I recently had the opportunity to record a series of podcasts on Matthew with Dr. Joy J. Moore and Dr. Rolf Jacobson. We were discussing the Narrative Lectionary texts for February, and those texts concentrated on passages from the Sermon on the Mount, including the Lord’s Prayer. In that discussion, Dr. Moore made a point that I had never considered. She made the point that we as preachers should consider forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount as part of a larger stance of humility and dependence that Jesus teaches his followers to cultivate. This point resonated with me, and I want to take the time to meditate further on the ramifications of this teaching for understanding forgiveness in Matthew’s Gospel.
First of all, I was struck by the way in which understanding forgiveness as rooted in dependence on God runs counter to modern American cultural wisdom. As a child, I remember being told that forgiving, rather than holding on to a grudge, made me the “bigger person” in a situation. In this cultural understanding, forgiveness is a virtue that places the forgiver in a position of superiority. Only the morally righteous can forgive, while the unrighteous continue to hold on to their anger and resentment.
Rooted in God’s care
The Gospel of Matthew, instead, roots forgiveness in the care of God for humanity and creation. Forgiveness, as Jesus reminds his disciples, comes about when we remember our own frailty. We are like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field; we require the mercy of God for our daily bread. Because of the mercy and forgiveness that God extends to us, we extend mercy and forgiveness to others. We do not do so because we are “bigger people ” than them, but because we realize that we are all dependent on the mercy of the one who is greater than all of us. For Matthew, the fragility of our lives, not our inner strength gives urgency to our forgiveness.
Throughout his Gospel, Matthew returns to this theme, perhaps most poignantly in his parables. Unique to Matthew is the parable of the unforgiving slave, in which a slave forgiven an extravagant debt, refuses to forgive a tiny one. This parable proves the strength of Dr. Moore’s interpretation; the slave is not expected to forgive because he is a “bigger person” than his debtor; rather, he is called to remember that mercy has been shown to him and so he should extend that same mercy. This theme also helps us to interpret Jesus’ command to Peter (also unique to Matthew) that followers of Christ should forgive others “seventy times seven” times. If seen as an example of moral uprightness, this number might seem like an impossible task. However, when viewed as an acknowledgement of the daily forgiveness and mercy of God, this call to constant forgiveness makes better sense.
Forgiveness, fasting, and almsgiving
Rooting forgiveness in dependence and humility also helped me to make sense of the connection that Jesus draws between forgiveness, fasting and almsgiving. The three practices occupy a prominent position in the Sermon on the Mount and previously I had viewed them as three separate “tasks” for followers of Jesus. However, with this new understanding of forgiveness, I now see fasting and almsgiving as simply different manifestations of this same notion of dependence. Rooting fasting in dependence reframes it from a practice of spiritual improvement to an acknowledgement of our dependence on God for food. Fasting becomes a living embodiment of the prayer to God for our daily bread. By fasting, we remind ourselves that we cannot survive without the blessings of God that send rain upon the earth. In the same way, rooting almsgiving in dependence reframes it. The person who gives alms transforms from a more successful person to someone who depends on the same God as the receiver. By giving away some of what we have received, we acknowledge that none of it actually belongs to us and that we are simply passing on what we have received from above. Dependence and humility help me to see forgiveness, fasting and almsgiving not as three separate practices, but as one multi-faceted celebration of the good gifts that come from God above.