“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)
Right on the heels of asking for provision—that God will meet our needs—Jesus teaches us to ask that our debts may be forgiven, and he adds the only note of “bargaining” in the Lord’s Prayer: if God will answer this prayer (the clear implication is that he will), we will likewise forgive everyone in debt to us.
He highlights this again right after the prayer, in verses 14-15.
Jesus talks about forgiveness a lot, so in the course of this series I’ve already written on it several times (here and here, for example). In this article, I want to take a step back and see forgiveness in light of what we’ve studied for the last few weeks: the reality of the kingdom of God and our place in it.
The Centerpiece Prayer
If the Lord’s Prayer is a ladder to heaven, opening up the way for heaven to come down and for us to go up, “forgive us our debts” is not the first step.
I find this fascinating because I would naturally expect that it would be: that I cannot expect any communion with God until I have forgiven and been forgiven.
1 John 1:9 offers familiar advice: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (NKJV). The best time to confess your sin is the moment you recognize it as sin. Unconfessed sin breaks our fellowship with God.
And yet here is Jesus, not requiring us to begin with this step. Instead he begins with a great deal of context: of focus on God himself, on his holiness, on his kingdom, on his will being done, here on earth as in heaven.
Then we take one step more and ask that God will meet our needs. In this we confess our deep and endless neediness and simultaneously recognize that God, by his very nature, is a Giver and Provider.
It’s only then that we arrive here: at the centerpiece.
In Western literary and oral forms we tend to place the important points at the beginning and at the end, with the middle being more a “supporting text.” Ancient Eastern literature is different: you will commonly find the main point right smack in the middle.
The Lord’s Prayer is all about communion with heaven, and it is forgiveness that makes that possible.
The Language of Debt
The language of debt makes it clear why this is so, and why forgiveness is so central to the whole of the gospel and to our lives. We must receive forgiveness, and likewise we must give it, or we will never enter the unhindered fellowship with God that is the gospel of the kingdom.
Of course sin can be spoken of in other ways. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer has “sins,” and William Tyndale brought “trespasses” into the prayer, a more aggressive idea than debt (h/t to experimentaltheology.blogspot.com for finding the origin of “trespasses.” We can speak of lawlessness, wrongdoing, evil, and iniquity. All these things are connected. The Greek word we translate “sin” is hamartia, literally “mark-missing.” As Paul puts it, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, KJV).
But debt emphasizes the way in which all of this creates bondage.
Debt is a very real burden. In one of his practical passages Paul urged believers not to borrow money (Romans 13:8), and Proverbs says“the borrower is slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). Debt means we are no longer free. Debt has a tendency to grow, and it hampers our ability to invest in the future or move forward into new things.
I know people who couldn’t go to the mission field because they needed to pay off school debts, who felt they couldn’t get married or change careers or make other life changes because they were so bound to pay off credit cards or student loans.
Debt keeps us tied to the past: we cannot move into the new until the old is paid off.
Debt makes us vulnerable as well. It’s one thing to hit bumps and snags in life when it’s just you, but when you’ve got major bills due? When collectors will start calling, and then your car might be repossessed, and then you’ve lost your house? When the government can start taking money right out of your bank account because you’ve defaulted on your taxes?
Debt multiplies tragedy and places us in real bondage.
The big idea here is that sin means we owe God something. There’s a tab being kept, and sooner or later it will grow to the point where we can call nothing our own, where we cannot be free of the past, and where we cannot do anything to better our own situations. Our whole lives will become about paying the debt off, but it’s hopeless.
We can’t do it. Pride says we can. Humility (which is truth) says we have to be rescued, because we can’t do this on our own.
In the ancient world debtors ended up in slavery, literally paying off their debts with their own lives. Even until very recently, debtors would end up in prison, and their children would carry on the bondage, with their lives mortgaged to getting their parents out of jail.
The Way Out
This is the moral situation of the world. We are in debt. In some very real sense, sin ties us to the past and creates a situation in which we owe. The idea of “making atonement for our sins” is easily romanticized, but the truth is we can’t do it.
Sinners who try to atone for themselves will find they are never able to come to the end of their debt—to feel that they have truly paid it off.
We saw in previous posts that as human beings, we were given dominion—kingship—over the earth. This is why it matters so much what we do. We are both powerful and responsible. Our actions matter. This is why we are held accountable and why the debt incurred is so big.
This is also why it matters when others sin against us. The debts created are real and weighty. When we do not forgive others, we hold them in a real kind of bondage. I don’t entirely understand how this works. But I know that in a moral and spiritual sense, it’s true.
So God has an offer. He will get us out debt: not by suggesting an aggressive payment plan, or lowering interest rates, or helping us liquidate assets we didn’t know we had.
He is offering to write our debts off. To give us a clean slate—a new beginning.
As his gift.
The catch is that if we accept this gift, we must extend it to others. We are not free to forgive debts when we are in debt ourselves. We have to call in everything owed to us so that we can apply it to our own debts. But if we accept freedom, in God’s economy, we must share it.
We no longer have a need to collect. We have to release our right to do so.
The Year of Release
In ancient Israel, God instituted a once-every-fifty-year celebration called the Year of Jubilee. For forty-nine years, the Israelite economy went on as normal. Debts were incurred and collected. Land changed hands, out of its ancestral ownership, as people sold it to pay off lenders. People who could not pay off their debts became slaves.
But every fifty years, the situation reversed. A national clean slate was declared. All debts were written off. Land went back to its original owners. Slaves were set free.
Jesus came preaching a message from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is on Me … to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners … to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2).
Many commentators connect this phrase with the Jubilee. The year of the Lord’s favor which Jesus came to preach is the year of release: the time in which debts are released and everyone is free.
Free to start over. Free to buy, to sell, to prosper, to grow.
And free to forgive.
We cannot atone for our sins. We can’t pay off the debt we owe. It grows, and it creates a vicious cycle from which we can’t escape. If we want to bring heaven to earth, if we want to see the kingdom of God come, there is only one way for us to do it.
By receiving forgiveness, and then by giving it.
(This is Part 65 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)
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