"In verbo veritatis" (2 Cor 6:7)

April 18, 2019

“I have given you an example”

To the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” Augustine often linked the statement in the First Epistle of St. John, “If we say that we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). If we are to say that prayer every day, then every day we must have something that needs to be forgiven. The same realistic assessment underlies the passage below where the second part of that petition (“as we forgive our debtors”) is here found to be part of the symbolic meaning of Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples, part of that of which Christ gave us an example at the Last Supper.

But besides this moral interpretation of the passage, we remember how we drew to your attention the greatness of this act of the Lord’s: we said that, in washing the feet of disciples who were already washed and clean, the Lord was instituting a sign. Because of the human feelings that occupy us on earth, however far we may have advanced in achieving righteousness, we might know that we are not exempt from sin, which He washes away by interceding for us when we pray the Father in heaven to forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors.

What connection, then, can such an understanding of the passage have with the one he himself gave when he explained the reason for his act in the words, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you”? Can we say that even a brother may cleanse a brother from the contagion of his sin? Yes indeed; we know that the deep significance of this deed of the Lord also admonishes us to confess our faults to one another and to pray for one another, just as Christ also intercedes for us. Let us listen to the Apostle James, who states this precept with the greatest clearness when he says, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another” (Jam 5:16). Of this also the Lord gave us the example. For if He who neither has, nor had, nor will have any sin, prays for our sins, how much more ought we to pray for one another’s in turn! And if He forgives us, whom we have nothing to forgive; how much more ought we, who are unable to live here without sin, to forgive one another! For what else does the Lord apparently intimate in the profound significance of this sacramental, when He says, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you,” but what the apostle states in very plain terms, “Forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against someone: even as Christ forgave you, so also do you” (Col 3:13)?

Let us therefore forgive one another’s faults, and pray for one another’s faults, and thus in a way we will be washing one another’s feet. Our part, by His grace, is to provide this ministry of love and humility; God’s part is to hear us, and to cleanse us from all the pollution of our sins through Christ, and in Christ; so that what we forgive to others, that is, what we loose on earth may be loosed in heaven (see Mt 18:18). (Tractate on John 58, 5)

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