Melkite Greek Catholic Church
THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENCES between the three world religions originating in the Middle East (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). One thing which they all share is the emphasis on God as Compassionate. In the biblical story of Moses, for example, God reveals Himself to the prophet in these words: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

The prophets of Israel continually returned to this theme, adding a new dimension. They saw compassion as a parental trait, paving the way for the Lord Jesus’ description of God as our Father.

In His parables the Lord often returned to themes of compassion. In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) the king, an image of God, is described as “moved with compassion” (Matthew 18:27), in contrast to his servant who shows no compassion to his fellow. The father of the prodigal son, is described, on the bedraggled boy’s return, as “filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

The Gospels describe Christ as “deeply moved” with compassion by the death of the widow’s son in Nain (Luke 7: 11-17), and of his friend Lazarus in Bethany (John 11). When recording the miraculous feeding of the four thousand, Mark tells us “Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people…” (Mark 8:1,2). In each case He did something concrete in response.

In the Church God was proclaimed from the beginning as “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). In our prayers today we regularly address God as “the only Compassionate One,” in contrast to the evident lack of that quality in our own lives.

What Is Compassion?

When the Gospels describe Christ as being “deeply moved” or being “moved with compassion,” they use a word which points to the heart of that quality. A literal translation of the Greek term would be “to be moved from the bowels.” (i.e. to feel deeply). Compassion is at the other end of the spectrum from the casual “I’m sorry” that people fling out at any unpleasant circumstance. Compassion is a “gut feeling” which we experience when we allow ourselves to be moved by the suffering of others.

People often equate compassion with sympathy, but true compassion is more. A person may express sympathy in response to sorrow with kindness and concern, then move on with their own lives. True compassion, on the other hand, includes expressions of care and concern, but moves on to concrete action. The compassionate person involves himself in the suffering of the other. Unlike the priest or the Levite in the parable, the Good Samaritan directly engages himself in the troubles of the man who was a victim to robbers and does not leave him until the man has recovered.

The compassionate Samaritan, like the compassionate king in Matthew 18 is an icon of God. He it is who involves Himself in the sufferings of the human race to such an extent that He sends His Son and Word to share in their suffering. This Word “…did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).

Compassion as getting involved is put forward to us as a way of being godlike: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). God is, as we have seen, “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). St Paul goes on to say that God is compassionate to us “… so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3,4). Reflecting on how God has extended His compassion to us, should energize us into extending compassion to others.

Radical Compassion

Sometimes opportunities for compassion present themselves in daily life, such as taking in the child of a hospitalized neighbor. At other times people have been led to extend compassion in a more radical way. Perhaps no one in our society has personified this degree of compassion more than the late Servant of God Dorothy Day, the twentieth century convert extolled by Pope Francis as one of four “inspiring” Americans in his 2015 address to the US Congress. Foundress of the Catholic Worker movement during the Great Depression, Dorothy Day described one of her early ventures in these heart-rending words, revealing the depth of her compassion: “Every morning about four hundred men come to Mott Street to be fed. The radio is cheerful, the smell of coffee is a good smell, the air of the morning is fresh and not too cold, but my heart bleeds as I pass the lines of men in front of the store which is our headquarters...It is hard to say, matter-of-factly and cheerfully, 'Good morning.' ...One felt more like taking their hands and saying, 'Forgive us -- let us forgive each other! All of us who are more comfortable, who have a place to sleep, three meals a day, work to do -- we are responsible for your condition. We are guilty of each other's sins. We must bear each other's burdens. Forgive us and may God forgive us all!"

The Power of Compassion

Every year on Meatfare Sunday we hear Christ’s parable of the Judgment (Mt 25:31-46). In this story, people are judged based on the degree of their compassion. Christ identifies Himself with those in need to the degree of saying that I was hungry and you gave me food…” and the rest. . Christ identifies Himself completely with those in need: the essence of compassion.

