As much as we like to say the words “don’t judge,” every one of us has served as judge and jury. I think it must be human nature! Maybe it’s the way some person dresses or the car they drive. Driving a Toyota in Michigan might get you stares, while driving a Prius in Southern California will get you words of praise. Yes, we love Jesus’s command: “don’t judge, lest you be judged.” But, we all find it difficult to remove the log that sits there in our own eyes, even as we try to pick out the speck in the eye of the other.
As we come to the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, having prayed that God would hallow God’s name, that God would reveal God’s reign, and having asked that God would provide us our daily bread, we come to the matter of forgiveness. How should we hear this promise of forgiveness, which seems to be contingent on our willingness to forgive others?
1. Debts, Sins, and Trespasses
Perhaps we should start with the matter of what is being forgiven, and depending on your tradition or congregation, you are asking God to forgive your debts, sins, or trespasses. Each of these words has its own meanings and nuances, and understanding them can help us understand what it is we’re asking for in our prayers. But which one is correct? Perhaps all of them! Consider for a moment that there are two versions of the prayer – one in Matthew and one in Luke – and both use different Greek words. In Matthew the word used speaks of debts, while Luke uses one that can be best translated as sin. As for that old favorite – trespass – it can be found in the Book of Common Prayer, but not our gospel accounts, not even in the King James. But, it too has implications for us.
To start with Luke, to sin is to fall short, to stain something, or break a law. When we think of sins, we think of our relationship with God, and the ways in which we break God’s laws. But, if God is forgiving us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us – how would another person sin against us? Could it be, words spoken in anger? Slurs against the character of another? Gossip?
To trespass is a bit different. It involves crossing boundaries and invading spaces. So, if we use this word in our prayer, how might we commit a trespass against God? Could we do this when we take on roles and duties that belong to God? For example, when we take up the responsibility of being a judge, could that be a trespass? For isn’t God alone able to judge without malice?
Finally, we come to the word debts. It’s the word we generally use here in this congregation, but what do we mean by it? Do we think in terms of committing a sin? Of disobeying God’s law? Or do we take it to mean what it generally means in other contexts. That is, does it have economic implications?
If we take the word metaphorically, at least in regard to our relationships with God, then the issue isn’t one of money or land. Instead, it involves everything we are and have, including our own identity, which come to us as gifts of God. We stand before God as ones who are indebted to God, and what we owe God is our loyalty, our gratitude, our very lives. But how do we forgive the debts owed to us? As I think about this question, I’m reminded of situations like Haiti. Here is a nation that has lived in deep poverty from the day of its birth. We’ve been watching as a natural disaster adds to the misery of this land. While we have contributed to its relief, we’ve also wondered why a country could be in such dire straights. If we read the history of Haiti, we discover that the nation mortgaged its future to break free from French rule. Over time, due in part to embargoes and poor leadership, the nation’s debts continued to grow, and it had to give away even more of its natural resources to pay this accumulating debt. The only way for this country to break free of its misery is for the nations holding the debt to forgive its debt. To forgive a debt is to set another free.
Again, when I think about what we’re praying, I also think of the untold numbers of people who have been affected by the financial crisis. Many are walking away from their homes – both here in metro-Detroit and across the country – because they owe more on their homes than their homes are worth, and there is no hope of recovering from that debt. So, I wonder what this prayer says to this situation so many of our neighbors find themselves in? And what does it require of me? I don’t have answers to that question, but I raise it for our consideration.
2. The Question of Reciprocity
As we consider the nature of what needs forgiven, we come to the matter of reciprocity. I expect that we read this prayer through the filter of Paul’s message of grace. We assume that God’s grace comes prior to our request for forgiveness. We may even think of grace as a “get of jail free” card. But, this prayer speaks of reciprocity. God will forgive our debts, even as we forgive our debtors. God’s forgiveness may stand at the beginning of the process, but it seems that God expects something of us in return.
