Sermon: Forgive Us Our Debts

In our journey through the Lord’s Prayer, we have learned last week to ask God for our most basic needs, including bread, food. We also saw how our hunger for bread points us to our deeper hunger for God. This week, we are taught to pray for forgiveness and to pray that we can forgive others. If food is our most pressing need, forgiveness is our most profound need. It is for these needs that Jesus teaches us to pray.

If you would like to follow along, it is Matthew, chapter 6, beginning in verse 9. Matthew is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew 6, beginning in verse 9. But before we hear God’s Word, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for all your many gifts to us, we give you thanks. For the gift of your Word, we are especially grateful. As we hear your word spoken, give us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and feet to walk in your ways. Anoint my lips to speak your word to your people this morning. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven,

give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors,

and do not bring us to the time of trial,

but rescue us from the evil one.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (You may be seated)

Forgiveness is complicated. I don’t mean that in the way we usually say, “it’s complicated.” The relationship status you don’t really want to talk about. “It’s complicated.” When someone finds out I’m American and wants to ask about health care in the States. “It’s complicated.” That is just a way to avoid a topic of conversation.

But forgiveness is genuinely complicated. We injure and damage each other. We take and break each other. We hate and isolate each other. To try and move past this, to try and recover from this and become whole, to try and let go of holding on to the pain and the wrongs done to us, is complicated. Forgiveness is not easy. Anyone who says it is probably has not tried to do it very often or has not realized how often and how deeply they have needed forgiveness. For this reason, praying Forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors is one of the hardest parts of the Lord’s Prayer.

Forgiveness is complicated. Maybe it will help us to say what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not saying that what was done was okay. Forgiveness does not magically make what was wrong to do suddenly the right thing to do. When my children fight and one of them hits the other, saying ‘Sorry’ does not make hitting each other okay. It was still wrong to hit your sister, to hit your brother. Sin is serious and consequential, what we have done and what has been done to us.

Forgiveness is also not the same as ‘tolerance.’ Forgiveness is not saying, “I’m okay, you’re okay. I will stay out of your way if you stay out of mine.” To tolerate someone is either still to dislike them but not do anything about it or simply not to care about the other person. Neither of which is genuine forgiveness.

Forgiveness is also complicated because many of us feel stuck. We feel stuck somewhere between the debts and sins we are not sure can truly be forgiven and our debtors we are not sure we truly can forgive.

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Whether we wonder if God is still holding on to all our failures or wondering whether we can ever let go of all those times others have failed us, there is good news:

Christians live by forgiveness. We live because of forgiveness, and we live through forgiveness.

In order to see what this means, listen this stunning story from the book that we love. Hear now the word of the Lord:

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

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 to 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. 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 do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

That was Matthew 18:21-35.

Peter, blessed Peter, wants to know how often he has to forgive someone who has wronged him. In a fallen world filled with fallen people, there is no question that even in the church we will sin against each other. When Jesus teaches us to pray, Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors, he assumes that this is going to happen. We will have debts and we will have debtors. But what do we do with the debts of sins that people owe to us and what can be done about our debt of sin before God and others? So Peter asks, Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?

I think Peter is trying to be generous here. I will forgive my brother or sister seven times. Seven. But there has to be a limit, right Jesus? Even if I am generous in my forgiveness, there must be a point at which I no longer have to forgive. There has to be a point where my mercy has reached an end.

Jesus’ answer pushes farther than Peter would have imagined. Seventy-seven times or, as some argue it should read, seventy times seven. Either way, Jesus gives Peter such a vast number that the message becomes clear: Forgive and forgive and forgive until you begin to lose count.

While Peter may think he is generous is being willing to forgive seven times, Jesus multiplies that forgiveness. Seventy-seven times, seventy times seven. This call to a wide mercy and abundant forgiveness is rooted in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. So Jesus tells us a story that digs under Peter’s question about our forgiveness of others to who we are as forgiven people.

The story is of a king who is running an audit on his kingdom and collecting on his debts. In this process, he finds one man who owes him ten thousand talents. If your bible has any footnotes, it probably tries to give you a conversion to more modern money. The best we can do is a rough estimate, but the low number I have heard is $2.5 Billion, but some estimate this in the hundreds of billions of dollars. So let’s give a conservative estimate of 10,000 talents at around $10 billion dollars.

So the king goes around collecting on his debts and finds a man who owes him $10 Billion dollars. What was this slave doing that he racked up that much debt? We don’t know. Unsurprising, Jesus says the man could not pay. This debt was so large that no amount of time, creative, or hard work was going to get him out of it. This debt was so unfathomably large that there was no hope he would ever repay it. So the lord ordered him to be sold, together with his family and all he has, until he pays the debt. The man falls on his knees and begs, Have patience with me and I will pay you everything. He begs for time, but time won’t help him. He cannot pay off the debt, he will not be able to pay it off.

