The Self-Exile of the Unfaithful Servant
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 24, 2014
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (18:23-35)
Jesus usually begins anything he says about the kingdom this way, “The kingdom may be compared.” In other words he uses metaphorical language because mysteries cannot be described in any other way. The kingdom cannot be analyzed or quantified; it must be experienced to be known. That is why Jesus spoke so often in parables. The kingdom of heaven is a mystery beyond the power of thought.
“Man’s ultimate concerns must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.” Paul Tillich
So, I want to examine part of the metaphor in today’s reading, about the king and the wicked servant, and talk about the primary theme of forgiveness. Of course, I do not have all the answers! I want to offer food for thought.
I don’t know about you, but I was brought up to read the Bible literally, so if we were reading this parable we would interpret the king as representing God. But, looking closer, that raises a problem. I am not comfortable with that for one simple reason: The king does not behave like God.
First, he gets irritated (that is not like God), then he forgives (that is) then he gets angry again and throws the wicked servant in jail (very much not like God). More like Zeus I would say, that the Father of Jesus; merciful one moment and angry the next. Funny how the God we pontificate about more often than not takes on our own strengths and weaknesses! Thomas Merton wrote that when we speak about God most of the time we are really speaking about ourselves.
Here’s the difference. God is always merciful. Always. He is not even just. He does not demand an eye for an eye. St. Isaac of Syria insists that God is not just, He is always merciful. To claim that God is both just and merciful is, for Isaac, a contradiction in terms. He writes.
"Compassion and justice in one soul are as a man adoring God and idols in one house."
And then the saint points directly to the teaching of Jesus in the Parable of the worker who comes at the end of the day and receives the same wages as those who came at the beginning and the Prodigal Son who is greeted magnanimously after wasting his father’s money on riotous living. This is not a picture of a God who is just. Society needs justice to keep us from killing each other and hand out punishment if we do, but God does not need it nor is He bound by it.
There is another way to read today’s parable. Who is the king? And who is the wicked servant? I think that one way to interpret parables may be as Carl Jung said we should interpret dreams – that each character in dreams and parables represents some aspect of ourselves.
In the space of a few moments we can swing from one side to the other: from mercy and forgiveness to anger and vengeance. When our higher nature, the image of God, rises we forgive as God does. When our lower nature predominates, we do not. Depending on our likes and dislikes and our moods we are moved to act this way or that and it all depends on forces of which we are not always conscious.
It is the job of the Spirit to bring to light all that is hidden so that we can see it clearly and come to a place where we are not marionettes dangling like slaves from strings, but rather free agents without strings or restraints. “For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
Since forgiveness is a natural quality for those who are made in God’s image, when we refuse to forgive, then we are actually fighting against ourselves and what does Jesus say about that? “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The wicked servant is not so much thrown into prison as he throws himself there. By not acting according to his true nature he becomes a prisoner to his own greed.
We must never blame God if we find ourselves cast into a hell of our own making and of our own choosing.
A true spiritual practice helps to bring an end to the internal war by helping us to discern and act upon our true nature under all those layers of conditioning. St. Paul’s statement in Romans 8:22 works here. He says that “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now for the revealing of the sons of God.” I used to think of that only in terms of the outside world of animals, minerals, plants and other humans, but now it makes even more sense to see it both inside and out. Could it be that the internal turmoil we often feel is our own personal longing for the true nature in us to be revealed and we to be shown to be as we truly are, sons and daughters of the most high. I think so. When the beauty of the image is at last revealed, then the internal war will cease, our suffering will stop and we will be at peace.
I love these lines from Pablo Neruda:
“As if you were on fire from within.
The moon lives in the lining of your skin.”
Once peace begins to reign in us we must hold to it dearly! “Do not let anything take away your peace of mind,” admonishes the Holy Elder Thaddeus. This abundant life is there lying under the surface and we do not know it. The treasure lies within. The door is before us and the key is in our hand. When the door is opened and the treasure is found, then the entire world inside and out rejoices as new saints are born.