When I studied Christian Theology at A-level back in college, which was longer ago than I care to admit, my fellow students came from a variety of backgrounds. It was a Catholic college, but in our theology class were Catholics, a couple of Protestants, an Anglican (me), and a Muslim – all from faith backgrounds and studying Christian Theology for various reasons.
There was also one chap who didn’t come from a religious background, but he was there because he wanted to understand more about what Christians believed. It was clear from his contributions in class that he didn’t have a faith background. Facts, characters, and stories that some of the rest of us took for granted as the ABC of Christianity – things that had been part of our lives and our heritage since childhood – were things that he had never come across before. This meant that some of the comments he made and some of the questions he asked were completely off-base, often to the point of amusement.
In the way that teenagers can sometimes be unkind, some of us giggled, sniggered, and outright ridiculed him, when all he was trying to do was understand and broaden his mind – a lesson we could have learnt from him.
This all happened nearly 20 years ago but I still look back now with embarrassment and shame at the part I played in repeatedly belittling another person whose only crime was not to know something that I knew.
I’m sure we all have those moments that we look back on in our lives that make us cringe when we think about our behaviour – things we have said or done that we might never want anybody to know about: the joke we made at somebody else’s expense because we thought it was going to be funny but instead it hurt somebody’s feelings, the act of kindness we were in position to show to somebody else but didn’t for one reason or another, words that we might have shouted at somebody in the fiery heat of an argument, which we said, not because we actually meant them but because we were trying our best to hurt the other person. I’m sure we can all think of those moments in our lives and that we don’t like how we feel when we remember them.
In today’s Gospel (Matthew 18: 23-35), the Saviour tells us of a servant who is greatly indebted to his king. When the king decides to sell the servant and his family to recoup his funds, the servant implores his mercy, and the king is moved with compassion, forgiving him his debt. However, the servant later refuses to show similar mercy to another who owed him a debt.
The story is retold in the parable of the onion from Fyodor Dostoyeksvy’s The Brothers Karamazov.
The meaning of this parable is very clear, and is summed up in a line from the prayer that the Saviour commanded us to pray:
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Different translations render this in different ways. One popular ecumenical text says “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, while some older translations say “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”. Neither one of these expresses the meaning clearly.
In our translation, we use “debts” and “debtors”. In his treatise on the Our Father, St Cyprian of Carthage tells us that we are to think of our sins as a debt that we owe, while Origen expands on this and explains that, when we sin against our neighbours, we deprive them of the treatment that is owed to them according to the law of God: that of honour towards them, and love, and kindness. When we fail to show them these things, which as human beings, we owe to each other, we become indebted to them.
This shows sin not as something legalistic: i.e. “you have broken this rule and now you must be punished” – but rather as something that causes harm to a relationship. The Law of God is one that governs and directs our relationship of love with God and with each other.
It is the same when we sin against God directly. There is a correct way in which we should relate to God, and we express this at the very heart of our Christian worship together, at the Divine Liturgy, the Mass, when we hear the bishop’s or the priest’s words at the start of the Anaphora:
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
And we reply:
It is right and just.
Then the priest goes on to praise God on our behalf for the various good deeds that He has done for us. When we fail to acknowledge that in our relationship with God and in our actions towards our neighbours, we do harm to the communion that should properly exist among us.
This isn’t merely something theoretical – there is something visceral about it: we feel it in our gut. When we have done wrong to somebody, when we have hurt the person, and we think back on it, we feel shame and embarrassment. And when we have to face that person, we find it awkward.
We experience the reality of the harm that is caused when we sin against each other: marriages break down, friends fall out, family members are unable to spend time in each other’s company, work colleagues cannot bear to be in each other’s presence. Many people resort to self-justification – pretending away the reality of what happened and going through all kinds of moral contortions to explain “why I was right and the other person was wrong”, and stubbornly refusing to consider any other possibility.
Yet listen to what Holy Scripture has to say on the matter. In the first catholic epistle of St John, we read:
‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’1st John 1: 8-9
Who wouldn’t want this? Ultimately, we know when we have done wrong, and it is natural to feel a need – often a burning need – to resolve the disharmony that we have caused.
Years later, I found my old A-level theology classmate on Facebook, and I spent a week or so debating with myself whether I should send him a message. We hadn’t been in touch since college. So was there any relationship for me to heal? Or would I just be doing it to make myself feel better? Would it be fair to put him in the position of having to consider his feelings and expect him to reach a point of forgiveness? After all, he had come exploring what Christians were all about, and I had shown him the worst example. In the end, I did send him a message, apologising for my behaviour all those years ago. I won’t share with you the outcome of that but it’s enough to show that we feel the need for reconciliation – it’s hard-wired into us.
Fortunately, the Saviour gives us the means to do this, through his Church, through the sacrament of Confession. God, Who is merciful and just, is always ready to forgive, and has granted to his priests the ability to extend this forgiveness to all who genuinely wish to turn away from their sin and return to Him. So we can come to Confession and return to union with Him and with our neighbours.
However, there’s a second part of this line of the Our Father, and this is where it becomes a challenge. We don’t simply ask, “Forgive us our debts”, but we say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”.
Now it becomes hard.
For if we can try to justify ourselves and convince ourselves that we were in the right when we know in our hearts we weren’t, how much easier is it for us to hold onto those feelings of resentment when we know that we were the injured party? I’m sure we can all think of occasions of this. We almost enjoy having that upper hand, knowing that the wrong was done to us. We might tell the same story of what happened over and over, to anybody who will listen, perhaps embellishing a little bit with each re-telling, and we enjoy it – we savour the nods of agreement, and the replies from sympathetic friends of ‘I can’t believe he said that to you’, all of which affirm us in our rightness.
However, when we consider the prayer that we say every day, and the severity of what we’re praying for, we realise there is no place for this in the life of the Christian.
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
We’re asking God to make his forgiveness of us conditional on our forgiveness of others. And forgiveness costs us, because often the hurt and damage that has been done to us is real and lasting. How can we just dismiss it as though it never happened?
Well, we don’t. “Forgive and forget” is a not a Christian principle. We are called to forgive but only a fool forgets, because if we learn nothing from our experiences, we invite those things to happen to us again. When we read in St Luke’s Gospel of the Saviour sending out the seventy apostles, in addition to commanding them to be as harmless as doves, he also commands them to be as wise as serpents.
That applies to all of us: we must forgive the wrong that people have done to us – letting go of any anger and resentment – but if we have learnt that somebody has a particular temptation or a particular weakness, we mustn’t put them in the position where they are likely to be tempted to do it again. For us to do so would be unfair to both parties.
So how do we find the balance? I always recommend to people the fourth chapter of the rule of St Benedict as a preparation for confession. Writing for his monks, St Benedict gives the command that, if there is disharmony between two of the brothers, they should try to make peace before the setting of the sun. At the same time, he tells them they must never make a false peace. That is to say, they mustn’t just pay lipservice to forgiveness for the sake of appearances, but they must really and truly work at achieving a genuine peace between themselves.
And that is what we must do. It might not be easy, and it might not always happen by sunset, but if we strive to grow into the likeness of God, and to reflect something of the love that we receive from God in our treatment of others, slowly, and in time, we might find our hearts begin to soften and, unlike the selfish servant or the wicked woman with her onion, we shall find ourselves obeying the command of the Saviour:
‘Freely you have received; freely give.‘Matthew 10: 8b