Pray Then Like This: Meditations on the Lord's Prayer part 7

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

This is not a prayer for God to pay off our mortgages. Debt is a metaphor for sin. By virtue of being our Creator, we owe God honour, praise, thanksgiving, trust, love and obedience. When we withhold from God what we owe, we enter into His debt.

From this petition, I would like to draw out three important assumptions for your consideration.

Jesus assumes His disciples will need God’s ongoing forgiveness.

In other words, while perfection is always the standard and goal, we will always fall short in this life.

Note the words of the Apostle Paul about himself.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)

If Jesus expected His disciples to be sinlessly perfect (which is the standard He calls us to in Matthew 5:48), it seems strange He would teach them to ask for God’s forgiveness as part of their regular daily prayer.

Of course, this doesn't mean obedience and perfection don't matter. In the Lord's Prayer, we have already prayed for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. If we are praying this prayer from the heart, the context in which this petition for forgiveness is made will be a heart grieved by its own failure to do God's will.

Jesus assumes our Heavenly Father is willing to forgive.

If God was not willing to grant forgiveness, He would not command us to pray for such.

As good as that argument may be, our confidence in God's willingness to forgive has a much more solid grounding than a mere logical deduction from this petition. The whole history of redemption shows us our Heavenly Father pouring out grace and mercy upon a rebellious and totally undeserving world. Even when justice demanded our condemnation, God sent His beloved Son to bear our condemnation in our place, so that He Himself would be just and able to forgive us at the same time.

The force of Paul's words in Romans 8:32 ought to forever drive away doubts of God's willingness to grant forgiveness.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things [including forgiveness]? (Romans 8:32)

Jesus assumes His disciples will be forgiving people.

Notice the connection in Jesus' words between God's forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others.

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
This connection is even more evident in what Jesus says immediately after the Lord's Prayer.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)
It seems fairly evident that in Jesus' mind the unforgiving will not be forgiven. Does this mean our forgiveness of others earns God's forgiveness of us? That would be a troubling conclusion. We get a clue as to Jesus' intent from a parable in Matthew 18:21-35.

Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22)

The agreed Rabbinic teaching of Peter’s day stated that forgiveness was to be granted three times. Peter’s suggestion sounds generous as it more than doubles the common expectation. Was Jesus impressed? Not really. "Not seven times Peter. Seventy times seven."

Jesus’ response leaves us breathless. But I think we miss the point if we hear Jesus as simply playing the numbers game. He hasn't come just to bump up the numbers, but to call us to something drastically different. We see this from the parable he goes on to tell.

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. (Matthew 18:23-24)

To get the force of this parable, we need to comprehend the size of the debt in view. This is an unbelievably huge sum of money. One talent was commonly valued at 6,000 denarii. A denarius was one day’s wage for a labourer. This person therefore owed something like the equivalent of 60,000,000 days wages for a common labourer! If a contemporary labourer earns about $100 a day, we are looking at a debt of around $6,000,000,000. Now put yourself in this person's shoes and keep reading.

And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. (Matthew 18:25-27)

The servant pleads for more time. The king cancels the debt. A $6,000,000,000 debts wiped clean. How would you feel?

But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, (Matthew 18:28a)
This is a debt of about 100 days wages for a common labourer. It is still a sizeable debt. Don't make the mistake of thinking debts against God are big, whereas debts against humans are small. No, debts against humans are big; debts against God are incomprehensibly big.
and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, 'Pay what you owe.' So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
Our initial reaction to the wicked servant is shock. Like the fellow servants who saw him, we are greatly distressed. We are dumbstruck that someone who was treated with such mercy could then turn around and be so merciless. That reaction is Jesus'point. It is simply inconceivalbe for a forgiven person to act that way.

We know that receiving God's forgiveness is conditioned upon our repentance. No repentance, no forgiveness. And we know true repentance means broken heartedness over our sin. The wicked servant in the parable was so hard hearted that genuine repentance was beyond him. Therefore, God's forgiveness was denied him. But those who are genuinely repentant over their sin and have experienced God's merciful forgiveness are so changed in heart that they cannot help but forgive others. Granting forgiveness is the overflow of a repentant heart that has received God's forgiveness.

And so God won't forgive us our debts if we don't forgive others, not because our forgiveness somehow earns God's forgiveness, but because our unwillingness to forgive shows we are not truly repentant over our own sin. In such a case, we place ourselves outside of the sphere of God's forgiveness.

This gets us away from numbers. Jesus wants us to see that forgiveness from the heart is the key. When we are focused on numbers, we are expressing a heart that isn't willing to forgive. When we ask Jesus how many times we have to forgive, we are really asking Him when we can stop granting forgiveness. This was the concern of the Pharisees who followed the letter of the law but weren't interested in the spirit. They held to a strict outward conformity, but failed to obey from the heart. Such forgiveness is hypocrisy.

Forgiveness is a matter of mercy. Jesus assumes that those who have really understood God's forgiveness are so humbled in heart and broken over their own sin that they themselves cannot but forgive others in turn.

Are there any people you have been unwilling to forgive? Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Pray Then Like This
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

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