"The Heart of the Matter"

                                                                  March 25, 2012


Psalm 103

Matthew 18:21-35

Standing at the Vietnam War Memorial Wall one ex-prisoner of war asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?”

The second one replied: “No, never.”

And the other turned and said, “Then it seems like they still have you in prison, don’t they?”[1]

How do we get out of the prisons of anger, hatred, pain, bitterness, and loss in which we find ourselves? What will liberate us from the confining, obsessive desire to keep score, to seek revenge, to prolong hostility?”[2]

Jesus teaches us, invites us to pray: “Forgive us our debts. . .”

A seemingly insignificant question is almost always raised when talking about the Lord's Prayer: Why do some people say “debts” and others say “trespasses?” You’ve experienced the results, haven’t you? At a wedding, a funeral, or some joint worship service everyone is praying along together and then all of a sudden, we’re using different words! The members of the United Church of Christ conclude “as we forgive our debtors,” and the United Methodists and Roman Catholics are still praying: “. . .those who trespass against us.”

It’s really just a difference in translation, but I like to think we in the UCC are closer to the sense of the original Greek.

Karl Barth explained it this way: “We are God’s debtors. We owe God not something . . .but, quite simply, our person in its totality; we owe God ourselves, since we are creatures sustained and nourished by God’s goodness. We, God’s children—we, the brothers and sisters of Jesus—come short of what we owe to God. What we are and what we do correspond in no way to what is given us.”

Barth concludes: “Even while we live as Christians, we increase our debt, we aggravate the ‘mess’ of our situation. It grows from day to day. Matters go from bad to worse.”[3]

Debts, trespasses. These words suggest something owed to someone else, boundaries that have been overstepped, an offense.

The Revised English Bible reads “Forgive us the wrong we have done.” The English language, ecumenical version of the Lord’s Prayer simply calls debts, trespasses, and wrong doing what they are: sin—actions that reveal our broken lives and broken relationships.

To pray with Jesus “forgive us” is to recognize that we are flawed human beings, not little perfect gods. We are certainly not the God who created us and gives us life.

And so we pray about our debts out of a sense that we owe God something and have come up short.

We pray out of the ancient conviction that the God of Israel is a forgiving God. Forgiveness is the point, the heart, of Jesus’ entire ministry.

When we receive the pardon of God, we find the grace to forgive.[4]

There is a connection between our forgiving and our being forgiven.

Behind actual forgiveness is the readiness to forgive—an attitude that is constant with God but inconstant in us. The stubborn and real determination not to forgive blocks the flow of divine forgiveness. When we deny forgiveness to others we cut ourselves off from creative power. We need to repent of our own hardness of heart before expecting God's mercy.[5]

And so we are encouraged not only to pray “Forgive us our debts,” but to add “As we forgive our debtors.”

Hmmmm. This gets a little sticky, doesn't it?

Peter comes to Jesus and says “Lord, if my sister or brother sins against me, how often should I forgive?”

Peter's reference to brothers and sisters reminds us that Matthew's gospel was written some fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Christian community was just beginning to form. But it is obvious that already there was strife, contention, and sin among its members. “My sister or brother” could be translated as “If a member of the church sins against me. . .” The early Christian community is asking what should be done. From the earliest times until today, we hurt and alienate each other. The sad truth is that even in the church, sometimes especially in the church, we are not on our best behavior.

The answer that Jesus gives—not seven times but seventy-seven times, or as some ancient texts read seventy times seven (you do the math)—is amazing in itself. He’s basically saying human forgiveness should be infinite.

But as often is the case, Jesus goes on to tell a parable—and we are further amazed.

A king is settling accounts. We quickly discover that this is no ordinary king. His power is so great that everyone below him is referred to as simply a “slave.”

One of these slaves, probably a ruler in his own right, is found to owe the king a substantial sum of money. Ten thousand talents would be that day’s wages for some one hundred million workers. This is obviously a debt that cannot be paid.

Several years ago the governor of Malaysia's central bank resigned after announcing that the bank had lost $2.1 billion in derivatives trading—more money than the central bank's entire capital and reserves. “Errors were made,” he declared.

That’s small change compared to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme that resulted in the loss of some $18 billion. I made [a] tragic mistake…” Madoff recently wrote.

Mistakes were made. How do you pay back what cannot be paid?

The point here is this: we can’t.

The slave throws himself down before the king and says “Have patience and I will pay you everything.”

Not very likely.

But out of pity, the king forgives the debt.

“As we forgive our debtors. . .”

Well, this slave meets another, who owes him about a day’s wage—a significant amount, but not much by comparison with the earlier debt.

When the second slave can’t pay and asks for patience using almost the same words, the first slave has him thrown in prison.

As it turns out, this wasn’t the best course of action. The king is told what happened and severely punishes the first slave until the original debt is paid—whenever that might be.

Forgive us our debts—as we forgive our debtors.

Human forgiveness is a beautiful thing—an almost physical necessity. Almost every day we must request and grant forgiveness. Most of the offenses are trivial and unintentional. Forgiveness becomes a problem when the trespasses are more serious, when they are intentional, and especially when they are repeated.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells of a woman in his congregation coming to see him. She was single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. “Since my husband walked out on us,” she said, “Every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”

Kushner’s answer? “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter, angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”[6]

Unlimited forgiveness is not to be confused with sentimental toleration of hurtful behavior. It is not saying that what the other person did was “all right” or that it didn’t matter. In fact, Miroslav Volf says that “to forgive is to blame.”

Certainly it is possible to forgive too much and too quickly. A premature forgiveness is an easy way out that does little to help those involved or to heal a damaged relationship.

So Desmond Tutu tells us: “Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened when you are treated unfairly. It is opening the door for the other person to have a chance to begin again.”[7]

We are called to be ready to extend forgiveness because we have received God's forgiving love. Somehow, our forgiveness is connected to our being willing to set aside hatred and the desire for revenge, to banish the memory of the wrong.[8] We find the ability to do this, not because our own hearts are so big, but out of a sense that we ourselves have been forgiven so much by God. Forgiveness of others in hard situations is made harder by the erroneous conviction that God is about to throw us out if we do not instantly forgive. And forgiveness is made far easier by the knowledge that we do not have to be perfect for God to love us, of for the universe to have a place for us.”[9]us.”

Person to person, nation to nation, group to group, religion to religion. Forgiveness is requested and given on many different levels. The freedom to create ourselves and our relationships anew in every moment is a powerful reason for forgiveness.[10]

Jesus taught us to pray so that we might be agents of this new creation.

Forgiveness is the heart of the matter. May we continue to discover it in our own hearts and offer it to the hearts of others.

[1] Page: 1
Cover of Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999.

[2] Martin Marty in Newsweek, 3-27-00, p. 61.

[3] Karl Barth, Prayer, pg. 74 ff.

[4].Barth, ibid.

[5].Douglas Hare, Matthew, Interpretation Commentary, section on "Forgive us. . ."

[6] Harold Kushner, quoted in Wiesnthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, in Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999, pg. 34.

[7] Page: 6
Quoted in spirituality and health, winter 1999, pg. 29.

[8].Calvin, Institutes, section on forgiveness

[9] Page: 7
Roberta Bondi, A Place to Pray, pg. 93.

[10] Page: 7
Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999, pg. 34.