There is a difference, illustrated for us by Jesus in this parable about debt and forgiveness, between our sins against God and our sins against one another.
Our sin against God is represented by the servant’s debt to the king – a debt of 10,000 talents – a single talent being roughly equal to 16 years wages. This is an absurdly, ridiculously, hugely large sum. When the servant says he’ll pay the king back in full (18:26), that is a farcical. It is impossible, even with a whole lifetime of work – and such is the nature of our relationship with God. What he has forgiven us, we cannot repay.
Meanwhile, the debt that the one servant owes the other represents our sins against one another. It is a hundred denarii. That’s about one hundred day’s wages – it’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s enough to hurt. On the other hand, just one talent is worth roughly 6,000 denarii. The difference is massive to the point of absurdity.
St. John Chrysostom says,
Do you see how great a difference there is between sins against humanity and sins against God? As much a difference as between ten thousand talents and a hundred denarii; no, much greater in fact. This comes about from the difference of the persons and from the frequency of the sins. For when someone is watching, we hold off and do not dare to sin. But God is watching all the time, and yet we are not afraid; in fact, we even say and do everything quite brazenly (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 61.1).
Perhaps another analogy could also help us to understand. It is of course a sin and a crime to strike someone unprovoked, as an example. But isn’t it intuitively clear that the same action is far worse if the person we’re striking is our mother? That is far worse for many reasons. We owe our very lives to our mothers as to no one else. Our mothers conceived us and carried us and gave us birth. And if we were blessed with good mothers, they also continued to nurture us and provide for us for many years beyond that. In a way, they participated in our being brought into being and sustained in being.
How much more this is so of God! This is so of God not just in a way, but absolutely. He is our creator and sustainer. He has his hand in every good we experience. We owe him love and gratitude for every good thing. Above all, for his love of us, despite our unfaithfulness.
Maybe we do not imagine ourselves to be so very unfaithful. Perhaps we do not think our sins very great. Perhaps we look at the sins of others and think, well, at least I am not like this publican.
If that is what we imagine, it is an especially good thing that we pray so frequently in every liturgy for the forgiveness of all of our voluntary and involuntary sins. There is a kind of sin that is not voluntary. And there is a kind of sin that is done in ignorance. Thank Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins done in ignorance as he was nailed to the cross, when he prayed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
I think the immense debt of the servant is an especially effective image of this kind of sin. After all, enormous debt is usually incurred due to ignorance. Often it grows while we are not looking. It grows because we are not looking. Because we are not paying attention responsibly to our finances
But it is a debt nonetheless. Our involuntary sins and our sins done in ignorance are sins. They are forgiven sins, but they are sins. For them, as well as those done knowingly and deliberately, let us repent our whole lives long.
Unwillingness to forgive our fellow servants is partly symptomatic of ingratitude for the forgiveness we have received. (That’s what we all are to one another, by the way, co-workers and fellow servants of the Lord – syndouloi).
To help us increase our gratitude for the Lord’s forgiveness, let us try to remember that we are sinners. If, for example, while preparing for confession, we cannot see our own sins, we can rest assured that this is not due to our sinlessness, but rather to a problem with our vision.
Here is a place where it can be helpful to be married. If you imagine yourself to be sinless, ask your spouse if they agree. They will likely be able to help you remember some things you’ve forgotten.
A close and intimate friend may also be able to illuminate our darkness on this subject. Because, I reiterate, if we do not see our sins, it is because, in addition to being sinners, we are also blind to our sins. It is a not because we are not sinners. Let’s put away that prelest, that self-delusion, right now.
If your spouse or your close friend are true followers of Jesus Christ, you will not need to worry about asking them to expose to you your own sins and failings, because they will have already forgiven you. That is how we syndouloi of Christ are to treat one another.
When I once asked a former pastor of mine for forgiveness, he reminded me that he was in the forgiveness business. We are all in the forgiveness business inasmuch as we follow Christ. I have heard some Christians claim that it is not necessary for us to forgive those who have not repented. Such Christians have confused themselves with God when it comes to judgment and then forgotten to be God like when it comes to forgiveness.
Remember the smallness of the debt our fellow servants have been cured against us when compared to the greatness of the debt we have incurred against the king. Remember that our great debt has been forgiven and that this obligates us to forgive the debts against us.
If there is someone you have not forgiven from your heart, if there is anyone you do not love, do not dare to approach for holy communion. If you do so, you will eat and drink condemnation upon your own head. You will be eating the body of the Lord while failing to discern his body – that is, while failing to recognize another member of his body – while failing to see Christ in your brother or sister.
In his great mercy, the King forgave the servant his debt. He did not throw the servant into prison as his debt warranted. The servant remained a servant and not a prisoner. Until the servant failed to forgive his fellow servant – his syndoulos. Likewise, if we do not forgive others as we are forgiven, we will be imprisoned by our unforgiveness. We will be thereby exile ourselves from the kingdom and cut ourselves off from the body.
Such is our Lord’s love for us, however, that even still hope is not lost. From my perspective, the parable does end with some hope even for the unforgiving servant. We hear that he is imprisoned until he pays the debt (18:34). So, we’re back to that impossible task. The servant’s debt works out to about 2,000 lifetimes worth of work. Still, two thousand lifetimes is infinitely shorter than eternity.
Let us not neglect to pray for the dead. Some of them may still be lifetimes away from forgiveness, but even for them not all hope is lost.
In the meantime, let us forgive one another everything in this lifetime and rejoice in the forgiveness of our king.