Forgive us our sins as we forgive others - 17th August 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Matthew 18:21-35

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The wonderfully quotable CS Lewis said this: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive... and then, when they have, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.”

Forgiveness is hard. If you’re a follower of Jesus here you will know that forgiveness is one of the glories of the Christian message. It’s wonderful. But it’s bloomin’ hard. It’s hard to do. What’s that famous line from Alexander Pope: “To err is human, to forgive is divine”? That’s about right isn’t it? We sort of know that forgiving is beyond us. It’s so hard to do. It’s also hard to ask for. Asking for forgiveness is so humiliating. It’s so empty handed, so dependent. We’d much rather try to excuse our actions. What’s the first words of the cheating husband in the Hollywood film when they get caught out? “I can explain…” We’d rather explain away and make excuses. But here’s CS Lewis again: “even if ninety-nine percent of his apparent guilt can be explained away by really good excuses, the problem of forgiveness begins with the one percent guilt which is left over. To excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian character; it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

Let’s have our reading then. And, once again, you’re going to be reading it. It’s page 970, Matthew chapter 6 verse 12. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

It’s all there, isn’t it? All the stuff we find hard – asking forgiveness, and giving forgiveness.

That’s why we need to pray it. This is a prayer, not a description of how we are already. We ask it. Because it’s how we want to be. And because we know that if we’re going to be like this, if we’re going to be forgiven forgivers, we need God’s help. All prayer comes out of an awareness of our poverty and God’s riches. We pray because we need, and because God gives.


So let’s chew through this prayer half at a time. We’ll start with the first half: “Forgive us our debts…”

Ok, what is our debt? What is it that we need forgiveness for?

The consistent message of Jesus here and the whole Bible is that forgiveness is foundational if a holy God and sinful people like us are to live together. We all need forgiveness. Without it we’re utterly lost.

And, just like we did last week, perhaps the best way to see that is to zoom back a little from this prayer; to use a wider angle lens, so that we can see where this prayer fits in to the bigger picture that Jesus paints.

So look over the page at what Jesus has said slightly earlier in chapter 5, so that we can start to see the outline. Look at verse 21: 21 "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago,`Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'  22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother,`Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says,`You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Ouch. That’s a bit harsh isn’t it, Jesus? “You fool”? I’m sure I’ve said worse than that, haven’t I?

Look on to verse 27: "You have heard that it was said,`Do not commit adultery.'  28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Steady on there, Jesus. Just a lustful look? I mean, we’ve all… haven’t we?

Or let’s flick on to that parable we read before which so beautifully illustrates what we read here, and let’s do the same thing there. It was Matthew 18 verse 21 onwards (p.985). So look back a few verses earlier at Matthew 18 verse 6: “6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  7 "Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!  8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.  9 And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” A millstone round your neck? Gouge out your eye and cut off your hand? Or be thrown into eternal fire? Because you sin, or cause people to sin? It’s pretty devastating, isn’t it?

Sin is not a little thing in God’s book. It’s not eating a donut. It’s not naughty but nice. It’s the root cause of all of the world’s suffering and pain. It’s the reason there is death. It’s personal enmity towards God. It’s worthy of hell.

So that by the time we get to this parable, what do we see? Verse 24 – a man with an unpayable debt. When we sin we run up a personal debt with God. A massive debt. An unpayable debt.

Of course we don’t spot that because sin for us is so much part of the furniture. We don’t even notice it. It’s just normal life for us. Like anyone who has been in serious debt will tell you, most of the time, while it’s adding up, you don’t even notice it. You quietly ignore it.

Occasionally something happens which brings it to our attention. Something might happen to make us notice how broken the world is, or how much evil there is in it. This week, reacting to the death of Robin Williams, Russell Brand said “is it melancholy to think that a world in which Robin Williams can’t live must be broken?” Or we see the evil going on in Iraq, for instance. You notice it’s there.

Sometimes something happens which makes us sit up and notice our own sin. Like the red bank statement landing on the doormat, something causes us to catch a glimpse of how broken and indebted we are. But after a bit that awareness goes away again. Like the dad in Pride and Prejudice, who says “I’m thoroughly ashamed of myself, Lizzie. But no matter: it will pass. And no doubt far sooner than it should.” We think about something else. We turn on the TV. We laugh at something funny. And once again we are comfortably numb.

