Part 12 in our series on the Our Father.
As we think about the Our Father as a model of our spiritual life, let’s take one more week, this Lent, on forgiveness. This is the one part of the prayer, after all, that Jesus himself underlines: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15). It almost sounds like our entire salvation hinges on this.
An interesting aspect of this line is that Jesus does not deny, and does not ask us to deny, that there are such people as “those who trespass against us” – in fact, they are common enough to make up our whole way of salvation.
Now, there is a healthy practice of putting the best interpretation on people’s actions. Often when it seems like someone has trespassed against us, it’s all just a big misunderstanding. Often we are the bigger trespassers: we are being too ornery, or too quick to judge other people’s intentions, etc. Sometimes what we take for a trespass was an innocent mistake, sometimes they were actually trying to help us, and we are too prideful and stubborn to appreciate it. It’s good and valuable for us to make a habit of putting the best interpretation on people’s actions.
But that is not what Jesus tells us to do here. Forgiveness doesn’t mean not noticing. It doesn’t mean pretending that nothing happened. It doesn’t mean pretending there is no one who “trespasses against us.” Forgiveness is more radical than that, because it means loving even when people do trespass against us.
This comes to the heart of our Lent. Jesus did not die for the “innocent misunderstandings” of the world. He died for our sins. He loves us, and forgives us, even when what we do is radically wrong.
Or rather, he recognizes that sin and misunderstanding are not so far distant. In Luke’s Gospel, he says from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). On one side, his forgiveness recognizes that if they really knew, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).
On the other hand, precisely in Luke’s gospel, it immediately goes on to the good thief: “One of the malefactors who were hanged railed on him, saying, ‘if you are the Christ, save yourself and us.’ But the other answering rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, seeing that you are in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man has done nothing wrong’” (Lk 23:39-41). The good thief is saved by the recognition that he has sinned, not by pleading it was all an innocent mistake.
Perhaps we can put it this way. Sin is a sad predicament. The sinner is not someone we should hate for his evil. He is someone we should pity for his foolishness.
The good thief is saved by acknowledging the truth. By acknowledging, on the one hand, that sin has gotten him nothing, that the ultimate wages of sin is death. And by acknowledging, on the other hand, that only Jesus can get him out of this mess.
The bad thief is lost because he insists on the way of selfishness. That selfishness is itself his condemnation. It’s not that Jesus decides whether he “deserves” to be “punished.” It’s that being a bad person is itself a horrible thing. Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it. The world condemns itself, by choosing hate over love. That choice is hell.
Sin is all around us. People do trespass against us. They do many wrong things. They choose not to love. They crucified the Lord of glory.
If we are spiritually alert, we realize that sin is within us, too. How petty, that when people trespass against us, we look for ways to fight back. What do we think that is going to get us? What good does it do us to hate people for their sin? It hurts them more than it hurts us.
Forgiveness is the recognition that sin hurts the sinner. Forgiveness is salvific because it helps us to detest sin as we should, to turn from the way of self to the way of love. And forgiveness is the recognition that we too need forgiveness, and turn to a Lord who always gives us a chance to repent, even when we are both hanging on the Cross.
What are some examples where your failure to forgive is truly foolish?