As the prayer given to us directly by Christ, the Our Father provides limitless food for contemplation. Encompassing many different forms of prayer, each line opens before us great vistas through which to examine our relationship with God. We call him Father, we bless His name, we ask for His aid and His forgiveness. It is this last petition which contains a line strikingly different from the rest of the prayer: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. This line might seem almost an aside at first. The rest of the prayers focuses on our relationship with God and yet here we turn to consideration of our neighbor. Of course this is not surprising given the two great commandments also given to us by Jesus himself. Yet why might this be a perfect place to reference that love of neighbor which should be second only to love of God? Perhaps it is because the nature of mercy is intimately linked to this reciprocity. To receive forgiveness we must also grant forgiveness.
In this year of mercy this serves as an important lesson not only in our relationship with Our Father but with our loved ones. Mercy is a two way street. Strong relationships, be they friendship or the deeper bond of a marriage, require that both partners be extravagant in their willingness to both give and receive mercy. It is in acknowledging our own weakness that we are able to more easily forgive weakness in another. In generously forgiving we also humble ourselves to more readily seek the forgiveness we ourselves need. For love to flourish this mercy must be doubly reciprocal.
One common stumbling block to this kind of reciprocity in friendship is the tendency to withhold our end of the bargain until we have proof the other will fulfill theirs. We say, I am perfectly willing to forgive and ask forgiveness but only if you go first. It is a game of chicken with our pride. Who will bend first? But mercy and repentance must be more generous than this. We should always be willing to extend these without a promise of return. Of course, that being said, both parties must be willing to inhabit both sides of the mercy relationship for true friendship to thrive. Where one or both cannot forgive or cannot apologize a deep friendship becomes nearly impossible. While as Christians we are still called to forgive and to seek forgiveness whether our gesture is returned or not, we may realize the must be done from a greater distance. A relationship of mutual love and trust cannot develop where this is one sided.
There are several ways we can work to develop this spirit of mercy but again the word extravagance helps to describe the attitude we should work towards. Mercy, while related to justice, seeks not a balancing of the scales so much as an erasure of a debt. Thus, when we forgive it should spring from a disposition that is eager for any excuse to forgive. We should not just forgive when a careful criteria has been met, when we have received the perfect apology or had our wounded pride sufficiently assuaged.
One the other hand we should also seek eagerly for an opening to healing when we are the one who caused harm. This should not be confused with facile insincere apologies: “I’m sorry if you were offended” when the subtext reads “I’m sorry you are so oversensitive.” Nor should we be scrupulous or fawning, groveling for forgiveness where there is no hurt. At the same time we can step beyond asking merely what was absolutely required of us to what we could have done as our best selves. For example, instead of only apologizing when we have acted through some malice, we must apologize when we hurt through negligence or even when we hurt through truly innocent thoughtlessness. Ask not just “what did I need to do?” in a given situation but “what could I have done” to prevent an injury. Often if we are honest there is something we could have done differently with a little extra love and thought in our hearts at a given moment.
Let us strive in the year of mercy to dispense and appeal for mercy with wild abandon. Let it be always on our lips and in our hearts. If we can forgive those who trespass against us generously and eagerly, if we can recklessly humble ourselves to ask forgiveness in return, surely we will also find our Heavenly Father boundless in His mercy upon us.