“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14-15, Forgiveness Sunday)
In the Gospel according to Saint Matthew these words immediately follow what is commonly referred to as the Lord’s Prayer. It is the Lord’s Prayer - the prayer Jesus gives to his disciples - that identifies the user as one who is bound to the very person of the Savior. The link between the Lord’s Prayer and discipleship becomes especially clear in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. There, the disciples of Jesus ask that he teach them to pray just as John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray. The response to this request is the prayer that has been on most of our lips since childhood. Thus, to recite, to chant or to sing the Lord’s Prayer ostensibly identifies us as the disciples of the Lord. We are his followers – we are his students who have been entrusted by our Master to continue his ministry here and now.
The words that begin the Gospel reading for Forgiveness Sunday echo, as well as, bolster the Lord’s Prayer. They teach us that forgiveness is vital to the very ministry of the Lord. Consequently, the very affirmation of God being our Father, the presence and coming of his kingdom, the giving of the bread of immortality which we receive at every Divine Liturgy and the ongoing struggle to overcome the temptations of the evil one are confirmed by the personal and corporate act of forgiveness.
Unless we can forgive and unless we can ask to be forgiven, we show ourselves to be false disciples of Jesus Christ. For the disciple who cannot forgive is burdened with a heart of stone – a heart that has not converted, a heart that is unable to extend the word of life and love to the other. When we are unable to forgive we stand alone and apart from the cross of the Savior which, for the Christian, is the very symbol of universal forgiveness and reconciliation. The inability to forgive draws us into the darkness and bitterness of anger. In turn, the heart of stone seeks to advance evil a step further by sowing the seeds of doubt and mistrust which grow into an interpersonal dynamic which moves towards avoiding or undoing the bonds of mutual communion.
The one who forgives is also the one who asks to be forgiven. But to ask for forgiveness requires introspection and therefore an awareness of the self. Seeking forgiveness presupposes that we acknowledge our sin as well as Christ’s call to repentance. Without repentance our offering of forgiveness sinks into the quagmire of self-righteousness and pride. Ultimately, this kind of spiritual elitism is not interested in forging the bonds of mutual love and communion. Rather, it seeks only to place oneself above the other. Without repentance we remain alone in a grave dug by pride, fear, faithlessness and arrogance. Only when we repent – only when we can draw near to God and to one another - are we raised from this grave that precedes our physical death.
Soon the Church will offer us the gift of Great Lent. To appreciate this gift we must encourage one another to be faithful disciples of the Lord. To receive this gift, which brings us to the very core of the Gospel and identifies us as true followers of the crucified and resurrected Christ, we are to forgive as we seek forgiveness from God and each other. The act of forgiveness and the act of seeking forgiveness makes present the healing and transforming love of God. It is this love which Christ brings into the world. And it is this love we are to reveal and offer through the act of mutual forgiveness.
Copyright © 2003 by Father Robert M. Arida