Forgive Us Our Debts: A Catechesis of Mercy in the Early Church

Matthew and Luke’s Gospels chronicle Jesus’ instruction to the Apostles concerning genuine prayer (Mt 6:5–15; Lk 11:1–13). The words of the Our Father—Jesus’ archetype of prayer—represent the unique liturgical usage of the prayer of the evangelists’ contemporary communities.[1] The theology presented therein was assimilated by the succeeding post-apostolic generations towards a catechetical formula of instruction (traditio) and recitation (redditio) in preparation for the Christian rite of Baptism.[2] This pedagogy of spiritual instruction was meant to form within the soon-to-be Christian a recourse to God, requesting that she might remain faithful to her promises to be made in the creed in the face of her own debts (sins) and a world hostile to the Gospel; by practicing the petition “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” the catechumen was formed in the experiential truth of Christ’s reconciling act.[3] She was grounded in what Pope Francis has linguistically constructed as misericordiando—the “mercy-ing” of the Lord.[4] This catechesis of mercy is central to the exegesis and theological writings of the early Church concerning this primary attribute of God in relationship to humanity—ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ—and the correlation between faithful Christian discipleship and deification.

Mercy as the primary attribute of God, the Father who forgives as love

God is described in the language of mercy in both the Old and New Testaments; God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity” (Ex 34:6). Indeed, God “is love” (1 Jn 4:8, emphasis added). Walter Kasper traces this testimony of Scripture in order to conclude that mercy, in relationship to God’s multitude of attributes, “is the attribute, in God’s self-revelation in the history of salvation, that assumes first place. . . . Mercy expresses God’s essence, which graciously attends to and devotes itself to the world of humanity.”[5] This stance towards God’s mercy vis-à-vis articulation of God’s very identity, however, began much earlier. Writing in the late fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa makes a wonderful grammatical play in his fifth sermon on the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3–12) concerning this scriptural testimony of God’s mercy in relationship to humanity:
For He says: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Now I know that in many passages of the Divine Scripture holy men call the Divine Power merciful; as does David in the Psalms, Jonas in his prophecy, and the great Moses frequently in the Law. If, therefore, the term “merciful” is suited to God, what else does the Word invite you to become but God, since you ought to model yourself on the property of the Godhead?[6]

[caption id="attachment_5242" align="alignright" width="436"] George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), The Good Samaritan; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.[/caption]

Indeed, “mercy” as an attribute of God is not only at the heart of Scripture, but it also becomes a priority of exegesis for the early Christian Church that parallels the developing articulation of the Incarnation: God’s mercy is ultimately revealed in the Word made flesh. The catechesis of mercy Jesus presents to the Apostles via the Our Father elucidates well this prevailing character of God and God’s will to “forgive us our debts” (Mt 6:12)—to forgive the sinfulness of humanity which David, Jonah, and Moses attest to—from the very moment of humanity’s primeval turn from God. Kasper notes well that “[the] Church fathers knew that God’s mercy and grace . . . [were] on display from primordial times forward and, as Augustine said, [are] effective ‘from the time of righteous Abel.’ . . . Mercy is the eternal origin of world history as well as salvation history.”[7] The debt that Adam’s race owes to God remains a detrimental reality of human nature, and yet God’s mercy ever outweighs its cost. As Cyril of Jerusalem states in his Catechetical Lectures, “Your accumulated offenses surpass not the multitude of God’s mercies: your wounds surpass not the great Physician’s skill. Only give yourself up in faith: tell the Physician your ailment.”[8] God, in the descent to the indebtedness of humanity, did not find those God loves so unconditionally unacceptable due to the taint of sin. Rather, as John Chrysostom states in his First Instruction for Christian Baptism:

As Augustine said, "Mercy is the eternal origin of world history as well as salvation history."