What we may forget is that Christ begins the parable by saying, “All the nations will be gathered before him…” He is describing the judgment of the nations – the Gentiles – not the house of Israel. The faithful will be judged on the basis of their faith – the ‘nations’ will be judged on the basis of their compassion.

If compassion is so important in the Lord’s eyes that He calls the compassionate “blessed of my Father” even though they never knew Him, what should it mean to us?

In contrast to this blessing of compassionate Gentiles, we read a condemnation of the uncompassionate at the close of Christ’s parable of the unforgiving servant. We are told that, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” Then the divine Narrator of the parable presents the moral of the story: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother [or sister] from your heart” (Matthew 18:34, 35).

While true compassion often demands a radical generosity, the lack of compassion can separate us from God. The Russian spiritual writer, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov, expressed it this way: “Our lack of compassion, hardness of heart, and mercilessness towards others form an impenetrable curtain between ourselves and God. It is as if we had covered a plant with a black hood, and then complained because it died from lack of sunlight.”
THE CHURCH COMMEMORATES on its calendar holy men and women throughout the ages: from the first days of the Old Testament, from the New Testament and from the era of the Church. We honor the saints of today, rejoicing that God is still bestowing His Spirit in our own time. We revere the Old Testament saints, who illustrate that there have always been people who responded to God’s love, even in times and places far different from our own. One such holy figure from the Old Testament is the holy prophet Samuel, whom our Church remembers on August 20.

Samuel is revered as the last of the Judges, the tribal chiefs who ruled the Hebrew people between the time of Moses and Joshua (c. 1250 bc) and the naming of Saul as the first king of Israel in c. 1050 bc. His story is told in the Old Testament’s first book of Samuel. Four books in our Bibles, called 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings (called 1 - 4 Kingdoms in the LXX) tell the story of the rise of the unified Jewish kingdom in the tenth and ninth centuries bc.

The Birth of Samuel

Samuel’s family was of the tribe of Ephraim and lived in a town called Ramathaim- Zophim (or Rama) some 4 or 5 miles northwest of the later city of Jerusalem. His father, Elkanah, had two wives Peninnah, who had several sons and daughters, and Hannah, who was reproached by Perinnah for being childless.

One time, on the family’s annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, Hannah vowed that, were God to give her a son, she would dedicate him to God’s service. Many of the Fathers, pointing to Hannah’s silent prayer, saw it as a model of heartfelt, if unspoken prayer. Although her prayer could not be heard by those nearby, it was heard by God.

A while after returning home, Hannah conceived and bore a son whom she called Samuel (“asked of God”) because the Lord had listened to her prayer. When the child was older. Hannah returned with him to Shiloh to give thanks and offer him to the Lord with the prayer we know as the Canticle of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10):

“My heart rejoices in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation. No one is holy like the Lord, for there is none besides You, nor is there any rock like our God...The bows of the mighty are broken, and those who stumbled are girded with strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, and the hungry have ceased to hunger. Even the barren has borne seven, and she who has many children has become feeble. … The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and He has set the world upon them. He will guard the feet of His saints, but the wicked shall be silent in darkness. … The Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to His king,And exalt the horn of His anointed.

We chant Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving as the third biblical canticle at Orthros during the Great Fast.

Samuel Is Called by God

The infant Samuel remained at Shiloh and grew to assist Eli the priest of the shrine. This is why he is often depicted in icons holding a censer. There is a touching story describing Samuel’s first experience of God, when, according to Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, Bk 5)., he was twelve years old. It happened “… while Samuel was lying down, that the Lord called Samuel. And he answered, “Here I am!” So he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” And he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” And he went and lay down. Then the Lord called yet again, “Samuel!” So Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” He answered, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” (Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor was the word of the Lord yet revealed to him.)

“ And the Lord called Samuel again the third time, so he arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you did call me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord had called the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and it shall be, if He calls you, that you must say, ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel answered, “Speak, for Your servant hears”… And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel had been established as a prophet of the Lord”
(1 Samuel 3:4-10, 20). In Jewish tradition Samuel is described as being equal to Moses, since God spoke directly to him.

