“Forgive our debts” The Lord’s Prayer, Part 5

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
November 13, 2022
The Lord’s Prayer, Part 5
Matthew 6:9-15, 18: 23-35

Sermon recorded on Friday, November 11, 2022, at Bluemont Presbyterian Church

At the beginning of worship:

I came across a quote this week that struck me. “The worst thing is not being wrong but being sure one is not wrong.”[1] Let that sink in. “Being sure we are not wrong.” Why is that so bad? Because we often fail to see or understand our sinfulness. It’s easy to see sin in others, but harder to see it in ourselves. But one day, we’ll all stand before God’s throne. And we will all stand in need of forgiveness. But we don’t like to forgive, do we? We’re going to talk about this today. 

Before reading today’s scripture

Today we’re looking at the fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. 

Debts or Trespasses

Historically, those of us in the Reformed Tradition, including Presbyterians, have always said debts and debtors. When I say the Lord’s Prayer at a funeral or an ecumenical gathering, I just quietly say debts knowing I’ll be drowned out by those who say trespasses. I am not sure why others—from Roman Catholics to most Protestants—say trespasses. 

In preparation for this sermon series, one of the books I read was by two Methodists, William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas. I thought they might enlighten me, as the Methodists say trespasses. Instead, they admitted that while there is a long history of saying trespasses in the prayer, it’s not what’s in the Bible.[2] Maybe this is the one thing we get right.

If you look at almost all English translations of the Lord’s Prayer from the King James Version on, the Greek is translated as debts. Now, right after the prayer, as we’ll see, Jesus speaks of trespasses. But not in the prayer. In the prayer as recorded in Luke’s gospel, Jesus uses the words for sin and for debts.[3] I think there is a reason for the use of debts, for we are all in debt to God. 

Read Matthew 6:9-15 & 18:23-35

The Swamp Fox

I have been listening to John Oller’s, The Swamp Fox, an audible book this week.[4] The Swamp Fox was Francis Marion. A Revolutionary War hero from South Carolina, Marion did his best to be a thorn in the side of the British and Loyalists. This was especially true as Britain began its Southern Strategy in 1780, with the hopes of gathering loyalists and moving north to trap George Washington and his army. During this period, Marion destroyed British supply routes between the coast and the upland. As Cornwallis’ army moved north, it was ill prepared for what they would face and eventually they became trapped. Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, and the war ended. 

South Carolina during the Revolutionary Way

During the war, South Carolina had more engagements than any other colony and was the bloodiest theater. But in many ways, the Revolutionary War in South Carolina wasn’t so much a war against Britain, but a Civil War. While there were a few British regulars in South Carolina, much of the combat occurred between loyalists and patriots. At the time, these two groups were also known as the Torys and the Whigs. They were merciless toward the other. And sometimes, spats between neighbors determined which side one was on. 

When a patriot did something to his neighbor, his neighbor became a loyalist and fought for Britain. This also went the other way, too. The armies burned homes of their enemies, and often killed their prisoners. Marion supposedly detested such behavior and was willing to court-martial his own soldiers when they behaved in such a manner. But he had his hands full. Because of the animosity between groups, after the war, most loyalists migrated to Canada or back across the sea. 

South Carolina was not a good place in the Revolution

South Carolina would not have been a good place to live in the late 1770s and early 1780s. (I’m not sure it’s any better today, but I’ll leave it at that and not include more of my North Carolina bias). But I hope you can you see how the lack of forgiveness leads to chaos. The home of one side was burned, someone else burns a home of someone on the other side of the conflict. I think it was Gandhi (at least in the movie) who said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” 

What’s So Amazing About Grace?

In his book What’s So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey says grace is the best gift the church has given the world. But two pages later, he also acknowledges that the church often communicates ungrace to the world.[5] When we in the church fail to grant forgiveness, we don’t appear graceful!

Physical needs before forgiveness

As we saw last week, Jesus, in the Lord’s Prayer, first takes care of our physical needs. “Give us our daily bread,” is the first petition that concerns us directly. Then, on its heels, Jesus addresses the human condition.[6] We are a sinful people. Not only do we need to eat, but we also need forgiveness. And we need to forgive others. It’s the only way we can break the cycle of vengeance that is too prevalent in our world today. 

