restricted access Becoming an Exemplar for God: Three Early Interpretations of Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer
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Becoming an Exemplar for God
Three Early Interpretations of Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer

If then the accomplishment of the divine counsel is the deification of our nature, and if the goal of the divine thoughts is the completion of what we ask for in our life, then it is profitable to know the full importance of the Lord’s Prayer, to put it into practice and to write about it properly.1

The Lord’s Prayer has always been the model of Christian prayer, since it comes from the teachings of Jesus himself: “Therefore you are to pray in this way” (Mt 6:9). The Church made it part of its liturgical life early on, even reserving the sacred words to the baptized faithful.2 Its importance in the life of the Church led such Fathers as Origen of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, and Maximus the Confessor to compose rich meditations to help the faithful to appropriate and live out this holiest of orations.

The Lord’s Prayer contains many grammatical and hermeneutical problems even for the modern exegete. This article considers one of these issues, the second “we” petition regarding the forgiveness of debts or sins, by examining the three early commentaries of Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor. While [End Page 126] these Fathers did not share all of the tools available to contemporary scripture studies, their attentive reading of the prayer and spiritual acuity allowed them to provide important—even radical—insights into the significance of this petition for Christian life.

I. Problems in the Interpretation of the Texts of Matthew and Luke

Before examining the petition in the light of these three fathers, some significant differences between the two versions of the prayer must be taken into account. Scholars tend to hold that the Lukan version, written for a Gentile audience, represents the original structure and length of the Aramaic, while the Matthean offers a more developed version of the prayer for liturgical use in a Jewish-Christian community. Yet, Matthew seems to have preserved a wording closer to the Aramaic, while Luke adapted the vocabulary for his non-Jewish audience.3 Note some of the key differences in the second “we” petition of the prayer:

Matthew 6:12 Luke 11:4
καὶ ἄϕϵϛ ἡμῖν τὰ
òϕϵιλήματα ἡμῶν ὡϛ καὶ
ἡμϵῖϛ ἀϕήκαϵν τoῖϛ
ỏϕϵιλέταιϛ ἡμῶν
καὶ ἄϕϵϛ ἡμῖν τὰϛ
ὰμαρτίναϛ ἡμῶν, καὶ
γάρ αủτoὶ ἀϕίoμϵν
παντὶ ὀϕϵίντι ἡμῖν
And forgive us our debts, as we too forgave (have forgiven) our debtors. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive each one who is in debt to us.

For the purposes of this article, there are three variants of particular note. First, both Matthew and Luke use the verb ἀϕίημι for “forgive,” but they use different tenses of the verb in the apodosis of the petition: “as we too forgave/have forgiven” and “for we ourselves also forgive.” Matthew has an aorist “we forgave,” implying an action [End Page 127] anterior to that of God’s forgiveness4; Luke uses the present, “we forgive,” implying a continuous action simultaneous with God’s act of mercy. Thus in the Matthean variant, if one assumes the force of the aorist active, it seems that the petitioner must perform the act of forgiveness before God can respond in kind.5 In the Lukan variant, however, the present active implies a continuous act of forgiveness that accompanies the definitive act of forgiveness on the part of God (aorist imperative).

Second, Matthew refers to the forgiveness of “debts” and “debtors,” a possible reflection of the Aramaic (hôbâ), which could mean both debt and sin.6 Luke, however, perhaps attempted to express the double meaning of the Aramaic for the gentile audience by first using the word “sin” (ἁμαρτία), and then using the participle for the verb “to owe” or “to be in debt” (ὀϕϵίλω).7 The implied relationship between debts and sins would become a key part of the Fathers’ reflection upon this verse.

Finally, the main problem addressed in this article emerges from the relationship between the protasis (“forgive us our debts”) and apodosis (“as we too forgave,” “for we also forgive”). Matthew creates a very strict relationship between the two by ὡϛ καί “as...