As We Forgive Our Debtors

Have you ever been misunderstood? When I was a kid, some of my favorite jokes were about misunderstandings, those jokes that played with words, making you think that one thing was meant until the punchline surprised you from the side.

Like: a polar bear walks into a bar and says, “Give me a scotch and…Coke.”

“Why the pause?” asks the bartender.

“I don’t know,” says the bartender, “I’ve always had them.”

There are real life examples of words being misleading. Think of John Kennedy, standing in front of the Berlin Wall, declaring, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” Or, to translate, “I am a jelly donut!” And yet, we don’t even have to switch languages for the communication gap to appear.

How many disagreements in your life have stemmed from situations where words are not as clear as we would like? Where you have said something to a friend or spouse, assuming that they knew exactly what you wanted to convey, except that they were not present for the earlier conversation that was happening inside your head?

Words are tricky, to say the least. They have multiple meanings, context that surrounds them, emotional weight, internal dialogue, body language, inflection…words do not exist in a vacuum. And yet, there are times when words are all we have.

In the history of the Church, when the Reformers came along, there was renewed emphasis on the written word. Scripture became the most important element of faith. Written confessions and catechisms, like updated versions of the Apostle’s Creed, proliferated.

John Calvin, our own theological ancestor, wrote expansive commentaries on Scripture, a massive four volume summary of Christian theology, and preached thousands of sermons in his lifetime, most of which lasted for more than an hour. Oh, and by the way, you’re welcome.

Word – specifically, the written word – became the centerpiece of Christian theology for the next four to five centuries. Biblical scholarship flowered, and extensive efforts began to resolve differences in ancient manuscripts.

I mention all of this because the whole meaning of the phrase we focus on today hinges on how we translate one word: “as”.

“Forgive us our debts,” we Presbyterians say, “as we forgive our debtors.” And you can find volumes written on what exactly this means in the Lord’s Prayer. The most common explanation I ran across goes something like this: “God’s forgiveness of our sins against God is contingent upon our forgiveness of others’ sins against us.” In other words, if we forgive those debtors, that’s how we will be forgiven; and if we don’t, then we don’t get the benefit of forgiveness.

And yet, as we’ve talked about all summer, getting to the root of the “true” meaning of the Lord’s Prayer can be tricky business. The written Greek behind the English “as” is actually two words, which roughly translate as “and also.” And then digging further back, most translations into Middle Eastern languages, mirroring the fact that Jesus probably spoke this prayer in Aramaic, simply use “and”.

In other words, there isn’t, necessarily, any quid pro quo in forgiveness.

I don’t think it would make any sense if there were. How could it be that God’s power would be limited by ours? Is the idea that we forgive others so that we will be forgiven, or because we have already been forgiven?

If you remember the parable we read last week, Jesus speaks of the Master forgiving the servant, and then the servant turning around and not forgiving his fellow servant. The hypocrisy angers the Master, who punishes the unforgiving servant. There clearly is a relationship between the two moments of forgiveness; but the whole thing got started with the Master’s forgiveness.

Which brings us to the two lessons we read this morning. First, we came across the lesson in Matthew 18. By the way: if you’re looking for one model for forgiveness, I recommend reading the whole chapter of Matthew 18. In it, Jesus offers up at least four, which indicates that forgiveness is not something that can be easily formulated.

In what we read today, Jesus speaks of the work of reconciliation. The burden here is not on the wrongdoer, but the one who is wronged, to seek a healing of the relationship. But notice what is prescribed. First, the wronged party approaches the wrongdoer privately. There is no “forgive and forget”; quite the contrary, in fact. Grievances must be aired and sorted out. If that doesn’t work, then other parties are brought into the equation: first a few witnesses, and then the whole church. Part of the purpose here, I believe, is for the person who feels wronged to open themselves up to the possibility that they themselves are wrong.

But if these three steps don’t work, then judgment comes. Jesus says that they are to be as a Gentile or a tax collector. Which means, exactly, what? Well, if Jesus’ own ministry is any indication, it means that they are in need of conversion; but they have not, by any stretch, fallen beyond God’s mercy.

Forgiveness is not a cop out. In fact, it takes a lot of work. What it is, in actuality, is a decision in which we say quite bluntly that we know we have been wronged, and we remember that wrong quite vividly. And yet, we choose to forgive anyway.

Which, in a nutshell, is God’s approach to forgiveness, as our lesson about King David bears out. David has committed grievous wrong. He has set up his loyal general Uriah to be sacrificed in battle all for the sake of covering up his lust after Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. And as all of this unfolds, God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David. And in that process, David admits what a jerk he is. But it is not sin that has the final word in this story: it is grace.

If you would grant me a John Calvin hour, we might have enough time to discuss adequately all of the nuances of these passages. But here’s the one point I believe we should take with us today: forgiveness of wrongdoing is not an act that stands in isolation. That’s why we Presbyterians baptize in the midst of community. It is where two or more are gathered that God is present. It is when two people authentically seek reconciliation that relationships are repaired. It is when both debts and debtors are forgiven that God’s mercy truly comes to life.

And I think that’s the crux of the whole conversation. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us are more inclined to think of the act of forgiving as some kind of righteous generosity on our part. When we forgive, we end up demonstrating how good we are. And any forgiveness we offer tends to have strings attached, as though our forgiveness ought to get us something in return.

But if we tie how we forgive with how God forgives, a world opens up before our eyes. If God can forgive a rotten, lust-driven, megalomaniac like David, then what kind of forgiveness is expected of us?

I don’t know about you, but that kind of forgiveness is not something I can do alone. It’s one that requires God to be at work through, and even in spite of, me. And I can only do that when prayer is my constant.