FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS
It’s the line that separates the Presbyterians from the Methodists, and the Episcopalians, and many other denominations: ironically it’s a line from our Lord’s mouth that has gotten changed. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” It is clear that Jesus said those words, highlighted in red in King James Bibles! But we must hasten to add that Jesus did talk about trespasses, just not in the Lord’s Prayer. In the sentence after the prayer in Matthew 5:14 we read these words of Jesus: “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.” Certainly the idea of forgiving trespasses is there; but why did Jesus deliberately not say the prayer that way, but say it using “Debts?” Those who know the Jewish training of the carpenter from Nazareth think they know: forgiveness in Jewish understand means to finally “pay the price for what you broke, or to suffer the consequences for things that can not be set right again.” Debt is if someone sets fire to your house; forgiveness is complete when they rebuild it; debt means if you pick beyond the 10% of grains of wheat allowed for the poor from a farmer’s field, you would either pay for the wheat to square the account or plant and maintain new crops and give the produce to the farmer you wronged. If, however, a man molests the young daughter of a man, he cannot fix his sin; the damage cannot be paid back and the consequential suffering measured out by the village to the perpetrator could be dire. Those sins are more than walking on one’s lawn or dumping your trash in the dumpster of a neighboring business; that’s trespassing, and if caught, being told not to do it again is usually the remedy; few would go into the dumpster and ask the perpetrator to remove the trash, or tell the trespasser to walk back through your grass to undo the transgression. Yes, “debt” has the weight of a price to pay, and a price to pay was ultimately what Jesus taught us with the cross; but first he taught with his lessons.
Several chapters after the Lord’s Prayer, we come to today’s text: Matthew 18. Someone is asking Jesus how many times one should forgive another. In earshot of all he says “some say seven times but I say seventy times seven.” I once new a faithful Christian woman who absorbed and forgave the hurt that her neglecting and thoughtless husband did to her 490 times as Jesus said, and then she left and sued him! “She kept a log of all 490 transgressions! Most scholars believe Jesus’ example was not a finite number, but a big one; he was saying in essence that people make mistakes; and if they do so (and implied in his words were ‘and if they follow the prescribed procedure in our customs for forgiveness’ then you should forgive them.) This is not a carte blanche for abusers, tormentors, liars, cheats, and stealers to keep deeply sinning against another, thinking that forgiveness is cheap and limitless; it is neither of those! And just so he is clear with his answer, Jesus gives a costly illustration that follows his proclamation: a story of an unforgiving servant. Before we get to that, let’s remember the procedure in Jesus’ day for forgiveness to be requested by someone who had done wrong. This is the difficult but sincere way of showing change that few today remember to do. You can write these on your bulletin if you wish. These are steps that a wrongdoer should take to have the right to ask for forgiveness:
1) Express REMORSE OR REGRET; such an action exhibits true sorrow over hurting the other and also hurting Jesus (In Matthew 25, Jesus himself said: “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers or sister, you do to me.”)
2) Show REPENTENCE: turn from your harmful actions back to a restorative state. In Hebrew it’s called shub. (shove)
3) RESTITUTION- which is squaring the account; paying the price to fix what was broken, unless the moral sin was so grave as to be considered unfixable, then the person has the suffer the consequences. Although belief in Jesus and the price he paid on the cross for our sins can make things right between you and God for Christians, that action is on hold, according to the Lord’s Prayer, until you earnestly and exhaustively try to pay for, in some way, the wrong you have done to the other person on earth.
4) RECONCILIATION- is what God shows us how to do so that we can practice it between one another.
5) RENEWAL OR RESTORATION of your relationship with the other one allows your relationship with God to be renewed as well.
6) REUNION- That’s God’s ultimate hope, not out of our deserving, but out of loving and showing grace toward each other.
That’s the list, and the story Jesus tells about the actions of the servant illustrates how costly forgiveness of debts can be; he actually makes the example about money (talent was a measure of money in those days) but, and hear this, it is money not just because forgiveness has to do with money, but to illustrate how costly forgiveness is when it is accepted, and how priceless grace can be when it is offered by the debtor. The old hymn proclaims: “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be; let that grace now like a fetter (a chain) bind my wandering heart to Thee.” It’s a fervent prayer to God. It is a prayer of contrition, longing for forgiveness and grace. That’s what it takes to be forgiven.
