We are in our fourth week of very slowly praying the Lord’s Prayer together, and we have reached the part of it about which I am going to make a rather bold claim:
This is where it gets hard.
Let’s start with that word, “debt.” Literally speaking, to be in debt is to owe someone something, because, presumably, they gave or loaned something to you. Underlying Jesus’ concern about debts and debtors was a world in which to be in debt could land you either in prison or in bondage… literally, debt slavery, and that’s what our reading from Deuteronomy is all about. According to the law described there, debts could only be held for six years. In the seventh year, all debts were to be forgiven. Period. And if someone’s debt caused them to be sold into slavery, that person could only be held as a slave for six years. In the seventh year, they had to be freed. Period.
Jesus breathed the religious and spiritual air of the Hebrew Scriptures, and there, debts and indebtedness were always viewed in the light of that central experience of God’s people: once, they were slaves in Egypt. That was their defining experience as a people, and that experience led them to believe that no one should be permanently made slaves. So, the Sabbath, that seventh day of rest, is established by God as our weekly reminder that we are not slaves. And therefore, the forgiveness of debts in the seventh year, and the freeing of slaves in the seventh year, stands as testimony to how seriously we take that memory and that Sabbath commandment.
I look around me and I see a world that views Sunday as a day to cram in more work. I see a world in which debt loads on homeowners and students have been cruelly used as political and economic playthings, with no regard of the human toll that is taken. I look around me and I see that cities and counties that are hurting for cash are throwing poor people in prison for failure to pay legal debts; and so, in the year 2013, we once again have debtors’ prisons in our nation.[i] It looks to me as if we don’t take God’s commandments to remember what it is to be slaves all that seriously.
As I said, this is where it gets hard.
When we try to interpret the words of Jesus, we always need to remind ourselves of that: we are translating. And although this prayer comes to us in Greek, Jesus himself did not speak Greek but Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew. In Aramaic, the word Jesus would have used had a double meaning. It meant “debt,” and it meant “sin.” And of course, when we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” most of us are thinking, not of debt crises or mortgages or student loans or car payments, but of just that: sin.
And here, for better or for worse, our being forgiven is tied to our forgiving others. Jesus is pretty emphatic about this. In verses 14 and 15, he drives the point home: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” As I said, this, is where it gets very, very hard.
So, I would like to veer off in a somewhat different direction for the remainder of this sermon. I would like to offer you letters from a father to two of his sons. I think you may recognize this father. One of his sons has hurt him… sinned against him, you might say. The other son has been exemplary, no son could be better. The father is writing to his sons on this subject, forgiveness.
Here is the first letter.
My dear son,
I cannot express to you the joy I felt when I saw you today, walking towards me. It had been such a very, very long time since I saw your face, that face I used to see every day, and watched change and grow, from the blank beauty of babyhood to the fine featured young man. Your face, your beloved face.
And for these past many months, ever since you left, the thought of your face had filled me with pain. The look of shame and defiance when you asked me to give you your share of the inheritance. The anger… I couldn’t understand your anger. The memory of your face was a like a wound to my heart, open and bleeding, for the longest time.
Eventually, though, I thought of your face and remembered, instead, the joy of the four-year-old who had planted some seeds and was delighted to see a bud and then a bean. I saw the pride and satisfaction of a thirteen year old as your read the Torah portion in the synagogue, and carried on our family’s covenant relationship with G-d. I saw your face illuminated by firelight at table, and reflecting starlight on a bright summer evening. And I realized, even after the hurt, in spite of the very real effects of the wound: I still loved that face. I still longed for that face.
And I forgave you. It wasn’t even a decision I made. It was a road my heart had to take. I had to know I could still love that face, and could still hold you dear, even though you had hurt me.
And my beloved child, you did hurt me. I know that I was not a perfect father. I know I may have been overly harsh or critical, and I know that, at times, it wasn’t even in service of your best interests. But I always asked your forgiveness when I knew I had crossed that line. And then, you hurt me, truly… it felt as if you had thrown in my face all the years of love and care, protection and teaching. And now, you ask my forgiveness…no, not even that. You declare that you have no right to ask.
Who among us has the right to ask for forgiveness? Who among us is perfect? I leave the pondering of that to deeper, wiser minds than mine, and I say: my son, I do forgive you. I forgive you completely. I welcome you back into my home and my embrace. You are my child forever, my beloved child. Welcome home.
Your loving Father.
And now, the second letter.
My dear son,
You are my beloved child, and I am grateful beyond my own power to express for the man you have become. No father could want or imagine a better young man to carry on the family name. You are loyal. You are hard-working. You are honorable, filled with the conviction of what is right and what is wrong. You always choose the right.
And, oh how this grieves me. Now, in choosing what you believe to be right, you are unwilling to offer your brother forgiveness for his sins.
You of all people know what they are. You watched as your brother insulted me and our family by claiming his inheritance even while I still lived and breathed… while he said, in effect, that I was worth more to him dead than alive. You saw the effect on me…months of anger and grieving, soul-searching and heartache, as I struggled to come to terms with a betrayal that felt like a death.
You of all people know how badly your brother hurt me.
But you of all people know, too, the depth of love I have for my sons—both of them.
You saw the look on my face when your mother presented me with another son.
You saw the look on my face at each stage of growth… when he spoke, when he walked, when read, when he ran.
You saw the look on my face when he became a son of the law at his Bar Mitzvah. You saw the look on my face when he worked side by side with you in the fields.
You saw the look on my face when he lifted the cup of wine at our Sabbath table.
And you saw the look on my face through his long absence. You saw the prisoner I was of my own anger and grief.
And I dare to guess that you also saw the look on my face when I had found peace, even before I dreamed he might return.
My son, that peace flooded through me the moment I found forgiveness in my heart for him.
Don’t you see? For the rest of his life, your brother will have to live with what he has done. I hope and pray that he will not become a prisoner of his guilt, a slave to his memories.
Without forgiveness, that is exactly what I would have been: a slave to my anger. A prisoner of my own pain.
I forgave your brother because he is my beloved son, just as I would forgive you.
But I also forgave your brother because to live in my anger and hurt made me a slave and a prisoner, as I fear it might make you one.
My beloved child, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. And I beg you. Find forgiveness in your heart. Don’t be a prisoner. Don’t be a slave.
Set your brother free.
Set yourself free.
Your loving Father.
Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. We pray this prayer together on a morning on which we are reminded again, in the starkest terms, of the distance we have to go as a country in combatting some of our oldest and most troubling demons. There is, said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, no “cheap grace,” which he described as “the preaching of forgiveness without repentance.” The father who wrote those letters had one son who repented of his sins, and another who could not and would not repent of his hardened heart. My prayer today is that each of us is able to honestly ask God to search and know our hearts, and to bring us to the knowledge, hard as that may be, painful as that may be, as to what it is we need to repent, as individuals and as a nation. And as we forgive, we are promised forgiveness. God wants us all—all—to be free.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Carl Takei, “Courts Should Stop Jailing People for Being Poor,” ACLU National Prison Project, July 3, 2012, http://www.aclu.org/blog/criminal-law-reform/courts-should-stop-jailing-people-being-poor.