Samuel Becomes Judge

Eli the priest had become the most righteous judge among the Hebrews, but his sons did not take after their father and were known as corrupt. With Eli’s death the unity of the Hebrew tribes began fragmenting until Samuel took Eli’s place as principal judge of the nation, traveling on a circuit from Ramah to the shrines of Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah to administer justice.

During Samuel’s time as judge the Philistines became the most significant power in the region and, therefore the greatest threat to the independence of the Hebrews. At one point the Philistines even captured the Ark, with its relics of the Exodus, the very symbol of the Israelites’ identity as the people of God and held it for ransom. Finally the Hebrew chieftains’ united under Samuel and defeated the Philistines.

In old age Samuel made his sons judges, but they “turned aside after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 8:3). As a result the elders pressured Samuel, “make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). With God’s guidance Samuel reluctantly agreed to their request but warned them that God was their king – if they wanted an earthly king they would be rejecting Him and inviting tyranny. The chieftains prevailed and Saul was chosen to be their king. Samuel secretly anointed Saul as king, as he would anoint the next king, David indicating their choice by God as ruler of His people. Icons of Samuel often depict him holding a vessel of oil with which he anointed both Saul and his successor, David.

Samuel lived to see God reject Saul as an unrighteous king and select David to replace him. He saw Saul try to have David killed, then finally accept David as God’s choice to inherit the kingdom. In 1 Sm 25:1 we are told that Samuel died and was buried at Rama, his home town. Rabbinic tradition says that Samuel lived to be 52 years old.

The traditional site of Samuel’s tomb is the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil, which overlooks Jerusalem. A succession of churches – the last of which became a mosque in the eighteenth century – was built over the tomb which itself houses a synagogue. In the fifth century ad St Jerome wrote that Samuel’s remains had been moved to Chalcedon by Emperor Arcadius and the Byzantine monastery in Nabi Samwil was simply a memorial.

Priest, Prophet, Ruler

The prophet Samuel has been seen as a type of Christ, because his ministry included a priestly and a prophetic dimension as well as being a judge and ruler in Israel. Thus he foreshadowed Christ, who offers Himself in sacrifice as priest, teaches prophetically what He hears from the Father (see John 15:15), and is glorified on the cross as King of the Jews.
READERS OF ST PAUL’S EPISTLES are used to his discussions of doctrine or moral issues. This passage, however, sheds light on a specific area of church practice and on Paul’s own custom in that regard. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that, in response to Christ’s command, the apostles (the Twelve and others such as Ss. Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and Titus preached the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. We know little or nothing about how they lived. We do know that these apostles went to cities where there were Jewish settlements and they first presented the Gospel to the Jews. In Acts 17, for example, we see how Paul and Silas “came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2, 3). Paul converted some of the Jews and of the God-fearing Gentiles who worshipped with them. Through them they may have encountered other non-believers. St Luke says that “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4).