Jesus here reads out the bank statement. The debt is unpayable. And that’s why his message is so astonishing. Because he doesn’t leave us trying to chop our sin off. We can’t. If you’ve gouged out your eyes and cut off your hands and you still sin, what then? We can’t cut out our hearts. No Jesus’ message is far more radical and lavish and seemingly irresponsible. He introduces us to a God who cancels debt.

Verse 26: "The servant fell on his knees before him.`Be patient with me,' he begged,`and I will pay back everything.'  27 The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.” That’s amazing. Jesus shows us a God who is not just a bit lenient, you know, he turns a blind eye to our sin for a bit. God is so much more wonderful than that. God cancels debts.

As the gospel goes on we discover that when Jesus dies on the cross he pays the debt on behalf of his people. On the cross he is cut off. He endures the fires of hell. He is subject to judgment. Or, as he put it, he gave “his life as a ransom for many.”

So his message to us is simple: don’t ignore your debt, come to Jesus and have it cancelled. Don’t bury that red bank statement under a pile of papers. Bring it to the bank. Bring it to God. And as you do that you will find that the debt has already been paid off.

That’s why Jesus invites us to pray “forgive us our debts.” Because with God his Father there is forgiveness to be had. We just need to come to him to ask.

If you’re not yet started this journey yet, this is step one. You’re in debt. Morally and spiritually. You’re bankrupt. You can’t pay it off. But through Jesus, God offers to cancel your debt. Stop trying to handle the repayments yourself. Stop thinking that you’ll settle the books in the end. You may be poor, you are poor, but God is rich. And he’s generous beyond anything you’ve ever known. Come and ask.

If you are a follower of Jesus, this is how you carry on. Keep coming to ask. This is as much a daily prayer as “give us today our daily bread.” Remember how we saw last week that the Lord’s Prayer is an Exodus prayer, it’s the prayer of God’s people travelling with him to the promised land, to life with him forever? And when we pray “give us today our daily bread” we’re asking God to give us what we need to keep going on that journey with him? Well this is one of the key things we need. Ongoing forgiveness. As we keep praying this prayer we are continually reminded that we depend on God’s forgiveness. It’s the best way of stopping us from falling back into that wrong mindset that says “I can do this, I can keep my debts down, I’m ok on my own.” Praying keeps us depending on God. Which is the only way to life with him.

Ah but then there’s the other half of the prayer. Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.

This is where many of us start to feel a bit uncomfortable. What does that mean?

Well this is where that parable is so helpful in helping us to understand. So keep looking at it. We have this man with the unpayable debt. The master lavishly cancels his debt. And then the man goes free, but in verse 30 we see that he will not cancel even the relatively tiny debt that a fellow servant owes him. And so what does the master say to him? Verse 32: “Then the master called the servant in.`You wicked servant,' he said,`I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  33 Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?'”

The mercy has to overflow, doesn’t it? It just has to. That’s what is meant by this emphasis that our Father will not forgive us if we refuse to forgive. It can’t mean that if we forgive enough then we will earn the right to be forgiven. That would be totally wrong – the whole point of the parable is that our debt before God is unpayable. Of course we can’t earn the right to be forgiven. Forgiveness is only ever a gift.

But it is a gift that has to overflow. That’s how God means us to have it. Let’s go back to the analogy of the bank account and our debt being cancelled. God hasn’t given us a savings account that we can lock away in secret. He’s given us an open treasure chest that any passerby can help themselves to. That’s how God’s mercy works. Or think of a drink: God’s mercy isn’t a tap that we turn on to fill up our bottle and then we turn off the tap and screw down the lid so that we and only we can open it and enjoy it later. It’s more like standing under a waterfall with a bucket. Or one of those champagne fountains – do you know the idea? A pyramid of glasses, and you pour the champagne into the top one, but there’s so much that it overflows and trickles into the glasses on the layer below, until they overflow to the glasses below them. Do you see what I mean? God’s forgiveness is the sort of thing that must overflow. So much so in fact that Jesus says in this parable that our own willingness to forgive is a sort of litmus test for whether or not we are forgiven. It’s the external evidence which shows whether or not that internal event has happened. If it’s there, it overflows.