But what does his lord do? And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. Forgiveness. Christians live by forgiveness. We live because of forgiveness.

Just like when Jesus teaches us to pray forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors, in this parable Jesus reminds us that each of us begins as a debtor. “Before there is any talk about forgiving someone else, we are made to ask for forgiveness ourselves. Before there is any consideration of the wrongs we have suffered we are made to ponder the great wrong God has suffered through us.” It is important that we are those in need of forgiveness before we are forgivers.

Peter wants to know how often he should forgive others, but Jesus brings us back to say, “remember you need to be forgiven.” Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. Jesus doesn’t just go out and say, “Forgive people,” first we are reminded of the simple truth that we ourselves are debtors before God and we cannot get out from under it. A debt we cannot pay and yet out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.

That forgiveness should change everything. Christians live by forgiveness. We live because of forgiveness and therefore we live through forgiveness. Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. We are forgiven, so we forgive.

But that is not how the parable goes and it is not often how our lives go as well. That same slave, who has been forgiven a massive, unpayable debt, comes across a fellow slave who owes him a hundred denarii. This is probably a few thousand dollars. So, not a small amount of money, but compared to ten thousand talents, $10 Billion dollars, it was pocket change.

The reality of the lord’s abundant forgiveness had not penetrated the slave’s heart, so he grabs the other slave by the throat and says, Pay what you owe. The slave begs, using almost the exact same words he used before the king, but the first slave cannot see how similar their situations are. He is so fixated on the debt owed to him that he cannot remember how his own debt was wiped away.

When the lord is told, he summons the slave and says, 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. The slave faces judgment and Jesus warns us that we will too if we cannot forgive our brother or sister from our hearts.

Forgive us our debts as we also have forgive our debtors.

The good news is that our debt, our trespasses, our sins, our failures have all been forgiven through the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. We who are in Christ have had the slate wiped clean. We have been released and our debt, which we could never pay, has been forgiven.

Now we are called to forgive others the smaller, but not insignificant, debts they owe to us. Christians live by forgiveness. We live because of forgiveness – God’s forgiveness of our sins – and we live through forgiveness – we live as people who forgive because we have been forgiven. Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Courage to forgive begins with the humility that comes with having been forgiven.

Forgiveness is complicated, in part, because many of us feel stuck. Stuck wondering if there are sins in our past or in our present that cannot be forgiven. Stuck wondering if there are pains and sins of others we cannot let go of. The business of forgiveness seems all straightforward until we need to do it ourselves. It all seems great until we blow up our life. It all seems like a nice idea until someone wounds us deeply. Forgiveness? Really? For me? For them?

Yes. We who are in Christ have been forgiven – everything. There is no sin in your past or present too deep to be reached by the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Since you have been forgiven, since I have been forgiven, our lives should be marked by forgiveness of others.

A friend of mine likes to describe it like this. When we go traveling, we all pack a bag. We take all the stuff we need for vacation, plus all those things we put in there ‘just in case we need it.’

It is as if each of us is pulling a roller bag behind us. We take the hurts and pains others have caused us and shove them in our roller bag just in case we need them. We hold on to them just in case we ever need to bring them out to say, “Don’t you remember what you did.” We keep them in there for those times we want to bring them out and nurse our wounds. We keep them there so that we would never quite forget.

The older we get, the heavier the bag gets with all the pains and sins we have suffered until it starts bursting at the seams. So we buy a bigger bag and lug it behind us, always ready to pull its contents out if we need it.

The more often we do this, the more we begin to wonder if that is how God works too. Does God have a enormous roller bag full of all our sins, just waiting to take them out? But the parable of the forgiving king points us to God’s abundant mercy in the face of our sins. God is not carrying a bag of our sins around, but in coming as the man Jesus Christ and dying on the cross, God has borne the cost of our forgiveness. We who are in Christ know with confidence that God does not hold on to our sins nor hold them against us anymore. That debt has already been paid.

So if God is not hauling around a bag of your sins and offenses against him, maybe you don’t need to haul around a bag of other people’s sins and offenses against you. Maybe you don’t need to keep filling the bag. Maybe we can leave it behind. Maybe we can learn to forgive as we have been forgiven.

Perhaps receiving the forgiveness of God makes us free enough to forgive others. Maybe it will make us free enough that we don’t have to carry that bag any longer.

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Christians live by forgiveness. We live because of forgiveness and we live through forgiveness. There is no other way.  As the poet George Herbert said: “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven; for everyone has need to be forgiven.”

We forgive because we have been forgiven. To refuse to forgive is to cut off the very branch you are standing on. To forgive others is a powerful witness in the world to the reality of God’s forgiveness of us. In a world consumed with revenge politics and nursing grudges, we pray forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. In a world where everyone is focused on getting what they deserve, we pray forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And perhaps our forgiveness will be a sign to the world of just how good the good news of the gospel truly is.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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