JMC : Notes on the Lord's Prayer / by Raïssa Maritain


Et dimitte nobis debita nostra. "Trespasses" or "debts," it is the same thing under two different names. In Saint Matthew (6:12) we read: "And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors"; and in Saint Luke (11:4): "And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us."

It is the good news of the remission of sins. What a marvel! It depends on us; a movement of our hearts (not easy, it is true, the most difficult perhaps for human nature) suffices for the Father in heaven to pardon the disappointments and wounds we have inflicted on his love. He has pledged it; in his name the Son has promised it to us. It is a fundamental law of the divine economy taught us by the Gospel. How God loves that we love one another! "It suffices that we pardon to have the assurance of divine pardon."{1} If I truly pardon there is no doubt that I shall be, that I am already pardoned.

This law was already recognized in the Old Testament, but imperfectly. If the texts of the Psalms{2} that Saint Augustine quotes{3} on this subject are not conclusive, Ecclesiasticus at least is very clear: "Forgive thy neighbor if he hath hurt thee: and then shall thy sins be forgiven unto thee when thou prayest. Man to man reserveth anger, and doth he seek remedy of God? He hath no mercy on a man like himself, and doth he entreat for his own sins?"{4} It must nevertheless be noted with Father Lagrange that "the idea of neighbor was ordinarily restricted to Israel";{5} and besides, as soon as the idea of justice -- of a justice still too harsh -- intervened, the precept of compassion was counteracted by the law of retaliation; and the divine promise: you shall be forgiven if you forgive, had still not been explicitly made into the golden rule of the economy of salvation.

This golden rule was revealed to us in the Lord's Prayer. We are here at the heart of the Gospel. What is a Christian for peoples accustomed to the code of just vengeance and among whom the Gospel makes its first conquests? He is a man who forgives.{6} "Ye have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.'{7} But I tell you, not to resist the evildoer. . . . Ye have heard that it was said, 'Thou shalt love thy

neighbor{8} and hate thine enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you, that ye may become yourselves children of your Father who is in the heavens; for he maketh his sun to shine upon the evil and the good, and he raineth upon the just and the unjust."{9}

There is no other commentary on the fifth petition than the Gospel itself. Immediately after transmitting to us the text of the Lord's Prayer, Saint Matthew's Gospel continues:{10} "For_ifye forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will likewise forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their transgressions, neither will your Father forgive you your transgressions." The parallel passage is given in Mark in another place, on the occasion of the parable of the barren fig tree: "Whensoever ye stand at prayer, forgive if ye have aught against anyone, that your Father who is in heaven may likewise f orgive you your transgressions."{11}

He will forgive us our transgressions. Is this to say he will forgive the sins of those also whom we forgive? It was solely to the apostles and to their successors, not to the Christian people, that was given the power of the keys,{12} the sacramental power of forgiving sins. Those who have offended us and whom we pardon -how could God lag behind us and be less ready than we to pardon them? Nevertheless the grace efficacy, in their regard, of our pardon depends on their own free will and on divine mercy. This is why it is said in Proverbs,{13} in a text taken up again by Saint Paul: "If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head."{14}

Mysterious coals -- not of anger certainly, otherwise how could Proverbs add: "And the Lord will reward thee," and Saint Paul: "Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good"? These glowing coals burn with the terrible and sweet fire of the inscrutable divine will. In doing good to our enemies we entrust them to God, we call down on their heads the fire of the divine initiatives and attentions. If they resist the flames of grace they will fall, despite our wishes, into the flames of justice. But if they let themselves be won by grace and mend their ways and repent of their sins before God, they will receive the effect of the flames of mercy, in accordance with our wish, and the sins they have committed against us will be forgiven.

The fact thus remains that in forgiving those who have offended us we work in a certain (preparatory) manner and so far as we are able, to the end that in them evil be overcome by good and that they receive God's pardon; we contribute, to the extent that it is in us, to increase the sum of good on earth and to cause the work of the Prince of Peace to be accomplished there.


If I truly pardon, we wrote above, there is no doubt that I shall be, that I am already pardoned.

But just the same, am I ever certain of having been pardoned? The question is to know whether I have pardoned truly, as it is to know whether I truly love God and my neighbor. And this only God knows with certain knowledge. God alone knows with certain knowledge whether I have pardoned from the bottom of my heart, as the Gospel enjoins me. At the end of the parable of the servant whose debt was forgiven him and who did not forgive the debt of his fellow workers, we read in Matthew: "Then his lord sent for him and saith to him, 'Thou wicked servant, all that debt I forgave thee because thou besoughtest me; shouldst not thou also have had pity on thy fellow-servant, even as myself had pity on thee?' And his lord, being angry, delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was owing. So also shall my heavenly Father do to you, if ye forgive not each his brother from your hearts."{15} And what does Saint John say? "Little children, let us not love with word, neither with the tongue, but in deed and truth.{16}

After all, if we do our best, why should we torment ourselves? To seek to know with certain intellectual knowledge, with proved and demonstrated knowledge, whether we really love and if we have really pardoned from the bottom of our heart, would be vain curiosity of mind and a grave error. For what God wants is that we turn away from ourselves and place all our care in him. He wants us to hope in him: then what we a case of urgency{21} . . . or if he should beg forgiveness. But to love one's enemies absolutely in the individual, and to assist them, is an act of perfection. In like manner it is a matter of obligation that we should not exclude our enemies from the general prayers which we offer up for others; but it is a matter of perfection, and not of obligation, to pray for them individually, except in certain cases."{22} And again: "Charity does not require that we should have a special movement of love to every individual man, since this would be impossible. Nevertheless charity does require this, in respect of our being prepared in mind, namely, that we should be ready to love our enemies individually, if the necessity were to occur. That man should actually do so, and love his enemy for God's sake, without it being necessary for him to do so, belongs to the perfection of charity."{23}

