And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. - Matthew 6:12
This morning, I should like us to focus on this particular petition in the Lord¡¯s Prayer, but to come at it by first looking at its context, at the prayer as a whole.
First of all, Jesus did not say, ¡°These are the words you should use.¡± The text has a word that means ¡°like this,¡± or ¡°simply this,¡± and since this is contrasted with the ¡°vain repetitions¡± and the ¡°much speaking¡± of the heathen, ¡°simply like this¡± is probably appropriate.
Structurally, the prayer falls into three sections. The beginning focuses on the Lord. ¡°Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.¡± We then turn to our own needs: ¡°Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.¡± Finally, we turn again to the Divine: ¡°For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.¡±
It is absolutely essential to recognize that nothing in the prayer asks the Father to change his mind. It is the divine will that the name be hallowed, and that the kingdom come. It is the divine intent to give us our daily bread and to forgive us. It is not the divine intent to lead us into temptation, but it is the divine intent to deliver us from evil. We are simply asking God to do what God wants to do; and in view of the perfection of divine love and divine wisdom, nothing else makes sense. Any change in the divine will could only be a change for the worse. I suspect most of us have heard or felt the objection, ¡°But God doesn¡¯t lead us into temptation.¡± The same objection might logically be made to the other petitions as well: ¡°But God does give us our daily bread and forgive us.¡± It rests in the notion that if we don¡¯t pray the prayer, the divine policy might not be in our favor.
What we are doing, though, is quite different. We are acknowledging our need, because the Lord does not force anything on us. Forgiveness is offered constantly. It is up to us to accept the offer, and we do this by acknowledging that we need it.
We may also note that in the first and third sections, mention is made of ¡°the kingdom¡±. ¡°The kingdom¡± is a major theme in the story of the Bible. Early in Genesis, Abram is promised that his descendants will become a mighty kingdom, and from then on we follow the thread of that promise. Under David, the kingdom is finally founded, and seems secure; but then it comes apart, and at the end of the second book of Kings it looks as though it is all over. But then we have the prophets foreseeing a restoration, and ultimately, in the New Testament, Jesus proclaiming a new kingdom, a ¡°kingdom of heaven¡± or ¡°kingdom of God.¡±
Every loyal Jew of those times longed for the restoration of the kingdom, and many who heard the prayer would assume that this was what it was talking about. However, the closing words of the prayer challenge that reading. The kingdom is not Israel¡¯s, but God¡¯s.
The last general observation I would like to make is one that has only recently dawned on me. For all of us, I suspect, this is a personal prayer. When I use it, I have in mind my own need for daily bread, for forgiveness, for deliverance. Nowhere in the prayer, though is the first person singular used. It is ¡°our¡± Father, not ¡°my¡± father. It is ¡°our¡± daily bread, ¡°our¡± debts and debtors. It asks the Father to lead and deliver ¡°us,¡± not ¡°me.¡±
It suddenly seems clear that this is a prayer for a community--a prayer for the ¡°kingdom of heaven.¡± It could make a great deal of sense when we pray it together. It could, that is, if we had the grace to use it as an expression of our care for each other. None of us is alone in need. The person next to us, the person behind us, the person in front of us, all share in the human condition. We are all trying to find our way, all faced with choices that are not of our making. We all have a darker side that troubles us. We all know that our resources are limited, that we have failed ourselves and those nearest us on occasion. The Psalmist said it: ¡°If you, O Lord, were to mark our iniquities, O Lord, who would stand?¡± We are in this together.
This does not mean that we cannot use the prayer in private, not at all. In the discourse leading up to it, the Lord tells us to enter into our closet and shut the door. When we do that, though, we need not shut each other out of our hearts and minds. Our private prayers can and should give voice to our care for each other; and if we use the Lord¡¯s Prayer with a consciousness of these plurals, of the ¡°our¡± and the ¡°us,¡± it can be a constant reminder of our involvement in the human family.
We are important to each other, and this leads me to our text, ¡°And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.¡± Luke puts it a little differently: ¡°And forgive us our sins, since we forgive those who are indebted to us.¡± It may take both versions to cover the vast territory of the way we affect each other.
Let us start with a very important negative. We do not have power over each other¡¯s souls. We can neither save nor damn each other. Sometimes it seems as though we are prey to a kind of sociological determinism, a frame of mind that justifies our own transgressions by blaming them on our circumstances, and there is no denying the statistics. Our theology would insist, though, that the Lord makes sure that we always have a choice. Does this mean that will power is all it takes, that regardless of our circumstances, we can all be perfectly upright citizens?
Perhaps the fairest way to resolve this is to say that while we do not make choices for each other, we do limit the range of each other¡¯s choices. To take a simple example, think of a parent watching two of her children disagree about something. If they seem to be trying to work it out amicably, the parent can serve as a kind of facilitator, appreciating the way they are behaving, offering a suggestion if they get stuck, and the like. There are decisions to be made about how much to leave up to the children, and there is a real possibility of mistakes. The overprotective parent may simply take over. But if one of the children decides to resolve the situation by force, one range of options is no longer open. Then a different set of alternatives is presented, ranging from loud verbal intervention to physical restraint or punishment.
We are doing this sort of thing to each other all the time, offering some opportunities and precluding others. We can, then, see ourselves as indebted to each other both positively and negatively. We can see ourselves as indebted to each other for all the doors we open and as owing each other for all the doors we close.
The Lord¡¯s Prayer, though, is trying to lead us out of any ¡°accounting¡± mentality. It leads nowhere. There is no way we can count up our credits and debits. We certainly need to try to understand how we are affecting each other, but the purpose is not to keep some kind of balance sheet, some kind of ledger. The purpose is to learn how to affect each other more helpfully; and it really helps if we start every situation with a clean slate. The current situation in the Balkans shows vividly, on a wide screen, what can happen if we try to even the score. The debts are real. Until both the offender and the offended recognize and forgive them, there will be no peace.
Each of us is in both roles. We are imperfect people in an imperfect world, both sinning and sinned against. We are also people who are trying to live by the Lord¡¯s commandments, doing a great deal that is profoundly worthwhile. We can corrupt the good we do by wallowing in the sense of being unappreciated. We can corrupt the good that others do for us by finding fault with it or by taking it for granted as our right.
In short, the whole ¡°credit and blame¡± game is a disaster from the word go. Swedenborg puts it very forcefully in Heaven and Hell (n. 302):
If only people believed the way things really are, that everything good is from the Lord and that everything bad is from hell, they would not take credit for the good or take blame for the bad. In anything good they thought about or did, they would focus on the Lord, and when anything bad flowed in, they would throw it back into the hell it came from. But since people do not believe in any influx from heaven and from hell, and therefore think that everything they think and intend is within themselves and therefore from themselves, they take ownership of the evil, and spoil the good the flows in by taking credit for it.
¡°Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.¡± This needs ultimately to be an internal transaction. As long as we are keeping score on ourselves, we will find ourselves keeping score on each other. We might as well face the fact that we cannot change the past. We might as well also face the fact that it is all we have to learn from. There is no way we can calculate whether our debits outweigh our credits, or vice versa. The effort to do so is an exercise in futility. What we can do is keep trying to understand, and try to keep wiping the slate clean. May this come to mind every time we reach the center of the Lord¡¯s Prayer: ¡°And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.¡±