To choose a favorite biblical passage is a difficult task, perhaps even a fool’s errand. A few dozen candidates spring immediately to mind, each with a powerful supporting argument for selecting it.
So it is perfectly understandable to say, “There are so many that I simply can’t choose just one,” and leave it at that. But, truth to tell, I do have a favorite. And though I don’t expect others to make it theirs, I can say why it holds such strong appeal for me.
My favorite passage is this line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (New RSV Catholic version) The more familiar version to many of us is “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
One reason I regard this line so highly is that it, and the entire prayer it is part of, is Jesus’ specific instruction on how we are to pray and is delivered toward the end of His fullest and best-known general instruction—the Sermon on the Mount. The prayer is immediately followed by this reinforcement of the point: “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
Forgiving others is not easy, of course. And even if we manage to do so, we often find that memory has a way of renewing our original feelings of anger and resentment. Once recalled, events that occurred decades ago can be as vivid as if they occurred yesterday, as can our reactions to them.
To make matters worse, in some cases we are all too willing to embrace old resentments when they resurface. That is because, deep inside—sometimes deeper than the desire to be at peace with ourselves and others—is a certain enjoyment of resenting others. I recall a New Yorker cartoon that made this point with equal parts profundity and humor. The scene was a wake and two old women were looking at an acquaintance lying in her casket, and one of the women was saying, “I don’t want to remember her this way . . . I want to remember her being mean to me in 1981!”
But a more significant appeal for me in Jesus’ instruction about praying is the ironic humor it contains. Now humor is hardly the first quality most of us associate with Jesus, but as G. K. Chesterton tantalizingly observed at the very end of his monumental book Orthodoxy: “There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”
The ironic humor in the Lord’s Prayer is that it has us asking to be judged by a standard that our fallen nature makes it extremely difficult to meet. If Jesus had not told us how to pray but had instead left us to our own devices, we would no doubt have chosen phrasing like this: “Lord, in your divine mercy forgive us much more generously than we have forgiven others.” That would create no real burden for us. We could go blithely on our judgmental way, every bit like the wicked servant in Matthew who begged his master to treat him mercifully but then showed no mercy to the one who owed him.
Jesus’ phrasing, however, is very different. When expressed by unforgiving people, it is in effect a request for condemnation. They are, of course, only dimly aware of the fact. They say the words by rote, not realizing that on Judgment Day, the Lord might say to them, “Let’s see now, on twenty-eight thousand three hundred and nine occasions, you asked me to judge you as you judge others. The good news is, I’m granting your request; the bad news is . . . .”
Another reason I find Jesus’ phrasing so appealing is that it is perfectly balanced and logical, displaying a metaphysical harmony on a par with the harmony of the material universe. It directs us to ask not for what we would prefer to ask, but for what we should ask—that is, what is fair and just to ask. And in doing so, it reflects the universal standard of the Golden Rule, treating others as we would have them treat us.
In addition, making our giving of forgiveness the standard for our receiving it perfectly complements the gospel emphasis on love. Forgiveness is, at root, an act of self-sacrificing love—that is, love that transcends the promptings of ego, the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated in His passion and death and urged us to practice. (“Love one another as I have loved you.”)
Every time I say the Lord’s prayer and get to the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I cannot help trembling at the realization of what I am asking. At the same time, I marvel at the genius of the expression. If there were no other reason for acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God (and it goes without saying that there are many), for me the profundity of this one expression would suffice.
Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved