The Debtors’ Prison

A great deal of discussion has occurred recently about the problem of mass criminal incarceration in the United States. State and federal prisons have approximately 1.5 million in mates. On any given day about 700,000 persons are in local jails but millions more pass in and out of the jail system every year. Prison is mentioned in today’s Gospel reading from the Eleventh Sunday of Matthew (18:23-35) when the servant, who had just been forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents to his master (vv.24,27), found a fellow servant who owed him only a hundred denarii and threw him in prison (vv.28,30). At the time of Christ, it was not uncommon for people to be imprisoned who owed money but who refused to pay or were unable to pay. In this debtors’ prison, inmates worked until they could pay the debt or were sold into slavery with the proceeds used to pay their debt. We do not have debtors’ prisons today. We just have mortgages and student loans.

C.S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until we have someone to forgive.” Can you imagine if someone owed you ten million dollars? Even if you were incredibly wealthy, would you forgive the debt? This is what the master did for the servant in today’s parable. Christ is trying to illustrate the great love and forgiveness that God the Father extends to us for our sins. Now imagine you just won ten million in the lottery or inherited that some from a wealthy relative. Would you go and collect from someone who owed you twenty-five dollars? What would you do if he or she could not pay? Would you take them to small claims court to try and force payment? That is what the servant did to his fellow servant in today’s parable.

I am quite sure that most of us would not think twice about $25 having just acquired $10 million. Yet, many of us have great difficulty forgiving a small sin that our neighbor commits against us. It could be critical comment, it could be a slight rebuff or dismissive look, being cut-off in traffic, or taking a parking space we’ve been waiting for. Maybe the sin is a little bigger like an angry argument, borrowing something without returning it promptly, a property line dispute with the next-door neighbor, an employee who does not pull their weight, or an oppressive micro-managing boss. The list goes on. But each time we do not forgive we throw ourselves into prison.

Forgiveness is not as much about helping the other person—the sinner—as it is helping ourselves—the first among sinners—to escape the incarceration of a debtor’s dungeon. Fr. Anthony Coniaris, in his book My Beloved Son Listen to Him (vol.2, p.14) notes that very few of us have physically taken someone by the throat with our hand to demand payment or repentance but that most of us have done this in our imagination. And when we take this mental revenge, we cast these persons into a special prison that we keep in our own heart. How many other people are in this dungeon of our soul? We try to torture them with our thoughts making them repay what they owe us but in reality we are the ones who are imprisoned by this mental exercise. By keeping them and their sins alive in our dungeon, we allow them to torture us and we become prisoners of our own bitterness, resentment and hate.

St. John Climacus, who lived in the seventh century, taught that remembrance of wrongs is a dark and hateful passion. He writes, “Remembrance of wrongs is the consummation of anger, the keeper of sins, hatred of righteousness, ruin of virtues, poison of the soul, worm of the mind, shame of prayer, stopping of supplication, estrangement of love, a nail stuck in the soul, pleasureless feeling beloved in the sweetness of bitterness, continuous sin, unsleeping transgression, hourly malice.” As Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer, we must forgive those who trespass against us so that we may be forgiven (Matthew 6:12). Forgiveness helps us to release them from the prison of our heart and at the same time we are released as well. But why is this so hard sometimes?

Forgiveness is difficult often because we have not received the forgiveness of God. We are trying to forgive with our own love and not God’s love and that is impossible. Saint Paul the Apostle says, “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13), and “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). One reason that we have not received God’s forgiveness is because we have not repented of our own sins. We have not changed our ways nor our minds. Another reason is that we have not participated in the Sacrament of Confession. We try and diagnose and fix our own spiritual diseases without coming to our God-given physicians in order to be treated properly. Not participating in Confession is just like not receiving Holy Communion. In the latter we deny ourselves the Body and Blood of Christ, in the former we deny ourselves the loving forgiveness of Christ. And we do not think this is a problem because we are still living inside the dark prison of our soul and we cannot see what we are missing.

As we conclude, listen to what Lev Gillet wrote that “God does not forgive our debts because we forgive those of our debtors…God, in His generosity, takes and keeps the initiative of forgiveness. When we ourselves forgive others, it is not our own forgiveness we grant them. We allow the divine forgiveness which we ourselves have received to ‘pass through’ and beyond us. We make ourselves its instruments.” How can we be vessels of forgiveness if we have not received it from God first? God grants forgiveness as a free gift but we must repent, confess, and change our patterns of behavior, language and thought in order to receive forgiveness and pass it on to others. This is how we escape and stay out of the debtor’s prison. Amen!