Forgive us our debts

Matthew 6:7-15

In his book, How to Forgive, John Monbourquette ( Cincinnati , OH : St Anthony Messenger Press, 2000) tells the story of a missionary who had dedicated himself, heart and soul, to the evangelization of his adopted people. But not everyone appreciated his methods; some even misrepresented them and spoke disparagingly of him to other people. These tales found their way to the ears of the provincial superior, who got nervous and ordered the missionary to return home as quickly as possible. After years of dedicated, fruitful work, the missionary watched in shock as his career came to an end. He was devastated. Waves of pain and anger, of resentment and bitterness, washed over him.

After a few months of rest and reflection, he found that he wanted to be free of the exhausting resentment that was poisoning his life. He decided to forgive his former superior for the wrong and suffering he had inflicted on him. He began by praying. Several times a day, he would say “I forgive you,” as he thought of his former provincial. But his effort was wasted; nothing eased his bitterness. His determination to forgive only deepened his resentment. Now somewhat desperate, the missionary resorted to the ultimate solution: a silent retreat for the sole purpose of achieving forgiveness. He set about his self-appointed task immediately: he read about forgiveness, spent long hours in the chapel and repeated the formula “I forgive you.” Sometimes he thought he had attained his goal, only to wake up the very next day with the same sting in his heart. (pp.160-161)

What was wrong? Why was he unable to forgive the one who had wronged him? It seems likely that it was because of a mistaken notion of forgiveness — a notion that is, in fact, fairly common and which, unfortunately, often grows out of a misunderstanding of the words in today’s gospel.

The misunderstanding is rooted in those words of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples which ask God to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (v.12). It is reinforced by the words of Jesus that follow the prayer:

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you” (v.14,15).

The misunderstanding is two-fold. First, it imagines that we must forgive before God can forgive. While there is a deep connection between our own willingness to forgive and God’s forgiveness of us, it is not a relationship of direct cause and affect. To maintain that God’s forgiveness is dependent upon our ability to forgive is to put the focus on human action rather than on the action of God. God’s forgiveness is not conditioned by puny human acts of forgiveness. When Matthew’s Jesus says, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you,” he is not suggesting that we must somehow muster the resources to forgive others before God can grant us forgiveness. In truth it is God who takes the initiative in forgiving, just as it is God who takes the initiative in loving. “We love because he first loved us,” the author of I John tells us. To which we might add, “We forgive because he first forgave us.” Actual forgiveness remains the free gift of God, whether we are speaking of that forgiveness taking place between us and God, or between us and other human beings. It is not, nor can it ever be, the result of our own determination and self-will.

The second misunderstanding results when we hear Jesus’ words, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you” (v.15). We assume that these words mean that the person who fails to forgive will be punished by being denied forgiveness. As Monbourquette points out, “this approach seems to set us back in the mode of the Old Testament lex talionis, (“an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”) rather than place us within the spontaneous and free circle of love of the Beatitudes.” (p.36) When forgiveness becomes a moral obligation, when it becomes a law which we must either fulfill or suffer the consequences, it loses its free and spontaneous nature, and can no longer be called “forgiveness.” This is what Peter had so much trouble understanding when he asked Jesus, “Lord, when my brother wrongs me, how many times shall I forgive him?” Peter was preoccupied with legalistic concepts, hoping to find precise rules on forgiveness to guide his moral judgment. But this is not the kind of forgiveness God is offering us. In his response to Peter, Jesus makes it very clear that “forgiveness finds its source, not in a moral obligation, but rather in the mystery of the intimate relationship between God and human beings. Far from being a command, forgiveness arises from a conversion of the heart and the choice of a lifestyle that reflects how God acts.” (p.162) Forgiveness is central to the new kingdom Jesus is bringing about in the world; those who are choosing to live by the standards of this new kingdom will manifest in their lives the abundance of God’s extravagant forgiveness that they themselves have received.

When we pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” we are recognizing that a deep connection exists between our willingness and capacity to forgive and God’s forgiveness of us. It is not a direct cause-and-effect relationship, as we have pointed out. God is not saying that our ability to be forgiven depends on our own efforts to forgive others. Rather, when we pray this prayer, we are asking that the forgiveness we receive from God may lead us to forgive those who have wronged us. We are praying for the grace to “be merciful, even as [our] Father is merciful” (Lk.6:36). We are asking not only for God’s forgiveness, but for the gift of being able to “forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven [us]” (Col.3:13). We are seeking the capacity to live Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph.4:32). We cannot hope to accomplish this in our own strength, or by the force of our own determination. This is exactly where the missionary was running aground; he could not forgive merely by the efforts of his own will.

