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Week Four: “Forgive Us Our Trespasses, As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us”

I really love sports. Any activity that involves a ball flying through the air or some kind of race captures my imagination. But it is a strange time in which to be a sports fan. Last Sunday, two baseball giants were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York. Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn were stellar players for their teams for many years. And they represented the kind of work ethic and everyday dedication to the game that fans seem to appreciate. At the same time, we find ourselves inundated with scandals associated with sports these days. The Tour De France was overshadowed by doping allegations and the withdrawal of teams from the race. Michael Vick was indicted by a federal grand jury in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia last week for charges of sponsoring dog fighting in which gambling was involved. An NBA referee is under investigation for betting on basketball games, some of which he was officiating. And this may be the week in which Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron’s home run record. Many feel that an asterisk should be placed next to his name in the record books because they are convinced that the use of steroids helped Bonds achieve this record. Bonds seems unrepentant.

In our culture, it has become rather easy to rationalize behaviors that are very problematic. In the sphere of international affairs, we are troubled by news that our government may have captured and flown terrorist suspects to countries where they were tortured. It is quite easy to cite psychological reasons, extenuating circumstances, goals that are desirable, and personal needs in order to justify problematic behavior. That is true for all of us, of whatever age. The cultural air that we breathe does not encourage us to face ourselves with a lot of honesty. We can easily live in a state of self-deception about the ways in which we approach life and fulfill our ethical responsibilities.

The Lord’s Prayer invites us to a very different approach to life. Through this prayer, Jesus calls his followers to a freedom that comes from facing life and ourselves with honesty. Thus, each time we say this prayer, we include a petition for mercy, as we also pledge to extend forgiveness toward those who have offended us. We do not engage in this prayer in order to wallow in guilt. This is not about reinforcing the now famous “Catholic guilt syndrome.” While honesty is not always easy, and all of us struggle with a certain amount of self-deception, our profound confidence in the mercy of God offers us the freedom to be realistic about ourselves and our lives. 

The gospel of Luke is sometimes called “the gospel of mercy.” It includes compelling stories and memorable parables (like the parable of the Prodigal Son) that show how Jesus embodied the mercy of God. This reconciling dimension of Jesus’ ministry extends right up to the cross. Luke tells us that “the other thief” (whom we have come to call the “Good Thief”) asked Jesus to be remembered: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” His was a simple, honest request, prefaced by his acknowledgment of his own need for mercy. In that moment of his own personal agony, Jesus continued his ministry of forgiveness in the words he spoke to this man: “Amen I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

As those who believe that the mercy of God has been revealed in Jesus the Christ, we are invited to act on the freedom that enables us to look at our lives for what they actually are. This healthy honesty involves neither a self-deprecating exaggeration of our own faults nor a rationalizing endorsement of all the ways in which we operate. The freedom to look at ourselves for who we are is anchored in the conviction that honesty about ourselves will not lead to rejection or condemnation. It will not be the end of us. Rather, it can lead to a new beginning, to transformation and deeper freedom. The prayer for mercy, “Forgive us our trespasses,” frees us from having to manipulate reality in order to assure ourselves that we are always in the right. We can adopt this attitude of honesty because we believe what Saint Paul said about the reconciling mercy of God: “And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, not counting their transgressions against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5: 18-19). The invitation to come before God with transparency is based on our trust that God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, that God is slow to anger and rich in mercy.

In this prayer given to us by Jesus, we also pledge to be forgiving people. Like Paul we believe that God has given us “the ministry of reconciliation.” The Lord’s Prayer can seem a little frightening at times, because we say, “Forgive us as we forgive others.” That little word “as” can make us tremble a bit, because all of us know how mightily we struggle to forgive others. This is a real challenge, one that stands as an enduring check against any approach that would cheapen our relationship with God. What do we mean when we pledge to forgive others?

