Forgive Us Our Debts As We Forgive Our Debtors

coins background macro close upThe fifth petition is “forgive us our debts.”  A consideration of God and his holiness, will, and kingdom will necessarily make us cognizant of our own sin and need of forgiveness.  We can’t draw near to God without simultaneously recognizing how far we are from him.   Repentance is always the appropriate response to a holy God.  Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness.

He does not simply teach us to ask for forgiveness, however.  He qualifies the petition by adding, “as we forgive our debtors.”  And what a qualifier this is!  To ask God for forgiveness seems easy and obvious, but we are taught to ask God to forgive us “as we forgive our debtors.”

That’s a significant “as.”  What does “as” mean here?  Not hard to understand.   The Greek conjunction hōs means “as” in the sense of “like.”  It introduces a simile.  We are asking God to forgive us “just as” or “in the same manner as” we forgive others.

I think I had probably prayed the Lord’s Prayer a few thousand times before what I was praying first penetrated my mind.  “God, forgive me my sins.  But I’m asking you to forgive me in the same way that I forgive my fellow man.  And if I’m hard-hearted, bitter, and unforgiving toward my fellow man, you apply that same standard toward me.  Don’t forgive me.

Yikes.  In a sense it is an easy thing to humble myself before God in seeking his forgiveness in the vertical dimension.  It is a much harder deal to do this in the horizontal dimension, with my fellow man.  My natural tendency (according to the sin nature) is to harbor resentment.  But the Lord’s Prayer teaches me that I can’t do this.  This prayer is the most practical thing in the world because it reminds me in my regular life of prayer that if I claim to follow Christ I must (no option!) live a life of radical grace to my fellow man.  I must live a life of forgiveness.

If we had any doubt that Jesus means exactly this in teaching us the Lord’s Prayer, our doubts are removed when we compare the rest of his teaching.  Consider Matthew 18:21-22:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”  22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 

The intent of Peter’s question is obvious: to fix a limit on forgiveness (in the horizontal realm).  It should also be recognized that Peter believes his seven time standard is an exceedingly gracious one.  Jesus’ answer explodes this understanding, however.  Not seventy, but seventy-seven (or “seventy times seven” – there is debate about how to understand Jesus’ answer).  In other words, there is no limit on forgiveness.  We buck at this, humanly speaking.  But, to underline his point, Jesus tells the parable of the unmerciful servant:

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.  25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.  26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’  27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.  28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.  29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’  30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.  32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.  35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

What could be clearer?  “This is how your heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”  Unless you forgive you can expect no forgiveness.  We should expect God to forgive us as we forgive others.

This is not easy for us to do.  We tend to amplify our neighbor’s sins and downplay our own.  The parable indicates that this is the problem.  We don’t recognize how great our debt is before a holy God (the GDP of nations was measured in talents – the servant had no ability to ever pay such a debt).  Whatever debts we are owed pale before the enormity of that debt burden.

This is also Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount.  We hypocritically spot the sins of our neighbors, but diminish our own:

Matthew 7:1-5  Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.  3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

We miss the log jutting from our own eye, but are good at spotting specks of dust in the eye of our neighbor.  We are natural born hypocrites, desperately in need of repentance displayed in gracious forgiveness.

We honor God by first recognizing our sinfulness and need of his grace.  Out of this flows a lifestyle of radical, Christ-like forgiveness of our neighbors.  The fifth petition is a reminder, a spiritual string on the finger, of our need to extend forgiveness to our neighbor.