Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 10 in our series on the Our Father.

Our prayer takes an unexpected turn. After several lines about the Father’s kingdom, will, name, we have begun to ask for what we need. But Jesus instructs us to immediately move on to asking for spiritual things. Immediately turning from “our daily bread” to “forgive us” underlines how little we ask for with our daily bread. We don’t get to go on asking for things.

Bread is the only thing the Our Father lets us ask for for ourselves. Indeed, by framing it in terms of other goods, the bread sounds more oriented toward our battle with “trespasses” and “evil” than with merely sustaining our earthly life.

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Forgiveness is a sign of strength. God is powerful enough to provide our daily bread. But he is more powerful than that. He is powerful enough to forgive our sins. God’s forgiveness is a sign that our sin doesn’t hurt him, doesn’t in any way limit his strength.

This is an important point. It is not as if the Cross and Resurrection show a God powerful enough to do physical miracles – like raising the dead – but not strong enough to overcome man’s sin; or, powerful enough to overcome the consequences (sin kills) but not powerful enough to overcome the cause (sin). God’s forgiveness is a sign of his strength. If we are asked to forgive, it is a sign that we somehow share in that strength.

The German word behind our “forgiveness” means “to give and give and give.” God is wealthy enough to keep giving, rich enough to become poor for us without fear.

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Yet forgiveness also recognizes that there is a trespass. We don’t forgive or ask forgiveness where no wrong has been done. Like Confession, our asking forgiveness simultaneously acknowledges that God is bigger than our sin and that sin is a real problem.

Some English translations say “debts” instead of “trespasses.” Matthew’s Gospel gives a longer version of the prayer, basically the one we use. As he often does, Luke shortens it to its essence. In Matthew it’s “debts,” in Luke it’s “sins” or “trespasses” – though he then says “as we forgive those indebted to us.”

In English, and even more in Greek and Latin, the word debt is rooted in the word “ought.” To “owe” is to “ought to give.” We moderns tend to think of monetary debt as purely arbitrary. To say we “owe” it to God sounds like he is a miser, counting every coin that crosses his desk. But what we are saying is not about him, not about him demanding something, but about us: we ought to do it. We say, “forgive us our oughts,” forgive us for the things we ought to have done but haven’t.

Part of what we are meant to learn from asking forgiveness, whether in the Our Father or in Confession, is precisely that there is such a thing as “ought.” That it’s not a matter of how much we can get away with, how little God needs from us, but that some things are just right.

“It is right and just,” we say in the Mass. When we love, we give simply because it’s the right thing to do. No amount of forgiveness makes us happy to be unjust. In a sense, this is what Christian maturity is all about: learning to do what is “right and just,” what we “ought” to do, not because otherwise we’ll hurt God or make him angry – no, he is always strong enough to forgive us – but because it is right. To recognize that along with his “forgiveness” there is our “ought.” That is love.

Sin doesn’t hurt God. But it does hurt us, because it simply is a failure to love, and love is everything.

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Finally, the word “forgiveness” does not quite do justice to the word in Latin and Greek. In fact, we ask God not just to “forgive” us, but to “put away” our sins. Perhaps “remit” sounds too much like accounting, but perhaps “remission of sins” can be a better translation, because it keeps this alive.

Think of it this way: “forgiveness” is all about the forgiver. It doesn’t affect the other person. But “put away our sins” is at least ambiguous: it’s not clear whether he’s putting them “away” from him, or from us.

In fact, the divine remission of our sins doesn’t affect God, it affects us. This is near the heart of the mystery of grace: that we can ask God to “send our sins away” from us. To heal us, and make us good.

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How have you grown in your sense of “ought”?

eric.m.johnston

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