But our story is not over today; the other side of the message is illustrated with the servant story: if God has forgiven you your debts, how will you go about forgiving the debts (wrongs, serious trespasses) of others? You who are the wronged one perhaps have set aside the fact that you are also already a forgiven one by Jesus and that he paid the ultimate price for your record in Heaven to be stamped “forgiven!” So with that kind of knowledge, what happens when you withhold forgiveness from one who hurt you immeasurably? That is one of many questions that will be explored in George Painter’s class “All things Religious Considered.” In the book THE SHACK a conversation goes on between Mack, a man whose precious daughter has been murdered, and Papa one of the God figures of the book. Papa says to Mack:
“‘I want to take away one more thing that darkens your heart.’ Mack knew immediately what it was and turning his gaze away from Papa, started boring a hole with his eyes into the ground between his feet. Papa spoke gently and reassuringly. ‘Son, this is not about shaming you. I don’t do humiliation or guilt or condemnation. They don’t produce one speck of wholeness or righteousness, and that is why they were nailed into Jesus on the cross. … Today we are on a healing trail to bring closure to this part of your journey—not just for you, but for others as well. Today we are throwing a big rock into the lake and those ripples will reach places you would not expect. You already know what I want, don’t you?’ ‘I’m afraid I do,’ Mack mumbled, feeling emotions rising as they seeped out of the locked room in his heart. ‘Son, you need to speak it and name it.’ Now there was no holding back as hot tears poured down his face, and between sobs Mack cried out ‘Papa how can I ever forget that [wretched man] who killed my Missy? If he were here today I don’t know what I would do …I want to hurt him like he hurt me! If I can’t get justice, I want revenge!’ Papa let the torrent rush out of Mack, waiting for the wave to pass. ‘Mack for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him.’ ‘Redeem him’ Mack said angrily. ‘I don’t want to redeem him! I want you to hurt him, to punish him, to put him in Hell! … I can’t forget what he did.’ Papa said ‘Forgiveness is not about forgetting, it is about letting go of another person’s throat.’ (Remember the imagery in Jesus’ story about the servant?) … ‘I don’t think I can do this’ Mack answered softly. [And Papa said] ‘I want you to. Forgiveness is first for you the forgiver, to release you from something that will eat you alive.’” [William P. Young, Windblown Media, pp. 223-225]
Do you know people who spend the energy of their lives, and most of their soul, not forgiving someone? Maybe its several people, but one in particular. The one who hasn’t extended forgiveness (not to forget the wrong, but to give the vengeance or redemption to God) can’t tell that they have changed while they have nursed their grudge, but you can tell they have given away their power, joy, and happiness to the one who has hurt them. They are grim, they are bitter, and life has done them wrong. God, they think, won’t mete out enough retribution for the hurt they have received, so they’ve decided to add their own. But what they don’t realize is the perpetrator hardly notices their actions, while they turn themselves into bitter old men, or bitter old women, who by their actions have even cut themselves off from God. [Remember the prayer we pray: “O Lord, forgive us our wrongs, in the measure that we forgive those who have wronged us.] Hear this ironic note: even the perpetrator who has wronged them, if they regret their action, receive redemption and transformation from God, while the wronged person, by his or her stubborn and hurtful stance, mainly hurt themselves, and sadly, cut themselves off from the life God is holding for them. They do not let God do God’s job because they have taken it over; and it is killing them; or should I say, it is killing you?
Forgiveness is one of the hinges of faith; its roots are in Judaism, and Jesus solidly brought it as part of his teaching. Christians use it, but sometimes misuse it and misunderstand it. Today, know again the joy of being forgiven; but also (and this is at least as important): know what weight is off your shoulders and what redemption is offered to you when you, appropriately, give back to God God’s job and keep praise, thanks, and service as your own.
I’ll close with an extraordinary modern day reminder of Christian forgiveness.
“On October 2, 2006, a man shot and killed five school girls in a small crossroad town in Nickel Mines, PA….Family members of the murdered [Amish] children paid a visit that very day to the widow of the killer, offering her care and concern. Members of the Amish community attended the funeral service of the murderer, brought food to his family, and prayed with them. The public was puzzled by this behavior and by their immediate forgiveness. Being formed by a culture that nourishes revenge, few people outside the Amish community understood why and how they could forgive so quickly. Journalists claimed that they were cold and callous…. People wrongly assumed that if the Amish forgave then that undid the tragedy or pardoned the wrong. It did not. Their pain was as deep and real anyone would experience in such a circumstance. But for them forgiveness is a habit learned from earliest childhood. It is rooted in the wonder of God’s forgiving love in Christ Jesus. They forgive because it is how people loved by Jesus behave.” [Bill Klein, in a review of the book, AMISH GRACE.]
May such an example make we Christians consider doing some extraordinary forgiveness ourselves, to honor the God who holds our own forgiveness at arm’s length until we do.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 14, 2008