Forgiveness in the The Lord’s Prayer

Forgive thy neighbour the hurt that he hath done unto thee, so shall thy sins also be forgiven when thou prayest (Sirach 28:2).

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors (Matt 6:12).

This is without a doubt the most intriguing of the quotations from the Apocrypha, as it forms part of what has come down to us as The Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father. This is not a pure quotation, but neither is it simply an allusion to the passage from Sirach. Instead, Jesus is inverting the two clauses from Sirach, creating what are parallel statements — a characteristic of Hebrew poetry. The one clause supports and interprets the other. Therefore, we cannot interpret the statement from The Lord’s Prayer without referring to its antecedent thought from Sirach.

A typical Protestant understanding of this passage is found in Dr. David Scaer’s book, The Sermon on the Mount. He writes:

The Matthean version of the Prayer does not suggest that God’s forgiving us is caused by our forgiving others; the word “as” is used, not “because.” “As” means “like” or “similar.” We ask that God would forgive us as, not because we forgive others. Some hold the view that our forgiving precedes God’s, but this is done more from a theological and not a grammatical consideration.[1]

This is only correct if we do not consider the source for this particular clause in The Lord’s Prayer. In Sirach’s version, forgiveness of the neighbor is necessary for your prayers of forgiveness to be heard. The argument could be made that Jesus was providing a corrective to the statement in Sirach. That is a theological judgement, not a textual one. Sirach’s interpretation is demonstrated in Matthew’s gospel by the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor (Matt 18:23-34). A servant owed his master a great debt and asked to be forgiven. When the servant refused to forgive a minor debt owed to him, the master refused to forgive the servant. Jesus sums up the parable by saying: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (Matt 18:35). Jesus is indicating that the passage from Sirach represents the proper interpretation –God forgives us in like fashion as we forgive others. The apostle writes: “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life” (Ro 5:10). Forgiving our enemies is the essence of a Christ-like life.

Blessed Theophylact, in his commentary The Gospel According to St. Matthew, writes:

Because we sin even after our baptism, we beseech Him to forgive us. But forgive us as we forgive others: if we remember wrongs, God will not forgive us. God takes me as the pattern He will follow: what I do to another, He does to me.[2]

God, therefore, respects our free will. He does not respond in kind, but responds overabundantly. When we truly repent — when we truly change our mind, rejecting the evil and seeking the good — the angels rejoice and the Holy Spirit fills us, empowering us for service. When we seek God half-heartedly, we quench the Holy Spirit and God seems far from us. It is all God’s work and none of ours. Nothing we do is meritorious in and of itself. But God is merciful, bestowing great mercy upon us at the least sign that we are responsive to Him, and that we desire communion with Him. This, then, is the meaning of the forgiveness clause in The Lord’s Prayer.

  1. (Scaer, The Sermon on the Mount 2000, 184)
  2. (Blessed Theophylact 1992, 58)