Our Debts and Debtors
Years ago, New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce wrote a book called, "Hard Sayings of Jesus." It’s been a long time since I read the book, and so I don’t remember all the “hard sayings” Bruce discusses; but one that’s on my own list is some words of Jesus found in the 6th chapter of Matthew. They come in the context of Jesus’ teaching about prayer. Matthew tells us that Jesus taught against praying just to be “seen” by others, and against heaping up empty phrases in our prayers. Matthew then gives us his rendering of what would come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer:
"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily
bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one."
Matthew 6:9b-13, NRSV
And then, Matthew tells us that Jesus spoke these words: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." If ever there was a “hard saying” of Jesus, this is certainly one of them. How many of us harbor ill feelings against another person? How many of us live with resentment toward someone we feel has wronged us, or who has wronged a person we love? Often, the unforgiveness we carry around inside of us is toward an individual we don’t even know, or perhaps even toward a group of people. Sometimes, the grudge we bear may even be against God, over things we feel God could have done, but didn’t.
Forgiveness is a delicate thing. It can’t be forced. It’s not honest to say that we’ve forgiven someone, if we actually haven’t. Saying we’ve forgiven someone when we haven’t done so seems to fall in that same category of praying to be seen, and heaping up empty phrases, that Jesus speaks against in regard to prayer. So, what are we to do with the grudges and resentments that are like weights that we carry?
I see forgiveness as an ongoing process in our lives. I believe that it’s truly only God’s empowerment through the Holy Spirit that enables us to forgive. The more we are able to understand ourselves as beloved by God, the more we are able to see others in the same way, even those who have hurt us. I’ve come to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:14 as a layered process, maybe even as a dance of sorts, in which we continually seek to forgive others as we continually seek forgiveness from God.
The truth is, I have an “aspirational forgiveness list.” It’s not terribly long, but it is persistent. I have to keep putting these people before God, asking God to help me love them, and pray for them, and yes, to forgive them. I trust that by acknowledging to God my need to forgive – by getting up out of my chair to dance, if you will – I will experience God’s forgiveness of my own trespasses and be empowered to forgive others.
With prayers for your journey,