Monday, August 20, 2012
“Forgive Us Our Debts”
Anyone who has recited the Lord's Prayer in a church service knows that there is some confusion over whether the Fifth Petition should read "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," as we have it in Matt. 6:12, or "forgive us our sins," as it is worded in Luke 11:4. Both readings, however, are correct. The reason for the difference in wording is this: Jesus was no doubt speaking in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew, and the everyday speech of First Century Palestine. He evidently used the Aramaic word "khuva," which literally means a financial dept, but also came to mean metaphorically a moral debt that results from sin. Matthew, writing primarily for a Jewish audience, gives us the literal translation, while Luke, writing for a broader audience that included Gentiles, use what we would call today the "dynamic equivalent." A Gentile would not have necessarily known that when Jesus used the word "debt" He was actually referring to sins.
The Fifth Petition bears a resemblance to the Sixth Benediction of the Jewish Tefillah, which reads, "Pardon us, our Father, for we have sinned against thee. Wipe out and remove our transgressions from before thine eyes, for great are thy mercies. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who aboundest in forgiving." What is different about the two prayers is the condition that Jesus attaches to His: "as we forgive our debtors." The Tefillah, on the other hand, at least in a later version, calls down the wrath of God upon the various opponents of the Jews: "For the renegades let there be no hope, and may the arrogant kingdom soon be rooted out in our days, and the Nazarenes and the minim perish as in a moment and be blotted out from the book of life and with the righteous may they not be inscribed . . ." (Benediction Twelve). "Nazarenes" is a reference to Christians (followers of Jesus the Nazarene).
The statement "as we forgive our debtors" in the Lord's Prayer may seem out of place in a plea for forgiveness. If we are confessing our guilt this is not the place to be reciting our spiritual accomplishments. But Jesus goes on to explain: "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:14,15; NKJV).
On a later occasion Peter approached Jesus and asked: "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" (Matt. 18:21). Jesus replied with one of His famous stories: A king wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One of the servants, however, owed him 10,000 talents, an enormous sum of money. The king ordered him to be sold, along with his wife and children and entire estate to liquidate the debt. The servant begged for mercy, and the king, out of the kindness of his heart, forgave him the debt.
But then there is an interesting twist to the story. As it turns out there was another servant who owed the first servant 100 denarii, a much smaller amount than what the first servant had owed the king. The second servant likewise begged for mercy, but the first servant refused to listen. He had the debtor thrown in jail.
The other servants, shocked at the first servant's behavior, reported the matter to the king. The king, in turn, was outraged, and asked the servant a pointed question: "Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?" (v. 33). The king then concluded the story by saying "So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses" (v. 35).
Is Jesus here inculcating a kind of works-righteousness, making our eternal destiny contingent upon our own good works? Not at all. It is not a matter of our earning our salvation. It is a matter of our genuinely repenting of our sins. A plea for forgiveness out be arise from a recognition that a system of pure justice will result in the condemnation of us all. If we recognize ourselves as sinners in need of forgiveness, then we must recognize those who have sinned against us as needing forgiveness as well. It is a recognition of our common guilt and our common need of God's grace. If we see our own personal need for redemption then logically we should be able to see that same need in others as well. If I cannot sympathize with the predicament of my fellow sinners it is because I do not recognize my own predicament, and my "repentance" is insincere. My plea for forgiveness in disingenuous.
We are sinners, and we need forgiveness. Let us be willing to forgive others as we would wish to be forgiven ourselves.