When the good Master saw His bride in such a plight and swept down into what I might call the very abyss of wickedness, naked and unseemly, He considered neither her ugliness, nor her utter poverty, nor the enormity of her evils, but He manifested His own surpassing kindness and received her into His presence. Such is the disposition He reveals when he says through the prophet: Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear, and forget thy people and thy father’s house. And the king shall greatly desire thy beauty. He demands no accounting of her offenses, nor does He exact judgment, but only counsels and urges her to hear accept His exhortation and remonstrance, and He encourages her to forget the past. Did you see His ineffable kindness? Did you see His bountiful care?[9]

God’s mercy does not exact recompense other than the free, human acceptance of divine love, a love that has no superior (Jn 15:13).

God’s mercy ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ; the Son’s pedagogy of forgiveness

This mercy of God in relationship to humanity is ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ, the one “whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37).[10] The developing christology of the early Church towards the doctrine of the hypostatic union, that is, one person (Jesus Christ) of two natures (divine and human), came to establish the belief that in the heart of Jesus, the God-man,
we recognize that God himself has a heart (cor) for us, who are poor (miseri), in the broadest sense of the word, and that he is, therefore, merciful (misericors). In this way, the heart of Jesus is an emblem of God’s love, which became incarnate in Jesus Christ.[11]

The heart of Jesus, expanding on the words of John Henry Newman, is the locus Cor ad cor loquitur, the place where the very heart of God calls out mercifully, personally, to the prodigal son.[12] Augustine states in his sermon on the love of the father in this parable of God’s mercy:
Why was he moved by compassion? Because the son was exhausted by misery. “He ran to him and embraced him,” meaning he threw his arms around his neck. The Father’s arm is the Son; he gave him the possibility to bear Christ: this weight does not oppress, it uplifts. “My yoke,” says Christ, “is easy and my burden light.” The father was bent over the son, the father raised him up, he did not oppress him; he honored him. Yet how is man able to bear God, if not because it is God who bears while he is borne?[13]

"Your wounds surpass not the great Physician’s skill. Only give yourself up in faith: tell the Physician your ailment" –Cyril of Jerusalem

Jesus Christ, who bears the debts of humanity in being borne—and pierced—on the Cross is the means and model for one to receive and enact the divine mercy. God’s mercy as enacted in the person of Jesus is understood in relationship to those who receive him not only for themselves but also for others. This relational aspect between the divine and human acts of mercy is contained literally in the prayer Jesus taught: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive our debtors” (Lk 11:4). God’s divine mercy is the means of any human act of mercy. As Augustine teaches concerning the Beatitudes, out of God’s rich abundance, human persons who receive mercy are transformed as beggars “hungry and thirsty for justice,” who stand “before the door of God,” and so are to deal mercifully with the beggars at their own doorsteps.[14] They participate in God’s essence and carry out the loving labor of Christian discipleship. This reception takes place ontologically in the Christian rite of Baptism. Returning to Chrysostom’s Baptismal Instructions,[15] one sees clearly the concern for the mercy that is received by one in Baptism to be shared with the many, that is, the Church:
Come, then, let me talk to you as I would speak to a bride about to be led into the holy nuptial chamber. Let me give you, too a glimpse of the Bridegroom’s exceeding wealth and of the ineffable kindness which he shows to His bride. Let me point out to her the sordid past from which she is escaping and the glorious future she is about to enjoy. . . Despite her plight, the Bridegroom still allows her to come to Him. This clearly shows us the boundless kindness of our common Master. (1.3)

. . . .

As you come forth from the waters, symbolizing your resurrection by rising up from them, ask him to be your ally, so that you may guard well the gifts He has given you, and that you may not be conquered by the deceits of the wicked one. Beg Him for peace among the churches, beseech Him for those who are being led astray, prostrate yourselves [on] behalf of those who are in sin, so that we may be judged worthy of mercy in some degree. . . It is especially in this way that you draw Him to still greater benevolence. For when He sees you showing such care for your fellow members and taking such thoughts for the salvation of others, He will judge that on this account you deserve to speak with great confidence. Nothing gladdens Him so much as our fellow feeling for those who are members of the same Body. (2.29)

What is it to “speak with great confidence” if not to offer mercy to others in gratitude for mercy received from the Bridegroom?

