[This was shared during midweek Lenten worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio, this past Wednesday, March 18, 2015.]
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. More on that why that is in a few moments.
In his book on the Lord’s Prayer, Anglican scholar N.T. Wright says 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.
And rare is the person who actually asks for forgiveness. 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,” one family member says sullenly to another, when forced to.
“Mistakes were made,” the politician says, with no acknowledgment of who made the mistakes.
“We accept the judgment of the NCAA,” says the basketball coach of sanctions meted against his team, with no acceptance of culpability.
“Tolerate—or put up with—me,” these apologizers seem to say, with little hint of repentance or of the intention to do things differently in the future.
Before we scale too far up on our high horses in condemnation of phony forgiveness-seekers though, 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 this business of forgiveness differently. In the way Matthew says that Jesus taught the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer—forgive us our trespasses as we already have forgiven those who trespass against us--we understand that Jesus views our sins as something more than endearing flaws in our personalities that we must accept in ourselves and tolerate in one another.
In the eyes of God, 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, in the words of 2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us,” Jesus felt the full weight of sin’s horror and consequences. In Matthew 27:46, Jesus cries out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
God can’t bear the sight of sin, even when the bearer of our sin is the Son Jesus.
Sin brings alienation between God and us.
Our sin, even the sin we think of as trivial and meaningless, is intolerable to God.
The magnitude of all the sin of the human race which the sinless Savior bore is so immense that, at His death, Matthew 27:51 tells us “the earth shook and the rocks were split.” Creation convulsed with grief.
God grieves over our sin because, as Paul says in Romans 6:23, “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, or we ourselves 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, the gulf between God and us grows larger. We add to what one of our Lenten hymns calls, “the debt of love I owe.”
And this is why Jesus’ crucifixion 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 for sin with His life. 1 Corinthians 6:20 reminds Christians: “you were bought at a price.”
But, as the Lord’s Prayer teaches us, on this side of the grave, we still live on earth and not in heaven. Our habits and our inclinations all pull us toward racking up more debt, toward letting sin be at home in our lives. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
This is why confession of sin should be a regular part of our praying.
And this brings us back to the strange verb tenses uses in the fifth petition of His prayer. He says: “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.”
We dare not ask God for forgiveness in Christ’s name unless we have already willingly let go of our grudges against others who have sinned against us! This is a daunting, even frightening, thought for me, to be honest.
We know that we human beings aren’t equipped with the divine capacity for totally forgetting the wrongs have done to us. God can say, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” [Hebrews 8:12] But we have memories for the wrongs done to us.
Maybe God equips us with memories that remember sin, not so that we can keep grudges, but to avoid future hurt from people who would otherwise chronically sin against us or do us harm. If someone chronically abuses us, physically, emotionally, or spiritually, our memories can signal us to love them and understand them, but also to stay away from them, just as the memory of other pain reminds us to stay out of harm's way.
Yet even when we can’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 from our lives is torn down.
The king in Jesus’ parable, read just a moment ago, 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 and it's the people He created in His image against whom we sin who are being hurt.
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.
This is one of the hardest of all the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s tempting not to forgive others. Withholding forgiveness, keeping track of people’s sins against us, makes us feel powerful, better than others.
But God doesn’t want us to think we’re better than any other human being created in His image; God wants us all to be children of God.
He wants us to lay aside everything that might prevent His life-giving forgiveness from penetrating into our lives!
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.
Life or death.
Those are our daily choices.
May we learn to truly pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”