“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” I’m sure we have all heard this prayer in various ways. I think it’s interesting that we have used various words. I grew up hearing “debts” because I grew up in the Presbyterian Church. Someone once told me it wasn’t much of a surprise that Presbyterians used the word “debt” since that word had financial implications. Maybe the choice of the word was influenced by this morning’s gospel lesson where Jesus spoke of forgiveness and used a story about financial obligations. The word “trespass” always makes me think of “no trespassing” signs. I don’t know what that says about the choice! Perhaps it reflects cultures where ownership of territory matters, and boundaries are carefully marked and observed.
In the modern translation we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Ellsworth Kalas suggests that using this translation matters. He wrote, “The word debt doesn’t’ frighten our contemporary culture unless it is associated with bankruptcy – and for some, even that threat is simply a legal process to be passed through.” He goes on to suggest that because the word “debt” has lost its sting or stigma we have, at the same time, watered down the concept of sin. He cites Phyllis McGinley, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet who noted that people don’t see themselves as sinful. They see themselves as “immature, underprivileged, frightened or sick.” What’s missing, Kalas says, is any sense of personal responsibility. We never admit guilt.
A 20th century psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, wrote a book about this modern phenomenon titled Whatever Became of Sin? He thought we needed to “restore that ancient, direct, and quite offensive word to our vocabulary.”
It’s interesting that way this plays out in the church. I remember the story of a woman who attended church, years ago, and joined in the reading of the corporate prayer of confession. It angered her. She insisted that she had not committed any of those sins, so she refused to attend church ever again. One of my mentors was fully against using a prayer of confession. “People already feel bad about themselves,” he said. “They don’t need a prayer of confession that brings them down.”
When I was in seminary, there was a book that had become a national best seller, I’m OK, You’re OK. We read it in one of my classes. When we were done, the professor said that he admired the intent – to help people feel better about themselves, but that it didn’t account for sin (my words, not his.) He suggested that the title of the book, were it to be Christian in its outlook, should be I’m Not Ok, You’re Not OK, But That’s OK.
“How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter asked. We’re so accustomed, in human life, to try to balance the books, to even things out. So, Peter, who had seen something different in Jesus, offered to be a forgiving person – seven times! (Seven, as a number, indicated a sense of wholeness.) Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Some translations suggest it should say seventy times seven. In others words, don’t count. And he told a parable about forgiveness. The king forgave an unpayable amount. We’re told the slave owed 10,000 talents – and a talent was fifteens years of wages. So, the slave owed 150,000 years’ worth of wages! And the king forgave that debt.
We hear in this story about the magnitude of the forgiveness God gives us. It is something we can never repay. We can’t earn our way into God’s grace. It is given. It is a gift. It is beyond our imagining.
The slave, having received this great gift, left. But he encountered someone who owed him money – 100 days’ wages. When that debtor pleaded for time, the slave responded with anger and threw the debtor into prison. When the slave was brought back to the king, the king punished him as he had punished the one who owed him.
Our forgiveness is to flow from an awareness of God’s grace in our lives – that we have been given something that we can never repay. The only appropriate response is to extend that same grace to others. We have not truly understood the magnitude of God’s forgiveness if we live in ways that withhold forgiveness from others. “I’m not OK, “You’re not OK, but that’s OK speaks to an understanding that we live in a world where sin is committed – by everyone. But we live in a world that is touched by God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s promise of new life, new creation.
It is still hard for the Body of Christ to practice forgiveness. Congregations are torn asunder by hurt feelings. People walk away and we don’t know how to respond, how to heal, how to live with each other when wounds are deep and hurts are real.
In 2006, Charlie Roberts killed five children and wounded five others in an Amish schoolhouse. The nation was stunned by the violence – and astounded by the response from the Amish community. I’d like to share reflections from Charlie Roberts’ mother. A decade later she spoke about the aftermath.
"As I turned on the radio on the way there, the newscaster was reporting that there had been a shooting at the local Amish schoolhouse," Terri Roberts tells her friend Delores Hayford during a recent visit to StoryCorps.
"By that time I was at my son's home, and I saw my husband and the state trooper standing right in front of me as I pulled in," she continues. "And I looked at my husband, he said, 'It was Charlie.' He said, 'I will never face my Amish neighbors again.' "
That week, the Robertses had a private funeral for their son, but as they went to the gravesite, they saw as many as 40 Amish start coming out from around the side of the graveyard, surrounding them like a crescent.
"Love just emanated from them," Terri says. "I do recall the fathers saying, 'I believe that I have forgiven,' but there are some days when I question that."
Terri finds it especially hard to accept that forgiveness when she thinks of one of the survivors, Rosanna.
"Rosanna's the most injured of the survivors," she explains. "Her injuries were to her head. She is now 15, still tube-fed and in a wheelchair. And she does have seizures, and when it gets to be this time of year, as we get closer to the anniversary date, she seizes more. And it's certainly not the life that this little girl should have lived."
Terri asked if it would be possible for her to help with Rosanna once a week.
"I read to her, I bathe her, dry her hair," says Terri, who herself is battling cancer.
And, while she can't say it with 100 percent certainty, Terri believes Rosanna knows who she is.
"I just sense that she does know," she says.
"I will never forget the devastation caused by my son," says the 65-year-old Terri. "But one of the fathers the other night, he said, 'None of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it, you can't put a price on that.' "
"And their choice to allow life to move forward was quite a healing balm for us," she says. "And I think it's a message the world needs."
“Our Father” is the way we begin this powerful prayer. Maybe that’s an important thing to remember when we get to this line about forgiveness. It’s never just about me or some small us. It’s about this world that God loves, about community, about relationships, and about restoration.
Kalas wrote, “Jesus is telling us that in some strange way, forgiveness is all of one piece. As we forgive, we are forgiven. Mind you, the process of forgiveness begins with God who has extended mercy to us. But this divine majesty is meant to be passed along, and if it is not passed on, it ceases to work in our own lives.”
I had never heard this particular legend, but it is said that Leonardo da Vinci, when he was painting the Last Supper, decided to put an enemy’s face on Judas Iscariot. Then he found that he could not paint the face of Christ. When he finally forgave his enemy, the face of Christ appeared to him in a dream.
Kalas concluded, "When we hold something against another person, we begin to shut out the face of Christ, and when the image of our Lord is blurred, we no longer have the faith to accept forgiveness…So it is that forgiveness for my own sins is made impossible – not because God is unmerciful, but because when I hold something against another, I shut out the vision that gives me the faith to accept forgiveness.