“. . . if you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”
The year is not quite half over, and this is the second time the Church has given us the Lord’s Prayer as our Gospel. It’s not just an anecdote about how a familiar prayer originated. Clearly its message is something that the Church wants us to hear and be formed by. It’s hard for us to get past the fact that most of us learned the prayer as a child, when the meaning of its words could not be fully grasped. Now, when we hear “Our Father, who . . .” we immediately slip into autopilot, mouthing the familiar words, but with our minds too often wandering elsewhere.
Despite the words we’re saying, in our hearts often we are not really asking God to do anything. “Ask” is the operative word here. It’s important to recall that, in the New Testament, the word we translate “pray” almost always means “ask”. Prayer is not just a pious act; it is a request. When Jesus says “this is how you are to pray”, the words might be better translated as “this is what you are to ask God for.” Thus it makes particularly good sense to note that Matthew introduces the Lord’s Prayer by quoting Jesus on what not to ask for – food, clothing, shelter. God knows we need those things and has provided a world that, if we tend it right and help one another, meets those needs. No, Jesus says, ask God to do what only God can do – bring about God’s kingdom – now, in our world – a kingdom characterized by forgiveness.
The good news is that God freely extends forgiveness to us, but we have to cooperate with that gift. That’s the meaning of the last sentence of today’s Gospel. The Church’s mission is to extend that forgiveness to everyone and in every age – not the Church as organization so much as we, its individual members, the entire people of God. It is precisely that mission that runs like a central theme throughout John’s gospel, from the Baptist’s description of Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” to Jesus’ final words to his disciples on Easter night “As the Father has sent Me so I also send you . . . whose sins you shall forgive are forgiven them . . .” God’s life in us – in God’s church – is what enables us to do that. That is what we are to ask for.
A concrete example may help make these generalities clearer. Corrie ten Boom, an evangelical theologian, had the horrible experience in WW II of watching her sister beaten to death by a German guard in a concentration camp. She, herself, escaped and returned a few years later to give a talk in Germany. A man came up to thank her for her presentation and extended his hand to congratulate her. As she looked into his face, to her horror, she recognized him as the one-time German soldier who had savagely killed her sister. She froze and could not bring her hand up to shake his. As she tells the story, she cried out silently: “Jesus, help me!” Slowly her hand came up and clasped his. He, seeing the turmoil in her face recognized immediately what was going on. He fell to his knees, weeping, and begged her forgiveness – which she had given in her accepting his hand. She had been enabled to give him not only her own forgiveness, but God’s as well. In fact, they were one.
God’s forgiveness is extended through us. It’s just that simple. Like Corrie ten Boom, we have to ask . . .