The Lord’s Prayer: Forgiveness
9/19/2016 11:23:21 PM
Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 18:21-35
September 18, 2016
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 18:21-35
Molly Mae Williams, my late grandmother, was a proper Southern lady, born and raised in OK. She was “Grandmother Williams” not “grandma.” She always talked about “the Good Lord this” and “the Good Lord that,” but I don’t remember my grandmother demonstrating many fruit of the Spirit. When Grandmother Williams came for a visit, it wasn’t something I looked forward to like I did my other grandparents. Grandmother Williams, while at times generous or kind, was a very bitter woman. She was often sharp, bossy or manipulative. I think one of the main reasons my grandmother was so bitter was that she was holding on to so many grudges. She was holding on to so many offenses, real or imagined, that it consumed almost every ounce of her emotional energy.
I don’t know most of the grudges she was holding on to. I don’t even really know the various aunts, uncles and cousins she was holding them against! But she was holding them! My grandmother really struggled with forgiveness.
Then my grandmother got sick. She developed Alzheimer’s disease. She lived with my aunt and uncle or many years. May aunt, who is incredible at forgiving others, took great care of my grandmother, but it proved a strain on her and her husband. So when I was in my final year of university, my grandmother came to stay with us in NS for a few months. The woman who came to stay with us looked like my grandmother, but she sure didn’t seem like my grandmother! She was kind and sweet and gentle. She often didn’t remember who we were. One time she took a photo to my Dad, her son, of my parents’ wedding. She held it up to my Dad, a picture of him and my mom, and said proudly, “That’s my son!” My Dad replied, “Mom, that’s me.” She looked at him startled and said, “You don’t say!”
Another time, when my father was taking her upstairs to help put her to bed, my grandmother inquired about my mom, “When are you going to take that nice young lady home?”
We had a home care nurse who came to look after my grandmother for a few hours most afternoons because my parents were both working and I was in school. This lady had a great time with my grandmother! She described my grandmother as sweet, gentle and kind. She was a lovely lady even if her Alzheimer’s was quite advanced. I remember hearing her describe my grandmother in these terms and thinking, “Wow, Alzheimer’s has really changed my grandmother! I wish she had been like that when I was little.”
What happened? What changed? Most people when they develop Alzheimer’s become grumpy, or angry or bitter. They know they’re forgetting things. They’re confused. They get angry. But not my grandmother! She was the opposite! What happened?
I have a theory. You see, I think my grandmother finally forgot all those grudges she was holding. I think she forgot all those offenses she’d been holding on to for decades. She forgot all the people she was mad at, all the people she was bitter towards. And I think the kind, sweet lady was what my grandmother was on the inside. I think the kind, gentle woman is who she would have been if she’d learned how to forgive, how to let go of the anger and resentment that plagued her for all those years. I think Alzheimer’s freed my grandmother of the bitterness and resentment that shaped just about every relationship she had.
It’s sad that my grandmother didn’t actually forgive all those people. She just forgot what she was mad about. Her anger was taken away by a terrible disease that eventually killed her. But along the way, it gave her some good years without the heavy burden of bitterness.
[pic] But it also serves as a powerful example of what bitterness over old grudges can do to a person. It shows the powerful, transformative power of anger and unforgiveness. My grandmother’s lack of forgiveness turned her into a person who, frankly, her own grandchildren didn’t like! And, to be honest, I feel cheated. I feel like I was cheated out of a kind, gentle grandmother like I saw when she came to stay with us. I wish she had been like that when I was little. But holding grudges and an unwillingness to forgive weighed down my grandmother to the point that she couldn’t be nice to the people she was with because she was afraid she’d forget about the offense she had with people she wasn’t with! It has been said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and to discover that the prisoner is you.” [cited by Darrell W. Johnson, Fifty-Seven Words that Change the World, p. 88]
Today, as we continue our look at the Lord’s Prayer, we are going to examine the most startling or arresting line in the prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We are going to talk about forgiveness, its nature, its difficulty and its necessity.
Please turn with me to two passages today. First is Luke 11:1-4, the Lord’s Prayer as Luke records it. The second is a parable from Matthew 18:21-34.
Let me make a few observations about these texts. Hopefully it will clarify a few things or illuminate a few things for those who may be familiar with these passages.