Consider the parable of the “unforgiving servant,” or perhaps better, the “unforgiving official.” As the story goes, a king calls in the debts owed to him, but one official owes a sum that might have been unimaginable until Bernie Madoff came on the scene. It was so large that it could never get paid off. With nothing to lose, this official begs the king for mercy, and the king, who is compassionate, takes pity on the man, and forgives the debt in full. The official who owed more than could ever be repaid, is now debt-free. Indeed, his credit score has now been restored. And he went out of the palace courts leaping with joy – at least until, he ran into a fellow official, who owed him a great sum. Now this man’s debts were nothing compared to what the first official owed the king, so you’d think that the one who was forgiven, would return the favor. But that’s not how things worked out. Instead, the one who had been forgiven demanded payment in full – immediately. When the other asked for more time, he responded by having the man thrown in jail until the debt could be paid. When the king, who had shown mercy on the man, heard this, he was furious that the man had presumed upon his mercy, but wouldn’t show mercy to another. And so we read that the man is to be tortured until he can pay the debt – and Jesus adds that the same judgment awaits those who presume upon God’s mercy, and don’t show it to their neighbors (Matthew 18:23-35).
Although, we might not like the ending, it’s important to hear this word about reciprocity. Jesus is saying that our patron, the one to whom all things are owed, is willing to forgive everything we owe, but God also expects us to treat our neighbors in the same way. Therefore, when we forgive the debts, sins, and trespasses of another, we are acting as agents of God’s divine forgiveness. What we owe God may be spiritual in nature, but what we owe each other likely is much more material in nature. As we pray the prayer, let us consider its implications for the economic realities that impinge on our lives. We might even ask whether this prayer is calling us to push our government to enact legislation that would free our neighbors – whether individuals or even nations -- from unwieldy burdens?
3. Forgiveness and Restoration
I will not pretend that this is an easy thing to do. Its one thing to receive God’s word of forgiveness, and another to offer forgiveness to one who has offended or hurt us. Forgiving financial debts might be easier. Sometimes the hurt runs so deep that not only can we not forget, but cannot forgive. To hear Jesus say that our own forgiveness is contingent upon our forgiving others, can be rather disheartening. We want to walk with God, and even be good neighbors who are committed to the common good, but this idea of contingency doesn’t sound like good news.
Perhaps the only way for this to become good news is for us to remember what Jesus told Peter, when Peter asked how many times he should forgive the one who offended him. Jesus said, forgive as often as requested, even up to seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22). Our hope is found in God’s willingness to have us continually seeking forgiveness. As we do this, as we pursue God’s forgiveness, then we can see God begin to transform our lives. By praying this prayer, from the heart, each week, each day, we acknowledge God’s forgiveness and grace, and seek to offer it to those who need our forgiveness.
To forgive, however, means more than saying: “I forgive you.” Instead, it requires a willingness to restore the other to wholeness. Remember that Jesus teaches this prayer in a culture that is deeply rooted in traditions of honor and shame. Forgiveness generally involves finding a way for the other to save face. For us, this means allowing the one who has offended us to return to the prior status of neighbor.
4. From the Heart
Finally, if we’re to fully pray this petition, then it would behoove us to consider the word that concludes the parable. It is a command to forgive from the heart. In the cultural context in which Jesus makes this statement, it means that forgiveness involves our whole being, including both our emotions and our intellect. Forgiveness comes forth from the depths of our being, so that we might restore others, even as we are being restored and transformed. Each of us must, therefore, reflect on those relationships that are currently broken and discern what is required of us by this petition. This holds implications for our personal lives and our public lives – including, I would suggest, the way we spend our money, vote, drive our cars, and more. Again, this isn’t any easy thing to do, but we can go forth on this journey, knowing that we stand in the midst of God’s grace. It is that grace that enables us to pray this prayer from the depths of our being.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Fifth Sunday of LentMarch 21, 2010