[This was shared during midweek Lenten worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier this evening.]
To help us think about the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer tonight, here’s a literal translation of Jesus’ words from Matthew 6:12, where He teaches it: “And forgive us the debts of us, as indeed we forgave the debtors of us.”
Now, I’ll grant that this literal rendering of Jesus’ words is awkward, as almost any literal translation from one language into another will be. But I do think that it helps us to understand more clearly what Jesus is saying should be part of our praying and our living as Christians.
In his book on the Lord’s Prayer, Anglican scholar N.T. Wright observes, rightly I think, that if you ask the average person today what is meant by the word “forgiveness” today, you’ll hear some version of “tolerance,” not forgiveness.
Rare is the person who actually asks for forgiveness and if they do, we suspect that they’re doing so as a formality designed to induce us to put up with their bad behavior and move on.
“I’m sorry,” the teenager says sullenly with about as much sincerity as the world-famous athlete apologizing for letting his fans down…and incidentally, saving his 7-figure tennis shoe endorsement deal. “Tolerate—or put up with—me,” these apologizers seem to say, with little hint of repentance or of intending to live differently in the future.
But before we scale too far up on our high horses in condemnation of phony forgiveness-seekers, we should say that often, the forgiveness we seek is of the fake variety as well. “Forgive me,” we may say, more as a stratagem for getting people off our backs than anything else. “Look, I did something wrong,” we say, in effect, “Deal with it. Tolerate it.”
But Jesus sees things differently. Both in the way Matthew says that Jesus taught the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer—forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us—and in the parable I read a few moments ago, we understand that Jesus views our sins as something more than little flaws in our personalities that we must accept in ourselves and tolerate in one another.
In the eyes of heaven, sin is intolerable. Failure to love God and failure to love others is not something that God tolerates. Sin does not exist in heaven. And when, for our sake, Jesus bore our sins—the sin of the whole world—on His burdened, bloody shoulders on the cross, Jesus sensed a vast chasm between God the Father and Himself.* The magnitude of the sin which the sinless Savior bore was so immense that, at His death, all creation convulsed with grief. God grieves over our sin because, as Paul puts it, “the wages of sin is death.” If you and I are to live with God for eternity, we dare not see our sin as something that God, the world, and we must tolerate.
Jesus says that our sin is a debt we owe to God. God gives us life and we overdraw our accounts by misusing that gift. That’s what sin is: A misuse of the free gift of life.
When we do that—whether by using God’s Name for something other than prayer, praise, and thanksgiving; or, taking or craving things that don’t belong to us; or, engaging in shady practices with money; or, withholding help from the poor; or, failing to work for justice; or, in any other way, failing to love God and love neighbor, we add to what one of our Lenten hymns calls, “the debt of love I owe.”
And this is why the cross is the most important event in all of human history…why it can be the most important event for our personal histories--past, present, and future.
On the cross, Jesus pays our debt. But, as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us, this side of the grave, we still live on earth and not in heaven. Our habits and our inclinations or, as Luther phrases it in The Small Catechism, “the devil, the world, and our sinful selves,” all pull us toward racking up more debt, toward letting sin once more have control of us and thereby losing our connection to the Savor Who gives forgiveness, life, and eternity to those who believe in Him.
This is why confession of sin, asking for God’s forgiveness, should be a regular part of our praying. But the way in which Jesus phrases this petition for the forgiveness of sin is really instructive: “And forgive [present tense, now] us the debts of us, as indeed we forgave [past tense, already done it] the debtors of us.” “Lord,” Jesus teaches us to pray, “Please forgive the debt of love I owe, just as I have already forgiven the debt owed to me by others.”
Last May, in one of my sermons, I shared one of my favorite stories. I’m going to tell it again. It involves Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross. Once, a friend of Barton's reminded Barton of another woman’s vicious misdeed toward her. Barton seemed not to recall it. “Don’t you remember?” the woman asked Barton in disbelief. “No,” she replied, “I specifically remember forgetting it.”
Now, we know that we human beings aren’t equipped with the divine attribute of totally forgetting the wrongs done to us. That may be a blessing from God, helping us to avoid being hurt by the same person more than once.
But even when we don’t forget, we can forgive. We can release people from the debts of love they owe to us and so, free ourselves to live. We can forgive and when we do, a wall that would otherwise block God’s forgiveness of us is torn down.
That’s really a key point in the parable of Jesus we read a moment before. The king in Jesus’ parable was perfectly willing to forgive the massive debt of the slave, just as God is willing to forgive our sin. God is the one most offended and hurt by human sin; it’s the lives He gives us that are being misused when we sin.
Imagine the cumulative debt each of us owes to God. Yet, for the sake of Jesus, God is willing to forgive our debts. But, as with the king in the parable, God will not forgive our massive debts unless we are willing to forgive those who have hurt us, offended us, crossed us, demeaned us, or hated us.
This is the hardest of all the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer to pray…and to mean. Withholding forgiveness, keeping track of the ways others have sinned against us, makes us feel powerful, important, and better than others. (I know, I wrestle with whether to give or withhold forgiveness all the time, often toward people who have no idea that they have offended me in some way.)
But God doesn’t want us to settle for being better than others; God wants us to be children of God, citizens of His eternal kingdom. He wants us to lay aside anything that might prevent His forgiveness and life from penetrating into the core of our beings!
It boils down to this: Jesus says that we can’t grab hold of God’s grace if we insist on keeping hold of our grudges. Grace or grudges, forgiveness or separation from God. Those are our choices.
May we learn to truly pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
*This is how sin functions in our lives, alienating us from God, even though the Father is always willing to hear and stand beside us.