I love the Lord’s Prayer — except for one phrase. There’s one line in it that trips me up. It’s the second half of “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
I rely deeply on the first half of that line. I need forgiveness and I rest on the blank slate that God offers us in Jesus. Without it, I carry around a great weight.
So, when I come upon this conditional clause with its “as” or “in the same way that,” I start to get nervous. And if I try to brush off that nervousness, I’ve got Jesus’ comments about it right after the prayer. It’s the only part of the entire prayer that he gives additional explanation about:
In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part. (Matthew 6:14-15, The Message)
Wow. That’s intense. “If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.” Really? Could that just be a translator’s error? Maybe the super literal ESV will do us better than Eugene Peterson’s translation:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Nope. We’re still stuck with the same pair of if/then statements. And this coming straight from the mouth of Jesus.
It’s chilling to think that our lack of forgiveness toward others might be met with a similar unforgiveness toward us by God.
There have been plenty of times that I’ve wanted to retain anger toward others. There are times when I’ve been slandered and I’ve wanted to slander right back. There are times beyond counting when I’ve wanted to deal out what had been dealt to me and even add a bit extra for good measure.
To be human is to hurt others and to be hurt by others. None of us gets out of this life without a significant record of sinning against others and being sinned against by others. The question is: What are we going to do about it?
Too often we minimize what we’ve done while maximizing what others have done to us.
I’ve watched numerous people do things that have ripped apart the lives of others while holding grudges about off-hand comments that were said to them. And they have no concept of the absurdity of the scale involved. What they did far exceeded what had been done to them.
What’s interesting is that Jesus told a story to the ones I’ve witnessed that seems absurd itself. But the sad thing is his story is not uncommon and not all that exaggerated.
In his story, found in Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus tells of a man who owes his king a ridiculous sum of money. It’s unrepayable. So, he begs for forgiveness. And amazingly, the king offers it to him. This billion-dollar debt is cancelled. (The man owed 10,000 talents, each of which was equivalent to 20 years of wages for a day laborer. I’ll leave the math to you.)
But on his way home, the forgiven guy passes by someone who owes him a hundred bucks. (A denarius was one day’s wage for a day laborer.) Immediately, his joy vanishes and he’s filled with rage at his debtor. He grabs him by the shirt, twisting it so the man can barely breathe, and demands the money be repaid on the spot. The other man begs for more time, not even thinking to have his debt forgiven. Not only is he refused, but he’s tossed into jail until it’s repaid.
Jesus’ story gets our ire up. How dare this man refuse to forgive a relatively small debt when he’s been forgiven a massive debt?! But the story’s not over yet.
Word about this injustice gets back to the king, and he’s outraged. His kindness has been mocked by this refusal to mirror even the tiniest reflection of it. So, he unforgives the man with the absurd debt and tosses him into prison until the debt is repaid. And since the debt is unrepayable, he’ll be in prison basically forever.
Jesus concludes the story with these words: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
In that stunning conclusion, Jesus erases the absurd inequity of the two debts. The details no longer figure. We’ve just been sucked in by them, assuming that we’ll never be in the position of the first guy, never having accrued such a debt. But in his concluding statement, Jesus says that he’s speaking to “each of you,” not just flagrant sinners.
And Jesus doesn’t let us get away with an outward form of forgiveness. There’s no going through the motions here. He’s requiring us to “forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”
A pleasant exterior doesn’t cut it. Jesus requires that our very hearts change toward those who have sinned against us.
If we don’t change, we’re doomed.
But most of us continue to play the unforgiveness game. Myself included. We act with the arrogance of the servant who’d been forgiven his billion, assuming that once that debt has been cancelled it can’t be restored. In fact, we have created theologies that contradict the words of Jesus and we choose our theologies over his words, because they require less of us that Jesus does.
Frankly, any theology we have that dismisses a direct saying of Jesus is a house built on sand.
I don’t want to be among the unforgiven. But I find myself among those Jesus had in mind in his explanation following the Lord’s Prayer and in his telling the story of the unforgiven servant.
So, what is it that I’m holding on to? Whose name causes my heart to go dark when I hear it mentioned?
Sometimes, we have a tough time accepting the forgiveness that Jesus offers us. Some sins are like wads of tape that stay stuck to us when we try to throw them away. But I’m guessing that this inability to “forgive ourselves” arises from our own lack of forgiving others. (I put “forgive ourselves” in quotes since self-forgiveness isn’t really possible. I can’t forgive myself for things I’ve done to you; only you can forgive me if I’ve sinned against you.)
There is something in us that knows that things aren’t all right when we don’t forgive others. Our own sins are like that sticky wad of tape when we don’t let go of the sins others have committed against us. But when we do forgive others, our own sins drop off with them.
You see, the forgiveness Jesus offers is complete. It’s not the partial forgiveness that we’d like to assign to ourselves and not to others. The forgiveness that he offers is for their sins just as much as it is for ours. So, to step into the forgiveness of our sins means to step into the forgiveness of theirs as well.
It’s a whole package. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. To retain their sins is to retain our own. To have our sins forgiven is to have their forgiven as well.
[By the way, this post wasn’t written to or about anyone. That would pretty much negate it, wouldn’t it?]