Forgiveness flows as a spontaneous and free act when we know ourselves to be forgiven, just as love flows freely and naturally when we know ourselves to be loved. This is made clear in a story that Matthew tells later in his gospel of a man who owed a tremendous debt to his master. His master exhibited extravagant generosity by forgiving the man of his debt and setting him free. Whereupon the forgiven debtor came across someone who owed him a small amount of money and, rather than forgive as he had been forgiven, he insisted that this poor man be put in jail until he could pay the sum. When the master heard of the forgiven debtor’s lack of generosity, he was furious and demanded that the debt he had canceled be re-imposed and the man be placed in jail until he had paid every penny of it. (cf. Mt. 18:23-35) The story illustrates two important truths. (p.172) The first is one of which we have already spoken: it is God who takes the initiative in forgiving. Forgiveness comes from God. So do repentance and mutual human forgiveness. Our role is to open ourselves to these divine gifts, to receive them gladly and respond to them readily. The second truth this story illustrates is this: Forgiveness is not just an act of the will (though the will is involved); it is the fruit of conversion. Forgiveness springs from a changed heart, a heart that recognizes the overwhelming generosity of the divine initiative that has forgiven it, and now seeks to respond with a similar generosity by offering forgiveness to others. It is obvious from the story that this kind of conversion did not take place in the heart of the forgiven debtor. Even after he was forgiven an extraordinary amount of debt, he could not find it in his heart to forgive one who owed him a pittance. The two forgivenesses, God’s and ours, go together. If we say, “I will never forgive you!,” we can hardly be forgiven: we are not in the mood. We are not penitently aware of our sins, but only vengefully aware of the other person’s sins. We are not thinking about God; we are intent rather on our prideful self. An unforgiving spirit in us shuts the door in God’s face, even though his compassion still surrounds the house. God is ready to forgive, but we are not ready to be forgiven.

Do you remember the story with which we began, of the missionary who could not bring himself to forgive his superior? As it turns out, the story has a happy ending. “On the fourth night of day (of the retreat), as he was meditating in the chapel, he instinctively picked up the New Testament, opened it at random, and came across the passage about the healing of the crippled man. The Pharisees’ comment, ‘God alone can forgive,’ jumped out at him. At that moment he understood the uselessness of trying to forgive while relying on himself. He finally understood that he was being driven by the desire for power (over his enemy). His great efforts had only served to cover up his humiliation and anger (at what had been done to him). Suddenly he recognized that he had not acknowledged that he really wanted to appear morally superior to his former provincial (superior) and subtly take revenge on him.

“This discovery enabled him to give himself up to God completely. He started by relaxing. Then he opened himself to receive the grace of forgiveness without knowing how, when or where it would be granted to him. Two days later, he had the feeling, a bit confused at first, then more and more distinct, that something had unraveled inside him. From that moment on, he felt peace washing over him; his heart felt lighter, his soul, liberated. Curiously, he no longer felt the need to repeat his incantation: ‘I forgive you.” Resentment had released its stranglehold and forgiveness had finally found a home in him.” (p.161)

Forgiveness is the gift of God. Our role is to open our hearts to receive this gift, and then to pass it along to others. Father, forgive us our debts, so that we, having received your mercy and pardon, may forgive our debtors.

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  1. Elizabeth Hardy on June 29, 2017 at 09:08

    I always ask folks if they want to God forgive them “as they forgive those who sin against them”. I always provokes a lot of conversation and reflection. Thank you for this very thoughtful homily. It explains the concept and gift of forgiveness perfectly.

  2. Michael on June 29, 2017 at 09:03

    It is of some comfort to read that others have struggled with forgiveness as I have. While David’s sermon threw some new light on the subject, I am far from understanding the message. Perhaps muddling on, even without understanding has something to do with forgiveness and trust in God.

