Last week we looked at the importance of reciprocity as found in Matthew 6:14 where Jesus elaborates on one of the petitions within the sample prayer we refer to as the Lord’s prayer. (See Matthew 6:12.)

After concluding the sample prayer, Jesus confirms with Matthew 6:14 that the Lord to whom one should pray will forgive us as we forgive others.

Then comes the “but” or what I’m referring to as the challenge of reciprocity found in Matthew 6:15.

ESV  Matthew 6:15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

  • How does this “but” or “challenge” statement about forgiving others balance other passages where Jesus talks about the Lord’s amazing and unending grace, mercy, and so forth? Or does it?
  • Why is our forgiveness of others being tied to the Lord’s forgiveness of us?
  • How should we understand this alarming challenge of reciprocity presented to us by Jesus about the rules of forgiveness from the Lord’s perspective?

The first step to answering the above questions is to consider the context of Matthew 6:15.

Jesus’ disciples had asked Him to teach them to pray according to Luke 11:1.

Luke 11:2-4 is the parallel passage to Matthew 6:9-13.

The Gospel of Matthew places the instruction on prayer as part of a large section of various topics Jesus instructed both the crowds and His disciples.

Leading up to the “how to pray” example is instruction on “how not to pray”. (Matthew 6:5-8.)

Now, following the example prayer Matthew 6:14-15 elaborates on the petition found in Matthew 6:12.

Jumping ahead in Matthew, Jesus warns us about judging others, saying we need to, once again, make sure we are not behaving hypocritically when assessing other people but first examine our own areas of faultiness. (See Matthew 7:1-5).

Even further ahead in Matthew 18:15-20 we learn more about how we should handle a brother who has harmed us.

Immediately following this, Matthew has Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, inquire how many times one should forgive someone who harms him personally. (See Matthew 18:21).

Jesus’ immediate answer to Peter was:

ESV  Matthew 18:22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Then Jesus elaborates with an illustration often referred to as the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. (See Matthew 18:23-34).

In short, the unmerciful servant displays an extremely undesirable character trait in that he failed to extend mercy, or forgiveness, to someone who owed him a paltry sum in comparison to the debt he himself had been forgiven by his king.

Jesus then reiterates the challenge of reciprocity regarding forgiveness mentioned in Matthew 6:12 and 6:14-15:

ESV  Matthew 18:32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Remember the first definition of reciprocity at

  • the quality or state of being reciprocal : mutual dependence, action, or influence

And  digging deeper the definition of reciprocal:

  • shared, felt, or shown by both sides

Going one step further yet, the two definitions of mutual that apply to our verse:

  • shared in common
  • characterized by intimacy

The point of praying to the Lord, as illustrated by Jesus, is to honor the Lord’s authority over us as our creator and to build an intimate relationship. Jesus’ disciples saw how He modeled a deep abiding relationship with the Lord and desired to learn how to have this same intimacy.

In giving them this example prayer we refer to as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, Jesus also explained that intimacy with our heavenly Father requires a level of reciprocity that characterizes not just our relationship with Him, but also with other human beings.

How we model our relationship with the Father and Jesus to others is part of our witness to the world.

When we fail to extend the mercy that we have been given for our own failures to our fellow humans then our witness is sour to the world.

Those who follow Jesus and the Lord, are to be the best examples of human love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, not for their own sake, but to emulate the reciprocal intimacy we find through Jesus and the Lord.

Consider the following quote from Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s book, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook:Practices That Transform Us:

“The truth is that we all sin. Sin is anything that breaks relationships. Jesus is totally realistic about broken relationships. He experienced them. He was put to death by them. Yet Jeus taught that the damage done through sin was not the last word on life. Sin could be confessed. Sin could be forgiven. And sinful people could be set free.”

Also consider the following quote from Richard J. Foster’s book, Prayer:Finding the Heart’s True Home:

“Forgiveness is not acting as if things are just the same as before the offense. We must face the fact that things will never be the same. By the grace of God, they can be a thousand times better, but they will never again be the same.”

Reflection Questions:

  • Do you struggle to forgive those who have harmed you?
  • Are you able to apologize to others when you have harmed them?
  • What holds you back from genuine intimacy with the Lord? Family members? Coworkers?
  • Do you trust the Lord’s forgiveness of you? Why or why not?
  • How do you model forgiveness you have received from the Lord to others?
  • Is there something specific you need to do this week to mend a relationship with a brother or sister?

A prayer for us today:

ESV  Romans 6:17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.

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Barbara Lynn

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