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Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Lord's Prayer Part 8 - "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."

When we approach this part of the Lord's Prayer, it can be really tough - all of us have either wronged someone ourselves, or we have been wronged by somebody, and forgiveness is a hard virtue to foster.  However, sometimes it is made more complicated than it should be by either allegorization or over-simplification, and people who approach it that way often find out they can't measure up to that standard.   There is good news though - you don't have to, because that is not the standard Jesus was talking about!  Reading Guardini's book at this stage has both affirmed some things I had begun to realize some time ago, as well as teaching me some new insights.  I am sharing some of those in the coming week with my parish Bible study group, but I am also going to share them here now with you.

On pages 63-64 of Guardini's text, he deals with what the various terms of this petition means, and he focuses on the word debt.  For many of us brought up on that particular translation (which both the KJV and Douay-Rheims read I believe) this is familiar to us.  My mother taught me the prayer that way when I was very young, and I have always said it like that up until fairly recently.  The way Guardini defines debt (from the Greek ophelilema, "that which is owed")   is "a failure in regard to something obligatory," and what that means is basically two things - we fail to meet an obligation we have to either God or our fellow man.  What is that classic way of defining the term "sin" - "missing the mark?"  In that case, the word debt fits well into the context of the prayer.  It also concurs with Romans 3:23, which reminds us that we all "have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."   In other words, we fail to meet the obligation of giving God his rightful place in our lives, and thus we fall into sin.  We see that on a national scale too - remember American educational institutions before and after 1963, the year they took Bible reading and prayer out of schools?   It was only 9 years after that when Roe v. Wade was passed, and along with replacing the Bible and prayer with the lie of evolution - you know, that man came from a cell, to a blob of gel, to an ape that smells; that lie! - as God was displaced so man began to devalue himself.   We now see the tainted fruit of that experiment, don't we?  Our current world is a picture of debt - debt accumulated frivolously by pursuing the lusts of the flesh.  And, Guardini addresses that too, because he talks some about what is called "Moral Law" - one application of that is the state, while the other is that which governs thought.  Action, he notes, must follow "Moral law" to prevent error; if it doesn't it goes wrong.  In terms of moral law, this petition of forgiveness makes little sense, and dare I add even less so in this day and age of moral relativism.  After all, one cannot ask to be forgiven by the laws of the state, can they?  Also, one cannot be asked to be forgiven by the laws of logic either - after all, those who think wrongly can only try to redeem themselves as best they can from their error and must own the consequences of their own wrongdoing.  However, with moral relativism that governs most of Western society these days (including that other fallacy called "political correctness") many people who think wrongly don't even understand they are thinking wrongly in the eyes of God - after all, these people justify "same-sex marriage" and other things that are clearly contrary to God's own commandments because they reason, "well, it is love, and love is love after all" (an argument I hear from these people ad nauseum by the way!) and of course, we must be "like Jesus" if we "don't judge lest we be judged," right?   See, that is what happens when a combination of man's logic and misunderstanding of what the Church actually teaches on these Scripture passages leads to, yet because they don't understand it properly, they err to the degree that they justify sin as something "good" - remember what Scripture says about the latter days - "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil...." (Isaiah 5:20, NKJV).  Therefore, we must understand what Jesus said as what He said, and not what we try to make it say.

Another translation of the Lord's Prayer renders the term trespasses rather than debts.  Guardini doesn't address that in his book, but I wanted to make mention of it here because so many of you reading this now may actually recite the Our Father using that terminology, and that is OK.  We need though to explore what a trespass is.  My Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines the word "trespass" as "a violation of moral or social ethics," and hence it has more of a connection with sin.  The reason Guardini didn't address this was that his text was written in 1932, and at that time the official Scripture translation of the Roman Catholic Church was the Douay-Rheims, which I actually find to be a valuable study translation myself.  Like the KJV, the DR renders the translation "debts." although also Guardini originally wrote the text in German, and in most of Europe the translation "trespass" is used, although the English-speaking world uses "debts."  It, I suppose, could be a minor issue of theological debate, but personally either translation is fine, as they both convey the same truth - sin is both failure and violation, in other words.  As good Anglicans, it was also important for us to understand the difference in terminologies too, as it aids in appreciating our own Book of Common Prayer better.

