Bible Study -Week 6
Forgive Us our Sins as We Forgive Those who Sin against Us
Penitential Psalms: 6, 25, 32, 38, 50, 51, 102, 106, 130, 143
Forgive us as we forgive. We get a break this week in that we only have ten psalms to read, however the message is a powerful one, one of forgiveness. Along with the traditional Penitential Psalms: Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143; Fr. Murphy includes Psalms 25, 50 and 106.
Psalm 25 is another acrostic psalm with each line beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The unifying theme is praying for forgiveness and guidance. Psalm 106 is an historical psalm recounting Israel’s sinfulness in worshiping false idols and complaining against God, and God’s great mercy and forgiveness of them despite their sins. Psalm 50 sets the stage for Psalm 51. In Psalm 50 a charge is brought against the people.
In response to this charge we hear Psalm 51, the most well-known of the Penitential Psalms where the writer prays for the removal of personal and social sin, a psalm commonly associated with Lent. Attributed to King David after being confronted about his affair with Bathsheba, David prays: “Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness; in your abundant compassion blot out my offense. Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me . . . wash me, make me whiter than snow … A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.” (3-4, 9b, 12) David’s sins were great indeed, the murder of Bathsheba’s husband by placing him in harm’s way in the battlefield. Yet even that sin, through God’s power, might be washed away.
Psalm 32 addresses the need to speak our sins: “As long as I kept silent, my bones wasted away; I groaned all the day . . .Then I declared my sin to you; my guilt I did not hide. I said, ‘I confess my faults to the Lord, and you took away the guilt of my sin.’” (3, 5) It isn’t enough to acknowledge our sins to ourselves, we need to speak them to another person.
If we have harmed our neighbor, we need to apologize to our neighbor and make amends with a sincere heart. If we are unable to make amends directly to the individual we have harmed for whatever reason, we can still speak them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, make amends through a penance received, and hear the words of absolution. No matter how much we may believe that God has heard us and forgives us, there is something about hearing another person speaking those words that is healing, hence the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
There is a tradition in the Old Testament of equating sinfulness with poor health and so we hear in Psalm 38 – “My flesh is afflicted because of your anger; my frame aches because of my sin . . .Foul and festering are my sores because of my folly. I am stooped and deeply bowed; all day I go about mourning. My loins burn with fever; my flesh is afflicted. I am numb and utterly crushed.” (38:4, 6-9a) And in Psalm 102 – “I am withered, dried up like grass, too wasted to eat my food. From my loud groaning I become just skin and bones.” (102:5-6) There is a connection in these psalms between forgiveness of sins and physical healing. As they repent of their sins and seek forgiveness they are restored to physical health.
Psalm 106 is a communal penitential prayer. The Israelite people recount all the ways in which their ancestors had sinned against God and acknowledge that they too have sinned. Knowing of God’s mercy, the leader of the psalm mentions eight ways that the people sinned in the past: the rebellion at the Red Sea when the people did not believe that God would lead them through the waters (6-12, Ex. 14-15); grumbling for meat in the desert (13-15, Nm. 11); challenging Moses authority (16-18, Nm 16); the golden calf (19-23, Ex. 32-34); refusal to take Canaan by the southern route (24-27, Nm13-14 and Dt. 1-2); the rebellion at Baal-Peor (28-31, Nm 25:1-10); the anger of Moses (32-33, Nm 20:1-13); and the mingling of nations (34-47). (footnote on Psalm 106, New American Bible, p. 609) In doing so he calls them to national repentance.
They acknowledge their sin – “We have sinned like our ancestors; we have done wrong and are guilty.” (6) Together they ask for forgiveness. What a wonderful example of how a nation can sin and ask for forgiveness, something often lacking in our own time where nations stubbornly insist on their rightness even in the face of sin.
In Psalm 6 we see another incident of the writer thanking God in advance for answering his plea – “The Lord has heard my prayer; the Lord takes up my pleas. My foes will be terrified and disgraced; all will fall back in sudden shame.” (10-11) We don’t know what happened to create this sudden shift from crying out in distress to confidence that he will be vindicated, perhaps an internal shift or liturgical actions within worship. We just know it happened.
While there is a mournful tone to these psalms, I felt comforted and even joy while reading them, knowing God’s mercy and forgiveness. It’s a reminder of the peace that can be found through forgiveness.
The Penitential Psalms remind us that God forgives those who come to him with sincere, contrite hearts. Jesus takes this a step further when he instructs us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses/sins as we forgive those who trespass/sin against us.” We aren’t just asking God to forgive our sins, but to only forgive us if we forgive others. We are imposing a condition on our forgiveness.
Do we really know what we are saying when we pray the Lord’s Prayer? We are asking to be held to a higher standard. So often the words fall glibly off our tongues with no thought. We are saying that if we hold onto bitterness and refuse to forgive wrongs done to us, then God is to do the same to us.
I’d rather pray the Penitential Psalms than this prayer. The early Hebrew community were not “burdened with conscience” in the same way that we are, according to Walter Brueggemann (Conference, Training for Wonder, 2013). They prayed down curses upon those who hurt them with abandon, seeking vengeance, not trying to forgive. But in forgiving we find forgiveness and healing.
Forgiveness is a gift from God. We need God’s grace to forgive. Sometimes all we can do when we are angry and hurting is to be open to forgiveness. If that’s the case then pray, “Lord, I know I’m only hurting myself by holding on to this grudge, but I can’t do it alone. Help me to forgive.”
Jesus showed us with his life what it means to forgive others when he prayed from the cross: “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Reflect on what it means to forgive others as you forgive. Search your heart for remnants of bitterness, resentments, hurts unhealed, and pray for the grace to forgive and to be healed.
Are there ways in which unhealed wrongs are affecting your health?
Are there ways in which we, as a nation, need to acknowledge our communal sinfulness and do penance?