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“Forgive Us Our Debts”

3 May, 2008

The fith petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”, continues the second half of the prayer (the 4th – 6th petitions), where Jesus is teaching us as his disciples to pray for ourselves and one another, in light of the first half of the prayer (the 1st – 3th petitions): prayer directed toward praising the goodness and faithfulness of our Triune God and acknowledging the realities and priorities of the life of the age to come.

The things this petition addresses — forgiveness from God and one another, in light of debt to God and one another — are part and parcel of so much of the Bible, but the actual wordings of the phrases in this petition are not common, particularly in the rest of Matthew. Since in these studies of the Lord’s Prayer we’ve been looking particularly at the language chosen for the petitions, and how this relates to the same language throughout Matthew, the fact that the language of this petition is pretty rare could pose a problem. The language is rare, however, not unique — there are just a couple other occurrences of such language in Matthew, and they also happen to be dealing with the very things Jesus is teaching us in this prayer.

The unforgiving servant

I suspect most of us know the parable of the unforgiving servant well, but I want to focus on this parable especially as it relates to the Lord’s Prayer and explains the meaning of the fifth petition in particular. It is crucial that Jesus’ motivation for telling this parable is Peter’s question, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ (18:21). Peter’s question, in turn, is in response to Jesus’ teaching on church discipline just before, when he said, ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother’, and so on (v. 15). But if he continually refuses to listen, he must be treated like an outsider and stranger to the covenant blessings of God (v. 17). This is serious business, because the church’s decisions in this regard are on behalf of the Lord himself, who is ultimately the one being rejected: ‘Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven…’ (v. 18).

Understandably, Peter asks what the limit to this discipline is; assuming the sinning Christian repents, how many times should he be received back into full communion and fellowship? At what point do we as Christians individually or as the church officially declare ‘enough is enough’, and expose the sinner as unbelieving, insincere, unrighteous, hypocritical, once and for all? It’s so important that Peter isn’t asking ‘How many times should I seek the restoration of my wayward fellow believer?’, but ‘How many times should I forgive them?’ That makes all the difference. Jesus responds, in effect, by calling Peter to hold out unconditional forgiveness to those who sin against him, even time and time again. In other words, Jesus is calling Peter (and us) to display in our forgiveness of others the character of our God in his forgiveness of us.

So to illustrate this, Jesus tells a parable, a story about a servant who owed his master roughly the equivalent of 200,000 years worth of daily laborers’ wages. For comparison’s sake, the current average yearly salary for a general laborer in the US is $21,726. That’s a debt of $4, 345, 200, 000. Clearly, since this is a parable after all, owing just over 4.3 billion dollars…as a bondservant…and it’s due right now…means he has a debt that is unfathomably large that he can’t possibly pay back. Thus the servant and all his household and everthing he held dear was ordered to be sold for payment (which wouldn’t put a dent in what he owed).

Yet in response to his pleas for patience and more time, the master freely and mercifully releases the servant from his debt (vv. 26-27). Notice that the servant asks for patience so he can ‘pay everything’ (v. 26), while the master forgives all (v. 27). This is the context of forgivenness from the master in which the servant then proceeds to show no mercy to his fellow servant.

Again, the servant on whom the master showed such remarkable and ill-deserved pity, was still under the delusion that he had to somehow pay his master back and that he should pay his master back. But hadn’t his master released him from punishment and payment, and forgiven his debts, free and clear? Not in the servant’s eyes — he didn’t understand grace. ‘Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness’ (Rom 4:4-5). He couldn’t accept the utter gratuity of the mercy and forgiveness he’d freely received, and so he couldn’t freely give it either.

The servant quickly found another servant who owed him money (I suspect that if you had 4.3 billion-plus, even if it was somebody else’s, your friends would be asking to borrow a little too!). Instead of telling the good news of the incredible forgiveness he’d received, and showing mercy likewise on his fellow servant, the ‘unforgiving servant’ is still operating within the economy of debt. To him, his debt has not been forgiven, he still must somehow find a way to pay, and he thinks he’ll even be able to ‘pay everything’. So he chokes his fellow servant and demands, ‘Pay what you owe!’ (v. 28). What did the servant owe? About 100 days’ laborers’ wages, or just under $6,000. There are two things to keep in mind here: 1) 100 days’ wages is not insignificant; it’s not automatic or easy to forgive a third of a year’s debt, and that’s not what the parable’s saying; 2) no matter how much the fellow servant owed, the unforgiving servant refused to show any mercy at all, even after being forgiven so much more owed by him to his master than was owed to him by his fellow servant. He throws him in jail until he pays back everything–until his fellow servant does exactly what he still thinks he has to do for the master. Ironic, isn’t it?

The master’s response is the ‘moral’ of the parable:

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? (18:32-33)

So the servant’s attitude and actions are not only ironic, but supremely wicked, and the master exercises even more punishment and delivers him ‘in anger’ to the ‘torturers’, until he should be able to pay all he owed, that he refused to be forgiven — in other words, forever.

Forgive, as we have forgiven

Just in case the disciples somehow miss the point, Jesus spells it all out for them: ‘So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.’ This is the answer to Peter’s question. We must never say ‘enough is enough’ in forgiving one another because God never says that with us — he forgave us everything, and he didn’t just say ‘I forgive you’, but he took our debt and our punishment on himself in Christ. Jesus’ dying words, “It is finished” could also very faithfully be translated, “Paid in full”. But not showing this forgiveness betrays our own lack of truly being those who have been forgiven, and living in that identity. The servant never believed or trusted in his master and the forgiveness he freely offered to him; he continually thought and worked within the economy of debt. His seeking after such a way to be right with his master got him exactly what he asked for: what he truly deserved.

Furthermore, this is how we should understand what Jesus says along these lines 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. (6:14-15)

Jesus isn’t here saying that we receive the forgiveness of our sins for Jesus’ sake because of our prior forgiveness of others’ sins toward us. Like in the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus is saying that if we fail to live out of the identity of our forgivenness by forgiving others, then we prove ourselves to be those who have not truly embraced the promises of God in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. We prove ourselves to have received the promises, but without faith.

Finally, we need to tie in the petition for forgiveness from our heavenly Father, with the condition of our own showing of forgiveness to one another. Just because our forgiveness doesn’t come because we first truly forgave, doesn’t mean that our showing of forgiveness isn’t a ‘condition’ of our proving ourselves to be forgiven and of the same character as our forgiving Father in heaven. Jesus truly calls us to forgive one another, ‘from the heart’, and even claims that the reality of God’s forgiveness of us in a certain sense depends on our forgiving of others.

Here, what else can we do but cling to Christ as all our righteousness? Otherwise, even after receiving God’s gracious forgiveness, we have no hope. I’m like Peter; I don’t forgive others unconditionally and from my heart like God requires, and I certainly don’t do it in such a way to want to receive from God in return –justly! — the same kind of fickle and half-hearted forgiveness that I’ve shown.

But truly one of the most amazing things about our Savior is that he has accomplished perfectly on our behalf the very life that he calls us to live in him. Jesus is a complete Savior, and only by looking to his cross alone can we honestly and rightly take up our own crosses and follow him. In sum, we must approach the requirements of our own forgiveness of others, in light of God’s forgiveness of us, and just as much in light of Jesus’ forgiveness of others, on our behalf, credited to us by faith:

And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ (Luke 23:34).


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