For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). These two verses follow the passage where Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer. It is clear that Jesus means that forgiveness is the centerpiece of our faith. It is in forgiving that we imitate Jesus most profoundly and most sincerely. After all, it is the reason for the Incarnation. It is the means of our salvation.
Forgiveness is not easy. In fact, it is one of the most difficult things we can do, but it is the most effective form of love that we can participate in in this life. The English writer, Alexander Pope’s famous heroic couplet is instructive here. “To err is human; to forgive divine. The universal truth about us as human beings is that we are all prone to err, to making mistakes of judgment, in word and deed. This is especially painful when we err in our moral words and actions toward others. We do this sometimes out of ignorance, but often out of arrogance, or self-centeredness. And all of us have been on the receiving end of such mistakes, or of conscious injuries.
It is this latter experience that Jesus is getting us to reflect on here. In the prayer that Jesus gave us we see the following words: “And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors” (verse 12). The key word in the phrase is “as.” In verse 14 Jesus is giving us the positive moral obligation in a very clear and direct manner. “Forgive others their sins and your heavenly Father will forgive you.” Then he gives us the other side of this wisdom, the side that might get our attention even more. “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” He is not just talking about the petty faux pas that happen between us, though he is not discounting them either. He is telling us that our sins will be forgiven, or not, only in accord with how we have learned to forgive others. That is a profoundly more stunning perspective.
Once again, our model to follow is Jesus himself. As Paul tells us: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) How did he save sinners? By the ultimate act of forgiveness, his death on the cross. This was the ultimate act of love. Forgiveness, then, is the centerpiece of the Christ life, and it is to be the centerpiece of the life of every Christian. That is how we imitate Christ Jesus most closely. In a real way, forgiveness is the most powerful and efficacious gift of love that we can share with one another. In our acts of forgiveness we free the other from the burden of their sin and guilt, and we free ourselves from the terrible weight of anger and resentment, or the horror of revenge. In forgiving we become more like Jesus. In the act of forgiving, we are loving others as Jesus loved us.
Lord, Help us in our efforts to forgive one another. As we are in need of your forgiveness, open our hearts to the wisdom of forgiving others fully out of real love for them and their immortal souls, just as you did for us. We pray in your name, Jesus. Amen!
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