  3. John on July 17, 2015 at 09:08

    Br. David’s reflections usually speak directly to me. Quite often the things he reflects on are my primary concerns. It pleases me to read this reflection on forgiveness and find most of it helpful. I’ll need to re-read it of course, many times, but it does seem to me that my awareness of giving and receiving forgiveness has not been as linear as I get from this sermon. My experience of forgiveness follows:
    1. It is caught, not taught. I have become more able to forgive as I have found myself more deeply forgiven.
    2. Awareness of having been forgiven by another person catalyzes my ability to forgive more frequently than awareness of God’s forgiveness. I am not a mystic.
    3. I find myself able to remember the moments that I became aware of having forgiven someone more easily by a long shot that the actual moment when I actually forgave.
    4. I find that receiving and offering forgiveness happens over and over again, deeper and deeper.
    5. My desire to forgive is energized by my discovery that not forgiving harms me more than the object of my resentment.

    Thanks, Br. David, for stimulating these reflections. I’ll enjoy re-reading this sermon, as I do all of yours.

  4. Heidi on May 29, 2014 at 15:33

    Br. David’s words have helped me to see forgiveness in a different light. For me, forgiveness seems to be a process and not a one-time act or event. There are times I feel I’ve released an offender and my heart is light, but then, sometimes, I wake up with some residual resentment. So, I wonder if I’ve really forgiven or if this forgiveness can occur in stages or in “degrees”– Focusing on God’s love and acceptance of me helps me to trust that forgiveness is taking place–

  5. Anders on May 29, 2014 at 13:19

    Thank you for thoughts this second time around which are clarifying a source of personal confusion about forgiveness. My friend is struggling and angry that a man in whom she sees no humanity is being released from prison 20+ years after savagely, brutally murdering her daughter. This sprightly friend is a woman of inspiration and great spirituality yet her mourning remains intense and she is unable to forgive. How do I support her? I certainly won´t play the annoying Christian and tell her she´s wrong or to “let go and let God”. Instead, I will focus on living the energy of a forgiving God and a forgiven friend and that is enough.

  6. Terry M. Quoi on October 18, 2013 at 11:07

    I am grateful for been introduce to the SSJE daily monastic Meditation.
    It is true indeed that we are to forgive on adaily basis those who offend us.
    Thank you so much.

  7. Rick Porter on October 18, 2013 at 09:45

    After several years of living in the memory of a unjustified public humiliation I had suffered at the hands of a prominent person, I harbored strong negative feelings about him. It was a situation where I had no way of defending myself. My desire was for bad things to happen to him. But, without realizing it, my relationship with God was worsening. This made me feel worse still.

    A close friend, who knew how I felt and the spiritual struggle this was causing me, suggested a simple way to clear my heart of this resentment and to rebuild my relationship with God. It was simple but not easy.

    I was to first identify all the things I wanted for myself and my loved ones. Second, for thirty straight days I was to get on my knees and as earnestly as possible pray to God that the person who had harmed me be given all that I prayed for in my own life and in the lives of my family. And I would pray that he would be forgiven by God.

    The person recommending this procedure to me then told me that at the end of the thirty days I would have a heart at peace with what had happened and would Genuinely desire these things for my wrongdoer and would have forgiven him. It happened just like that. I began to earnestly want those things for him. And Jesus restored my peace when I learned this small lesson about following the commandment to love my neighbors.

    Several times since I have had to pray for longer periods, especially when the damage was done to one I love or the damaging behavior continued, but
    eventually, the Lord opens my heart to the fact that the person I am angry with, or even feel hate towards, is a loved child of God, just like me. Jesus has forgiven him and wants me to do the same.

    I do not have to share what I have done with the wrongdoer or with anyone else. He may or may not ever know why so one he probably does not remember is praying for him. I do not have to reconcile with him. That is a separate issue and must be dealt with carefully to prevent future damage to you or others. Some people are just not safe. But we can have Jesus’ love for them from afar if that is necessary and prudent.

    Thanks for the loving sermon.

    • Ruth West on May 29, 2014 at 21:32

      Rick, I think you have happily hit on the answer to true forgiveness. In a
      counseling session with a priest, I was given the instruction to pray for the person who had wronged me. It was a forced effort at first, but gradually, it became an eye-opening experience. I don’t know if
      the person for whom I prayed changed at all. But I changed. My attitude became one in which I could truly let go of my grievance. The priest told me, and I believe it, that if you sincerely pray for the person you perceive to be your enemy, God gives grace and love to overcome.
      Jesus said the same, didn’t he?
      “Love your enemies; do good to those who dispitefully use you…”
      That is the gospel. Thanks to you, dear brother, for this message. May God bless you!