First, it is interesting that Matthew and Luke use different words for what is to be forgiven. Matthew says, “Forgive us our debts” and Luke says, “Forgive us our sins.” Why is that? Why do they use different words? Matthew’s word, debts, indicates a debt owed, something left undone that should have been done. Luke’s word, sins, indicates overt acts of wrong doing. Which one is it? It turns out that in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, there is one word, “khoba,” which means both! [Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 126] It means both sins of omission and sins of commission. It includes both those things we do wrong as well as the things we are supposed to do that we don’t do. Matthew and Luke, when faced with translating this word from Aramaic to Greek, chose different Greek words that each encapsulate part of the meaning, but neither words catches all the meaning.
Consider, now, the parable in Matthew about the unforgiving servant. What is the context of this parable? Peter comes to Jesus and asks how many times it is necessary to forgive a brother. In the teaching popular at the time, it was only necessary to forgive someone 3 times. After that you need not forgive a repeat offense. However, Peter goes above and beyond the 3 times being taught by contemporary rabbis. He suggests forgiving 7 times! He’s starting to clue in to Jesus’ message.
But Jesus ups the ante even more. Jesus says, “Not seven, but seventy seven times!” Why 77 times? There is a reference in Genesis 4:24 to Lamech, a descendant of Cain, who says, “If Cain is avenged 7 times, I am 77 times!” [Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew Vol 2, p. 236; Johnson, p. 81] Jesus is flipping revenge into forgiveness!
Luke also has a similar saying of Jesus. In Luke 17:4, Jesus speaks of a person sinning against you seven times in one day and returning to you in repentance seven times, you must forgive them seven times! The disciples’ response is “increase our faith!” Why do I bring this up? Because in Luke it is clear that the person who has done harm is repentant. If they return to you in repentance seven times in one day you must keep forgiving them. Luke’s Gentile audience would not have caught the reference to Genesis that Matthew’s Jewish audience would have caught. And Matthew didn’t include the repentant aspect of the offended because he didn’t want a lack of repentance to become a reason to withhold forgiveness. [Bruner, p. 235] Both Matthew and Luke, though, record Jesus’ radical teaching to go above and beyond all reasonable expectations when it comes to forgiveness.
Matthew then reports a parable Jesus told to illustrate the reason for such radical forgiveness between people. Take note that Jesus begins by connecting this parable to the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God. This is what things are like when God’s authority is recognized and obeyed. In this parable, a king is settling accounts, or balancing the books. He is seeing who owes him how much and calling in those debts. The first servant, we are told, owes the king ten thousand talents. This is an astronomical sum! Translators struggle with how to render such a huge sum. This is not the kind of debt an individual could owe. This is more like the debt of an entire province or kingdom! This is like owing billions of dollars today. [Bruner, p. 237] That’s billions with a “b.”
We are not told how a single man could amass such debt. It is astronomical to the point of being ludicrous. Jesus is making a point- the first man’s debt is far beyond what any person could ever hope to pay in not just one lifetime, but many! So when the man falls before the king in repentance and begs for time to pay back the debt, there is no reasonable or realistic expectation that he could ever pay back the debt even if he lived several lifetimes. [Bruner, p. 238]
But the King does not give the man time. He doesn’t extend the deadline for the money to be repaid. Rather, he cancels the debt completely! This is astounding! Remember, this is a huge sum of money. To cancel this debt means that the king is going to take a huge financial hit. Cancelling the debt cost the king tremendously. I think sometimes we lose sight of this. The sum is so huge that it would affect the kingdom’s whole economy not to be able to recoup that money.
Imagine the joy the first servant must have felt! He was facing a lifetime of slavery. He was facing the destruction of his family. And yet he was freed! He wasn’t required to pay anything back. It would have been astounding if the king had merely asked for 1/10 of what was owed, and even that would have taken a lifetime to repay. But instead, the king cancelled the debt completely!
We expect the servant to leave dancing. We expect him to be hooting and hollering with joy as he dances down the street to his house, ready to tell the good news to his wife and family. We expect him to be praising the king’s generosity and mercy. We expect him to be walking on air for weeks.
But what happens? He found a fellow servant who owed him money. We are not told if he sought out this servant or happened to run into him. But when confronted with a man who owed him a hundred denarii, which is 100 days’ wages, or a few thousand dollars, what did the first servant do? Did he share the good news of his own debt forgiveness? No. Did he offer to forgive the debt he was owed? No. Did he respectfully ask when the other servant could return his money, possibly even offering an extension? No. He violently choked the man, demanding his money immediately!