Christian discipleship as the both-and of God’s mercy; to be forgiven, to forgive

The catechesis of mercy of the early Church explained this offering in spiritual terms, as witnessed by Chrysostom’s call for the newly baptized to pray for the Church and on behalf of those being led astray, as well as in the difficult instruction to love one’s enemies—to show mercy even as Christ did on the Cross. Augustine states, in his Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, “You will not even try to love your enemy if you think it impossible for you to love him. Therefore, begin by believing it possible, and then pray that the will of God be done in you. Wish him well; let him put an end to his evils.”[16] The redditio of mercy in the life of the Christian is also enacted materially, specifically in almsgiving. In his autobiographical instruction concerning conversion and discipleship, Augustine poetically catechizes with this important aspect of the imitatio Christi of Christian life—the works of mercy:
and you, Lord God, so commanding, our soul may bud forth works of mercy “according to their kind,” loving our neighbor in the relief of his bodily necessities, “having seed in itself according to its likeness,” when from feeling of our infirmity we [are] compassionate so as to relieve the needy; helping them, as we would be helped; if we were in like need; not only in things easy, as in herb yielding seed, but also in the protection of our assistance, with our best strength, like the tree yielding fruit.[17]

While works of mercy, spiritual and corporal alike, function as a return of mercy by means of mercy first received, actions taken without a contrite heart are not truly merciful. Without true gratitude for the gift of the heart of Jesus that has borne the debts of all people by means of being borne, works of mercy are not in and of themselves the fullness of what a merciful disciple should bestow. In his Mystic Treatise, Isaac of Nineveh warns of this simplification or purely letter-oriented practice of the divine-human relationship of mercy:
This means that he [the merciful] will not only show mercy unto people on his own part, but that he will voluntarily suffer iniquity with delight. . . . To give the poor from one’s own possessions, and to cover the naked on seeing them, to love the neighbor as one self [sic], not to do iniquity or falsehood, are things commanded also by the old law. But perfection in behavior, according to the new covenant, commands more. . . . The Gospel commands not only to suffer gladly iniquitous dealing in possessions and other outward things, but even to give yourself [on] behalf of your neighbor.[18]

Self-gift, which is the agapic heart of the mercy in Christian discipleship ultimately revealed and made accessible in Jesus Christ, if lacking, stems from one’s unwillingness to accept God’s own mercy—God’s very self. To withhold self-gift and neglect mercy is to remain without it. This conditional notion of mercy does not negate what has been said of God’s essential attribute or the primacy of God’s merciful acts as always preceding any consequential acts of humanity from this mercy received; what is taught by the Our Father is that debts are forgiven as debts are forgiven. This both-and concerning the primacy of God’s mercy in relation to any human redditio of mercy as well as the reception of divine mercy conditioned by the human choice to practice mercy is explored by the early Church. A possible lens for approaching this divine-human relationship is found in Augustine’s sermon on the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1–11) in which he argues that the practice of mercy for the self, that is, in accepting God’s mercy to forgive one’s own debts, is the means by which one simultaneously practices mercy while receiving it:
You who accuse her, that you bring her here, look also at who you are. “But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him,” she who was wounded, and the doctor remained, “the great misery and the great mercy remained.” Those who brought her were ashamed, but they did not request forgiveness; she who had been brought showed that she was confused, and was healed. . . . God thus had pity for the woman due to his great mercy . . . which those who had brought the adulteress to the Lord did not want to do: with the words of the doctor they recognized their wounds, but they did not ask for medicine.[19]

