I will never forget seeing a bumper sticker on a vehicle in front of me as I waited to pick up my kids from school one afternoon not long after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. “God may forgive, but we will not.” I realized that the slogan expressed the honest anger of many people; a normal human response to a very tragic situation. But I was also reminded of Jesus’ most troubling statement from the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” These words easily flow from our lips in private moments of prayer and public times of worship, but they are probably the most challenging of all the statements Jesus gives his disciples to pray.
What do the words Jesus gives us to pray mean? Is forgiveness really demanded of all followers of Christ, or are there limits to when we forgive, who we forgive, and how far we are to extend forgiveness to someone who has harmed us? These questions require thoughtful and thorough consideration not only so that we can comprehend the meaning of Jesus’ prayer, but also so we will discover the extent to which we are called to live the gospel of limitless grace.
The key to understanding Matthew’s version of the prayer is found in his use of the term debts. Matthew’s “debts” is a stronger term than Luke’s “sins”, and expresses the idea that our sins against God are debts that we owe to God; debts that have become so large that we can never repay them. Thus, with the weight of such debt, we find ourselves hopeless to find any relief, and we have no choice but to turn to God and ask for forgiveness.
But we must be careful when praying this portion of the prayer, for to pray for God’s forgiveness of our debts is inextricably linked to our forgiving others of their debts. In fact, the wording of Jesus’ prayer may imply that we must first forgive others of the debts they owe to us before we can even think of seeking God’s forgiveness.
But what does it mean to forgive our debtors? In Jesus’ era this would certainly mean the forgiveness of economic and political debt. In the social world of the first century, patronage was the system of social order as clients would receive money and protection from wealthy and powerful patrons. In turn, these clients were always indebted to their patrons, and patrons always held power over their clients. In this sense, Jesus calls for the forgiveness of political and economic debt, proclaiming the perpetual sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee in the new community of God. Thus, Jesus’ prayer demands the forgiveness of all economic debts.
But debtors are not limited only to those who owe political and economic debt, for we also must forgive others who sin against us. In forgiving others who sin against us we express the character of God, who extends forgiveness to all. We forgive because God forgives us.
But are there limits to our forgiveness? Peter asked this same question of Jesus when he inquired as to how many times one should forgive another. Jesus responded, “seventy times seven,” implying that there are no limits to the forgiveness we are to extend to those who have hurt us. As God’s forgiveness has no boundaries, so too followers of Christ cannot set boundaries around whom and when they forgive.
Some may be critical of this way of reacting to those who harm us, for our human nature is to seek punishment and even revenge. But such a view misses the transformative power of forgiveness. Jesus does not command us to forgive others as an act to which we begrudgingly submit. Rather, Jesus understands the power of forgiveness to transform enemies into friends.
In October of 2006 the country was shocked when a gunman entered the school in an Amish community, taking the lives of five innocent girls before he ended his own. Yet, people were also shocked by the response that came from the Amish. Amish men went to the home of the man’s family offering their heartfelt condolences to those he left behind. They also attended the funeral of the man. When asked by the confused media about their unusual response, they replied that God commands forgiveness.
While we often look oddly at the Amish people as living an archaic way of life, we would do well to heed their rich theological tradition of obeying the simple teaching of Jesus to forgive our debtors as God has forgiven our debts. Through their act of forgiveness and grace, they brought the living and transformative power of the gospel of light to shine in the darkness of sin and pain.