For the believer in Christ who has received His grace of forgiveness, this petition does not merely reflect an abstract moral law but rather is a living, vibrant part of our faith - it is the holy, the good, impressed upon our inmost souls.  Its source therefore is God, and it demands to be observed.  This is the way God originally created us, and is a vestige of our pre-Fall state as a race.  It therefore doesn't merely "evolve," as some godless academics would have us to believe, but is inherent in our very creation, but at the same time it is also obstructed by the Fall too.  God is of course himself essential goodness and wills for us to become good too - by praying "Thy will be done," the "gateway petition" to this entire prayer, we accept that desire to become better.  Therefore, when we sin, it is an action against this essential goodness.  Furthermore, although original sin was washed away in the font of Holy Baptism, we unfortunately still struggle with something called concupiscence, meaning the propensity (capacity) to commit sinful actions.  God therefore, when He demands of us that good be done, He is demanding what He Himself stands for - His own holiness is the good! The way Guardini puts this is like this - God demands Himself from man for His own sake.

Now, the idea of forgiveness, the tough part!  Revelation (meaning all of God's Word) tells us that the binding authority in the life of the Christian is the living, holy will of God.  This is meant for us as individual believers and is binding on us.  It therefore approaches us in our own unique existence.  The sovereign necessity of the Law obligates man's freedom without cancelling it (also called responsibility in lay terms!) but it only appears in its fulness when it is invested with the character of love.  The sternness of the legalistic aspect remains, but it is no longer an abstraction - it is now drawn into the vital intimacy of person to person, Creator to creature, and more personally the Father in heaven to each of us individually.  God's commandments (you can say the "Thou shalts" and "Thou shalt nots") therefore are the way in which He loves me.   They are the content of His love and at the same time the necessary premise that enables God to love each of us.  Therefore, rather than seeing these commands as restrictions, we should see them as boundaries set to protect us from those things which can destroy and devalue us as persons created in the image of God.

That being said, when I obey God's demand, it is more than just satisfying some legal rubric; it fulfills a relationship of love!  And, this does include, lest we forget, the perfection of every abstract law as well.  Its fruit is not merely the consciousness of a duty done or of merely a purer morality, but it is also a greater nearness and more loving participation in God Himself.  The consequences of disobeying that law is therefore a sin against God's love, and against my debt of love to God; it's ultimate fruit is alienation, enstrangement, and a drifting off into illusion, confusion, and death.

And, it is not merely a case of abstract law confronting "subject," but of something vital and living - the most holy God, lovingly concerned for man.  A new, creative dimension at this point now stands out in the relationship.  And, should failure happen (and on this earth, it inevitably will numerous times for each of us!) it is not in an abstract sphere of "law" and "subject," but rather the living sphere of love between "me" and "Thee."  Penitence is the way in which we become lovingly conscious of the debt of love we are obliged to God - penitence is in a real sense love related to debt.  Penitence is asking God to forgive our failures (sins) and God's love through it is therefore directed toward the creature that is "in debt" (guilty).

It must be remembered, as we discussed earlier, that everything depends on the sinner's response.  It depends upon the sinner returning to the bond of love from which he has divorced himself by his guilt.  The person asking forgiveness, therefore, should place himself in a state of love. And, there is a condition - "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors!"  What this means is that we can always ask forgiveness, provided we are in the state of mind that makes such a petition reasonable.  Moral shame is not that motivation, and neither is a fear of evil consequences.  Only love, that love we see clearly when we have the charity to ask ourselves how we react to fellow man who wrongs us.  However, this doesn't necessarily mean that we have to physically and literally say the words "I forgive you," for at times our offender may think he has done a good thing in offending us, and may not see the need.  It does mean however that we have an attitude of forgiveness which is readily and freely dispensed when our offender is prepared to receive it.  In short, not everyone may be as ready to receive forgiveness as you are ready to forgive, and we must exercise good discernment in that regard.