How the Apostles Lived

It seems that the apostles traveled in twos or threes, following the model that the Lord Jesus had given them (cf., Mark 6:7). A brief mention in 1 Corinthians 9 gives us a hint about how they lived. Paul, we know, was not married but at least some of the other apostles were. And according to Paul, their wives traveled with them: “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:4) The heart of Paul’s instruction here is about the support which the apostles received. In most cases the apostles were supported by the Church which had sent them or the community to which they had brought the Gospel. Paul and his team seem to have been the exception: they supported themselves so that their hearers would not think they were preaching for money. Paul brings this to the Corinthians’ attention: “If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:11-12). Paul believed that he and Silas had the right to be supported by the Corinthian Christians but did not exercise it lest it be a stumbling block to the spread of the Gospel. Paul then articulated this principle for the Churches: “Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14). Those who serve the Church should be supported by the Church. When St Paul sets forth his teaching on support for the Apostles, he bases it on “the Lord’s command,” but when did the Lord issue any such precept? We find it as a consistent principle in both the Old and the New Testaments. When the priesthood was established in the days of Moses after the Israelites left Egypt the priests were allotted a portion of every sacrifice which anyone made to the Lord. As recorded in the Torah, the Lord commanded that “This is always to be the perpetual share from the Israelites for Aaron and his sons. It is the contribution the Israelites are to make to the Lord from their fellowship offerings” (Exodus 29:28). Priests were to be paid by taking a portion of every offering. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land under Joshua, the territory was divided between eleven of their twelve tribes. The priestly tribe of Levi, the descendants of Aaron, did not receive any land. Joshua gave no land to the priests, “since the food offerings presented to the Lord, the God of Israel, are their inheritance, as He promised them” (Joshua 13:14). St Paul sealed his argument with a maxim, also from the Torah. “For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain’” (1 Corinthians 9:9, quoting Deuteronomy 25:4). As it would be unfair to oxen to so restrict them that they could not eat the grain they were grinding, it would likewise by unjust to expect the servants of the altar to support themselves. We find the same precept in the Gospel. When Christ sent out the Twelve to preach that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand, He told them: “Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food” (Matthew 10:9, 10). They were not to go prepared to support themselves, but to rely on the support of their hearers.

In the Early Church

In the Apostles’ era most people had much less in the way of material goods than we do. As they went from one place to another did they have more than one pair of sandals, one tunic and one cloak? Their cloak may have doubled as a blanket and their sandals as a pillow. In our society there are people in homeless shelters who have more than that! Likewise the Church in the days of the Apostles had no property or material assets; its “wealth” was the poor orphans and widows entrusted to it by God. Any offerings collected went to them and to the servants of the Church. By the fourth century and the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the Church began to acquire buildings and properties. Clergy began to be paid by the state (ultimately by the taxpayer) and offerings of the faithful went to the adornment of the churches and the care of the poor.

In Our Church Today

As our way of life has changed, so have our needs and the needs of our clergy. Besides their modest housing and salaries, they require health insurance and auto insurance. Each church building has utilities, fuel and maintenance costs, liability insurance and perhaps a mortgage. Where will this money come from? In some countries in the “Old World” the state, endowments, or well-to-do benefactors assume these expenses. This is not the case here – it is up to every believer to do his or her part. Thus the principle which the Lord gave to the Israelites applies to us as well: “No one is to appear before me empty-handed” (Exodus 34:20). There is no one set amount which parish members are expected to give. Some people have significant disposable income, others are living on pensions. Large parishes have more potential donors, but also larger facilities to maintain or more clergy. One rule of thumb to use in gauging the amount we should be giving to the Church and charity is to compare it with the amount we spend on TV and other forms of entertainment. Another is to reflect on St Paul’s maxim, “This I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). Those who support the Church responsibly can be assured of God’s blessing as invoked by St Paul, “May He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteous-ness, while you are enriched in everything” (2 Corinthians 9:10-11).
ST. PAUL WAS UNDER ATTACK, not by Jews or Romans, but by some of those whom he had evangelized and who thought that they should be leaders in the community. Paul pointed to his own way of life in order to show them what leadership really is. St. Paul earned his own living while laboring as an apostle, living simply and without a family of his own. He compared his practice to that of the other apostles including Peter (Cephas) and the brothers of the Lord (James, Jude, etc.) “Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:4,5) Since then Paul’s words have been invoked many times in discussions about a married clergy, although Paul was neither defending nor opposing the practice. He was simply describing his own way of life without making it a norm for anyone else. The early Church clearly had a married clergy. When St Paul instructed his disciple St Timothy on how to set up a local community he gave him a number of principles to follow, including the following: “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.  A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach;  not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous;  one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:1-7). A bishop in the apostolic Church, as in any era, needed to be a man of virtue (temperate, sober-minded, etc.). But a bishop’s role was seen chiefly as the father of a family; hence he should have the qualities of a good family man, manifested in the way he brought up his children.

