The Three Phases of Forgiveness
First Baptist Church Laurens
October 9, 2016
There is a common experience that many of us have with the Lord’s Prayer. It is something that often arises as we reach our phrase for today which is verse 12 in Matthew’s version of the prayer. Any time we are reciting the prayer as a part of our worship service, at a funeral or as a part of some other setting, when we begin to say, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” we suddenly realize that everyone chooses a different word. Some of us use “debt” and “debtors” others of us use “sin” and “sinners” and still others use prefer “trespass” and “trespassers”.
But which is correct? It is one of those mysteries of the faith, right up there with why Baptists never sing the third stanza of any hymn or why ministers often wear the ugliest ties and have the worst hair – present company excluded of course!?!
Bob Albritton, who was a pastor in Raleigh and a mentor of mine during my days in seminary, once shared an old folk tradition about this. Bob said that according to the tradition, the choice of different words went back to the time when most Episcopalians were landowners and most Presbyterians were merchants. The Episcopalian landowners thought of sin in terms of those who trespassed on their land and thus preferred that image. At the same time, the Presbyterian merchants thought of sin in terms of those who bought goods from them and struggled to pay their bill and thus were debtors. In this old tale, the Episcopalians used trespasses when they said the prayer and the Presbyterians used debtors and they thus influenced everyone else.
The truth, I am afraid, is not near as creative and is much more connected to the original Greek language of the New Testament than to the preferences of early denominations. You see, when Matthew offered his version of The Lord’s Prayer, he used the Greek word that we translate as “debtor”, when Luke offered his version, he used the a different Greek term that is better rendered in English as “sins” and when Matthew speaks further about forgiveness in verse 14 of our passage, he uses yet another Greek word that we translate as “trespasses”. So, all three words are used and thus one or the other becomes everyone’s own personal preference or was the preference of the church in which we grew up and where we first learned these words of Jesus. (The folk tale and explanation of the three translations is from Albritton’s sermon “Forgive Us As We Forgive” on 3.26.2006 at Millbrook Baptist Church, Raleigh, NC)
In the end though, all three mean virtually the same – they are all ways of speaking of sin either by using the word itself or by using another synonym that offers a slightly different way of thinking about the same thing. Likewise, all of them lead us to Jesus’ point – in the midst of our sins, our trespasses, our debts – prayer is the place and space that God offers us each day within which to seek forgiveness, receive grace and to begin again.
Having said all of that, I like the idea of sin as debt. We can all relate to owing a debt that seems insurmountable or that we could never, ever repay. Last year, as the small European nation of Croatia struggled with high unemployment, little growth in their economy and a tremendous amount of poverty, they made the decision to wipe out the debt of all citizens who had unpaid bills of $5,000 or less. $5,000 there in Croatia was a much, much bigger deal than that same amount of debt might be here. In fact, their expectation was that 60,000 citizens would qualify and apply for this one time relief offer. What I found even more interesting was what they decided to call the program. It was called New Beginning. (Croatia Forgiving Debt of Some of Its Poorest Citizens, Joseph Orovic & Alison Smale, 2.4.15, The New York Times)
In prayer, as we are in conversation with our heavenly father who loves us and knows us, this is the place where we confess our sins, are honest about our failures and admit our mistakes. Thus, this is also the place where the great debts of our lives are forgiven, where our slate is wiped clean and where we are offered the new beginning of God similar to that which was offered to the Croation people.
This, however, is only the first phase of forgiveness as we pray. For the second phase is equally important. Our receiving God’s daily forgiveness comes with the expectation that we will be just as generous in our willingness to forgive the debts of others.
Here I think the word debt is again a good and helpful word. The people who make up our lives are always doing things, just as we do, for which they will never, ever be able to properly make amends. They hurt us, says things about us, act in ways that harm us. They also do things and say things that don’t directly have a baring on us personally, but, that do harm others and our world. These decisions cannot be repaid, glossed over or erased from our memories. The word here is “debts” that cannot and will not be satisfied.
Yet, as we joyfully, eagerly and gratefully accept God’s wiping our slate clean, we are at the same time gently reminded in our conversattions with God that the expectation is that we will act with the same generosity to others.
Let me say it another way. When we embrace God’s forgiveness, what we are doing is affirming God’s ability to clear our away badness in order to once again see our goodness. We all believe that our momentary badness has covered over the good and we are grateful when God sets things right for us. What God is asking us to do, as we are in conversation with him, is to offer the same to others.