Let’s think Old Testament again for a minute. When God had rescued his people from the slavery of Egypt and brought them to the promised land, the story of their rescue needed to be imprinted on the way they treated each other. So they had the Sabbath year, the year of Jubilee. In Deuteronomy 15 Moses talks about this and says “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD's time for cancelling debts has been proclaimed.” It’s pretty radical economics, isn’t it? Why did they do it? Moses goes on to say: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.” You’ve been paid for. So cancel the debts of others. You’re forgiven. So forgive. God’s grace has always been like this.

Of course the opposite of this sort of overflowing grace is judgmentalism isn’t it? You see at the heart of judgmentalism is unforgiveness. When we’re judgmental we fail to see our own sin, we don’t see our need for forgiveness, so we don’t come to God seeking mercy. And because of that, when we see other people’s sin we have no overflowing mercy to pass on. So instead of seeking to forgive, instead of wanting to help them to turn to God to receive his mercy, we condemn them; we write them off; and so we sit in the place of the only one who is qualified to make such final judgments – God himself. At the heart of judgmentalism is unforgiveness. Which is itself sin. So, as the apostle Paul says, those who point the finger without seeking God’s mercy for themselves are just storing up God’s wrath against themselves.

Jesus’ way of overflowing forgiveness is the opposite of judgmentalism. But do you see how this is also the opposite of just affirming people? A false gospel of our age is that we just affirm people as they are. Be true to yourself, don’t let anyone judge you, do what you want to do, and you will be happy. If Mail and Telegraph readers are more likely to fall off the cliff of judgmentalism, Guardian and Independent readers and BBC watchers are more likely to fall off the cliff of affirmationism. Jesus calls us to turn away from our sin and be forgiven. He clears the debts of those who come to him. So we want people to come to him; to leave their sin and be saved. The last thing we want to do is just leave them as they are, just being true to themselves, carrying their own debt. Trying to persuade people to turn from sin to Jesus is not judgmental; it’s deeply merciful.

So back to the nitty gritty of our forgiving others. We are not able to pardon somebody else’s guilt; only God can do that. Just like if someone by sinning against us has broken the law, we are not able to take away their guilt in the eyes of the courts, are we? They may still go to jail. But forgiving others does mean letting go of a desire for revenge. So that we stop wanting to harm that person. More than that: so that we want them to be forgiven.

But he doesn’t deserve it. She doesn’t deserve it. No, of course not. Jesus isn’t telling us to accept loan repayments, until the person has earned their way out of their debt to us. He’s telling us to cancel the debt. Nobody deserves forgiveness.

What if they’ve not said sorry? Well that will have an effect. It’s not really possible to have full reconciliation with someone unless you both agree to it. And for the person who has sinned that will mean saying sorry, asking for forgiveness. Maybe you need to do that today. But even if the person who sinned against you has not come seeking your forgiveness, you still need to be ready to forgive. You still need to desire that reconciliation, even if they don’t.

Yes of course that’s really hard. For some here it’ll be almost unimaginably hard. But remember: Jesus paying for our forgiveness cost him everything. Cancelling a debt is never cheap.

Let’s listen to CS Lewis again, more of that quote I read at the start. To give this a bit of context, he was writing just after the end of the Second World War. But the issues are the same now.

"Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. 'That sort of talk makes me sick,' they say. And half of you already want to ask me, 'I wonder how you'd feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?'

"So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do — I can do precious little — I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.' There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?

"It is going to be hard enough, anyway, but I think there are… things we can do to make it easier. When you start mathematics you do not begin with the calculus; you begin with simple addition. In the same way, if we really want… to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo. One might start with forgiving one's husband or wife, or parents or children… for something they have done or said in the last week. That will probably keep us busy for the moment."

Remember that this is a prayer! We’re asking for this. We’re asking God to do this in us; not pretending this is easy or even possible for us on our own. Forgiveness is an ongoing and difficult journey. The first step for us is to want this enough to pray for it. If we want it, we’ll ask for it. And we’ll keep asking. “Father, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

And here, as in everything else, our confidence is in Jesus. What did Jesus pray on the cross, surrounded by sneering onlookers who were laughing at his pain? “Father forgive them.” I don’t have the strength to forgive. You don’t. Only Jesus does. Jesus is the champagne bottle pouring out the grace that overflows. He’s what we need. His forgiveness needs to flow through us. That’s what he invites us to ask for.