Letter to Dan J. Russ, continued.
The next part of the Our Father may be the worst part yet. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” First, we have another language problem. The Catholics say, “trespasses” and the Protestants say “debts.” Which is it? The version of the Our Father we find in Matthew 6 uses the usual Greek word for debts (opheleimata), but early English versions use “trespasses”. This is the word paraptomata which is used St. Luke’s version of the Our Father (Luke 11). The Greek word “paraptomata” means a misstep, to cross a line, hence to sin. The third century author Origen used this word when referring to that line in the Our Father.
The Latin word “debita” or debts was used for thousands of years in the Latin liturgy throughout the Latin rite. Most English-speaking Christians (except Scottish Presbyterians and some other Calvinists) used “trespasses” when they prayed the Our Father. When Catholics started praying in English they just seemed to have taken over the word already in use by other English speakers that is “trespasses.” The Protestants now tend to use the word “debts” which is the word used in Matthew while we Catholics use the word “trespasses” when we say the prayer in English, though we have always said and still say “debts” and “debtors” in the old Mass or any other time we still use Latin. Go figure. Which is right? Your guess is as good as mine. For our purposes we will leave out the sins, debts and trespasses and just talk about forgiveness, because therein lies the real problem.
What does it mean to forgive? In the Greek text of the New Testament the word is “aphiemi” which means to let go, to send away, to make something gone. This is a horrendous word. To forgive is not simply to fail to take revenge or even to accept an apology. It is to pretend it never happened.
This is an offense against our sense of justice. There are just some things we don’t believe should be forgiven. First allow me to say that to forgive doesn’t mean to stay in harm’s way. If you are being beaten by someone you don’t have to stand there and pretend it isn’t happening. You can get out of the way, and even defend yourself if necessary. It’s what happens after the beating is over that matters. To forgive is to let it go. You don’t allow evil to continue, but you don’t wish evil on the evildoer.
This, I suspect, is the hardest part of the Christian religion. Very few people are capable of it. Without grace I suspect that no one is capable of it. We cherish our grudges and our hurts. They are delicious. Our righteous anger is often our most precious possession. We won’t go to family gatherings, we cut people off in traffic, we storm out of a room if the ex-spouse who did us wrong is there. “If you are such and such’s friend, you can’t be mine. So many of us live our lives in stomach-churning rage, and all the while the object of our rage doesn’t even know we are furious with them. Our anger doesn’t usually bother them. The only one who suffers from my bitterness is me.
Isn’t it amazing that Jesus of Nazareth, whipped, tortured, mocked and crucified, prayed for His torturers as he died? “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” He prayed for them on the ridiculous grounds that were unaware. Talk about denial! They were mocking Him as he prayed and divvying up His few poor possessions, and still He prayed for them. Ridiculous! That sort of attitude would absolve a Hitler, a Stalin, a Pol Pot, a Fidel Castro and a Mao Tse Tung as well as ISIS and the Ayatollah Khomeini. That sort of delusional fellow would forgive a Richard Nixon and that sort of fellow would even forgive me. An outrage!
Have you ever wondered why, if God is as we believe, a Trinity of persons, a sort of God-who-is-Family, why did the Son of that Family come to earth to die as a sacrifice for our sins? Why didn’t the Father come? Was He busy that day? Was He afraid? It seems rather cowardly of a Father to give His son over to death. How often have you heard the saying, “I don’t care what you do to me, but you touch my child and I’ll kill you!”
What is our heart, if not our children? God not only gave us His only Son. He gave us His very heart, the only way that the Infinity of Heaven could say to the inhabitants of this tiny planet that, “I love you more than I love Myself.” Who would hand over a beloved child to torture just to save someone who didn’t even want to be saved? That’s what we believe God did on Calvary. There is enough love on the cross for the worst of human beings. Amazing!
That’s bad enough, that a perfectly just God would forgive crimes and sins that go beyond our worst imaginings. It gets worse. He wants us to do the same. He would have us be kind to the people who have hurt us most deeply, not allowing them to continue to do harm, but still to hold no bitterness against them. It rankles against the very soul. Imagine sitting down to dinner with someone who killed a member of your family? That’s exactly what happens at every Mass. God prepares a meal for the very people who caused His Son to die on the cross. He invites you and me to the table. That is wonderful, but when He asks me to do the same, that is unthinkable.
Worse still, He ties the extent and nature of the forgiveness for which I hope from Him to the way in which I forgive others. “Forgive me AS I forgive them.” There is that pesky, much-ignored word “as.” The Bible would be an easier book to read if we took the word “as” out.
“Love one another AS I have loved you.”
“AS you measure out, so will you receive.”
And now this! He expects me to sit in church every Sunday and publicly limit His forgiveness for me to the tiny confines of my own narrow heart and mind.