I was moved by reading recently a story from the days of the televangelist scandals that took place back in the late 80s and early 90s. According to the story, as one of these television ministers had their empire crumble as a result of some less than flattering revelations, there came a day when everything that they owned was to be auctioned away. During the auction, one of the items that was sold was the minister’s desk. Interestingly, a mysterious fellow who had flown to the auction from Toronto solely to buy that desk not only succeed in his purchase but appeared poised to spend whatever was necessary on what was nothing but an ordinary desk. Watching in the background was a newspaper reporter who was covering the auction and who found that moment to be intriguing.
The reporter approached the man from Canada and ask if there was a particularly reason that he so wanted the desk so badly. “Absolutely,” the man replied. “You see, my wife and I were separated for a number of years. Honestly, I thought there was no hope for the survival of our marriage and so I had basically written off our future together. Then, one day for some reason, she came to the U.S. and heard this man speak. She was moved by what she heard and called me and ask that I come that we might meet with him together. In the end, he led us both to Christ, saved our marriage and was used by God to totally change our future. This is the desk that he sat behind with us on the other side. This desk symbolizes that moment for me. And, while I know he was far from perfect, it reminds me of the good he did for me and I wanted to buy this desk to remember that moment in our lives and also to remember that truth about him.” (Let Me Tell You A Story, Tony Campolo, Thomas Nelson, 200, pg. 157-159)
You know, we live in a world where we want to paint everyone as all good or all bad. If folks are all good in our eyes then we struggle to see them as capable of any bad. If folks are all bad in our eyes, then, we fail to believe that they could do any good whatsoever. But, with us, God brushed away the bad to again see the good. He cancelled our debt that we might have a “new beginning”. He also, begs us each day as we reach out to accept this for ourselves to do the same for others. As Jesus himself says in verse 14, “for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
The first phase of forgiveness is our admission and God’s grace for us followed by the second phase of doing the same for others, and yet, prayer I think leads us to a final phase. The final phase is the moving from conversation to action.
It is not enough for us to affirm God’s forgiveness of us. Likewise, it is not enough for us to agree with God in our daily conversation that others are equally worth of this same canceling of debt. No, it must go deeper than what we say. Prayer must never become merely an intellection conversation with a Holy God. Prayer is ultimately about our own behavior change not God’s which means we must come to the place where we begin to live out this forgiveness for ourselves and for others.
One of my favorite episodes of The Andy Griffith Show is called Man In A Hurry. It is about a businessman named Malcolm Tucker who has car trouble while passing through Mayberry. The problem is that it all happens on a Sunday and Mr. Tucker can’t find anyone willing to fix his car on the Sabbath. In the episode, there is a scene where Mr. Tucker, Andy and Barney are on the Taylor family front porch. It is Sunday afternoon and Mr. Tucker is pacing, Andy is playing the guitar softly and Barney is half asleep in the chair opposite Andy. Barney in his half asleep demeanor begins to say over and over again, “Tell you what I am going to do. I am going to go home, take a nap, and then go over to Thelma Lou’s and watch a little T.V…Yep, that is what I am going to do.” Over and over he says it while continuing to sit motionless. Finally, unable to take it anymore, Mr. Tucker screams at Barney, “For goodness sakes man, do it! Just do it. Go home! Take a nap! Go over to Thelma Lou’s! Watch TV! Do it!!”
In its own humorous way, the show catches the human dilemma of continually affirming a decision while never actually carrying it out! This is our dilemma too. We thank God for canceling our debt – for forgiveness. But then we walk away from our prayers to relive those same poor decisions over and over again. Or, we hear God remind us to forgive others and then we go and continue to ignore their inherent goodness and God’s grace because of a past that we cannot get beyond.
The writer Rita Snowden was seated in a British cafe one day in a small seaport town. While there, she became aware of a powerful yet lovely aroma that was so palpable that she asked the waiter if he had any idea what she was smelling. “Why yes,” he said. “Do you see the people passing by outside? It is time for the shift change at the factory down the way. It is a perfume factory and the people who come and go from there carry the scent of that place with them wherever they go.” (Campolo, pg. 164-165)
This is God’s calling on us – as we come and go from prayer, to take with us in action and in deed the scent of forgiveness for ourselves and for others. Amen.