The Lord’s Prayer: The challenge of forgiveness

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — In Jesus’ time, it was nothing new to say that God forgives. Within the Jewish tradition and Hebrew scriptures, God was constantly rebuilding bridges between Godself and careless, rebellious, sinful humans. When it came to broken relationships between humans, much was also written in Jewish law about forgiveness between people: The injured person had an ethical responsibility to forgive the one who committed the offense. The injured party was even to pray to God that God would forgive the offender, even before the offender acknowledged the offending behavior and repented. These were high standards indeed. Jesus intuited that forgiveness is connected with our emotional and spiritual health. He would needle and provoke people into wrestling with the full implications of their own tradition around forgiveness. One day, he is approached by one of his closest disciples, Peter. “Uh, Jesus? Our religious teachers say we should forgive people seven times….that sure is a lot! What about that?” Replies Jesus, “You are to forgive 70 times seven times!” I’m sure Peter was sorry he asked. On another day, Jesus, said, Pray like this: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” But forgiveness is hard, Jesus! Yes, he would probably reply. I think this part of the prayer is a time bomb.

Forgiveness has to do with how we coexist with the past where mistakes and injury have been made. I would say that forgiveness is not the immediate concern when a transgression is still happening: the battered wife should not be forgiving the husband who keeps beating her; she needs to find a safe way for her and her children to exit the immediate danger. Stopping the offense is always the first thing that needs to happen. I think that this part of the Lord’s Prayer deals with the messiness of life when an offense has stopped, because someone died or someone left or others have stepped in to call a halt. This part of the Lord’s Prayer deals with human fallibility, people’s tendency to miss the mark in ethical behavior, intentionally or unintentionally. Human sinfulness. If we chose not to resort to retaliation or retribution, how do we move on? What do we do with the memories of what has happened, especially since it is impossible to forget?

The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke each recorded this part of the Lord’s Prayer a bit differently, as you can see from the Biblical quotes on the front of your bulletin. In this congregation, we usually pray Matthew’s version: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Jesus taught that our sinfulness against God, our resistance to God leading us, puts us in debt to God, in a very real sense. It is a debt that we just can’t pay back. We all have to fall on God’s merciful forgiveness. Some Biblical scholars maintain that “debts” may come closest to Jesus’ original words in the prayer.

Jesus’ original audience would hear “debt” and remember the stories of their ancestors’ release from debt-slavery in Egypt. They would remember the teachings from Deuteronomy we just heard: Within their communities and covenant with God, there was to be a rhythm of every seven years of release from debt, a Sabbath or Sabbatical year. Just like the rhythm of releasing your land from plantings by letting them lie fallow, debts should be forgiven and slaves were to be released. The reminder was always this: Pharaoh’s Egypt was not just. The Israelites, the people of God, are not to become another Egypt. Could “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” also have to do with our part in the justice is enough for everyone in God’s House and not too much debt weighing people down? Was Jesus implying a double meaning here? Was he just as concerned about economic inequity as he was about the buildup of unforgiven resentments? Such a short phrase, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” A simple petition now gets more complicated!

“Not seven times, but, I tell you, 77 times,” replies Jesus. And after giving this absurdly high number, Jesus proceeds to tell a story about literal financial debt. And it is a dire story of a harsh king who wants to settle accounts with his slaves. After much pleading, a once heavily in debt slave is finally forgiven his debt (the equivalent of about $25 million – listeners, take note of the extreme exaggeration – watch Jesus wink at us) by the relenting king. But then this slave has the audacity to turn around and imprison a fellow slave who owes him a small amount of money (the equivalent of about $50 — notice the contrast?). His fellow slaves are understandably distressed by this double standard and inform the king. Infuriated, the king orders the slave tortured until he presents the money he is concealing and repays his entire debt. The story ends rather ominously with Jesus suggesting that God will do this to us if we do not forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts. Yikes. This is Jesus at his storytelling best – full of hyperbole and exaggeration to make a point.

Some of you might remember a novel from a few years ago called “The Shack,” by William P. Young. It is an unsettling story of a man who, I’m not sure how else to describe this, “meets God.” His life is miserable, as he is trying to cope with the kidnapping and apparent murder of his young daughter. Several years after the girl’s disappearance, the distraught and grieving father receives an anonymous summons to travel to an abandoned wilderness cabin related to his daughter’s abduction. Cautious and curious, there he has an astounding encounter with…well, as odd as this may sound…the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Whether this is in a dream or in an altered state or happens in real time, the reader doesn’t quite know. But God in three persons shows up as an older woman called Papa, a youngish male carpenter called Jesus and a strangely vibrant, multi-colored and somewhat transparent mostly gender-neutral apparition who is the Spirit. These three beings each talk with the bereaved father, they eat meals together, they sing, they walk around, they talk and eat some more. Much of their discussion is about forgiveness, which, as you may well imagine, does not sit well with this grieving parent who would happily kill the man who murdered his daughter.

At one point the Jesus figure says to the angry father: “Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.” I was struck by this image. There have certainly been times when I have had both of my hands around someone’s throat, even if it is only in my imagination. When this happens to us, both hands are busy with hanging on, and not available for much else. And when we keep verbalizing these unforgiving feelings, telling our grievance story again and again, others experience a sort of second-hand violence. Still finding yourself complaining about a previous pastor, a certain group in the church or a specific lay leader? I would say this kind of talk is damaging; it fouls the air around us as a church. How willing are we to let go, and in the releasing, open up some clear airspace within us and between us? And here’s the clincher, according to Jesus: The space and energy taken up by our unforgiveness inhibits our ability to engage in God’s forgiveness of us.

Here is the challenge of Jesus’ vision: If I have a falling out with my fellow human, can I come to see that person as worth-ful, in spite of the wrongdoing? If not, I have not cleaned up my part of it. It’s all about connection within a wider threat of creation. And I am going to have trouble connecting with God. Not because God rejects me; I’m just not in much of a receiving mode. My own unforgiving attitude blocks the channel of forgiveness. My hands are still around that person’s throat. My hands (and heart) are not open and available to join with God’s, nor are they really available to help anyone else. Perhaps we have difficulty forgiving ourselves for something we did, or didn’t do. Strange to think of our hands around our own throats, isn’t it? Perhaps we think this gives us some sense of control of the past situation, if we keep punishing ourselves…but, wow, it sure consumes a lot of energy. And again, my hands and heart are not free.

Forgiveness not only frees our hands up, it helps us recover our energies and our personal power, our integrity. “Pray like this,” said Jesus: “Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive our debtors, those who trespass, sin against us.” Amen.