Later Developments

By the time of the First Ecumenical Council (325) there had been two major developments affecting the way clergy were chosen. As monasticism became more and more important in the life of the Church, the most committed Christians tended to be found among the monks. This led to the practice – and eventually the rule – that bishops be chosen from among the monks and later, by extension, the unmarried or widowed clergy. This remains the rule in all the historic Churches of East and West. The second development, chiefly in the West, was that priests and bishops came to be seen more as servants of the altar than as fathers of the Christian family. It was natural then to require that they be “ritually pure,” as the priests of the Old Covenant had been. As early as the fourth century councils in the West were requiring that “…the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence…” (Council of Carthage, Canon 3). The Council of Elvira, Spain (c. 305) was even stricter: “It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this, shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office” (Canon 33). An attempt was made to enact similar legislation at the Council of Nicaea, but it was not accepted. Nevertheless, the practice of mandatory clerical celibacy so spread in the West that Easterners felt the need to affirm the earlier tradition. By that time of the Quinisext Council of Constantinople (692) there was a direct contradiction between the ideas of East and West:
“Since we know it to be handed down as a rule of the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise no longer to cohabit with their wives, we, preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order, will that the lawful marriages of men who are in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual intercourse at a convenient time” (Canon 13).
To this day in all the Eastern Churches married men may be ordained as deacons and priests but bishops must be taken from the unmarried clergy.

The American Controversy

The two practices clashed when Greek Catholics from Eastern Europe began emigrating to America in the 1880s. They wanted their own Church and began bringing priests to serve them. Most of the Greek Catholic clergy on Europe were married and their presence here was opposed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The widely divergent Byzantine practices of the Greek Catholics were especially abhorrent to those bishops who wanted to eliminate all regional differences among the immigrants and Americanize the Church. In accordance with the bishops’ wishes, Pope Pius X wrote an apostolic letter, Ea Semper, in 1907 governing the Greek Catholics in America. Chrismation was no longer to be conferred at baptism and could now only be given by a bishop. No new married priests were to be ordained in America or to be sent to America. The rule on chrismation was ignored but the controversy over married clergy drove thousands from their Churches. It is said that over 160 parishes in the Orthodox Church in America alone were formed by former Greek Catholics. In 1929 Rome’s Oriental Congregation repeated the prohibition on married clergy in its decree Cum Data Fthuerit causing more to leave their Church. The “Independent Greek Catholic Church” (now the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese) was formed as a result. After Vatican II some Eastern Catholic bishops in America began ordaining married clergy, but these actions were considered “irregular” until 2014, when Pope Francis abrogated these prohibitions.

Celibacy in the Church Today

Celibacy has always been honored in the East where monasticism is so highly regarded. It is considered, however, as a grace, a charism given by God to some rather than mandated for all its clergy. Thus not only bishops but other clergy as well have been unmarried. Many proponents of clerical celibacy see unmarried clergy as more suited to ministry, citing St. Paul: "The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife" (1 Corinthians 7:32–33). This has not been the experience in the Eastern Churches. For stable communities in traditional societies the married priest has always functioned as St. Paul envisioned him, as the father of the Christian family. His wife, the khouriyye or matushka, is his invaluable helpmate in ministry as in life. Particularly in the smaller Eastern communities in our country this model is certainly the most suitable.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING to accept in Christianity? Is it the doctrine of the Trinity? The idea that God became man? Or that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ? While these teachings may meet with obstacles in our minds, the hardest thing for us to accept in practice is the absolute need to forgive others. In our broken humanity we are much more at home with seeking vengeance. We are often more comfortable with the pre-Christian vision of a vengeful God: “And the LORD said to him, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (Genesis 4:15). The Torah enshrined the concept of vengeance in its laws concerning violence: “But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25). While modern law is not as demanding, it still endorses the idea of vengeance, clothed in modern dress as “Justice” and “Closure” (which often comes down to a question of money). Perhaps the best comment on this principle is by the Lebanese author Kahlil Gibran, “An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind.”