The “medicine” of mercy is received when one asks for it, and the words of the question that one is called to pose before God are the practice of mercy towards others, and consequently, the self. To act with the divine mercy that is the gift of God is to receive the divine mercy. Failure to act mercifully towards one’s neighbor, even one’s enemy, is to reject mercy and so to be rejected. Returning to Augustine’s Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, he states, regarding the duplicity of some Christians regarding the command to love one’s enemies:
You are still saying: ‘Who can do it, and who has ever done it?’ May God do it in your hearts. . . . Is it true that all the faithful in the Church, all who approach the altar and receive the Body and Blood of Christ—is it true that all these are such as forgive their enemies? Yet, they all say: ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.’ Suppose God were to say to them: ‘Why do you ask Me to do what I have promised, when you are not doing what I have commanded? What have I promised? I have promised to forgive your debts. What have I commanded? I have commanded you to forgive your debtors. How can you do that, unless you love your enemies?’ . . . Therefore, in order that our debts be forgiven, we must both say and do.[20]

[caption id="attachment_5241" align="alignleft" width="420"] Alessandro Varotari (1588–1649), Christ and the Adulteress; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.[/caption]

A similar relationship between saying and doing—that is, between one’s reception of mercy conditioned by her practice of mercy—is found in Gregory of Nyssa’s exegesis on the Beatitudes in relationship to the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25: “This rich man who frittered away his life in luxuries has not shown mercy to the poor in distress before his gate, wherefore he has cut himself off from mercy, and when he asks for mercy, he is not heard.”[21] Those who withhold mercy to others in this life necessarily withhold it from themselves in the next: “You have shut up in the safes mercy along with your riches . . . you have not brought neighborly love to the life here. You do not now have what has never been yours.”[22]

To act with the divine mercy that is the gift of God is to receive the divine mercy.

If the disciple does not forgive, she remains unforgiven. This rendering completes the image of God’s mercy which is ever aligned with God’s justice so as to not impose upon the free will of the human person: “the human being, in his or her freedom, must be heeded. From the very beginning, they stand under the sign of God’s mercy, which was decisively revealed in Jesus Christ,” and yet the human person is never overshadowed by God’s mercy; rather, mercy remains as “a sign over the world. . . . In his mercy, embodied in Jesus Christ, God desires from all eternity the salvation of all people” even while maintaining out of justice the autonomous nature of humankind which may act in accord with, or contrary to, God’s desires.[23]

The relationship between discipleship and deification; imaging the divine-human character of Christian mercy

Christian discipleship, if lived out of the both-and acceptance/enaction of God’s mercy, leads one to participation in the very essence of God, that is, mercy itself. This is the process of deification, of being transformed towards beatitude grounded in God’s very self. Gregory of Nyssa states, concerning this movement towards communion by means of the merciful life:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Perhaps this might be compared with the symbolic vision by which Jacob was taught, who saw a ladder stretching from earth to the heights of heaven, and God standing on it. In the same way we are now taught by the Beatitudes, which elevate those who ascend them to ever higher perceptions. . . . For Beatitude is the property of God par excellence. . . . Hence, participation in the Beatitudes means nothing else but to have communion with the Godhead. . . . So it seems to me that, through the effect that follows the Beatitude under consideration, He divinizes, as it were, his hearer, if he understand the word rightly.[24]

Gregory Nazianzen likewise characterizes deification as the consequence of the divine-human relationship of mercy in his catechetical instruction:
If, then, you place any credence in what I say, servants of Christ and brothers and fellow heirs, while we may, let us visit Christ, let us heal Christ, let us feed Christ, let us clothe Christ, let us welcome Christ, let us honor Christ, not with food alone . . . . A kind heart is worth more than myriads of fat sheep, this let us offer to him through the poor who are today downtrodden, so that when we depart this world they may receive us into the eternal habitations in Christ himself, our Lord, to whom be the glory forever. Amen.[25]

