Our Second Reading this morning comes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter six, verses 7-12. This is week six in our series on the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus shares it with his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. Each week we are adding a phrase or a verse to our reading as we move through the prayer together. Especially in the midst of the vision of authentic and alternative Christianity which Jesus presents in the Sermon on the Mount, we discover this is no ordinary prayer. It is a prayer which reminds us about who God is and who we are. It teaches us about the world and the kingdom of God. We learn about faith and reliance; about justice and mercy. Yes, to pray this prayer, this Lord’s Prayer, in the quiet of our rooms and together as the people of God, is to discover what it means to follow Jesus.
Each week in this series, I have also attempted to share at least one practical word or tip about prayer before we read the scripture. I have suggested that you pray the Lord’s Prayer several times a day, you might shoot up arrow prayers, and that you need not be too fearful of letting your mind wander while you pray as God might be using your wanderings to lift up what you really should be praying for. I’ve encouraged open eyed conversational prayers before meals and this morning let me encourage you to use scripture as you pray.
That might be something quite formal like committing to read and pray one psalm as a part of your daily devotional. You will be amazed at the wide range of human emotion and prayerful requests and demands the psalmist makes as you pray the psalms. You might also try a shorter, sentence prayer that you can repeat throughout the day. Something like, “Come, Lord Jesus;” or “Jesus, remember me,” or perhaps “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” Just simple, single verses of scripture to keep your conversation with God going throughout the day.
Now, let us hear this Word of God to us as found in Matthew, chapter 6, verses 7-12.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Ok, let’s get the big question out of the way first. I suspect that you have been to a wedding or a funeral or some other worship setting in which everyone begins the Lord’s Prayer together. But then we hit this petition and the wheels fall off. Presbyterians say debts and then awkwardly pause while the Methodists, Episcopalians, and Baptists try to hurry through their trespasses. So, which is it? Debts or trespasses?
Perhaps it depends on whether you are a banker or a farmer. … But seriously, the distinction seems to stem from the early English translations of scripture. William Tyndale incorrectly translated the Greek word opheilemata from verse 12 as “trespasses.” Thomas Cranmer, who wrote the English Book of Common Prayer followed Tyndale and so taught the Lord’s Prayer as “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In contrast, our Presbyterian ancestors in Scotland in their directory for worship followed the King James Version of Matthew 6:12 which correctly translated opheilemata as “debts.”1
So based on ancient translation differences Episcopalians, Methodists, and Baptists say “trespasses” and Presbyterians say “debts.” But apart from the occasional awkward attempt at unison prayer, does it really matter? On the one hand, it does not. Both indicate that followers of Jesus Christ we are in trouble for wrongdoing. Remember this is not a prayer Jesus teaches everyone in the world, no he teaches his disciples to pray this way. Yes, this petition reminds us that disciples of Jesus Christ are sinners too.
But on the other hand, whether we say debts or trespasses and how that impacts what we mean by the forgiveness we pray for, makes all the difference. Theologian Karl Barth writes, “The forgiveness of sins is the basis, the sum, the criterion, of all that may be called Christian life or faith.”2
So, yes, this is most important. In some ways this might be the most important petition in the entire Lord’s Prayer. For we pray to Our Father, the only one able to forgive sins. We ask for the Lord’s kingdom to come and SIN bars our entry to it. We pray for the Lord’s will to be done, that Jesus will enact the forgiveness he accomplished on the cross. We ask for daily bread, revealing our complete and utter dependence upon God.
Yes, utter dependence upon God. I believe our utter dependence upon God is best expressed with the word “debt.” For to trespass is a conscious act, to cross a boundary, break a rule. And we usually think of sin in that way, don’t we? As a conscious act, as a decision of the will? We sin against God by choosing to disobey. We sin against neighbors by hurting one another. And others sin against us in the same conscious way.
All that is true, but if we think of sin as “debt” we find something different all together. We might take on debt through free will, like when sign a credit card slip at the grocery store. But in a larger sense, we find ourselves indebted.