The second servant mirrored the first servant’s response. He fell on his knees and begged for time to repay the money. This, in contrast to the first servant, was a reasonable request. Repaying a few month’s wages is possible. But the first servant, the forgiven servant, would have none of it. In stark and startling contrast to the forgiving king, the forgiven servant had his fellow servant thrown into debtor’s prison until the loan could be repaid.
When the other servants heard about this, they were deeply troubled. They went to the king and reported what had happened. This news greatly angered the forgiving king! How could this be?!? How could the forgiven servant, now called the “wicked servant,” be so hard hearted? The king not only reinstated the man’s astronomical debt, but he had the man not sold into slavery to repay the debt, but thrown into prison and tortured until the debt was repaid! This was even worse than the first option!
What principles can we draw from these two passages, the Lord’s prayer and Jesus’ parable about forgiveness? First, looking at the Lord’s prayer, especially the slight differences between Matthew and Luke, we see that we must pray for forgiveness daily. Remember, the previous petition or request was for “daily” bread! We need to come to God in repentance, asking for forgiveness, every day. Being in a right relationship with God is not about a onetime decision. It is not about repenting once. It’s about living a lifestyle of repentance! We are to reorient ourselves to God, his character or name and his authority or kingdom on a daily basis.
Second, we must understand that having been forgiven ourselves, we must offer forgiveness to others. And this is also something that needs to happen daily! We must forgive others often and quickly. And when we find ourselves feeling anger, bitterness or resentment towards them, even if we think we’ve already forgiven them, we need to forgive them again.
Let me pause, for a moment, and clarify one potential confusion or objection. Some may read this petition in the Lord’s prayer and ask or conclude that God’s forgiveness of us is based on our forgiveness of others. This is not the case whatsoever! God’s forgiveness of us is a free act of grace, initiated and carried out by God without any basis on what we have done or our merit in any way. This is what we see in the parable. The first servant, the great debtor, is forgiven prior to any forgiveness or action on his part. “The New Testament is clear that forgiveness springs from the Grace of God and not from any human merit.” [Leon Morris, Luke, p. 212]
But the forgiveness of God does put certain responsibilities on us. [Bruner, p. 240] We are now required to be Christlike. We are required to model God’s character and nature in our own lifestyles. This means that we, too, are to be forgiving and merciful, just as God is forgiving and merciful. To disobey in this area, to refuse to forgive another person when we have been forgiven so much, is to rebel against God. It is to rebel against his authority or kingdom. It profanes his name or character rather than hallowing it.
Another important principle we can see is that forgiveness is costly. It is costly to the one doing the forgiving. This important because it means that forgiveness is hard. It does not come easily. Just look at the solution God had to come up with to forgive our sins and be reconciled to us! The incarnation, Jesus death of atonement on the cross, the resurrection! Forgiveness is hard, even for God! It is costly, even for God!
This also means that forgiveness is different than saying, “It’s ok.” God didn’t look at our sin and say, “It’s ok.” He doesn’t look at us when we steal or lie and say, “It’s ok.” He doesn’t look at murder, shrug and say, “It’s ok.” He doesn’t look at gossip and say, “It’s ok.” He doesn’t look at factions and backbiting and say, “It’s ok.” Not at all! God never says sin is ok. But instead, he moves from Heaven to Earth to overcome sin in order to forgive us while maintaining justice. He goes to tremendous lengths to overcome sin and be reconciled to us.
And this brings us to another important consideration when it comes to forgiveness. Whenever we consider forgiveness we need to consider 3 different components: justice, mercy and grace. [Johnson, p. 87] All three of these things are involved in forgiveness. Justice means getting what one deserves. Forgiveness deals with justice. Forgiveness acknowledges what justice would be in a given situation. This is why forgiveness is different than saying, “It’s ok.” Forgiveness acknowledges that a wrong has been done, a debt is owed. Forgiveness takes stock of what justice would be.
Mercy means not getting what is deserved. This means mercy is unjust. Mercy means not getting what is justly deserved. Mercy is, in many ways, at odds with justice. Mercy may be asked for, but can never be demanded because it means one is asking for justice not to be done.
