"For if you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions" (Matt 6.14-15, from the gospel reading for the last Sunday before Lent, also called Forgiveness Sunday, in the eastern rite of the Orthodox Church).
I have lately wondered how the story of Genesis would change if Adam and Eve had forgiven each other on that tragic day in the garden. Would we still read the report of a son who murdered his brother out of envy and lied to cover it up? Would we hear of a world wiped out by floodwaters because of the wickedness of its inhabitants?
Perhaps Adam and Eve eventually did forgive each other. Perhaps they never learned how to forgive, nor how to ask forgiveness. There are surely many people today who do not know these things, including (all too frequently) myself. We all know how to apologize, of course; most of us learn how to say "I'm sorry" from an early age. But an apology of this sort often means something quite different than the words "will you forgive me." This can be illustrated by the ease with which "I'm sorry" is so often followed by "but..."
Imagine Adam and Eve apologizing to God:
"I'm sorry, God, but I just noticed that I was naked, and the woman..."
"I'm sorry, God, but that snake..."
There is another perspective: that of the person on the receiving end of the apology. In my own life I have observed that I have difficulty responding to an apology, sometimes even a simple one with no buts. Usually I say something like “it’s okay” when, in fact, “it” is not okay. All of this language is far too vague; it has the appearance of exonerating the sinner while implicitly justifying the sin.
The world we live in is no Eden, but what might it be like if God had simply said “it’s okay”? And – for our own sake and the sake of those around us – we ought to ask what the world might be like if Adam and Eve had asked for forgiveness rather than transferring their guilt to another. It is clear, at any rate, why they suddenly found a world of distance between themselves, and why they chose to hide from God. To say “will you forgive me” is to freely admit one’s guilt, to open oneself to another. Such vulnerability is difficult, which is probably why we tend to prefer apologizing to asking forgiveness.
So what has all this to do with Matt 6.14-15? It seems to me that this image of a stern father who offers only conditional forgiveness disappears when one considers the condition behind the condition. The person who is unwilling to forgive another quite likely avoids or refuses asking forgiveness of others. How can someone who does not admit their failures and shortcomings to another person sincerely ask forgiveness of God?
“…my king and Lord, let me look at my own sins and refrain from judging others: For you are bless'd unto ages of ages, amen” (from the prayer of St. Ephrem).