Denying Ourselves

11th Sun. after Pent. Sept 5, 2021;  Matt.18: 23-35

In today’s gospel reading we hear about the wicked servant who was forgiven the huge amount of 10,000 talents by his king, about $30 billion in today’s dollars. The first thought that comes to mind is how can you possibly run up that kind of debt! It really speaks to completely reckless and out of control living. Let us always remember that these parables are not really about some mythical person but about US. So we immediately see that no matter the depths to which we have enslaved ourselves, when we approach God with the smallest of requests, He opens all the storehouses of heaven to us!

With great relief this freshly forgiven servant went out and expressed his gratitude to the King by grabbing one of his creditors by the throat and demanding the payment he was owed of 100 Denari, the equivalent of about $20,000. Showing no mercy he throws him into jail. The wicked servant was forgiven an amount more than 1.5 million times the amount he was owed by his fellow servant! This is not just hyperbole to get our attention. The great forgiveness that we have all freely received from our Lord Jesus Christ, enables us to become Children of God, and to receive an eternal treasure and inheritance that makes even this $31 billion pale in comparison. There are no limits to our eternal riches! And the terrible insult we have unjustly received and can’t bring ourselves to forgive, is about the equivalent of a loonie in the eternal scope of things. This is kingdom math, based on forgiveness!

This passage really starts two verses earlier. (Matt. 18:21, 22) “Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to Him ‘I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” When Jesus replies to Peter with 7 x 70 = 490 times, Jesus wasn’t just setting a higher limit on forgiveness. Jesus tells us in today’s parable, that He is clearly eliminating all limits to granting forgiveness. The key verse we should memorize and allow to sink into our hearts until it becomes our own world view is: “Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had compassion on you?” As we begin to absorb just how much compassion and love we have received by the grace and love of God, we are transformed.

We know that the fondest desire of God’s heart is to forgive us completely and unconditionally when we come to Him in repentance. He is always present, waiting to do this for us, to gather us up in His loving arms. But we must be active participants in the process. There are two conditions clearly given to us. The apostle John tells us (1 John 1:9, 10) “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” So we need to come to God and ask His forgiveness. But first, we need to realize that we have missed the mark and we need forgiveness. If we think we are doing rather well this week, – watch out! Remember that Christ only came to save the sinners – of whom I am first!

The main purpose of the law is to show us that on our own, without the forgiveness and grace of God, we can never measure up. The law is meant to drive us into the forgiving arms of our dear Saviour Jesus Christ; into a life of repentance and forgiveness – of ourselves and of each other. It is our faith, which energizes our behaviour, that unites us to Christ. When we seek Him, His grace heals what is broken, and completes what is lacking. Our work is to be willing to follow Christ, to accept and share the forgiveness we are granted. He gives us a simple formula, (Luke 9:23) “…deny yourself, and take up your cross daily, and follow Me.”

What is this “deny yourself?” It is considering the other person and placing their well being, mentally, physically, and spiritually before our own “rights” and desires. We have a wonderful example in the life of our dear patron St. Aidan, and his dear friend King Oswald. They had been fasting for great Lent and Holy Week in anticipation of the Paschal feast, and a beautifully prepared Paschal meal was about to be served at the castle on silver platters. Just then, King Oswald received word that a crowd of his needy subjects had gathered outside, hoping to receive Alms. The king immediately ordered that the meal be taken out and served to the needy, and the silver platers be broken into pieces and distributed to them. St. Aidan blessed King Oswald, taking his hand and saying, “May this hand never perish.” After his death, his incorrupt hand was venerated for centuries.

May God help us to train ourselves on every occasion to stop and ask, “how can I lay down my desires and bless the person in front of me?” It is best when this involves some considerable internal struggle. The way of the cross is a bloody and torturous path. In our present time, a small example might be for us to wear a mask, even when it is not required, in the presence of those who we know are struggling with what we may consider to be an unbalanced, media driven fear of Covid,. Actually, this only works if you are in a situation where this isn’t required, as if we are doing this only because it is a government health order, our free choice has been eliminated, so we need to find other ways to choose to deny ourselves for the sake of the other.

Practicing a little daily “asceticism” and purposely saying no to at least one impulsive desire is another good exercise in denying ourselves. I was recently instructed by a wise priest, that when I am praying specifically for an individual who is struggling, it is helpful to look for some small thing that I would usually simply indulge myself with, and instead, deny myself and offer this small act of 1st world asceticism to the Lord on their behalf, along with my prayers. I’ve enjoyed a few less milk shakes lately.

We always have the gift of free will, the ability to choose. Will I attempt to love and find common ground with a troubled individual, or label them as “other,” thereby isolating and pursuing a divisive course, rejecting them because they don’t think like me. When we determine to choose to love and forgive, even that which seems unforgivable, we are choosing freedom, we are developing the image of God which is within. We are freeing ourselves as well as them.

Of course we need to start where we are, and so any forgiveness is much better than refusing to forgive, but then we need to continue to ask God to give us His grace to enable us to “forgive from our hearts.”  It all starts with willingness, and by praying and asking God to soften our stony hearts. Then His love for all of mankind can flow through us to the hurting and needy people Christ brings to us every day. May God help us to get to the place where rather than being filled with resentment when we are not being treated properly, we show Christ’s love and compassion.

We can make all kinds of questionable assessments about whether we merit forgiveness for ourselves, or if others deserve it from us. We are constantly being assaulted with “thoughts.” Most of these are not too helpful and many don’t even originate with us, but with the “father of lies.” We get to choose which ones we wish to entertain. We sometimes let ourselves off too easy, or more often at the other extreme, walk around in constant self-condemnation. When we don’t accept God’s forgiveness, we are demonstrating a spirit of pride. “I’m such a great sinner that God can’t possibly forgive me.” Really?  Are you perhaps a greater sinner than the murderers, the blessed Apostle Paul or King David, the man after God’s own heart? Rejecting God’s great love and desire to grant you forgiveness and life is the one sin that can not be forgiven, unless we choose to repent and turn back to God, accepting His forgiveness and tender love. It is always our choice. He will never override our free will. If we can’t accept God’s gift of forgiveness for ourselves, we will struggle with forgiving others, for no-one will ever be able to measure up to our impossibly strict standards for long.

May God give us His strength and love to be able to “Deny ourselves and take up our cross daily,” forgiving all who have hurt or wounded us, knowingly or unknowingly. May He, “forgive us our trespasses, in the same way as we forgive those who have trespassed against us, leading us not into temptation but delivering us from the evil one!”     

Glory to Jesus Christ!