I love the psalms. They teach us the meaning of prayer as nothing else does, inspired by the Spirit and written in the blood, sweat and tears of the sons and daughters of Abraham. The psalms are what Christians means by prayer, and so they populate and animate all of our liturgies and give basic shape to all of our prayerful devotions. As a rabbi I once knew in Hartford taught me, “When a Jew is asked, ‘What does it mean to pray?’ he always answers, ‘Psalms.'” The Catechism #2584 calls the psalms “the masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament.”
Even the Our Father, the only prayer Jesus taught His disciples, is really nothing more than, as my Scripture professor in grad school once said, “the pocket-sized Jewish prayer for uneducated and educated alike; a peasant’s psalter. 150 psalms in 7 petitions.” That blew. my. mind. In other words, the Our Father has compressed into it all the major themes of the psalms, including trust, adoration, praise, submission, contrition, lamentation, supplication. Notably missing, though, are the curse psalms. Think here, for example, of Psalm 109:6-17, prayed by the psalmist against his enemy:
Appoint a wicked man as his judge;
let an accuser stand at his right.
When he is judged let him come out condemned;
let his prayer be considered as sin.
Let the days of his life be few;
let another man take his office.
Let his children be fatherless orphans
and his wife become a widow.
Let his children be wanderers and beggars
driven from the ruins of their home.
Let the creditor seize all his goods;
let strangers take the fruit of his work.
Let no one show him any mercy
nor pity his fatherless children.
Let all his sons be destroyed
and with them their names be blotted out.
Let his father’s guilt be remembered,
his mother’s be retained.
Let it always stand before the Lord,
that their memory be cut off from the earth.
For he did not think of showing mercy
but pursed the poor and the needy,
hounding the wretched to death.
He loved cursing; let curses fall upon him.
He scorned blessing; let blessing pass him by.
An absolutely understandable human response to injustice. But in the Our Father, Jesus offers a stinging critique of the curse psalms not only by omitting their dark imprecations, but by adding a single, simple and stunning line that has no exact analogue in all of the Old Testament. As Luke 11:4 has it, “forgive us our sins [inasmuch as also] we forgive those in debt to us.” He knew very well that this would have caught the attention of His hearers, and in Matthew’s version (6:14-15) concludes this new prayer with a coda that holds in stark relief what is new:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Though this manner of expression is new, Jesus’ critique of the Old Testament tradition of cursing enemies draws on another Israelite tradition, found in its most dramatic form in the book of Jonah. Recall that Jonah, to his chagrin, is commanded by God to enter the heart of enemy territory — Nineveh, the capital of the dreaded Assyrian empire which had utterly devastated the northern tribes of Israel — and invoke God’s mercy on the Assyrians by calling them to repentance before God’s impending judgment. Of course, Jonah famously rejects this call and flees, only to find himself swallowed up by a fish and spewed back on mission, still filled with resentment and anger at God.
Jesus makes it clear (Matt. 12:40f) that this prophetic tale is a (comedic) prefigurement of His own willing and passionate pursuit of us, His enemy (Rom. 5:10), into the kingdom of darkness where He is swallowed up by death and ‘spewed out’ by the Father (Rom. 6:4) to bring to the City of Man God’s unsparing mercy. On the Cross, Jesus became the object of every curse, transforming them into blessings, drinking the poison of sin to become for us the antidote that pardons every sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13-14).
In all this, Jesus sets the pattern for Christian life to lived behind enemy lines. After reconciling us with Himself, He sends us out on mission every day into our mildly or terrifyingly hostile environments to proclaim divine mercy by word, by prayer, by deed. By every means. In Baptism, and all the Sacraments, we are joined to the New Jonah, filled and empowered with God’s judgment of mercy, commanded to expend it on the undeserving, the unworthy, the unwilling, the most repulsive and repellent among those we encounter. To us, Jesus says,
But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. — Luke 6:27-36
I will end with a visual reflection on forgiveness and a magnificent sung presentation of the Our Father in Jesus’ native tongue, Aramaic, to Pope Francis during his visit to the nation of Georgia. Our. Faith. Is. Awe. Inspiring.