On Matt 6:14-21
There are two kinds of enemies we must keep in mind as we fast. There are the enemies we must forgive – and there are the enemies we must destroy.
First, there is the enemy we must love and forgive. Today our Lord Jesus teaches us how to fast, and he begins his teaching with talk of forgiveness. A true fast must begin with forgiveness. We Byzantines take this literally – tonight we begin our Great Fast with Forgiveness Vespers, confessing and forgiving all the wrongs that we have done.
Just before our Lord teaches us how to fast, he teaches us how to pray (Matt 6:5-13). He teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, which we pray many times daily – and in which we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
And today he elaborates on the meaning of this prayer, saying, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but” – and this is a terrifying conjunction – “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15).
Our Father’s forgiveness is not exactly unconditional – though he makes it always available to us, and no sin of ours can cut us off irredeemably from his mercy. But Jesus himself reveals the condition of our Father’s forgiveness – that is, we must forgive others. We must put aside all our enmity and hate and resentment over wrongs.
St Maximus the Confessor writes, “Strive as hard as you can to love everyone. If you cannot yet do this, at least do not hate anybody. But even this is beyond your power unless you scorn worldly things.”[i] Fasting rightly will teach us scorn of worldly things, which will help us put aside our hate for others. This is necessary because we are not to be an enemy to anyone.
Just because you have an enemy, doesn’t mean that you have to be an enemy. There is probably someone who hates you and opposes the good that you are and the good that you do – a person who makes himself your enemy.
We will have enemies, whether or not we create them by our own evil doing. Jesus assures us that if we follow him, we will be hated, as he has been hated (cf. Matt 10:22; John 15:18). Christ himself has enemies and so, if we become like Christ, we will be like him also in this. Furthermore, he commands us to love our enemies, which presupposes that we will have enemies to love (cf. Matt 5:44).
So, how do I stop being an enemy of my enemies? I forgive and seek reconciliation. I make restitution for any wrongs. If my enemy will not reconcile with me, I can still remain open to the one whose heart is closed to me. I can love and forgive the one who hates and hurts me. I can pray for those who persecute me. All this in imitation of the supreme example of Christ Jesus on the cross, who cries out, “Father forgive them.” And really, it is this cross that gives us the power to forgive. Only in Christ and in his cross can we truly offer forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn’t something entirely within our own power. When the Pharisees say, “Who can forgive sins but God alone,” they have a point (though they fail to see that they are making their point to God himself). But if you’ve ever felt like you couldn’t forgive someone because they have hurt you so deeply or because their crime is so heinous, in a way, you’re right. That is, you can’t forgive them of your own individual power, by your own unaided will. You can’t do it, but Christ can, and in Christ, you can forgive.
Forgiveness is a grace – a participation in the life of God. As they say, to forgive is divine. Only by the grace of God can we find the power to forgive, to release those whose crimes against us have bound them to death, to abandon them utterly to God’s good graces, to seek every good on their behalf.
The process of theosis – our dynamic ascent into ever greater union with God – precedes forgiveness, accompanies forgiveness, and results from forgiveness. In forgiving, we become more like God, who forgives. We are forgiven as we forgive. Forgiving and being forgiven are one action of God in us.
As we enter the Great Fast, let this be our approach and God’s approach in us and between us toward all. Let us invoke blessings and not curses upon our enemies.
St. John Chrysostom points out that “praying against one’s personal enemies is a transgression of law.”[ii] Yet, anyone who prays the psalms will soon notice that they are filled with curses against enemies. So what does this mean for us?
It means that there is another kind of enemy – one with whom we must never be reconciled. In another place, St. John Chrysostom says, “We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.”[iii]
As an exorcist of demons, Jesus teaches us who our enemies really are. Our enemies are not each other or other parties or other nations, but the demons and the evil that is in our own hearts. It is toward these enemies that we must direct the curses of the psalms and it is against these enemies that we must strive by our fasting.
Just as our fast is entered and sustained in the spirit of forgiveness and patience with others’ faults, so it is also an act of war against our true enemies – the devil and his demons and our own passions. How shall we wage this war?
St. John the Dwarf writes,
“If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy's city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemy, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: if a man goes about fasting and hungry, the enemies of his soul grow weak and can be conquered thereby.”
We begin the fast by forgiving our pretended enemies – our neighbors and fellow humans – so that then, free from the distraction of focusing our energies on waging a campaign against them, we can turn that power instead against our true enemies: the demons and our own passions.
Against these enemies, let us pray with the Psalmist,
O Lord, plead my cause against my foes;
fight those who fight me.
Take up your buckler and shield; arise to help me.
Take up the javelin and the spear against those who pursue me.
O Lord, say to my soul: “I am your salvation.”
Let those who seek my life be shamed and disgraced.
Let those who plan evil against me be routed in confusion.
Let them be like chaff before the wind;
let God’s angel scatter them.
Let their path be slippery and dark;
let God’s angel pursue them.
They have hidden a net for me wantonly;
they have dug a pit.
Let ruin fall upon them and take them by surprise.
Let them be caught in the net they have hidden;
let them fall into their pit.
But my soul shall be joyful in the Lord and rejoice in his salvation (Psalm 34:1-9).