July 23, 2023
The Challenge of Forgiveness
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
21 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?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.
23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents* was brought to him;25and, 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.26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But 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.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt.35So 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 the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
We’re nearing the end of our series on the Lord’s Prayer. As we’ve gone through this series, we’ve studied different passages of scripture that illuminate each part of the prayer and give us a way to expand on it in our own prayers. In a way the Lord’s Prayer is like a musical scale. Jeremy, can you play a scale for us?
Those are 12 evenly spaced notes. With just those twelve evenly spaced notes you can play an infinite variety of music. The prayer Jesus taught is like that. An address to God, six petitions, and a conclusion, are the building block from which we can create a rich and deep life of prayer. Today, we are studying what is known as the fifth petition: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
The first thing we need to deal with – because I know it’s on your minds – is the word debts. Why do we say debts? Many people, and some of us, grew up saying forgive us our trespasses, and at a wedding or funeral today, you might hear both versions competing in the room. So, what is the difference, and what did Jesus actually teach?
For nearly all of Christian history, the Lord’s Prayer has been translated from scripture with the word “debts.” In Matthew’s version of this prayer, he uses a Greek word that very clearly means debts. So, where did “trespasses” come from? When the Bible was translated into English from the original languages for the very first time, by a man named William Tyndale in 1526, he used word trespasses to translate the Lord’s Prayer, because that word shows up just a little farther down in Jesus’ explanation of forgiveness. Tyndale’s translation was soon replaced by the King James Bible, but not before it became part of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, that book set the pattern for English-speaking worship in nearly every tradition.
So, that’s how we got debts and trespasses. But what did Jesus actually mean when he taught this prayer? Jesus did not speak Greek, he spoke Aramaic, and the word Jesus probably used when he taught this prayer was “khoba.” On the one hand, “khoba” can mean a debt, like an unfulfilled responsibility or obligation. When we ask to be forgiven of our debts, we are asking to be forgiven for the things that we should have done but did not do – for our unfulfilled responsibilities. On the other hand, “khoba” can mean a trespass, crossing a boundary or a law. When we ask to be forgiven for our trespasses, we are asking to be forgiven for the things that we have done that we should not have done. “Khoba” means both the very serious things we have done, and the very serious things we have left undone.
Modern scholars suggest that perhaps the best way to put that into English is to simply call them our failures. Not our mistakes – we all make little mistakes – and not our foibles – we all trip over ourselves sometimes – but our failures. That’s first part of what we’re praying for here. Forgive us when we have failed in our obligation to love God and our neighbor, forgive us when we have walked away from people in need, forgive us when we have disregarded the pain of others, forgive us when we have turned away from the hungry, poor, and oppressed, forgive us when we have ignored God.
And forgive us when we have rebelled against God’s love, when we have condoned evil, tolerated hatred, excused violence, and endorsed greed. Forgive us when we have harmed others, sometimes the ones we love the most, and when we have mistreated ourselves, forgetting that all are made in God’s image and precious in God’s sight. Forgive us our failures.
This petition is shameless on the face of it. It’s shameless for a debtor to ask a creditor to simply forgive debt – shouldn’t you have to pay something? It’s shameless for a guilty person to ask the court to simply vacate the ruling – to render it null and void – shouldn’t you be put on probation or have to pay a fine or something? It’s shameless, yet Jesus teaches us to approach God in this shameless way. A shameless ask, and on the other side of the question, a God who is full of grace.
In a world that is straining under our abuse, forgive us; in nations that are straining under the legacy of our oppression, forgive us; in communities torn apart by our failure to love one another, forgive us; and in our very own, personal lives, for all the ways that we pretend that our lives can be satisfied and we can be whole apart from God and God’s love, forgive us. There is a fountain of grace embedded in this prayer, and every time we pray this prayer and come to this petition, we draw water from the eternal fountain of God’s grace. That is the first part of this petition: forgive us our debts.
But grace is connected to challenge, and we must also look at the second part – “as we forgive our debtors.” What is the connection here? The thing to see first is that the verb forgive is in what is called the aorist tense, and that means that the verb implies a complete or continuing action. Without trying to bore you with Greek grammar, what’s important to see is that Jesus is not teaching us to say, “forgive us our debts, and we will also in the future forgive our debtors.” Instead, it’s something like “forgive us our debts, as we have just forgiven our debtors.” Imagine someone has just come from a conversation with a “debtor” and has been reconciled, and this experience of restored friendship encourages the person to ask God to renew God’s friendship.