Grace goes even further than mercy. Grace means getting what is not deserved. Grace means not only being shown mercy and not being punished or held accountable as justice demands, but going beyond that to receive something more. In the parable, mercy would mean giving the first servant time to repay the money. That’s not getting justice. Grace is pardoning or cancelling the debt completely!
In Christian terms, grace means not only having our debt cancelled, but being adopted as children of God! It means being made coheirs with Christ! It means being reconciled to God, having the Holy Spirit come dwell within us and being transformed in our very nature to reflect God’s glory. God could have chosen to show mercy in cancelling our debt of sin, but we still face annihilation at death. Instead, God promises us eternity with him!
Forgiveness is a relationship word. It is through forgiveness that our relationship with God is restored. It is through forgiveness that our relationships with one another can be restored. Forgiveness is necessary if we are to live in community. [Bailey, p. 126] Forgiveness doesn’t say “It’s ok;” forgiveness says, “We’re ok.” It’s about relationships. It’s about acknowledging when we wrong one another, either through overt acts or through neglect, and giving up our right to retribution, giving up our right for justice because we have already been forgiven so much! Forgiveness is about restoring relationships so that “We are ok” even if what was done was not ok.
So how do we apply all of this? We haven’t had as much heavy theology today as sometimes, but it’s still been challenging content. Not because the concepts are hard to understand but because they’re so hard to live out! Let me begin our application by assuring all of you forgiveness is hard. Let’s not brush past this. Forgiveness is hard! Sometimes we need to be reminded that what we’re trying to do is hard. It doesn’t come easily. Forgiveness, by its very nature, runs contrary to justice. And when we are the person who has been wronged, we want justice! It is very hard to forego justice when we are on the receiving end of harm or neglect. When we are the victim, we are hardwired to want justice. It should not be “easy” to forgive others.
Second, forgiveness is unfair. We need to remember that. Forgiving another person is unfair. But it’s not bad or wrong. It’s unfair, though, in that, as we just said, it is not justice. Forgiveness means giving up your right to justice. That’s not fair to you. It’s not “fair” to the person being forgiven. It is mercy. Intentionally and willingly not holding another person to the standards of justice when you are the victim is mercy.
Frequently, I think people struggle to forgive because of the unfairness of it. It’s hard to give up what we are owed, even if it’s just an apology. So it’s hard and it’s unfair. And when we experience difficulty forgiving someone, if we focus on the unfairness of it all, that will only make it harder. However, when we put it in terms of mercy, we know mercy is good. We like mercy. When we struggle to forgive someone, because it’s unfair or it hurts or we feel like forgiving that person will justify what they did, then think in terms of mercy. Showing mercy in forgiving is a good thing. And that can inspire us to forgive more readily! It’s ok to want to be merciful because God is merciful. As long as you’re not condescending about it, “Oh, I’m showing you mercy.”
Forgiveness shapes the way we fight injustice. [Bailey, p. 126] When we are faced with injustice, especially systemic injustice or continual injustice, forgiveness radically alters the way we fight it. Remember, forgiveness doesn’t say that what was done or neglected is ok. It does say that the relationship with the person is ok, or at least you are willing for it to be ok if the other person repents and attempts to reconcile too.
Why does this matter? Because we still need to fight injustice. If it’s on an interpersonal level, we still need to tell the person there is a problem, that what they’re doing or failing to do is harmful and wrong. If it’s systemic injustice or neglect, we still need to battle to change the system. But forgiveness radically changes the outcome when we finally win!
I think we can all imagine or remember situations in which an oppressed person or group of people finally came into power. Suddenly, they turn around and begin oppressing the people who used to oppress them! The issue ceases to be about justice and becomes one of revenge. That’s because there was no forgiveness! When the oppressed gain power and end the injustice they experienced, but do not forgive, that new power is often used to exact vengeance. But that just perpetuates the cycle of injustice!
On the other hand, when the oppressed people, group or individual exercises forgiveness, they can continue to battle injustice, but when the injustice is ended, when they come to power or when they are given freedom, they don’t use it to exact revenge. Rather, they use it to reconcile.
Ultimately, when we struggle to forgive, when we don’t want to forgive, when we know we need to grow in the area of forgiveness, we need to begin to articulate what we owed God. We need to base our forgiveness of others on the forgiveness we experience with God. If you’re struggle with a grudge, or if you know you need to be better at forgiveness, or if you’re carrying a hurt with you, start by reflecting on your own sin.
