Matthew 6.9-13 (The Message)
With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this: Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best — as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.
Psalm 32.1-7 (NRSV)
1Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
6Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. 7You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
When my bother Danny and I were in Jr High we would get home from school a few hours before my parents came home from work. Sometimes when we were home alone and we didn’t have anything else to do, Danny and I would rearrange the furniture in the living room to make space for some epic wrestling matches.
Those wrestling matches usually turned into fights.
One of us would do something that caused more pain than the other thought was acceptable for a good natured wrestling match. The person who was hurt would feel like they should cause a little more pain just to even things out. Then that brother would feel more hurt and feel like he had to do something to inflict a little more pain on the other.
It would go on, growing more and more painful as each person felt more justified dealing out pain to the other.
The wrestling match/fight would get more painful until one of two things happened: 1) we heard our mom’s car in the driveway (this was what usually happened), or 2) one of us was willing to let go and stop trading pain for pain (this happened, but not that often).
Part of forgiveness is letting go of that human desire to return pain for pain … it is letting go of that scorecard of hurts … it is not letting the ways people have hurt us define who we are, our relationships, and how we see the world.
Forgiveness isn’t something we can take lightly … A lot of the time forgiving is more complicated than a wrestling match that goes wrong.
There are all sorts of ways people hurt each other … We see people hurting each other all around us … we experience some of these hurts in our own lives … sometimes we even inflict these hurts, ourselves, on our friends and families. There are all sorts wounds and pains people carry around with them and these hurts can be stirred up and rise to the surface when the topic of forgiveness comes up. I don’t want to make light of any of those hurts … they are real and painful. Forgiveness is a serious and weighty subject.
Even though it can be difficult to talk about forgiveness, it is essential that as Christians we talk about and practice forgiveness … forgiveness is essential to our faith. Throughout scripture we are told that God is forgiving and that we are in need of forgiveness.
Without forgiveness we can get stuck in our relationships with God and with each other.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
In Jesus’ prayer, we are reminded that love for God and love for the people around us, and faith and life are more connected than we might be comfortable with.
Some of Jesus’ most controversial actions and some of his most disturbing parables had to do with forgiveness.
Matthew tells us;
One time, just as Jesus came into a town he saw “some people carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, the said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’ Then some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’ (He is speaking irreverently about God.) But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he then said to the paralytic—’stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.” (Matthew 9.2-9 NRSV)
When Jesus offered forgiveness to the man, Jesus claimed he could do something that only God was able to do.
Later in his Gospel, Matthew tells us that Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive another disciple who sinned against him, maybe as many as seven times? (Peter must have thought seven times was pretty generous.) But Jesus said to Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Then Jesus told Peter a parable about forgiveness.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18.21-35 NRSV)
Forgiveness is a significant piece of Jesus’ ministry and an important part of the life God desires for the church.
The more we recognize and understand the depth of God’s grace and our need of forgiveness the more that understanding is reflected and lived out in our lives. The forgiveness God offers us and the forgiveness we offer each other are connected, but they aren’t contingent. God’s forgiveness does not depend on our willingness to forgive. Our willingness to forgive others can be a sign of our understanding of the depth of how much God has forgiven us.
Sometimes we hear about forgiving others and wonder if this means we are destined to be walked over … to feeling like doormats.
God cares about forgiveness, but God also deeply cares about justice.
I came across a quote from Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas (both professors at Duke Divinity School) I thought was really helpful. They write:
“In commanding us to forgive others, Jesus is not saying that the injustice we have suffered is inconsequential. The sin we commit causes pain. The sins committed against us cause pain. Rather, Jesus is refusing to let sin have the last word in our story. In commanding us to forgive, Jesus is not producing a race of doormats, a new set of victims who, having been slapped on the right cheek, offer the left as well so that they may be twice victimized. Jesus has no interest in producing victims; the world produces enough.
Rather, in commanding us to forgive, Jesus is inviting us to take charge, to turn the world around, to throw a monkey wrench in the eternal wheel of retribution and vengeance. We don’t have to silently suffer the hurt, to lick our wounds, lying in wait for the day when we shall at last be able to return the blow that was dealt to us. We can take charge, turn things around, be victors rather than victims. We can forgive” (Willimon, William & Hauerwas, Stanley. “Lord Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life.” p. 84).
Forgiveness doesn’t neglect justice, but forgiveness does stop the cycle of returning pain for pain.
Our relationships within the church, our relationships with the people who are sitting around us are some of the most important places where our faith is lived out.
As we receive God’s grace is that grace present in our relationships with each other? Are we doing the hard, but good work of building healthy relationships with each other – relationships where we offer the same grace and forgiveness we have received to others?
This part of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” asks a key question: What defines our relationships with God and with each other … are our relationships like scorecards where we keep track of hurts and wrongs and try to even things out ourselves, or are our relationships defined by God’s grace where forgiveness is received and given?