Forgiveness is difficult

But face it, forgiveness is hard.[7] And it’s not very popular. Many churches forego prayers of confession, which I think is one of the most important prayers we have. After all, where else can we find forgiveness. It’s the one unique thing the church has to the offer the world. Lots of what the church does can be done by other groups, and in many cases, they can do it better. But Jesus gave the church the keys to the kingdom.[8] We have the right to proclaim the forgiveness of sin that can only come through Jesus Christ. No other group has that kind of gift that is so desperately needed in our world today.

We are debtors!

This prayer assumes we have debts. This may have come from an old concept where, when we sin, a notation is made into a ledger indicating the debt we now owe. And debts need to be repaid. It’s the only way the books can balance. Yet, we are all guilty. In other words, we are all debtors. As Paul writes, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”[9] Our debt may be from that which we have done which is against God or against neighbor. And it may be that which we left undone but should have done. There’s a ledger book for us all and it’s filled with sins of commission and omission.

Forgiveness is not cheap

Sin is serious and forgiveness is not cheap. Jesus paid the price for our sin, enabling us to be forgiven. The only way we can be forgiven is for God to wipe out our debt.

Forgiveness with a caveat

But this forgiveness comes with a caveat. While we are forgiven by God through Christ, in our striving to be more “Christ-like,” we are to be forgiving others who have done wrong to us. We don’t do this to obtain forgiveness. Instead, we forgive graciously, knowing what God has done for us. When we act in this manner, we break that cycle of revenge that threatens to tear our world apart. First God forgives us, then we are to go and do likewise and forgive others. 

When we forgive someone who’s wronged us, it’s like throwing “a monkey wrench into the eternal wheel of retribution and revenge.”[10] But it’s the only way forward. As C. S. Lewis once said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”[11]

Matthew 1

As we heard in our reading from Matthew 18, Jesus told a frightening parable about this. A man owed and obscene amount of money to his king. 10,000 talents. Each talent was worth 15 years of wages, so this man would never be able to pay unless he lived 150,000 years. We’re talking about a debt as great as what Elon Musk borrowed to buy Twitter. Now the king wants to clear his accounts. Unable to do so, the man and his family are to be sold into slavery. He begs his creditor, the king, for forgiveness. Surprisingly, the king relents and forgives. 

But the man who was forgiven such a great sum, was unwilling to forgive another who owed him 100 denarii, or the equivalent of 100 days of work. The one forgiven the obscene amount wasn’t willing to forgive the one who owed a fraction of what he owed. And the king in the story, who represents God, is furious when he learns about this ingratitude. We don’t want God furious at us, do we?

All of us need forgiveness and to be forgivin

We stand in need of forgiveness, but we must also be willing to forgive. Failing to forgive, the cycle of revenge will only grow and eventually lead to our destruction. The good news is that God forgives us. Accept this incredible gift and strive to let others also experience this gift. For when we forgive, we are displaying a central characteristic of a loving and gracious God. And may we do it all so that God will have the glory. Amen. 

c2022


[1] The quote is attributed to Paul Tournier, The Whole Person in a Broken World. It was posted on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brian_Scoles/status/1590754738794270720

[2] William H. Willimon & Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 79. 

[3] Luke 10:4. 

[4] John Oller, The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, Joe Barrett, narrator (2016).

[5] Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 30, 32. 

[6] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 309. 

[7] While I didn’t want to go down this path in this sermon, one of the problems I have with dispensationalism is that some theologians who hold such beliefs see the difficult teachings of Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount applying not to the present but to a future dispensation. This concept makes the commands in Jesus’ sermon easier for us to “ignore” in the present age because they are too hard, instead of seeing them as a goal which we may not successfully reach, but should still attempt.  See John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (1991) or Bruner, 310.

[8] Matthew 16:19. 

[9] Romans 3:23.

[10] Willimon and Hauerwas, 84. 

[11] This quote was quoted in What’s So Amazing about Grace?  See Yancey, 64. 

Saturday evening, looking toward the Buffalo at sunset

6 thoughts on ““Forgive our debts” The Lord’s Prayer, Part 5”

  1. For some reason I’ve always had more trouble with the “debtors” or “trespass against me” part. It’s not that I don’t want to forgive others… it’s just that I don’t always realize I’ve held on to a resentment that needs addressing. I try to make a point of asking God to open my eyes to those whom I need to forgive.

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