Perhaps you remember the classic movie White Christmas. In the movie’s opening scene, Danny Kaye pushes Bing Crosby out of the way of a falling wall, saving his life. In the process Kaye slightly injures his arm. Recognizing what Kaye has done for him, Crosby feels indebted. Crosby didn’t ask for or chose or earn this gift, he just received it. Throughout the rest of the movie, whenever Kaye wants Crosby to do something for him, he has to merely touch his arm, now fully healed, and Crosby always agrees because of the debt.
My friends, like Bing Crosby’s debt to Danny Kaye, we are indebted to God. God created us, so we owe our very existence to God. God has provided for and sustained us, so we own our ongoing existence to God. God has saved us, so we owe our future existence to God. From beginning to end we are utterly dependent upon God. And that dependence renders us indebted.
Again, Karl Barth writes:
We are God’s debtors. We owe him not something, whether it be little or much, but quite simply, our person in its totality; we owe him ourselves. We, his children … come short of what we owe to God. … We find ourselves incapable of setting it right.
For even when we live as Christians, we increase our debt, we aggravate the “mess” of our situation. It grows from day to day. And I think that the older one becomes, the more one realizes there is no hope for us.3 There is no hope for us because we think we ourselves can climb out of this hole of indebtedness. So we grab our shovel and get to work. We shovel harder and harder and find ourselves digging the hole deeper and deeper. It does not matter how righteous we are or attempt to be. The reality is that our debt grows deeper every minute of every day. This is not just the conscious act of sin; this is the human condition of sin with a capital “S.” Alienation from God and one another. Deeper and deeper in debt; digging ourselves deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit. Struggling in the darkness we pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Can you begin to see that what we are praying for is not just a smiley face at the end of an apology note? Forgiveness is not covering over a wound and pretending that everything is fine. Forgiveness is not a happy ending to a short story. It is not “I’m ok, you’re ok, no problem here, officer.” That is not what this is about at all.
No, we pray for a forgiveness that is costly. We pray for a forgiveness that comes down into the pit of human existence and drags us out kicking and screaming. We pray for a forgiveness that judges our endless efforts at selfjustification and puts us on an entirely different path. We pray for a forgiveness that is not a skill we achieve or a scheme we acquire, but a new reality of grace we are invited to enter, singing “Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the dark of doubt away; Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day. We pray for a forgiveness that is nothing less than the resurrection of the dead.
Yes, forgiveness of sin is at the center of our Christian life because it is nothing less than the resurrection of the dead. We are dead in our sin. Our debt is that great. So forgiveness, resurrection, is not cheap. It is costly. Forgiveness costs God everything! And God willingly and graciously pays the ultimate price
giving his life for us on the cross and then conquering sin and death on the third day with an empty tomb. As my friend and former Dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte Tom Currie has written, “Forgiveness is costly because it costs God something to forgive, and it costs us something to receive.
The second part is what we forget. Forgiveness is costly for us to receive because it means putting down our shovels, our pride and self-justification. It is opening our hands to receive this amazing gift. In forgiveness God invites us to admit, to confess, that we are ultimately dependent upon God. In forgiveness God offers us opportunity to admit, to confess, that we cannot save ourselves.
But even more than that, forgiveness is costly because as ones who have received such a gift, we become obligated to share with those indebted to us. We cannot fully receive the gift of forgiveness if we are holding a stack of IOUs from our family, friends, and adversaries. Former Pittsburgh Theological Seminary president Bill Carl puts it this way:
Don’t pray this prayer unless you are ready to forgive others who have wronged you; for what you are praying literally is “Forgive me, God, the way I’m forgiving others.” But if you aren’t forgiving others, if you aren’t letting all that stuff they have done to you go, you are cutting yourself off from the love of God, not because of God’s doing, but because of your own actions. This is not conditional forgiveness, for God’s forgiveness is not contingent on our forgiving others. God will never hold back. We’re the ones holding back. We wall ourselves off from God’s giving love when we don’t share that love with others.
My friends, I don’t know about you, but I know that I have a grudge that I have been carry around for far too long, a disagreement with a member of my extended family. It is a wall between us and as I have discovered this week it is a barrier between me and God. The sin still bothers me greatly. And yet, together we pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It cost God everything to forgive me. Will I, will you, enter into the depth of the pain and by God’s grace, emerge from it with a relationship restored?
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: