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.
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