Sermon delivered September 1, 2019 by Archimandrite Maximos
This Gospel today, the parable of the ten thousand talents, on the surface is relatively simple. We see this man who owes this unfathomably large amount of money. Ten thousand talents is a vast treasure; you can say a million or a billion, you can substitute in there whatever you want, but it’s a lot of money, more than he can ever possibly pay.
That is what he owes the king. And the king, going through his accounts, sees this and requires that he pay what is owed. So this man falls down before the king and begs forgiveness; he says, “Be patient with me, be patient with me. I will pay you everything I owe, just give me time.” And the king, because he’s merciful and kind, forgives him the entire debt. He doesn’t say, “No, let’s come up with a payment plan.” He forgives the entire debt. And this man goes, having been forgiven this vast amount of money, he locates one of his friends who owes him a trifling amount of money, a hundred pence, and he grabs him by the throat, and he says, “Pay me, or I’ll put you in prison. Pay me everything you owe me, or I will punish you.” Well, it gets back to the king, and then the king requires that this man pay everything that he owes.
The symbolism is fairly simple, if we look at it. Obviously, the king is God. We owe Him everything; we owe Him our being. We sin constantly in our thought, word, and deed. We sin all the time, the payment of which we cannot generate. We cannot do enough good works to overcome our sinful behavior; it is impossible. So we go to the King and we beg forgiveness and He gives us forgiveness, because He’s merciful. And then we go out from this state of being forgiven and we remember the individual little wrongs that everyone does. We remember, “Oh, this person looked at me funny,” “Oh, this person wasn’t nice to me,” “Oh, this person wasn’t nice enough to me.” The massive disparity between what we’re forgiven and the kind of pettiness and triviality we apply to other people; it’s important to remember at this point, “By the judgement ye judge, so shall ye be judged.” This should encourage all of us to be merciful in our dealings. That’s fairly simple. I’ve preached on that many, many times. But let’s go a little deeper; let’s look a little further.
There’s the legitimate love of self that comes from acknowledging the fact that we’re creatures made in the image of God. That’s like venerating an icon… Then there is a distorted self-love, where we don’t love the icon that is in us; we do not love the image of Christ in us, we love everything else.
This man, the wicked servant who owed the ten thousand talents, how did he get to be in such a terrible state? How did he get to the point where he thought that that was the right thing to do? After having begged for forgiveness, he went out and tried to get small money from people. The Fathers tell us this man was full of passion, the passions. And he had principally, as the Fathers tell us, the great main passion from which all the other ones come: self-love. Now, that seems maybe like a stretch, but it’s not. What is self-love? Well, there are two kinds of self-love. There’s the legitimate love of self that comes from acknowledging the fact that we’re creatures made in the image of God. That’s like venerating an icon. It is evil to hate ourselves in that sense, to hate our being, to hate our existence. So there is a legitimate, passionless self-love; the love of being, the love of Creation.
Then there is a distorted self-love, where we don’t love the icon that is in us; we do not love the image of Christ in us, we love everything else. We love all of our particular fancies, all of our particular tastes, all the things we like, all the things that are not essentially who we are; we become fascinated with this. We become fascinated with the material aspects of our being. We become fascinated with the body, as the Fathers say. Not in a healthy way of taking care of your body, but in an unhealthy way of doing everything necessary to give pleasure to the body. And not good pleasure, but evil pleasure. And what does this do? When we do this, when we head down this road, we isolate ourselves from our brothers; we don’t care about them. We are not concerned about them. Because we filled ourself with love of self and only self. We have committed a form, as the Fathers tell us, of spiritual suicide. We’ve destroyed the image of Christ in us, and we become like a revenant, like a ghost, going about seeking pleasures.
This is how this man must have been. He’s a parable, so he represents all of us; he represents the soul. He didn’t care about his brother, he only cared about the acquisition and the use of material things. That one hundred pence that he was going to get from that man, that was more important than anything else. The fact that he had just been forgiven everything: “Whatever.” He doesn’t care. He is passionately attached to the body and the things of the body. So all the other passions — gluttony, lust, all these things — eventually come in, and his first reaction with this poor man was to grab him by the throat. Your throat, that’s where your blood is, that’s where your breath is, that’s where your life is. And he grabbed him by the throat because he didn’t care about him.
Now, the services tell us, life is like a fairground, it’s like going to the circus; everything is easy — cotton candy and elephants and all these various sorts of things, these choices that we make. But the day will come, and it is not far off, when those choices we have made in this fairground of life become fixed.