Such a doctrine is just and human; it prevents us from loading souls down with burdens they cannot yet carry, and from requiring of others what we are perhaps incapable of ourselves. To truly forgive -- not with the lips but from the bottom of the heart -- is a terribly serious thing; for even in "ordinary pardon" there is required preparation of soul, which supposes that we do not deliberately nourish within us, whatever may be the movements not consented to, any feeling of hatred against this or that enemy in particular;{24} and to forgive, be it only secundum praeparationem animae, is not only to renounce vengeance,{25} it is also to be ready to give the guilty one even that which he has taken from us, and thus to bring it about (at least in what concerns us, and also in what concerns our petitions to God) that he be henceforth in accord with divine justice and that he be released from its claims on him -- he is liberated, his debt is forgiven. Forgiveness implies no detriment to justice; even in going beyond it, it seems that justice receives its due.{26} But it obliges (except when an interest superior to that of my resentment must be protected) that one renounce the sanctions that justice would have imposed. And for him who has not yet had his eyes washed enough by tears and his soul softened enough by charity, even this is felt -- wrongly -- to be a breach of justice. The poor heart is locked in debate, it feels torn between two contradictory imperatives, it is in agony. An act of pardon required, in case of necessity, toward a miserable one who has destroyed or outraged that which a man holds most dear -- it may be that this man will pay it with his life.

It remains that in case of necessity such an act of forgiveness is required by the Gospel. And it remains that the Gospel leaves to theologians the care of the distinction we have just mentioned between ordinary forgiveness and the forgiveness of the perfect. It is the spirit of forgiveness that the Gospel makes a duty for us; and the Gospel places itself less in the perspective of what is or is not prescribed as necessary for salvation than in that of the law of correspondence between the divine comportment and our own: pardon as He pardons; as thou hast pardoned, thou shalt be pardoned. Moreover, in the majority of concrete cases, it is not with my enemies in general but with this or that enemy in particular, whose dagger's blow I have just received, that my conscience has to do. Then, whatever I have against him, it is he in particular whom I must forgive in my heart and from the bottom of my heart if I wish to put my conscience at rest and to escape from an intolerable perplexity. My God, forgive me as I forgive him.

I am not, for all that, perfect. But when the Spirit blows, it carries beyond all limits traced beforehand; the spirit of forgiveness impels every Christian, perfect or imperfect, who wishes to obey the Gospel, to pass beyond the strict precept -- if only for once, just for the turmoil I am in today. And ordinary pardon, which is (as we have noted above) more demanding than it appears to be, forces us in many cases to precipitate ourselves willy-nilly into the pardon of the perfect.

"But to you who give ear I say, love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that mistreat you. To him that striketh thee on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him that taketh away thy cloak, withhold not thy tunic also. Give to everyone that asketh of thee, and from him that taketh away thy goods ask no return. In fine, as ye would that men should do unto you, so do ye unto them. If you love them that love you, what merit have ye? Even the sinners love those who love them. . . . And if ye lend to those from whom ye hope you receive back, what merit have ye? Even sinners lend unto sinners, in order that they may receive as much in return. Nay, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend without hope of recovery, and great shall be your reward, and ye shall be children of the Most High, for himself is good to the ungrateful and evil. Have pity, even as your Father hath pity.

"Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned. Pardon, and ye shall be pardoned: give, and it shall be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over shall they pour into your lap. For with what measure ye measure, it shall be measured unto you in return."{27}

{1} M. J. Lagrange, Evang. selon saint Matthieu, p. 132, n. 14.

{2} Ps. 132 (131): 1; Ps. 7:4.

{3} Ad Probam, P.L., 33, 503 (n. 22).

{4} Ecclesiasticus 28:2-4.

{5} Lagrange, Evang. selon saint Matthieu, p. 132, note.

{6} is what Father Lebbe told us when he spoke to us of his experience as a missionary in China.

{7} Exod. 21:24-25.

{8} Levit. 19:18.

{9} Matt. 5:38-39, 43-45.

{10} Matt. 6:14-15.

{11} Mark 11:25-26.

{12} "Receive ye the Holy Spirit; whose sins ye shall forgive, they are forgiven them: whose sins ye shall retain, they are retamed." John 20:22-23.

{13} Prov. 25:21-22.

{14} Rom. 12:20.

{15} Matt. 18:32-35.

{16} 1 John 3:18.

{21} Cf. Summa theol., II-II, 25, 9. "Talia beneficia vel dilectionis signa inimicis exhibere non est de necessitate salutis nisi secundum praeparationem animae, ut scilicet subveniatur eis in articulo necessitatis."

{22} Summa theol., II-II, 83, 8.

{23} Ibid., II-II, 25, 8.

{24} "Whoso hateth his brother is a murderer, and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding within him." 1 John 3:15.

{25} "The desire for vengeance removes from you all hope of obtaining pardon for your other sins," it "deprives you of any right to say: as we forgive those who trespass against us." Saint Augustine, Serm. 57, P.L., 39, 392.

{26} Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theol., I, 21, 3, ad. 2.

{27} Luke 6:27-38. (Cf. Matt. 5:38-48.)

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