Those Who Trespass Against Us

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

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?

As We Forgive

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 11 in our series on the Our Father.

Today we reach the one point in the Our Father where we actually do something. We aspire to the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of his kingdom, the doing of his will – but in all these things, we primarily ask God to do it. We don’t pray, “God, I will make thy kingdom come,” we pray, “let it come: you do it.” Just as, in the second half, we ask him to give us our daily bread, to forgive us, to lead us not into temptation, to deliver us. Everywhere else in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “you do it.” This is the one place where we say what we will do.

But what we do turns out to be nothing but forgiveness. In one sense, it is a not doing: we just pledge not to count up what other people owe us. Though in another sense, of course, forgiveness opens up a whole world of activity. It allows us to treat others, first, in terms of their goodness, and to enjoy them, even though they also have badness that we need to forgive. It allows us, also, to see others in terms of their weakness, and to reach out and help them, not counting the cost.


Jesus underlines the importance of forgiveness in our practical life. We are, remember, in the central section of the Sermon on the Mount, almsgiving (Matt 6:1-4), prayer (Matt 6:5-15), and fasting (Matt 6:16-18). But this second, central section of the central section, on prayer, concludes, “and deliver us from evil. Amen. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

On the one hand, let us not overlook the incongruity of what he is saying. He is talking about prayer – and precisely when he talks about prayer, Jesus pauses to say that forgiveness is essential. If we do not forgive, our prayer is falsified, our spiritual life a sham.

And so, on the other hand, notice how appropriate this apparent incongruity is. In forgiveness, we see that almsgiving goes with prayer, that the true measure of our prayer is in how we treat the weak: those who are in debt to us. (The weak? Yes, those who hurt us are not the strong, but those who are too weak to be better.) Forgiveness is the heart of all almsgiving.

We see, too, that fasting goes with prayer, that the true measure of what we treasure is what we are willing to give up. Forgiveness is the most profound fasting, the most profound way of saying that God is worth more to us than our grudges and whatever we hope to extract from our debtors.


Forgiveness, then, has a reciprocal relationship with the rest of the Our Father. In one sense, we could say that the rest of the Our Father is ordered to forgiveness. We ask our daily bread to do our daily work: but our daily work is forgiveness. Father, give me the strength to forgive. We ask not to be led into temptation: Father, let me not be tempted to hold grudges. Deliver me from the evil of unforgiveness. Indeed, forgive me for not forgiving.

The Father’s kingdom is the kingdom of forgiveness. His will is that we forgive. This is how we hallow his name. This is how we bring heaven to earth, because by forgiveness we leave everything in God’s hands, recognize that his is the power and the glory and the kingdom, and not ours. By forgiveness, we leave room for God.

But in the other direction, it is forgiveness that allows us to pursue higher goods. There are other temptations, other evils. But the only way to be freed from them is to trust in God, not in ourselves. The second half of the Our Father urges us to realize that every good gift comes from God: that it is he who gives us strength and delivers us from evil. Forgiveness is strategic, because it is precisely there that we most profoundly realize how we tend to exclude God from our vision.

When I hold a grudge, on the one hand, I value other things more than God – usually petty things. On the other hand, I think everything depends on the assertion of my rights, that if I don’t fight for myself, I’ll lose out. And how pervasive these grudges are, from little annoyances with people in our household to big hatreds of those in the world around us.

Forgiveness is acknowledging that God is God.


What are some very small ways that you fail to forgive? What do they say about your relationship to the Father?