Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
Why do some people say debts? Some trespasses? Some sins? – The Greek word most closely translates to mean debt – but not just financial debt. It is debt in the widest sense of the word. If you do a job for someone, they are indebted to you – that sort of thing.
The Greek word for ‘forgive’ also comes from the financial world – to wipe the slate clean, to cancel the debt.
The debt that we owe is obedience. God who created us calls us into relationship. Because he created us, he knows what’s best for us, so he gave us guidelines. The 10 commandments are not restricting – they open life so that it can be lived fully, freely, in relationship to God. But we all fail. We all owe God a great debt. And not only to God. Every time we fail in our relationship to God, we fail in a human relationship. When we steal, covet, commit adultery, swear – we hurt people and we hurt God – relationships break down. The debt grows.
What we have in this section of the Lord’s Prayer is a simile, both in English and Greek. This comparison centers on the word “as.” With just these two simple letters we have a huge comparison. The problem with “as” is that we often use it to mean “while.” We can say “as I was walking down the street” — but what we really mean is “while I was walking down the street.” That makes us think that Jesus isn’t making a comparison here. If we had translated the Greek word as “like” this would not happen. We would read “Forgive us our sins LIKE we forgive others.” There would be no question.
Just two verses earlier Jesus used the same word when talking about heaven and earth. He has already told us that God’s will should be enacted on earth just like it is in heaven. We are left with the realization that what Jesus is really asking is that God would forgive us just as much as and in exactly the same way that we forgive others. The irony is that Jesus understands we might miss this — so He tells us literally right after He finishes the prayer that God will not forgive us if we don’t forgive others. 14-15 “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 MSG)
There’s an important point we don’t want to miss – the words of Jesus are not all comfort and love, there is also challenge in them:
We are able to ask God to “forgive us our debts”, only because we have already forgiven others for their debts against us. The prayer is pretty blunt about it – don’t come seeking absolution, seeking forgiveness, if you are still holding onto hatred and resentment toward someone else. How can we expect God to forgive us, if we can’t find it within our hearts to forgive others?
We need to be at peace with one another, before we come to seek peace with God. If you don’t, your debt will burden you forever. If you can’t forgive someone, or ask forgiveness from someone, Jesus is saying, then it is going to be like you are in prison – and you’ll remain there as long as forgiveness received and forgiveness given remains elusive.
If we cannot find the love to forgive others, then how can we possibly receive love in return? If our hearts are so closed to compassion and justice and empathy, then it is impossible for us to receive such compassion for ourselves. If we cannot find the grace to forgive the debts of others toward us, then how can we possibly expect to be shown grace?
This may seem backwards to you. But think of it this way, God is offering you an amazing gift: forgiveness of everything you have ever done, but you have a major grump on and don’t want to listen. So you turn your back on God and on this amazing gift. But over time, God works on your heart. God speaks to you through the morning glow of the sunrise, the warmer weather, trees budding, your child telling you that they love you and wrap their arms around you even though an hour ago you yelled at them. God works on your heart and softens it. He turns off the grump bit by bit. You say sorry to your child for yelling – again. And slowly, you turn towards God. (The word repent means to turn around!) Your grump goes away, melts. And then you’re able to receive that most amazing thing that God does – forgiveness. And you’re like, wow, why did I take so long? Why did I hold on to that grump so long? This is pretty sweet. Thank you, God!
One of things that we need to remember about the Lord’s Prayer is that Jesus is trying to teach us. He isn’t asking God for daily bread simply because He needs it. He is teaching us that our existence depends on God. We can’t even have the bread we need to live without the grace of God. Jesus isn’t simply teaching us to ask God for forgiveness. You don’t need to teach people that. We all have a desire to get away with sinning.
No one likes to be in trouble and we like punishment even less. But, for Jesus to simply be teaching people that they can ask God for forgiveness seems too shallow.
We have all been forgiven great debts to God. Jesus took all of our debts, died on the cross, and by so doing, erased our ledger. We are all in need of Jesus. But unless we truly understand how much we need Jesus and how much grace we have been given, we cannot hope to extend that grace to others.
Jesus makes it pretty clear. Either you understand the grace that God gave you and thus forgive others or you don’t. Revenge and bitterness are the enemy of God. When we don’t forgive others we stand in the place of God, passing judgement on someone. We in essence say “Look God, I know that you have forgiven them, but I know better than you do.” Unforgiveness declares that God is either a liar or a fool.
Forgiveness doesn’t always happen all at once. We can pray that God would help us forgive. We can pray that God would give us eyes to see the other person the way God sees them.
When that happens – over time – then you realize that the non-forgiveness has been a huge burden. Just like a financial debt that has been cancelled, that is how it feels when you cancel another’s debt – when you forgive someone. And then your debt is also cancelled. And a huge burden comes off of your soul – you are then free.
May you come to realize that forgiveness is not just for yourself. May you be healed from the wounds that others have inflicted on you. May you extend to others the same grace that God gave you. May God open your eyes to see people the way that He does. Amen!