The promise we utter to God to be forgiving people does not mean that, when people hurt us, we will pretend that nothing happened. Denial never gets us anywhere. Neither is forgiveness a kind of “state” that we “fall into” if we are genuine disciples of the Lord. Short of some extraordinary grace, we do not usually experience forgiveness in such a simple or “automatic” way. And forgiving others does not mean denying the feelings associated with the hurt we have experienced, whether those feelings are anger, resentment, a desire for revenge, or just sadness. If we want to work through those feelings, we have to acknowledge and accept them. In my mind at least, forgiving others does not mean simply accepting them without inviting them to grow. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, forgiving others is not something accomplished simply through our own power or virtue. If there was ever anything for which we need God’s grace, this is it.

It seems to me that forgiveness is a process, a sometimes lengthy process comprised of small steps or movements. It is certainly true that God can forgive in an instant (on the cross Jesus promised eternal life to the good thief), but it does not usually work that way for us. Forgiveness usually involves a series of little acts of the will. The deeper the wound, the more involved this process usually is. It often begins by asking God for thedesire to forgive that person(s) who has hurt me. And it includes prayer for the person who has hurt me. Prayer is not magic. Nevertheless, a simple prayer that God will give that person the grace that he or she needs today can help us see him or her in a different light. It enables us to see that person as someone who is loved by God and who, like me, is in need of God’s mercy.

Perhaps all of us have wrestled with the “forgive and forget” question. Each of us has probably said at times, “I forgive, but I don’t forget.” And we have also heard (or perhaps said), “As Christians we are supposed to forgive and forget.” It seems to me that the truth lies somewhere between these two statements. If we say that we cannot or will not forget in the sense that we will never be able to wipe clean that person’s “criminal record” in our minds, then we are shortchanging the grace of God and condemning our relationship with that person to remain frozen. There are certainly some offenses which are so painful that they remain with people as long as they live, and complete healing comes only in eternal life. It appears that, sadly, child abuse is like that. But ordinarily we can hope that God’s grace and our own efforts can move us beyond the place where the memory of the offense remains at the forefront of our minds. 

The grain of truth in “not forgetting” is that we cannot move toward wholeness by avoiding or denying the hurt in our lives. Something did happen – something that may have caused a deep wound in our hearts and minds. We cannot just turn on the “forgive button” like we turn on our computers. Forgiving others is a process that requires honesty with ourselves, others and God. It is an often jagged journey of negotiating difficult emotions, engaging in repeated gestures of mercy and kindness, and through all of this asking for the grace of God.

In this final week of retreat, we are invited to pray honestly and wholeheartedly, “Lord, forgive me my sins as I forgive those who have sinned against me.” I would suggest that we come to the foot of the cross in our prayer this week – that place where the infinite mercy of God was displayed and made effective for us. Let us pray for the freedom to look at our lives honestly and to ask God for mercy and grace in those areas where we are struggling. And may we take some time to pray for people who have hurt us, or whom we find it particularly difficult to understand or accept. Let us ask God to bless those people, to give them the grace they need. And let us ask the Lord for the grace we need to become a more forgiving person.

Fr. Robin Ryan, cp

Suggestions for Daily Prayer:
Online Bible Resource

Monday – Pray Psalm 32 (slowly, a couple of times). It speaks of the freedom and new life that results from coming before the Lord honestly and openly. Let us ask God for mercy and grace in the areas in our lives in which we are struggling to do the right thing.

Tuesday – Read Luke 23: 39-43, the story of the “good thief.” Let us make our prayer at the foot of the cross today and ask Jesus to “remember us.” Let us pray for the grace to recognize and accept our own gifts and virtues and to acknowledge our faults and the areas in our lives in which we need to grow.

Wednesday – Read Second Corinthians 5: 16-21. This important text assures us that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.” Here Saint Paul speaks of having been given “the ministry of reconciliation.” Let us ask the Lord to show us the situations in our lives in which he is calling us to be an agent of reconciliation.

Thursday – Read Luke 6: 27-36. This is certainly the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings: the command to love our enemies. The final verse is the key to the entire passage: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” In our prayer, let us give thanks to God for the many ways we have experienced his mercy and compassion in our lives. And let us pray for the grace to allow God’s mercy to flow through us to others, especially to those whom we are struggling to forgive.

Friday – Read Matthew 6: 9-15. This is the version of the Lord’s Prayer given in Matthew’s gospel – the version with which we are more familiar. Let us take some time to reflect again on this prayer and on what we have learned about it during this time of retreat.

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