Chrysostom on Forgiveness

The homily of St. John Chrysostom that follows is on the parable of the wicked servant (Matt. 18: 23-35). As a novice I always read this before Forgiveness Sunday Vespers, so now, since we are approaching this day, I offer some excerpts from this homily.


“For there was brought unto Him, one which owed ten thousand talents, and when he had nothing to pay, He commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and his children.” Why, I ask? Not of cruelty, nor of inhumanity (for the loss came back again upon himself, for she too was a slave), but of unspeakable tenderness. For it is His purpose to alarm him by this threat, that He might bring him to supplication, not that he should be sold. For if He had done it for this intent, He would not have consented to his request, neither would He have granted the favor. Why then did He not do this, nor forgive the debt before the account? Desiring to teach him, from how many obligations He is delivering him, that in this way at least he might become more mild towards his fellow-servant. For even if when he had learnt the weight of his debt, and the greatness of the forgiveness, he continued taking his fellow-servant by the throat; if He had not disciplined him beforehand with such medicines, to what length of cruelty might he not have gone?


What then does this man say? “Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And his Lord was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.” Can you again see the surpassing benevolence? The servant asked only for delay and putting off the time, but He gave more than he asked, remission and forgiveness of the entire debt. For it had been his will to give it even from the first, but he did not desire the gift to be his only, but also to come of this man’s entreaty, that he might not go away uncrowned. For that the whole was of Him, although this other fell down to him and prayed, the motive of the forgiveness was shown, for “moved with compassion” he forgave him. But still even so he willed that other also to seem to contribute something, that he might not be exceedingly covered with shame, and that he being schooled in his own calamities, might be indulgent to his fellow-servant.


Up to this point then this man was good and acceptable; for he confessed, and promised to pay the debt, and fell down before him, and entreated, and condemned his own sins, and knew the greatness of the debt. But the sequel is unworthy of his former deeds. For going out immediately, not after a long time but immediately, having the benefit fresh upon him, by wickedness he abused the gift, even the freedom bestowed on him by his master. For, “he found one of his fellow-servants, which owed him a hundred pence, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me what thou owest.” Do you see the master’s benevolence? Do you see the servant’s cruelty? Hear, you who do these things for money. For if for sins we must not do so, much more not for money. What does this other one say? “Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.” But he did not regard even the words by which he had been saved (for he himself on saying this was delivered from the ten thousand talents), and did not recognize so much as the harbor by which he escaped shipwreck; the gesture of supplication did not remind him of his master’s kindness, but he put away from him all these things, from covetousness and cruelty and revenge, and was more fierce than any wild beast, seizing his fellow-servant by the throat and he cast him into prison.”


“But when his fellow-servants saw it, they accused him to their lord.” Not even to men is this well-pleasing, much less to God, they therefore who did not owe, partook of the grief. What then does their lord say? “O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me; shouldest not thou also have had compassion, even as I had pity on thee?” See again the lord’s gentleness. He pleads with him, and excuses himself; being on the point of revoking his gift; or rather, it was not he that revoked it, but the one who had received it. Therefore He says, “I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me; shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant?” For even if the thing seems hard to you; yet you should have looked to the gain. Even if the injunction be galling, you ought to consider the reward; and not that he has grieved you, but that you have provoked God, whom by mere prayer you had reconciled. But if even so it be a galling thing for you to become friends with him who has grieved you, to fall into hell is far more grievous; and if you had set this against that, then you would have known that to forgive is a much lighter thing. And whereas, when he owed ten thousand talents, he called him not wicked, neither reproached him, but showed mercy on him; when he had become harsh to his fellow servant, then he said, “O thou wicked servant.”

Let us hearken, the covetous, for even to us is the word spoken. Let us hearken also, the merciless, and the cruel, for not to others are we cruel, but to ourselves. When then you are minded to be revengeful, consider that it is against yourself that you are revengeful, not against another; that you are binding up your own sins, not your neighbors. But as for you, whatsoever you may do to this man, you do as a man and in the present life, but God not so, but more mightily will He take vengeance on you, and with the vengeance hereafter. And yet, “The graces and the gifts are without repentance,” but wickedness has had such power as to set aside even this law. What then can be a more grievous thing than to be revengeful, when it appears to overthrow such and so great a gift of God. And he did not merely “deliver” him, but “was wroth.” For when he commanded him to be sold, his were not the words of wrath (therefore neither did he do it), but a very great occasion for benevolence; but now the sentence is of much indignation, and vengeance, and punishment.


What then means the parable? “So likewise shall my Father do also unto you,” He says, “if ye from your hearts forgive not everyone his brother their trespasses.” He says not “your Father,” but “my Father.” For it is not proper for God to be called the Father of such a one, who is so wicked and malicious. Two things therefore doth He here require, both to condemn ourselves for our sins, and to forgive others; and the former for the sake of the latter, that this may become more easy (for he who considers his own sins is more indulgent to his fellow-servant); and not merely to forgive with the lips, but from the heart. Let us not then thrust the sword into ourselves by being revengeful. For what grief hath he who hath grieved you inflicted upon you, like you will work for yourself by keeping your anger in mind, and drawing upon yourself the sentence from God to condemn you? For if indeed you are watchful, and keep yourself under control, the evil will come round upon his head, and it will be he that will suffer harm; but if you should continue indignant, and displeased, then you will undergo the harm not from him, but from yourself.


Do not say that so-and-so insulted you, and slandered you, and did you ills beyond number; for the more you say such, so much the more do you declare him a benefactor. For he has given you an opportunity to wash away your sins; so that the greater the injuries he has done to you, so much more is he become to you a cause of greater remission of sins.


See then how much you gain, bearing meekly the spiteful acts of your enemies. First and greatest, deliverance from sins; secondly, fortitude and patience; thirdly, mildness and benevolence; for he that does not know how to be angry with those that grieve him, much more will he be ready to serve those that love him. Fourthly, to be free from anger continually, to which nothing can be equal. For it is quite clear that he who is free from anger, is also delivered from the despondency arising from it, and will not spend his life on vain labors and sorrows. For he that knows not how to hate, will neither know how to grieve, but will enjoy pleasure, and ten thousand blessings.


Let us accomplish therefore the hating of no one, that God also may love us, so that, although we may be in debt for ten thousand talents, He will have compassion and pity onus. And as examples let us look to Joseph, who suffered countless things from his brethren, and did good to them; to Moses, who after their countless plots against him, prayed for his fellow Jews; to the blessed Paul, who cannot so much as number what he suffered from them, and is willing to be accursed for them; to Stephen, who is stoned, and entreats this sin may be forgiven them. And having considered all these things, cast away all anger, that God may forgive us also all our trespasses by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom to the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, might, honor, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”