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It seems as we look around our world that forgiveness is not a currency with a lot of value. Payback is the thing. Revenge, whether it’s served cold or not, is the best dish. Retribution is the thing. An eye for an eye, if we’re charitable. You send one of our guys to the hospital, we’ll send one of yours to the morgue, if we’re not. Let’s bomb them back to the stone age. The only way we’ll get through the next four years is through our anger. Maybe if we’re really religious, we say “Vengeance is mine, thus saith the Lord,” and we are quite happy to sit back patiently and wait for God to take vengeance on our behalf.
In the middle of all this we hear these words of Jesus – “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” As Luke puts it “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Matthew uses the language of commerce both times. In ancient Judaism, the idea of offences against God was couched in the language of indebtedness. Sin was something that put up a barrier between us and God, just like debts put up a barrier between us and our full financial potential. Luke was writing primarily to Greeks who might not have had the same understanding, so he uses “sins” in the first phrase and “indebted” in the second.
We pray this right after praying “Give us this day our daily bread.” Give us what we need to survive. Make this true for everyone. Spiritual needs. Material needs. The Bread of Life. Actual bread. Look at how Matthew puts it – “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” It’s part of the same phrase. We need forgiveness in our lives like we need bread. We live in web of relationships, each and every one of us. God is involved in these relationships. I’m talking about our relationship with God and our relationships with one another – everyone with whom we are in a relationship bears God’s image. Everyone we see bears the image of God and is loved by God. Forgiveness in these relationships is as vital as daily bread. Thanks be to God that God forgives.
“Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth, or my transgressions.” This is the Psalmists song. Love and forgiveness. “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgression from us.” This is the Psalmist’s song. This is our song. This is our story. When a group of men brought their friend who was paralyzed, to meet Jesus, Jesus saw their faith and told him “Your sins are forgiven.” When some scribes complained about Jesus claiming authority to forgive sins, he told them “Do you think it’s easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Take up your mat and walk’? and so he told the man “Take up your mat and walk” and the man did so and the crowd said “We have never seen anything like this!”
No one had ever seen anything like this. Jesus was on the scene. He was bringing forgiveness. Jesus brings forgiveness to a debt we could never repay. Let us ponder that in our hearts as we pray this prayer friends. Let us consider the miracle of forgiveness. Let it never be something we take for granted or get used to. We’ve been praying for God’s name to be hallowed, for God’s Kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done. In so doing we come to realize how God’s name is not hallowed by us, how we close ourselves off from God’s Kingdom coming in and through us, how our own wills are still operative. We pray to become more like Christ. We pray “Forgive us our debts.” In so doing we acknowledge our need for God.
I’ve said before that the number one qualification to follow Christ is to acknowledge our need for God. In this way I think we need to become more like alcoholics. Alcholics Anonymous tends to be full of people who realize their need for help. Frederick Beuchner describes AA like this:
“I think of an organization like Alcoholics Anonymous, which has no building, no budget, nor priesthood, but only people who come together wherever they are to seek help in their helplessness from each other and from God, and who are ready at any ungodly moment of day or night...to go to each other’s rescue…” The Lord’s Prayer has traditionally been prayed at AA meetings. It’s a recognition of our need for God. Of our inability to do this on our own. Of a debt we owe that we could never be repay.
As we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we come to realize our own failures in hallowing God’s name, in being open to letting God’s Kingdom come in and through us; of the exercise of our own wills in place of God’s will. It’s asking God for a poverty of spirit. Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there is the kingdom of heaven.” It is poverty of spirit that leads us to get down on our knees and throw ourselves on the mercy of God and beat our chests and say “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” It’s a poverty of spirit that enables us to experience the riches of God’s mercy. When we don’t think we need forgiveness, or when we forget just what exactly it is that God has forgiven us, we tend to look askance at such people who are down on their knees saying “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” and say “Thank you God that I am not like them,” when what we need to be doing regularly and meaningfully is getting down on our knees beside them and saying “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And so we pray forgive us our debts.
All we need is a heart that acknowledges our need for forgiveness. For the things we do. For the things we don’t do. For the barriers our sins create between us and God. For the barriers our sins create between us and each other. For the things we haven’t done. For the people we walk by. For the people we ignore when a kind word or deed is what they are crying out for. For the times we don’t stop to say “Tell me how you’re doing,” with someone who is clearly (or maybe not so clearly) not doing ok. To be people of spiritual poverty, who look at themselves and hear the echoes of Nathan’s words to David – “You are the man!” because it is in Christ that our spiritual poverty is enriched by God’s boundless grace and mercy With Christ “You are the man!” are not words of condemnation – they are words of grace as we hear Christ say “You are the one for whom I came to extend forgiveness.”
This is why we call this good news friends.
We think that we need to come to God with a speech prepared on our way back from the far country, and we find as we get near him that God is running out to greet us. One writer puts it like this – “For the sake of this one Man, who is our brother and who paid for this brotherhood with his blood, God will forgive us. To this one Man will God look when Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us to the Father’s throne. In this one Man he will see all that was committed to our hands, but which we frittered away. In this one Man he will recognize us as his children.”
