Forgive Us Our Trespasses

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples on how they are to pray, teaching them the prayer we refer to as The Lord’s Prayer. It is a simple prayer in some ways, but a challenging one in others.

The line I often pause uncomfortably over is “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As if to underscore the importance of the line, after teaching them the prayer, Jesus warns his disciples, “If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you transgressions.”

Read literally, that is a big ouch. I sometimes worry that if God’s forgiveness of me is limited by my forgiveness of others, I’m in big trouble. It sometimes seems so hard to forgive those who have injured me, or, more so, those who injure someone I love. But equally, I have trouble taking the line literally – surely God’s unbounded love for us means that God’s forgiveness is greater than our own and that our failure to forgive others can’t mean that God won’t forgive us.

One of my former spiritual directors, a Jesuit, once said something to me that was helpful in trying to understand what Jesus wanted to convey to his disciples. He suggested that our inability to forgive others makes it hard for us to accept God’s forgiveness of us (much in the way those who have no received unconditional love struggle to believe in God’s love of them). Jesus’ line, then, is not about the limits of God’s forgiveness but on the limits of our ability to fullly embrace that forgiveness. The lines in the prayer create a disposition, an openness to receiving God’s forgiveness by opening ourself to forgiving others. And so when I pray the line, I ask for the grace to be more forgiving of others.