“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Because we have many shortcomings, let us find encouragement that Christ has called us to put away our fears, and to confess humbly all our faults. When our Lord was in Mary’s womb, the angel Gabriel gave specific instructions to Joseph to call this child Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins”(Matt 1:21). The name Jesus literally means “the Lord is salvation.” The gospel of Matthew, therefore, calls us to lay it to our hearts that we are in need of salvation. Indeed, every time we take the name of Jesus on our lips, we are reminded that we need him always to save us from our shortcomings.
Matthew’s gospel, interestingly, uses the word “debts” instead of “trespasses/sins,” thereby reading, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The most reasonable explanation for this distinction is that Matthew, in writing for a Jewish audience, has no need to explain the Jewish concept of sin: that one has failed to fulfill their obligations, and has therefore become a debtor. Luke, on the other hand, might have avoided using the word debt, because his Gentile audience could have easily misunderstood the strong Jewish connection between debt and sin. Therefore, Luke used a phrase which needs less explanation: “forgive us our sins.”
We have a lesson to learn here. We are all debtors, because we have all failed to meet our obligations to God and to each other. We should not be surprised when we notice how impoverished we are in our own efforts. Though we would desire to treat our loved ones with the dignity they deserve as those created in God’s image, and though we would desire to treat our Lord with the gratitude and reverence he deserves, we must admit that at many points we have broken our promises, and have failed to fulfill our sacred obligations. For this reason, we must always heed the command of Christ, and request that God would absolve us always for all our debt. Let us remember that God is not a supreme tax agent, but he is rather our Father, and as such he is willing to pardon all our confessions. We would do well, therefore, to approach him as the fount of all mercy, expecting that he will always be compassionate to us.
Yet this verse has another component: “…as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Christ’s disciples, so long as they harbor unforgivenes in their hearts, are to expect no pardon from God. It is a theme in scripture, particularly prominent in Matthew’s gospel, that God’s mercy is conditioned upon our own willingness to be merciful to others. “Blessed are the merciful,” exclaims Christ, “for they shall receive mercy”(Matt 5:7). And even more plainly: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus warns, “neither will your father forgive your trespasses”(Matt 6:14). We see therefore what danger waits for those unwilling to forgive other people. We should not suspect that our Lord is bluffing, for there is nothing in the context to imply that these warnings are only hypothetical. Let us not expect forgiveness from God, if we simultaneously retain the debts of others.
We do not, however, minimize the difficulty in forgiving our debtors. Nothing is more impossible for us than to be instruments of healing in the midst of this turbulent world. Yet the Holy Spirit, in lifting our hearts into the embrace of Christ, unites us to that fount of all mercy and strength, thereby enabling us to do what is impossible for us in ourselves. For this reason, let us not be discouraged that all our strength is insufficient to forgive those who harm us. Instead, let us lift our souls to God as empty cups, expecting that he will fill us with the riches of his power. We must remember that Jesus alone is our Savior, and we must come to him as our continual safety from our own bitterness and spite. He alone can change our hearts, making us worthy of the gospel, granting us consciences which are capable of a good testimony, thereby enabling us to request with boldness, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Now is the time to confess our sins, never fearing that Father will fling us aside. Instead, we must expect that he will have compassion on us. We indeed have become debtors, because we have failed to fulfill our obligations. Yet we have a Father who is willing to absolve us always. Let us therefore come to God with certain expectation, unveiling all our shortcomings before his eyes, believing that he will have mercy on us. It is impossible for us to call on Christ rightly without believing in our hearts that he is our Savior, because the name of Jesus literally means “the Lord is salvation.” Yet let us always strive for clear consciences with reference to our debtors, making it our aim to forgive them where they have wronged us, difficult though that is without heavenly assistance. “Lord Jesus Christ – Son of God,” an ancient prayer states, “have mercy on me a sinner.” Jesus leads us by the hand into our Father’s arms, spurring us with the confident hope that God will welcome us in his mercy.