This deification is actuated in the disciple’s imitatio Christi in this life so as to be made, as Ignatius of Antioch says, a “real disciple.”[26] For Ignatius, his approaching martyrdom and the merciful communion he experiences in the prayers of the faithful enacts the very mercy that Jesus Christ both exemplifies and makes available, and this will be his [Ignatius’s] perfection:
Being a prisoner for his cause makes me the more fearful that I am still far from being perfect. Yet your prayers to God will make me perfect so that I may gain that fate which I have mercifully been allotted.[27]

Christian discipleship is both a choice to receive God’s mercy and to enact mercy towards others. In this dynamic, one not only prays justly for her own forgiveness but in mercy also forgives the debts of others. This is progress towards the beatific vision, the essence of mercy in the life of God.

Featured Image: Ernst Henri Dubois, The Prodigal Son (1909); Photo: Anette is My Name; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

[1]Matthew, Chapter 6” in New American Bible Revised Edition (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., 2001), n. 6:9–13, accessed November 8, 2015.

[2] Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Mercy in the Fathers of the Church (Vatican City: Our Sunday Visitor, 2015), 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Antonio Spadaro, SJ, “A Big Heart Open to God” (revised) in America: The National Catholic Review, 209, no.8 (2013). Accessed October 5, 2016.

[5] Walter Kasper, Mercy: The Essence of Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (New York: Paulist Press, 2014), 88.

[6] Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes (Sermon 5) in Ancient Christian Writers, no.18, trans. Hilda C. Graef (New York: Newman Press, 1954), 131, emphasis added.

[7] Kasper, Mercy, 98.

[8] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, trans. Edwin Hamilton Gifford, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 7, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894), Accessed November 9, 2015 via New Advent, rev. and ed. by Kevin Knight.

[9] John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, trans. Paul W. Harkins (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1963), 1.6–1.8.

[10] Kasper, Mercy, 112.

[11] Ibid. Kasper notes that a catalyst for this dogmatic development was within the piety “that shaped the veneration of sacred heart of Jesus in the period of the church fathers” (113).

[12] Ibid., 116.

[13] Augustine, “Sermon 112” in Mercy in the Fathers of the Church, 39.

[14] Augustine, “Sermon 11 (On the Beatitudes) (10),” in The Fathers of the Church, trans. Denis J. Kavanagh (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1951), 365.

[15] John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, 1.3, 2.29–2.30.

[16] Augustine, “Sermon 56 (On the Lord’s Prayer) (14),” in The Fathers of the Church, trans. Denis J. Kavanagh (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1951), 252.

[17] Augustine, Confessions [13, 17–21] in Mercy in the Fathers of the Church, 48.

[18] Isaac of Nineveh, Mystic Treatise [4] in Mercy in the Fathers of the Church, 76. This teaching of a deeper, more perfect way of living out Christian discipleship continues throughout the history of the Church in various expressions, notably nearly a millennium later by Ignatius of Loyola’s meditation on “The Three Degrees of Humility” within the Spiritual Exercises.

[19] Augustine, “Sermon 16A” in Mercy in the Fathers of the Church, 43–44.

[20] Augustine, “Sermon 56 (On the Lord’s Prayer) (15),” 253–254.

[21] Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes, (5), 136.

[22] Ibid., 141.

[23] Kasper, Mercy, 101–102. For the fullest speculation concerning this divine-human relationship of mercy, see Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope: “That All Men Be Saved”?, trans. David Kipp and Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

[24] Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes, (5), 130–131.

[25] Gregory Nazianzen, “Sermon 14” in Mercy in the Fathers of the Church, 38–40.

[26] Ignatius of Antioch, To the Romans, trans. Cyril C. Richardson (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 2.5.

[27] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Christians of Philadelphia” [5,1] in Mercy in the Fathers of the Church, 61.


Christopher Gruslin

Christopher S. Gruslin, M.Div., is a theology teacher in Massachusetts. He cajoles his eighth graders and sophomores towards lives of faith and virtue while they instruct him in the spiritual discipline of humility.

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