God is our king. He created us and deserves our respect, loyalty, devotion and love. But we rebel against him all the time! We are guilty of treason! But our treason is on a cosmic scale because God is the king of the cosmos! Every time we rebel against God, we are incurring a debt.
But it’s worse than that. People are made in God’s image. That means every time we harm another person, through our actions or words, every time we neglect the needs of another person, every time we slander another person or gossip about them, we are harming, neglecting or slandering the image of God. That is the same as harming, neglecting or slandering God himself! In the parable, the first servant owed a staggering debt to the king, on the scale of debt for a province more than an individual. When we start to calculate the debt we owe God, and include all the things we’ve done something to another person, we can start to see how such a tremendous debt can be built up!
Ponder your debt to God. Ponder the treason you’ve committed against the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. A financial debt is cancelled when the debtor dies. You can’t owe money once you’re dead. But the debt we owe God is eternal! It lasts beyond death! [Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, p. 212] This is worse than owing money to a loan shark! At least the worst they can do is kill you. The debt we owe God earns us an eternity of damnation.
And yet God did not give us justice. He did not give us what we deserve, what we have earned, what is fair. God shows us mercy. In fact, he goes beyond mercy and shows us grace! He gives us what we do not deserve! Pardon, yes, paying the debt himself, but also adoption into his family. He reconciles with us, but we do not remain merely his servants, we are adopted into his royal family, given a home in his palace, and status with his Son. This is mind-boggling! This is tremendous! This is better than being forgiven a debt of billions of dollars!
And it should shape our attitude towards what we are owed. It should shape our attitude towards justice, mercy and grace when we are the ones wronged or maligned in some way. It should shape our approach to grudges and offenses.
When you finally learn how to forgive, when you start putting it into practice, take the time to settle accounts. That is, take the time to think on what you’re owed in terms of justice. Then carefully forgive each of those debts. That is how we eliminate grudges. That is how we eliminate the bitterness that had a stranglehold on my grandmother. Forgiving others sets us free too! And it is what God expects of us.
It is hard to do. So take it to God in prayer. Jesus includes this in the Lord’s prayer because it is something we need to pray about! So when you struggle to forgive, take it to God in prayer. Ask him about the injustice you’ve experienced. Bring it to him and ask him to help you articulate it so that you can forgive it. Ask him to show you the sin you’re guilty of but have been forgiven. That’s a prayer he is happy to answer with a resounding yes! And ask God to help you understand the grace you’ve been shown so that you can demonstrate grace to others.
I was so pleased with Megan recently. A few weeks ago she had a play date at a friend’s house. This girl was actually kind of mean to Megan while Megan was over there. It was not the first time she’d been mean to Megan either! I was beginning to think maybe we should not arrange for playdates between these two anymore. We had a number of conversations with Megan helping her process this. Megan would ask us, “Why was ‘so and so’ not very nice when I was over at her house?” Megan understood that something wasn’t right and it pained her and confused her.
Then, a few mornings ago, Megan and I were drawing. First Megan wanted to make a card for Mommy. We did that. Then Megan said she wanted to make a card for this girl! She wanted to mail it to her. I was amazed. We made the card and I thought that would be the end of it. But a couple times Megan pulled the card out, added to it and asked to give it to this girl. She eventually took it to preschool, which is how she knows this girl, and gave it to her! I was so impressed that Megan had forgiven this girl and made strides to reconcile with her, to mend the friendship. Now, I don’t think Megan, at 3 years old, really understood all of those steps. But on some level, she chose to decide that she and this girl are ok, even if the way Megan was treated was not ok.
This is a skill my grandmother didn’t learn. Or if she learned it when she was young, she forgot it as an adult. And it crippled her. It weighed her down and poisoned her relationships with everyone. Don’t let bitterness weigh you down! Don’t carry grudges and offenses with you. Don’t carry hurts and wounds. They will suck you dry.
Instead, think about what you’ve been shown in the mercy of God in Christ. Think of the debt you’ve had wiped away. Be filled with joy at the grace you’ve found in Jesus. Be overwhelmed with gratitude at God’s forgiveness. Then pay it forward, forgiving others as Christ forgave you. “Forgive us our sins, as we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Amen.
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