Forgiveness: the Heart of the Gospel

Contemporary Catholic writer Scott Hurd describes the Gospel ideal of forgiveness as “…both the central idea of Christianity, and an assault on the conventional human understanding of justice.” It is an “assault” because it challenges the very nature of the world’s way of handling things. It is the heart of our faith because it is the basic attitude of God toward us and the model of how we can act as the images of God. “Yours it is to show mercy…” we say to God in many prayers, because He is by nature the forgiving Father, the One who runs to welcome home His prodigal children after they stray. God incarnate in Jesus Christ expresses this forgiveness in His humanity when He prayed for His killers, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). And so it is in imitation of God that His disciple, the Protomartyr St Stephen, prayed for those who delivered him to death: “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60). That forgiveness is required, not an option, in the Christian life we see from the Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). With these words He was in fact highlighting what we say repeatedly in the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps with little intention of putting it into practice. Christ would come back to this theme again and again, doubtlessly more often than the Gospels record:
  • “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:37-38).
  • “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).
Forgiveness is particularly necessary when we presume to pray:
  • “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25-26).
It is especially necessary when we look to make an oblation:
  • “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
The kiss of peace at the Eucharist of all the historic Churches is a rite based on this requirement of the Lord.

The Parable of the Unjust Debtor

In story form this passage, unique to Matthew, repeats the Lord’s fundamental teaching that forgiving others is a prerequisite for being forgiven by God. The call for the godly-minded to forgive others was already common in late Judaism, but in a limited way. Thus the second century rabbinic scholar Issi ben Judah wrote, “If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive.” Rabbi Yossi bar Hanina, writing in the second half of the third century ad counsels, “He who begs forgiveness from his neighbor must not do so more than three times.” By this standard Peter was being downright generous when he suggested forgiving seven times as the new standard. Christ replies by turning around Lamech’s rule of vengeance (“If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” – Gen 4:24). Now, Christ says, consider forgiving others seventy times seven, a number meaning “without limit.” St John Chrysostom saw a particularly damning indictment of the tendency to hold grudges or seek vengeance in this parable. Pointing to the fate of the unforgiving servant, Christ says, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Matthew 18:35). Chrysostom offers this interpretation: “Note that He did not say ‘your Father’ but ‘my Father’ for it is not proper for God to be called the Father of one who is so wicked and malicious” (Homily on Matthew 61, 4). These harsh words go unheard by many in the Church who hold grudges, often for many years. People often feel that broken relationships have nothing to do with our faith. In reality our unwillingness to forgive says that we think God is a sucker for being so compassionate: we know better. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, the rift is with more than our relative or neighbor. “For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
THE LORD’S PRAYER IS UTTERED to God each day by countless Christians in most of the world’s languages. It is said two or three times in each of our daily liturgical services as well. Yet sometimes it seems that we are not listening to the words we ourselves are reciting. “Forgive us our trespasses,” we pray, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgive us the way we forgive others – is this really the way we want to be treated? Do we want God to use the way we forgive others as the yardstick to measure how He should forgive us? The unforgiving steward in Christ’s parable (Matthew 18:23-35) clearly sees no connection between being forgiven and granting forgiveness. He could not see his master’s generosity as a model to imitate in dealing with those who owed him. The message was apparently too subtle – it had to be re-taught with a stick so he was handed over to be tortured.. And in case we too miss the point, Jesus adds: “So my heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (v.35).

When Do We Forgive?

