I mentioned at the outset of this series of posts that the Lord’s Prayer can and should serve as a deliverance from more or less “narcissistic”, me-centered, American-dream driven praying. See here. The prayer thus is both a prayer and a means of our formation into Kingdom-life.
Hence, while inviting us to pray for “daily bread” (= the stuff of life that we need for the day… see here and here for more on that), Jesus immediately thrusts us back into the deep matters of our formation with this line:
and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matthew 6:12)
Forgiveness. And, as if to underscore how serious Jesus is about forgiveness, this line is the ONLY line that he elaborates on following his teaching on the Prayer, saying:
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Father, the One in the Heavens, will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt 6:14-15)
Fascinating. Three observations in brief:
1) “Debts” and “trespasses” for Jesus seem to be interchangeable and therefore mutually enriching ways of describing what needs to be forgiven. “Debts”. We are in “debt” to God in various ways. Others are in “debt” to us in various ways. “Trespasses.” I love that word. We have crossed boundaries with God we should not have crossed, broken laws, violated the nature of reality. Others have crossed boundaries with us they should not have crossed, broken laws with us, and violated our nature. For all of these things, forgiveness is what is required.
Infractions require restitution. Trespasses put us in “debt.”
2) The appeal to be forgiven is grounded in the willingness to forgive. That is perhaps shocking to our ears. But so it is. Jesus tells a parable later on in Matthew (chapter 18) to make his point all the clearer. A man owed a King an unpayable amount of money. The King ordered that his wife and family – all that he had – be sold to repay the debt. The man was obviously distraught. He pleads:
Be patient with me…and I will pay back everything. (18:26)
He is obviously incapable of doing this. It is the desperate cry of a man who doesn’t want to lose what is precious to him. The King’s response is so shocking:
The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. (18:27)
Just like that. An unpayable debt. At the drop of a hat… mercy triumphs over judgment, and the man is forgiven. The Kingdom, Jesus seems to be saying, is like THAT. It is a place of astounding, surprising forgiveness.
But there is more. For immediately upon being forgiven, the servant goes out, finds a fellow servant who owes him a PITTANCE compared to what he owed, and throws him in prison till he can repay. The other servants are obviously distraught at this, so they tell the King. And now the real shock:
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
And Jesus adds:
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
The same merciful King… now so severe in judgment. Why?
Some will object of course that this amounts to a new legalism. My only response is, “What other kind of Kingdom do you want?” To opt in to the Kingdom means that we become BOTH its beneficiaries AND its agents. The only kind of forgiveness, the only kind of grace, the only kind of mercy that is offered us is that which we are ALSO willing to extend to others. To fail to forgive is simply to say “no” to the Kingdom, for a “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” Kingdom is the only kind of Kingdom that Jesus offers us.
Of course, all of this requires that we be a people capable of telling the truth to each other. It’s easy to hear Jesus say these things and think, “Well that’s a crock! So the people who’ve wronged me just get off the hook scot-free?”
No. Earlier in Matthew 18 we read that we’re called to show people their sins against us – to name them as debts, trespasses, infractions against our humanity. This is no mere interior act Jesus is calling us to. Rather, he’s calling us to a totally authentic and therefore at times deeply conflictual way of “being” in community with others. “You hurt my feelings!” “I didn’t appreciate that comment!” “I think the way you’re treating me is totally out of line!” The back of passive-aggression is broken by the act of truth-telling.
Of course, the corollary to all of this truth-telling is that we be ready to see the ways in which WE are complicit in the relational messes we create. How many times have you called someone out for the way they’ve treated you only to find that their behavior towards YOU was a reaction to something you did to THEM? And so now we’re ALL doing a WHOLE BUNCH of forgiving AND repenting, being formed ever-further towards the capacity to both extend and receive forgiveness, from God and others. And here, in ways perhaps too small even to apprehend, the vicious cycles of violence that threaten to engulf our world are being brought to an end. We really are the eschatological people of God, living under the reign of his Shalom (Isaiah 2). An alternative vision of humanity, “enfleshed.” Swords into plowshares… spears into pruning hooks… forgiveness makes this possible.
3) Finally, all of this is possible through Christ. He, as always, is the ultimate “ground” of the the Prayer he teaches us to pray.
From the cross, Jesus cried… Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. And it is He, living his resurrected life through us, who teaches us to pray, like Stephen, in the very moment we are being treated unjustly, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.
The King and his Kingdom. This is precisely what they are like.