Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"The Lord's Prayer-Petition V"

Text: Matthew 6:12

Matthew 18:21-35

 

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This is the fifth petition of our Lord’s Prayer, and the only one of the seven petitions which seems to demand a particular response on our part: God forgives as we forgive. Is then the corollary: God forgives not as we forgive not. Is this what Jesus meant, that if we hold a grudge against others, then God holds a grudge against us?

That if we carry resentment against another, God carries resentment against us? That if we won’t let go of an offense perpetrated against us, God won’t let go of our offense perpetrated against God? These are some of the questions I hope we can begin to unpack this morning. But before doing that, let’s begin with the question that’s most often asked about this petition: “Pastor, why do we Presbyterians use ‘debts’ while most everyone else uses ‘trespasses.’” Thatmay seem a trivial point in light of the vastness of Jesus’ teaching in this prayer. But it’san important question, and a good place to start.

            There are actually three different Greek words used in relation to the Lord’s Prayer. In the version of the Prayer recorded in Matthew, the words translated “debts” and “debtors” derive from the Greek noun oyeilhma (o-pheil-ae-ma). This is the usual word for owing something to somebody which is obliged to be repaid. Theologically, we can think of ourselves as debtors to God for having disobeyed our moral obligations to God. We owe it to God to make things right. In Luke’s version, there is another Greek word, amartia (ha-mar-tia), which is translated “forgive us our sins.” The ancient Greek root of this word means “to miss what you aim at.” We sin against God when we miss the target of what God tells us is right and good. Then there’s the word “trespass” which is not a part of the language of the Lord’s Prayer at all, but actually shows up in the verse following Matthew’s version: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you….” “Trespasses” is translated from the word paraptoma(parap- toma), and means a wrong step, going where one should not go. Trespassing against God’s Law can be understood as stepping into and walking in ways God forbids, or neglecting to go where God commands. While each of these words has their own particular nuance, they have a common theme and share the samebasic meaning. They are violations of an obligation or promise. They create a barrier of offense.They negatively and profoundly affect the quality of relationships. These are the very kinds of things Jesus says should be forgiven by us toward others. So while we Presbyterians (and others) cling tightly to the words “debts” and “debtors,” it is just as appropri- ate to use the words “sins” and “trespasses.” Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the core meaning of this petition which is fundamentally about two things: mercy and justice in the context of relationships; relationships with others, and relationship with God.

            Let’s think again about the very opening words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This salutation and first three petitions set the tone for the entire prayer. When we pray, we first acknowledge God’s sovereignty, God’s authority, God’s righteousness, and our desire that the will of God be manifest not only in the heavenly realm, but in the earthly realm as well. While we tend to throw the word justice around all the time, making it synonymous with words like fairness, equality, and impartiality, the true meaning of justice is establishment and administration of what is right and true according to a standard [for we Americans for example, The Constitution]. God stands as the plumb line for what is eternally right and true, transcending every nation and every constitution. We sometimes call that “God’s Law,” or “God’s will.” So anytime we act contrary to God’s Law, God’s righteousness, God’s truth, we are in effect violating God’s justice. And in its most succinct expression, what is God’s Law, God’s will, God’s eternal standard? Jesus Himself put it best when He was once asked, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He responded: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind….. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So whenever we disobey our moral obligations in our relationship to God and/or to neighbor, we violate God’s justice. Whenever we sin or miss the target of what God tells us is right and good in our relationship with God and/or with neighbor, we violate God’s justice. Whenever we do what God forbids or neglect to do what God commands in our relationship with God and/or with neighbor, we violate God’s justice. When Jesus teaches us to pray “forgive us our debts” [or “trespasses,” or “sins”], we are asking that we be forgiven, or released, from the consequences of having violated God’s justice. We are asking in essence that we not have to pay the eternal penalty for our actions, or lack thereof.

            The heart and the wideness of God’s mercy is that while we are guilty of having violated God’s justice in our relationships with both God and neighbor, we are released from having to do jail time for it. In the classic orthodox Christian sense, Jesus [God in human skin] satisfies God’s justice by taking our punishment upon Himself. In Old Testament language, this would be called “atonement.” In New Testament language, this would be called “grace.”

            Later in Matthew’s Gospel, one of Jesus’ parables illustrates this grace on the part of one to whom much debt was owed. As the story goes, the servant of a certain king owed the king a debt which he could never repay. About to be sold into slavery along with his family, the servant fell to his knees and begged the king for patience and forbearance. Out of “pity,” the king released the servant and absorbed the debt himself. The king satisfied his own justice through his own mercy. Like that servant, we come before Almighty God on our knees, begging God’s patience and forbearance: “…forgive us our debts.” And through Christ, God releases us and absorbs the debt in order that eternal justice be satisfied. That is just awesome! But this is a petition where we don’t simply get off the hook.

            “….as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Think of this as a petition in which we “pay it for- ward…… or not. Going back to that parable of the king and servant, part two of the story is that the servant who was forgiven his enormous debt came across a fellow servant, a neighbor, who owed the forgiven servant a tiny debt. He also pleaded for patience and forbearance. But the one who had been forgiven so much refused to forgive his neighbor, instead having him thrown into prison. When the king learned of this, he became angry and had the unforgiving servant handed over to the authorities. Jesus concludes this parable by stating: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” This is al- most identical to what Jesus said immediately after having taught His prayer: “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. This is consistent with a statement the Apostle Paul later made in the context of doing right by others that “God is not mocked [and I would suggest that this means that God’s justice is not mocked], for you reap whatever you sow”

            This brings us full circle to those questions posed in light of this fifth petition of our Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Does this mean that if we hold a grudge against another, then God holds a grudge against us? That if we carry resentment against another, God carries resentment against us? That if we won’t let go of an offense perpetrated against us, God won’t let go of our offense perpetrated against God? I think the answer is no and yes. No, becauseit is not in God’s holy and righteous nature to hold grudges, or to carry resentment, or to not let go of offenses perpetrated against God. As I’ve stated before, we sometimes like to project upon God those qualities of our human sinfulness we don’t care to man or woman up to. Yes, because God stands eternally for justice – in heaven and on earth – and God cannot violate God’s own holy and righteous character. Another way to put it is that God doesn’t give violation of justice – doesn’t give sin -- a wink and a nod. Such an inconsistency would be universe-shaking and cosmos-shattering. So God by God’s nature can not extend forgiveness to those possessed of an unforgiving spirit, and not for lack of passionate desire on God’s part. Per- haps a better way to understand it is that those possessed of an unforgiving spirit lack the capacity to receive forgiveness. This we can say with certainty: God forgives as we forgive.

 

            All this, of course, raises many other issues which we can’t possibly deal with in a single sermon: How do we let go of our resentment and grudges which are often so deeply ingrained, and keep us separated from God’s forgiveness? How do we accept forgiveness, and how do we extend forgiveness, even to those who are very indebted to us in one way or another? How do we forgive others who continue to transgress against us without giving their transgression a wink and a nod? Tough issues to be sure. Suffice to say for this sermon that in teaching us to “pray then in this way,” Jesus makes clear that within the context of God’s sovereignty, God’s authority, God’s righteousness, and God’s justice, forgiveness of our debts, sins, trespasses by God is contingent on how we forgive others. Let’s keep this in mind every time we pray these familiar words: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”