As Anglican Catholics, one part of our weekly Mass includes what is called the "Summary of the Law," and essentially it is Matthew 22:37-39 - "Jesus said to him. 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and Prophets."  The important question to ask here is "who is my neighbor?"  It is not necessarily a neighbor in a literal sense, in that the person discussed may not live in the house next door to you literally.  Your "neighbors" are therefore those people you interact with on a daily basis.  It is also important that to love our neighbors doesn't necessarily mean we have to like them - some people, let's face it, are just unpleasant!  Although we may strongly dislike someone, the love of Christ must be allowed to shine through us so we can deal with such people gracefully.   Also, remember that in their being qua being (their existence for virtue of who God created them to be) all persons are good - even Satan in being is good insofar as he was originally created by God, but Satan became evil and nasty because of himself, not because of who God created him to be; you see the difference?  The negatives in us therefore come from the Fall and sin therefore corrupts what God intended to be created as good.

Now comes the paradox - how can the first commandment (love the Lord God) be like the second (loving our neighbor)??  They are in reality one and the same - I can love God only if I am prepared to be what He created me to be, which is part of a community, a Church.  Love therefore flows from Him to me, and from me to others.  And, sin can only be overcome by union with God in love.  When someone sins against us personally, that person is in the same situation with me as I was once with God.   Therefore, if I erect a wall of unforgiveness against my offender, I also erect it as a barrier between me and God.  And, both (the wall between us and our offender, and us and God) are one and the same wall.  Sin can only be overcome by union with God by love.  When we come to God with our sin, we should test ourselves whether we are in that condition of love ourselves (self-examination, which is also good preparation for receiving any sacramental grace too).  Love is a matter of requiring faith in that God's love for me and my response to that love are grace and mystery that can only be devoutly hoped for.  Therefore, if I sincerely forgive my offenders, this is my pledge that I may believe and hope that I love God, and remember what Scripture says - "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen."  As it relates to this petition, I therefore can have confidence that I am in God's love by the measure that my forgiveness of others is in sincerity.  The more genuinely I overcome my own inner resistance, hatred, and aversion of my offender, the more deeply I can allow real, genuine, and liberating forgiveness to reach down to the depths of the wrong my offenders have done me.  Hence, the more confidently I may hope to be in God's love, and to have my own plea for forgiveness heard.  Summarily, you shall forgive others as you wish God to forgive you!

We need to sincerely confess our culpability before God, a fact that cannot be taken for granted.  For the person who has obviously and palpably sinned, it means a sincere admission of guilt for that sin.  Self-justification of any sin is not an option,  in other words.  For the person living the supposed "good life," it is a realization of how paltry this "goodness" actually is.  All of our perceived "goodness" is often tainted with egoism and narrowness, insincerity, and mixed motives (or, "what will I gain from this?"  Well, maybe your eternal soul if you get your attitude right!).  "Being good" is therefore only due to favorable circumstances (contrary to what Robert Schuller or Joel Osteen may say) and only when God tests can the measure of goodness be accurate.

This petition of the Our Father therefore warns us in several ways.  First, we need to acknowledge our guilt for sins we have definitely committed.   Second, we need to recognize the magnitude of wrongdoing we often regard as trifling (except when we are on the receiving end - hmmm!).   Third, we need to see the sins that lie under our supposed virtues and self-righteousness.   Fourth, we need to realize that we have not only committed sins, but that we are sinners who stand guilty in the sight of God.  Fifth, we are not to withdraw ourselves from the masses of humanity into an aristocracy of self-righteousness.  And sixth, we don't only pray about our individual guilt, but also about the guilt that encompasses us all - that God may open our eyes to it, break its spell, and help us to rise above it aand return to Him.

Being a Christian entails continually rising up out of our guilt to come to God and beg Him for forgiveness, thus being gradually transformed by this continually renewed forgiveness.  As we see in the next section, this also involves another factor - temptation.  God be with you all until next time.