July 5, 2015
“Forgive Us Our Debts”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Imagine yourself at a wedding, sitting in a lovely church, and looking down at the program and noticing that it says, “Lord’s Prayer.” This is fairly common in wedding services, so you don’t give it much thought. The service begins. All eyes are on the bride and groom, and everything is so happy, and then everyone launches into “Our Father . . .” which is as it should be. It is a prayer of the people, all the pronouns are plural – it is a prayer of “us.”
And then you start to feel the anxiety welling up. There is no note about what to say when we get to the tricky part. The Methodists and the Lutherans and the Catholics and the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians are all trying to figure out what they are supposed to say . . . is it debts and debtors? Is it trespasses? Is it sins? You don’t want to mess up this lovely service so when it comes to the tricky spot, you just whisper whatever you guess might be right. Phew – crisis averted. Anyone had this experience? Just me?
That place in the Lord’s prayer where we get stuck linguistically is also a place where we can get stuck theologically.
The subject of the sermon today came as a request from a member of the 7:30 service crowd because the wording we find in the Lord ’s Prayer about forgiveness was troubling him.
We pray this prayer all the time – it is one of the few things that almost every follower of Christ knows by heart, even though they may use different words.
Here is why the wording of the Lord’s Prayer feels tricky. One of the foundational things that we believe is that we are saved by grace alone, through faith. There is nothing we need to do – we don’t need to be perfect people, we don’t need to get every single thing right. We stumble, we fall, we get lost, we get broken, we get angry, we get fearful, we get depressed, we get jealous, we get tempted, we get untruthful, we pass by that which is good, and run after that which is bad. God has already forgiven us in Jesus Christ. This we hold onto with everything we’ve got.
If we were to ask one another: Is God’s forgiveness conditional — is it based on our doing anything good or worthy? We would say no. If we asked each other: Does God condition our forgiveness on how well we forgive others? No, of course not.
But then we hear Jesus say: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors . . . For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Wait a minute – the economy of forgiveness seems quite different than we thought. What do we do with this?
I’m going to take us back to the sermons that Rich and Dan gave about why they love being Presbyterian, and they both talked about how we read scripture and provided some guidelines, and we are going to use some of those to see how we can better understand what Jesus is saying here.
We begin with confidence in and openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit – that is the starting place. Reading the Bible is life-changing and wisdom-giving, but sometimes it is complex and hard to understand – so sometimes we have to approach the word of God with a prayer that God open our hearts and our minds to hear the transforming word that the Spirit will bring.
The second thing we do is compare scripture with scripture. It feels like Jesus is telling us that forgiveness is conditional. But we remember other places in scripture where we are told that forgiveness is absolutely unconditional. We remember that Paul tells us in Romans that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and they are now justified by grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Paul tells us again in Romans “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Luke, another biographer of Jesus, tells us in the book of Acts that everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Paul writes again in Ephesians, in one of my favorite passages in all of the Bible that it is by grace that we have been saved, through faith – and this is not from us, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that none of us can boast that we did it ourselves.
So Jesus must be talking about something else – not Forgiveness with a big F – not the forgiveness of salvation. Not the forgiveness that saves our souls. Something else . . .
So let’s look at the text more closely – let’s look at the words and the culture and figure out who Jesus was speaking to – because all of that matters.
First this teaching on prayer falls in a long sermon that Jesus gives to a crowd of people on a mountainside in which Jesus talks in one way or another about the things that seemed to occupy most of his thinking during his ministry: loving God honestly and people deeply.
Let’s make sure we’ve got the translation correct. There are three different words in the Greek used for sin. The first we encounter in this passage, ophelema, refers to the things that are owed — debts. The second time Jesus talks about sin he uses a different Greek word, paraptoma, which means something closer to overstepping a boundary so “trespasses” is a good translation. The third word for sin, hamartia, the one that speaks most strongly about wrong doing against God, doing what God has said not to do, the condition that has separated us from God from the beginning, that word doesn’t appear here.
Some interpreters suggest that we hear debts as real, physical debts – the kind of debts that drive people off their family land, the kind of debts that end in bankruptcy and imprisonment. When Jesus spoke about forgiving debts, he was speaking to people who understood the reality of debt, just as we do. We have, most of us, known what indebtedness feels like.
In Jesus’ day farmers put the crop in the field with operating loans. In our day contractors build houses with construction loans. Students and their families often build an education with loans and hard work. Jesus’ prayer uses this reality to talk about a kind of forgiveness that matters in this world.
To be released from a debt, just for a moment imagine what that feels like – like this great weight has been lifted – like the freedom to live in a different way. That kind of release is a remarkable gift. Jesus reminds us in the prayer what that feels like – what that feels like when God does that for us – and because Jesus is always pushing us to love God honestly and love people deeply, he reminds us to offer that same gift of release and freedom to others.
One commentator suggests that maybe one of the points of the Lord’s Prayer is to refocus our attention: away from our own difficulties and onto the ways we can release other people.
The last rule for reading scripture is understand that the point of all of this, all of scripture, all that God is doing in our lives, is love, love for God and love for neighbors. So we read this part of the Lord’s Prayer that makes it sound like God has placed conditions on forgiveness and that doesn’t sound like love to us. But could it be that we are being told here something profound by God who loves us completely and knows us better than we know ourselves — that unless we are freely forgive our brothers and sisters we cannot open ourselves up to God’s forgiveness, we cannot truly know God’s forgiveness.
The end of the story is that how we relate to God and how we relate to other people are intimately connected. The person who stands before God in need of forgiveness is the same person who needs to offer forgiveness to others.
We like to put our lives in boxes. God is in this box – the “Sunday box” or the “church box”. And our friends are in this box. And our work lives are in this box. And our school lives are in this box. And our family relationships are in this box. But it doesn’t work that way – all of life is spiritual and matters to God. It all matters –and the heart that cannot forgive is blind to the forgiveness offered by God.
Jesus is not talking about salvation here, we’ve figured that out – this is not about salvation – our salvation is secure in Jesus Christ, by grace through faith.
Jesus is talking about relationship. That which separates you from other people, is that which will separate you from God, here and now.
So let’s see if we can re-write this prayer in a new way – O God, open us up to the freedom of release we find in your forgiveness even as we make a start at offering the same kind of love and release to others.