      • Paul on June 29, 2017 at 13:14

        You and Rick have hit the nail on the head so far as my experience is concerned as well — praying for the person who offended me. This is specifically recommended on Page 562 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. And in my experience, Rick is absolutely correct to make the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation: Reconciliation requires a conversation with the person who offended me; forgiveness does not.

  8. Nancy Powell on October 18, 2013 at 09:07

    I very much appreciate being introduced to SJES’s daily meditation.

  9. Anders on October 18, 2013 at 07:59

    Thank you. Trying to rephrase things into my own words. “Forgiveness is central to the new kingdom Jesus is bringing about in the world; those who are choosing to live by the standards of this new kingdom will manifest in their lives the abundance of God’s extravagant forgiveness that they themselves have received.” Jesus has already given us the kingdom, for we can find heaven here on earth, not a perfect heaven, but the power and essence of it, in the resurrection. We must forgive ourselves first by honoring the wonderful grace we are given. One Aramaic translation of the Lord’s prayer for forgiveness is “Loosen the cords that bind us.” It is our religion, as Jesus often pointed out to his friends the Pharisees(and we are all Christian Pharisees in one way or another), which often gets in the way of grace and our ability to be bread for one another. Forgiveness is about getting out of the way, mostly our own way, to join the party.

  10. Shelley Forrester on December 7, 2011 at 10:15

    This has been a tremendous revelation to me. Like the missionary, I too suffered from a wrong over which I often fantasized about revenge. I eventually gave myself up to God knowing that I can’t forgive by myself. Over the years, the pain of the situation grew less and less. I still hurt but it does not dominate my life by any means and I know that at the end of the day, God will have released me from the hurt as well as the person who wronged me.

  11. SUSAN MOORE on December 6, 2011 at 02:44

    I use the “Passing the Peace” as a time to unilaterally forgive someone who has brought hurt into my life. When I forgive in this manner, my attitude and behavior toward that person change. I try to clean myself of hurt and leave it at the alter rail for God to deal with. The change in me may eventually bring a change in the relationship or not. That is out of my control.

  12. DLa Rue on December 3, 2011 at 08:28

    So beautifully written and thought through. Thank you.

    It is important also to recall that for those who must deal with complex issues in which trust or safety is involved, that the relationship that forgiveness makes possible might still not result in a return to the previous closeness with some dangerous other whose actions could do real, physical harm in the forgiving person’s life.

    Quite often, those experiencing domestic violence must learn to discern between letting go of the bitterness, fear and anger they might harbor towards an abuser or attacker–indeed, following the precepts outlined here–and returning to a situation in which the perpetrator can strike again and again.

    One might see this as not putting oneself into a situation that will only tempt the other person to attack again, and not being lured by their claims that they have reformed themselves when they might truly not have done so.

    Discernment between sagacious self-protective actions to remove oneself from the perpetrator’s vicinity and the transactional shift that forgiveness enacts between the two individuals needs to be clarified in such cases; all too often, abuse victims have in the past been counseled to return to their abusers as a sign of their forgiveness.

    This would be to confuse serpentine wisdom and columbine clemency, and is probably not what God wishes for those to whom life and abilities have been given which would be stilled if the abuser were to prevail.

    Thankfully most of those in positions of religious or other hierarchical authority are aware of this dynamic and do not counsel people in this way (in fact I am alive today, I believe, because a priest, newly-ordained, helped me leave my own abusive situation several decades ago).

    I would also wonder if forgiveness can be enacted as a one-sided thing: it seems to me that it is response to the other person’s desire for amendment of life, and their direct request for forgiveness.

    Self-flagellating over a forgiveness that has not been requested might in fact be a kind of vanity, in that case: “I will forgive you because you NEED my forgiveness to go on,” when they don’t see it that way at all….

    Like most sacramental transactions, forgiveness does not happen in a void: it is relational. I wonder if, without the conversation as well as the conversion David alludes to, we can really enact forgiveness by ourselves without the other person’s participation in that enaction.

    It might not be wise to trust the person in the same way as before. However, we can let go of bitterness, fear and dismay at the betrayal of trust. That, as David points out, in God’s way, is always possible.

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