And that is what we are friends. That is what we acknowledge when we say “Forgive us our debts.”
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the poor, as Luke tells it. Luke doesn’t spiritualize this, though of course there’s a spiritual element to it. I think Luke is emphasizing the truth that wealth can be a barrier to us in terms of seeing our need for God. Of our need for forgiveness, grace, mercy. It can create a false independence. When we gather around the communion table we often say “Come not because any righteousness of your own gives you a right to come but because you desire mercy and help.” We gather around the communion table once a month on a Saturday night during our Out of the Cold season. The thing about our friends at Out of the Cold is that they have a keen knowledge of their need for God. As Pastor Abby and I stand at the front, holding the bread, holding the cup, there is a palpable sense of need for this meal as we say “The body of Christ, given because he loves you – The blood of Christ, shed because he loves you.” I remember one night standing up at the front and one of our street friends was standing in line swaying a bit and he’d clearly been overserved. I wasn’t sure what to do momentarily but when the time came I told him “The body of Christ given because he loves you.” Here was someone who had come in acknowledgement of his need for Christ which for all I know was tremendously acute in those moments. So we pray forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
The second part is important of course. It’s so important that Jesus comes back to it right after he finishes the prayer in the book of Matthew. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive them, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt 6:14-15) What is going on here? Is Jesus saying that God’s forgiveness is conditional? Does it depend on the way we exercise forgiveness? It seems to look that way in the prayer itself in Matthew – “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Forgive us, seeing as we have forgiven those who have wronged us? Is this the deal?
I used to think it was ok for forgiveness to be conditional. The forgiveness that I extend, I mean. Sure I would forgive someone who wronged me. If they came and apologized and repented and told me they realized how wrong they were, I was perfectly willing to forgive. Until then I was perfectly happy holding it against them. I’ve known what’s it like to be quite happy with “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord and sit back and be patient and wait for God to take vengeance and look forward to being pretty happy about it when the vengeance came.
The thing is, God also says “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” The thing that really changed it for me was reflecting on the story of the Prodigal Son, or the Waiting Father as it’s known. The son had a speech prepared for his return. We think forgiveness is conditional. That’s the human way, right? Before he even gets home his father is running out to welcome him back. The welcome didn’t depend on the son’s speech, or even the son’s intentions. He was on his way back to his father and his father extends forgiveness – just as God extends forgiveness to us. We have a role to play. We have a part to play, of course we do. To accept it. To accept God’s mercy and then to listen to Jesus’ words – “Go and do likewise.”
God’s mercy is not conditional at all. Here is Frederick Beuchner again - “Jesus is not saying that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiving others. In the first place, forgiveness that is conditional isn’t really forgiveness at all, just Fair Warning, and in the second place our unforgiveness is among those things… which we need to have God forgive us most. What Jesus apparently is saying is the pride which keeps us from forgiving is the same pride which keeps us from accepting forgiveness, and will God please help us do something about it.”
When we started this series, we said that one of the reasons we pray – one of the reasons we pray this prayer – is to be changed by it. To leave ourselves open to the Holy Spirit making us more like Christ. Forgiveness is a miracle friends. The fact that we’ve been forgiven by God is a miracle. The fact that God knows everything about us – that we can look on God’s omniscience not as something frightening but as something filled with grace – God knows everything we’ve ever done, thought, not done and holds out his hand in forgiveness. The call on us is to accept it and ask him to enable us to come to know it more fully, and in coming to know it more fully, extend the same forgiveness to others.
Even to our enemies. Even to people who want nothing to do with God. Christ prayed for those who were killing him. We spoke a couple of weeks ago about God making God’s kingdom known in and through us. God intends to make God’s forgiveness known in and through us. How could we ever do this on our own? How could we ever do this without often and meaningfully getting down on our knees and praying “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” How could we forgive those who harm us, who do evil things to us, without the miracle of God’s forgiveness? This was the prayer of a group of priests in Brazil imprisoned by the military dictatorship which ruled that country for 21 years in the last century:
as you look upon those who imprison us
and upon those who deliver us to the torture chamber;
when you consider the actions of our jailers
and the heavy sentences passed upon us by our judges;
when you pass judgement on the life of those who humiliate us
and the conscience of those who reject us,
forgive, O Lord, the evil that they may have done.
Remember rather, that it was by this sacrifice
that we draw close to your crucified Son:
through torture we obtain his wounds;
through jail terms, his freedom of spirit;
through punishment, the hope of his kingdom;
through humiliation, the joy of his sons.
Remember, O Lord,
that this suffering germinates within us,
the crushed seed that sprouts,
the fruit of justice and peace,
the flower of light and of love.
But remember especially, O Lord,
that we never want to be like them,
or do to our neighbours what they have done to us.
Forgiveness does not mean that we don’t recognize evil for what it is. In praying our Lord’s prayer, we are recognizing that there is a power that has defeated the worst evil. We’ve been delivered from it, we are being delivered from it, we will one day be delivered from it. This is what we’ll look at next week. May our prayer be that we are reminded that our sin – O the bliss of this glorious thought – our sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and we bear it no more. May God continue to work the miracle of forgiveness in and through each and every one of us.