The disciples approach Jesus and say,
Lord, teach us to pray.
So Jesus teaches them the prayer from which we get the Lord’s Prayer, which Catholics call the Our Father. But you know, the Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer; it is a brief outline of a whole relationship with God our Father. To reflect on the Lord’s Prayer is to learn what it means to be a daughter or son of God, so let’s reflect on just one of those things: God’s children forgive those who sin against them.
A minister of a church tells the story of an elderly lady, over ninety years of age, who hadn’t been to church for seventy-odd years. She was returning, you might say, after an extended absence. The minister was both welcoming and understandably curious.
He was completely shocked when he heard why she hadn’t been part of the church for most of her life. Let’s take the story up as he tells it:
“It was when we wanted to get married. We were in love. The rector wouldn’t marry us…” “So was there something wrong?” I asked. “Had your husband been married previously, or were you too young, maybe?”
“No,” she said calmly…trying hard not to be patronising or angry. “The rector looked at my hand. You see, I worked in a mill. I had an accident when I was 16.” She held up her left hand. The last three fingers were missing. “The rector said that since I didn’t have a finger to put the wedding ring on, he couldn’t marry us.”
The colour drained from my face. I reacted with the gasping half-laugh one coughs out when one hears something so ridiculous that it has to be funny—but of course it isn’t funny at all but deeply, deeply horrifying. It was so absurd that no one could have made it up. It had to be true. Suddenly I felt that 75 years away from the church was pretty lenient. “May I ask what brings you back to the church now?” I said, feeling I couldn’t go on without hearing her answer. “God’s bigger than the church,” she replied. “I’ll be dead soon. The Lord’s Prayer says forgive if you want to be forgiven. So that’s what I’ve decided to do.”
I stand in utter admiration of this woman. The words of Jesus live in her heart! So, what does the Lord’s Prayer says about forgiving others? The prayer Jesus taught us is found in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, though in different forms.
Luke’s Lord’s Prayer says
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone
indebted to us.
Matthew’s version says,
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Neither of them quite says what we’re used to praying:
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
You’ll see that both Matthew and Luke include some form of the word ‘debt’ in their prayer. Forgiving others is like releasing them from a debt. Indeed, we still talk about ‘forgiving a debt’, don’t we?
Years ago, when I was in theological college, we lent someone we knew several hundred dollars which we couldn’t afford. He gave us $50 quite soon after, with a promise of the rest before long. Time went on. I realised that the debt wasn’t going to be repaid. I was very angry. A friend of Karen’s said I should just let go of the debt. I prayed, and I found that I could let go. I never saw the money again, but I found peace.
Sometimes, forgiving another means forgiving a debt. Often it’s got nothing to do with money. But forgiving someone still means letting go.
Letting go of what? Letting go of our rights; letting go of the desire for punishment or revenge; letting go of bitterness.
When I lent those several hundred dollars all those years ago, I lent them on the understanding that they would be repaid. Clearly, I had a ‘right’ to expect the money to be returned. That was why I was so angry! Once it was clear that there was no intention to repay me, I had a choice. I could hang on to my rights and stay angry; or I could let go of my rights.
It took someone to say something that came from the heart of God to bring me to that decision point. Once I ‘let go’ of my rights to be repaid, my heart was lighter.
Secondly, we need to let go of a desire for someone to suffer the consequences of their actions. Often, we have an understandable belief that someone should suffer for what they’ve done. The punishment should fit the crime. At the very least, they should apologise!
But Jesus requires something greater of us. He requires us to let go of the desire to punish others or to seek revenge.
I was very impressed some years ago by an American United Methodist minister who told me that his father had been murdered during a break-in at his home. The law was dealing with the murderer, and he would receive the penalty the law dealt to him; but this minister went to the jail and told the man who’d killed his dad that he forgave him. It was one of the hardest things he’d ever done, but it was one of the best.
Thirdly, when we forgive someone we let go of bitterness. We may not feel bitter now; but years and years of unforgiveness yields an inevitable fruit of bitterness. The Book of Hebrews (12.14–15a) reminds us:
Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble…
Bitterness is the fruit of an unforgiving heart. The author Ann Lamott has said,
Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.
We forgive others for our own sake as much as for their sakes. We forgive others so that we may live well!
One further thing about forgiveness. People often say ‘forgive and forget’. You can’t do that. I still remember the man who didn’t repay the loan. I’m afraid I won’t be loaning him any more money. But I’ve let go of my rights, I’ve let go of any expectation of an apology, and I’m not bitter. We don’t forgive and forget, we forgive and let go. We may never get the chance to repair the friendship; but we can still forgive.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Let’s not pretend this should be easy. One of the great things about Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that he knows it can be hard. It can be like trying to wake up a neighbour at midnight to get a loaf of bread. (Ever tried that? Me neither.) It’s just as we said before. The Lord’s Prayer is not ‘just’ a prayer; it’s a summary of a whole relationship with God our Father. To reflect on the Lord’s Prayer is to learn what it means to be a daughter or son of God.