It’s not a condition of being forgiven by God, but it is a consequence of our being forgiven by God. As the scholar Dale Bruner writes, “Jesus reminds us of our standing privilege of access to God before he reminds us of our standing responsibility of forgiving neighbors.” And Bruner is echoing the great John Chrysostom who wrote in the fourth century, “To ask forgiveness from God as a great benefit, and then to deny the same to others, is to mock God.” And of course, both Bruner and Chrysostom, and so many others who echo this warning to us, are simply following Jesus and the story he told.
Peter asked how many times he should forgive a person before giving up, and maybe taking revenge, and Jesus told this story. There was once a great king who wanted to settle up accounts with his inner circle of advisors. When he started looking over the books, there was one who owed an immense sum – equivalent to a daily wage of 100,000,000 laborers. The king called the advisor in, and because he couldn’t pay, the king ordered the man to be sold – along with his wife and children and all his possessions – to satisfy the debt. The man fell down on his needs and begged for more time, promising to pay the king back. Of course, there was no way he could ever pay it back, but the king had mercy and forgave the debt – forgave the immense debt.
But it turns out this advisor was a real scoundrel, and as he was leaving, he ran into another advisor who owed him a very small sum, and he shook the man down for the debt. The man pleaded for patience but there was no patience, and the scoundrel threw him into prison until he had paid it all. When word of this got back to the king, he summoned him to return, and he had no mercy. The king was furious that the man would be so ungrateful, that he would mock the king’s generosity. He had no mercy and sent him away to be tortured until he could pay the entire debt – which, of course, he could never pay.
Now Jesus told this story, not to frighten us with the prospect of torture, but to focus our minds on the immensity of God’s forgiveness toward us. Peter wanted to know how many times was enough to forgive, and Jesus told this story about an unbelievably large debt and a massive forgiveness and an outrageously ungrateful recipient to simply say, “Stop counting. Just forgive.” “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The way that Jesus frames the Lord’s Prayer, and the way he tells this story, is a gentle kick in the pants: to go and do is sometimes so very hard to do we just hope it will go away. Forgive us our debts as forgive out debtors.
These words are meant to move us into the rhythm of forgiveness, a rhythm that is like breathing – forgiveness in, forgiveness out, forgiveness in, forgiveness out. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…”But if you hold your breath – and this is the warning of the parable – if you hold your breath and try to keep it all in, it won’t work anymore.
Do you remember the story, nearly twenty years ago now, of a Monday morning in October on a clear day in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, when a non-Amish man backed his pick-up truck into the school yard of the West Nickel Mines Amish School? The intruder, Charles Roberts, was a milk truck driver who was well known in the area. That morning, though, he was heavily armed, and ordered everyone in the school to lie on the floor. He told them that he was angry at God—had been for years—and that he could not forgive God and he could not forgive himself. Before it was all over, and before he was killed, in matter of seconds, he had opened fire, and five girls were killed and five girls were severely injured.
And do you remember how the Amish community responded? They reached out immediately to the family of Charles Roberts, to his widow and his children and his parents and his in-laws and assured them they would not scapegoat them for what he did. When he was buried, instead of staying away from his funeral, the Amish were half the mourners present. When money poured in from around the world to support the families who had lost children, the Amish committee set up to oversee the money set up a second fund to support Charles Roberts’ family.
How could they have responded that way, and why? Steven Nolt is a professor of history at Goshen College, a Mennonite school, and he decided to seek answer to that question in a serious way. For a year he and his colleague interviewed members of the Nickel Mines Amish Community and learned the wisdom of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not easy – it is hard work. It happens slowly. Forgiveness does not ignore what happened. Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. What forgiveness does mean, at its heart, is giving up the right of revenge – giving up the right to get even.
When did you decide to forgive him, Steven Nolt asked? “We didn’t decide,” they responded. It was “It was decided long ago.” They pointed to this story Jesus told, and the question Peter asked, “When can we can give up on forgiveness?” Didn’t Jesus say never give up, even if it takes a long time? And they pointed to the Lord’s Prayer, which they pray eight times a day and ten times on Sunday. Doesn’t it say there, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?” These words spoken slowly and often over a long time had taught them what to do.
Forgive us for our failures, as we are forgiving of those who fail us. The first part of this prayer is an invitation to shamelessly ask for the grace of God; the second half is a challenge to forgive others, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes. When we pray this prayer over many years, it’s something like practicing scales on an instrument. [Jeremy plays a scale.] Your fingers learn to how to move in the rhythm of the notes. Your soul learns how to breathe in the rhythm of grace. So when life asks you to do something really hard, you know what you have to do.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew, a Commentary
 I am grateful to N.T. Wright in his commentary Matthew for Everyone for this image of breathing.