His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. We who are members of Christ’s Body, the Church, have been offered the fullness of His gifts. Let us recall Our Lord’s own words: “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required.”
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Mt 5:7).
Alfeyev, Bishop Hilarion (2000). The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.
Brock, S. (1997). (Trans.). The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Fairacres Oxford, England: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation.
Lambert, N.M., Fincham, F.D. Tyler F. Stillman, T.F. Steven M. Graham, S.M. & Beach S/R.H. (2009). Motivating Change in Relationships: Can Prayer Increase forgiveness? Psychological Science 21, 126-132.
Morelli, G. (2005, October 14). The Beast of Anger. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php.
Morelli, G. (2006a, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMonasticism.php.
Morelli, G. (2006b, March 10). Sinners in the Hands of an Angry or Gentle God. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHumility.php.
Morelli, G. (2007, December 02). Forgiveness is Healing. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliForgiveness2.php.
Sophrony, Archimandrite. (1999). St. Silouan the Athonite. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
[i] From the Anaphora Prayer of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
[ii] The symbolic parallels to ourselves is readily apparent. The father, represents God the Father, who has all good things, made us in Him image with reason and free will. The prodigal son represents us, who take the reason and free will God has given to us and make the wrong choices (loose living): disunion with God and our neighbor.
[iii] The famine represents the superficiality thus insufficiency of a life based on ‘eating, drinking and being merry.