So dear brothers and sisters, the important thing here for us to remember is, although this is an extreme parabolic example, we do this. This is not an alien experience. All of us, we’ve gone to our King, Jesus Christ; we have gone to the Church; we have fallen down; we have begged for patience: “Give us more time. Give us, give me, some sort of reprieve.” And Christ does this; He gives us forgiveness each and every time. He gives us forgiveness. He gives us not just forgiveness for these material sins we’ve committed, He gives us His very being. He gives us His Body and Blood, the greatest treasure. He gives us His divinity, which is treasure beyond measure. All of us. This is not theoretical; He’s done this for all of us. And we have all, maybe not literally, but we have all figuratively done that terrible thing of then turning and looking towards our brother and wanting those few pennies from him, of remembering their sins, how they didn’t do what we wanted to do; how somehow they frustrated our desire for material pleasure; how they made us look bad or hurt our ego, or something like this. This has happened to all of us. This happens continually.
And again, because the Lord is merciful, we can go down, and we fall down, and we beg. But the day will come when all of it is over, and we have to answer for what we’ve done. Our life is short. Now, the services tell us, life is like a fairground, it’s like going to the circus; everything is easy — cotton candy and elephants and all these various sorts of things, these choices that we make. But the day will come, and it is not far off, when those choices we have made in this fairground of life become fixed. The decisions we’ve made will be answered for; the books will be opened, and the Lord will judge us. And He will judge us principally and primarily on how we dealt with each other.
The Fathers talk about the antidote to passions, asceticism. What is asceticism? We hear this word askesis, a Greek word meaning discipline. Well it’s generally used as a synonym for fasting, and certainly fasting is part of the process. But askesis is a practice that will conform our will to the Divine will. How do we do this? What do we do? How do we avoid being in this terrible state of this wicked servant who is cast to the tormenters until he pays the uttermost farthing? What is our road back from this sad state of affairs?
If we do this, if we make this effort to use our mind not to condemn other people, but to actually use our mind to defend other people, not with our mouths, not in a false way… then God will reward us.
Dear brothers and sisters, many of you have heard; many times I’ve told this story. I don’t think I’ve ever preached it. Several years ago, now approaching many years ago, we had a visit from Elder Pavlos of Mount Sinai, and he told us about the form of asceticism that they practice on Mount Sinai, at their monastery, Saint Catherine’s. Mount Sinai is miserably, terribly, horribly hot and dry; it’s unbearable on one level; during the course of the day it’s over 100 degrees. You have to constantly drink water just not to die; a physically very difficult environment. And he said when the monks got there the forms of asceticism and bodily discipline that they were used to were not really applicable, because they would die. They couldn’t do the serious prostrations that they had done; they couldn’t do the kinds of extreme fasting that they had done when they came from Greece; this is centuries ago.
So they developed what they call the asceticism of non-judgement. And what that is, is using our mind and our energy to not judge other people. That might sound a little vapid, but no, there’s more to it. And he gave an example. He said, a monk — it wasn’t clear whether this was his personal experience or this happened a thousand years ago — but on one level it doesn’t matter; He said one monk went to a first monk’s cell and it was in perfect condition; it was in order; everything was in its place; it was neat, there was no dust; everything was perfect. So the monk looked and said, “Ah, Father such-and-such is such a good monk; he’s orderly, his mind is perfect like heaven, God bless him.” Then he goes to the next cell. The next cell is disordered, a little dirty; books are not in order, you know. And so the monk says, “Oh, look! Father such-and-such, he’s so busy with the things of heaven, he doesn’t have time with the things of earth. God bless him.” So he judged no one.
Outward asceticism must be a reflection of an inward effort, an inward effort to transform who we are.
If we do this, if we make this effort to use our mind not to condemn other people, but to actually use our mind to defend other people, not with our mouths, not in a false way, but actually in our heart; we never have to verbalize it. We use our effort to help get our brother, in our mind, out of these terrible circumstances. Then God will reward us. The cruel heart cannot obtain mercy. It’s not that it won’t; it can’t. The cruel heart is closed to mercy.
So dear brothers and sisters, as we examine this extreme case of disparity, this extreme case of obliviousness, let us look at what we do with each other, day to day; and not necessarily just with our mouths, although that’s important. But what goes on in our mind? How many times do we think these judgmental thoughts? How many times do we, if not physically, reach out and grab someone else by the throat because they dare offend us, even internally? How many times inside, do we act like some kind of despot, like some sort of king who cannot be offended? We have to transform our inward and our outward. Outward asceticism must be a reflection of an inward effort, an inward effort to transform who we are.
Painting by Domenico Fetti: Parable of the Wicked Servant (ca. 1620)