Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Trouble in Paradise

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

Reflection – On last Friday’s blog the Pope wrote about the Our Father as a prayer which uniquely bears us into Christ’s own prayer to his Father, and hence into the very heart and life of the Trinity. He urged us to study the words of the prayer carefully, as the deepest truths about God, and hence the deepest truths about man, are held within it. So, being shepherded by our good German in that way, I am blogging my way through the Lord’s prayer for a few days.

But here in the prayer we come to something that is not exactly the Son’s experience with the Father, not exactly part of Jesus’ own prayer exactly. ‘Forgive us, Lord.’ Jesus does not need forgiveness. There is no sin in God. The son’s communion with the Father is perfect from all eternity.

So here we have a new dimension added to the prayer ‘just for us.’ There is trouble in paradise. Human beings are not just nicely rolling along in life, communing with God and neighbor in an uninterrupted flow of faith, hope, and love. Not quite, not exactly.

There is a breach, a wound, an estrangement, and it needs to be healed, if we are to live that first half of the Lord’s prayer I have been blogging about these past days. The Son’s communion with His Father is unimaginable, yet it is our destiny to share it, and we already begin to have glimpses of it here and there as we strive to respond to his grace in us. But always this grace and this sharing comes on the heels of an act of mercy, of the forgiveness of our sins.

I have been pondering all of this lately in the context of babies, of all things. I love babies and children (some have argued that they are the only people on my level). I had the great privilege of becoming a godfather this Sunday, to the daughter of two of my directees, so spent some time Sunday holding the baby, who slept soundly through the entire affair, both the ritual and the party afterwards.

But it got me thinking about, of all things, St. Augustine and some of his (in)famous writings about babies. A lot of our cultural affection for babies comes out of Christianity. He, a convert and a saint, came from a different culture, and babies were not, for him, cute or sweet. They were selfish little brutes with no control over their emotions and imperiously demanding in their needs. He does not have a trace of sentimentality in his view of them.

Reading his thoughts on this matter is either amusing or irritating for us moderns. But… you know, he is kind of right. And I think the point he makes is not that ‘babies are jerks’, which would be a bit petty and silly of him, but rather that none of us start off from a position of great virtue. The starting point of human beings is, in fact, selfishness and that constant clamor of desire and will. The point is not what babies are like, but what we all are like… until the Father forgives us and begins to fashion his kingdom in our hearts.

In other words, where yesterday I wrote about the urgent and constant need for grace for us to persevere in good godly lives, today we see that this grace needs to heal us of our wounds.

Now what about this business of ‘as we forgive those…’? Does it mean, as some say, that God can only forgive us as much as we forgive others? I hope not—that would be a pretty bleak picture for the human race. There is no question that there is a correlation between our mercy and God’s mercy—many, many Gospel passages lay that out quite explicitly. We simply must practice mercy and forgiveness or we do shut out God’s mercy from our hearts.

But I don’t think it can be reduced to a strict mathematical formula or ratio. I forgive ten times, so God forgives a thousand. I forgive a hundred times; God, ten thousand—that kind of thing. I’m not enough of a Greek scholar to know the exact nuances of the word ὡς (hos), which is rendered ‘as’, but it cannot be that kind of mathematical thing.

If it were, God’s mercy would be reduced to a sort of bean-counting miserliness, and this is simply not the face of the Father revealed to us by Jesus. We must be merciful and forgive those who hurt us, but this is because only thus are we living out the first half of the Lord’s prayer – acknowledging God as our Father, bowing before his greatness, seeking his kingdom and doing his will, and receiving the bread of his grace. The fruit of all that is mercy—God’s mercy and forgiving love comes first, and makes us people of mercy, forgiving our enemies. And that’s the first fruit of our living as children of our Father in heaven.
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

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