Probably everyone feels they have been wronged at one time or another: in the family or at work, by another individual or by society in general. Many of us would have a hard time forgiving the one(s) who wronged us when asked. But the Lord’s teaching is: don’t wait to be asked. You reach out to the other. In 1981 a Turkish fundamentalist, Mehmet Ali Acga, attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II. Two-and-a-half years later the pope visited the gunman in prison, took him by the hand and offered words of pardon and forgiveness. “I was able to meet my assailant,” the pope said afterwards, “and repeat to him the pardon I had given him immediately” at the time of the shooting. The picture made the cover of Time with the caption, “Why Forgive?” That’s not the way of the world. It was a professor at Baylor, the Baptist university in Waco, Texas who best explained it to the folks at Time. “A whisper, perhaps, to Acga, the Patriarch’s words and action reverberate loudly around the world till this day as an altar call to the spiritually deaf. In forgiving his young misguided enemy the Head of the Catholic Church offered a troubled, hate-filled world an unforgettable image of grace.”

When Do We Ask Forgiveness?

There are times when, rightly or wrongly, someone may have something against us. We actually may have done something to offend another, or that person may have thought that we did. An Athonite elder tells how a monk once offered to help the elder on his errands. The elder declined, not wanting to burden the monk. On his way out of the monastery, the elder met another monk who was going the same way and they went off together. The first monk took that as “proof” that the elder disliked him. When the elder learned of the monk’s reaction, he apologized profusely, even though he had done nothing wrong. His relationship to the monk was more important to the elder than showing who was “right.” The world might say, “Tell him to get over it, get a life.” The elder was following the Lord’s approach: “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Seeking reconciliation with others by asking forgiveness is a prerequisite for offering one’s gift. This sentiment is at the heart of two church rituals: the kiss of peace at the Divine Liturgy and the mutual exchanges at Forgiveness Vespers on the eve of the Great Fast. While these rites can be – and often are – trivialized into simple greetings, they are meant to express the importance of setting right our relationships before entering any important spiritual act.

How Do We Ask Forgiveness?

In 2011 the Italian manufacturer Benetton mounted a shock ad campaign featuring a photoshopped picture of Pope Benedict XVI passionately kissing Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. A spokesman for the manufacturer described the picture and others like it as “symbolic images of reconciliation… to stimulate reflection on how politics, faith and ideas, when they are divergent and mutually opposed, must still lead to dialogue and mediation.” After a major Vatican protest and threatened lawsuit, Benetton “apologized” saying, “We are sorry that the use of an image of the pontiff and the imam should have offended the sensibilities of the faithful in this way.” Notice that the company did not say “Forgive us.” They did not accept any responsibility for offending others; they said they were sorry that others found what they did offensive. As an apology, this was meaningless. It was like the politician stating that he or she “misspoke” when “I lied” or “I was wrong” would have been the appropriate response. We echo Benetton’s reluctance to accept any responsibility for their actions all the time. Admitting that I did anything wrong or apologizing in any real way goes against the sense of superiority that is part of our broken nature. Our pride does not allow us to say “I’m sorry – forgive me” except in the most trivial ways. With our worldly values we see humility as a weakness, especially when challenged rather than as a virtue. According to the Gospel, however, loving as we have been loved, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and asking forgiveness when we have offended is fundamental to our life in Christ.
“Forgive Us Our Trespasses”

How necessary, how providential, how salutary that we are reminded that we are sinners, since we have to beg for forgiveness, and while we ask for God’s pardon, we are reminded of our own consciousness of guilt! Just in case anyone should think himself innocent and, by thus exalting himself, should more utterly perish, he is taught and instructed that he sins every day, since he is commanded to pray daily for forgiveness.

This is what John warns us in his epistle: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sins, the Lord is faithful and just and will forgive us. In his epistle he combines two things, first, that we ought to beg for mercy because of our sins and second, that we will receive forgiveness when we ask for it. This is why he says that the Lord is faithful to forgive sins, keeping faith with what he promised; because he who taught us to pray for our debts and sins has promised that his fatherly mercy and pardon will follow.

St Cyprian of Carthage
On the Lord’s Prayer

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