I wonder how many times you have said the Lord’s Prayer in your lifetime. It is a prayer that is said in many church services and by many Christians as part of their personal prayer life. It’s easy to say it and not think about it but each time we pray the words we use are very powerful. I am particularly thinking of the phrase ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ The word ‘sins’ could equally well be translated ‘debts’. Jesus told a parable to demonstrate the huge debt we owe to God and his lavish generosity in forgiving that debt. He made it plain that we should act likewise when dealing with others who have wronged us.
In the reflection, reproduced below, at the 2pm SLT service on Tuesday I looked further at this. The readings were Psalm 25:3-10 and Matthew 18:21-end.
The humanity of Peter often takes my breath away. He’s the one who jumps into things with both feet (literally in the case of trying to walk on water) in response to Jesus. He often gets things wrong, but sometimes gets them spectacularly right. I’m convinced that every rash thing is done out of his deep love for his Master, Jesus. That love is obviously reciprocated and Jesus responds by challenging and moving Peter on, refining him and helping him to become all that he can be.
I get the impression that Peter, at the time of our gospel passage, is finally beginning to ‘get it’. There is a dawning understanding that Jesus does things differently, better, more generously than other people. Life lived Jesus’ way is of a different quality from that of other human beings and Peter is being drawn into it.
When we really love someone we want to please them, want to do things in a way that will receive their approval. I suspect that was behind Peter’s suggestion of forgiving his brother ‘as many as seven times’. Seven was the perfect number, representing completeness for the Jews, so the underlying implication is that this would be perfect forgiveness. When you consider that later rabbis decided that three times was enough to forgive, this offer of Peter’s was generous indeed.
As usual, Jesus challenged Peter to go further than he probably thought possible, asking him to forgive 77 times, or possibly seventy times seven times. Whatever the number, it was too big to keep a tally of. This limitless forgiveness was probably purposely contrasted with the vengeance of Lamech (the great-great-great-grandson of Cain) who said, ‘If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold’. The word for the number in the Greek Old and New Testaments is the same.
Jesus then went on to tell a story, to illustrate his point. The first man owed ten thousand talents. Ten thousand was the biggest number in Greek and a talent was the largest unit of currency. It was not possible to express a bigger quantity of debt. The debt was the equivalent of 60,000,000 days’ wages, perhaps $6 billion in today’s money. It was an unpayable debt. At that time it was perfectly permissible for the lender to seize a borrower who could not pay his debt and insist that he and his family work to pay it off. Alternatively, the debtor could be thrown into prison and his family could be sold into slavery to raise money to pay off some of the debt. The idea was that either the debtor would arrange from prison to sell any lands he owned to raise money or that his relatives would pay what he owed. If the debt wasn’t paid, a debtor could spend the rest of his life in prison.
The debtor in the parable promised the king that he would pay off the debt given time, but when you look at the quantity of it, that would not be possible in a lifetime. Recognising this, the king had compassion and forgave the debt. The quantity of the debt illustrates just how much we owe to God because of our sins. We are totally unable to pay back that debt. We are doomed to die, as Paul says in Romans ‘the wages of sin is death’. God has had great mercy on us and sent Jesus to pay the debt for our sins: ‘the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Sin no longer has any hold over us.
The man who owed 100 denarii owed 100 days’ wages, a lot but not beyond paying back. Compared to the first man it was infinitessimally small. In the same way, any sin committed against us is nothing when we consider how much we have been forgiven. Knowing what mercy we have received should produce in us an attitude of forgiveness towards others. It is only in showing such forgiveness that we show the effect of God’s mercy upon us. The parable makes it plain that there are dire consequences to not forgiving as we have been forgiven. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are reminded of this as we say to God, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ This can equally well be translated, ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.’ These are dangerous words, not to be said lightly!
You may be thinking, ‘If you only knew what I have had to suffer, you would understand how hard it is to forgive.’ Listen to this true story.
During the many trials in South Africa as it sought to mend the wounds of the past, there was one in which an insignificant black woman in her 70s played a major role. Across the courtroom from this frail old lady were several white police officers who were on trial for atrocities they had committed. One of the officers was a Mr van der Broek, who had been tried for the murder of the woman’s son and her husband on separate occasions some years before.
On the first occasion Mr van der Broek had gone to the woman’s home and taken away her son. The young man was shot at point blank range and his body burnt while van der Broek and his colleagues had partied in the vicinity. The same group made a second visit to the same house some years later and took away the woman’s husband.
Nothing further was heard of the husband for nearly two years. At that point van der Broek paid a third visit to the woman, this time to take her away. She was taken to a spot beside a river. There she saw her husband. He had obviously been beaten up. He was bound and laid on a heap of wood. His body may have been battered but his spirit was still strong and unbroken. In the sight of his wife, the police officers took a can of petrol and poured it over the man. Just before they set light to him he said, ‘Father, forgive them.’
With all this going through her mind, the old woman had sat in the courtroom and listened to the confessions made by Mr van der Broek. When all had been heard, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission turned to the woman and asked her what she wanted to happen, how she wanted justice to be done in the case of this man who had taken her husband and only son from her in such a terrible way.
The woman stood, looked across the courtroom and began to speak in a calm, confident voice. She asked for three things. First, that she be taken to the place where she had last seen her husband, where she knew he had burned to death. She wanted to gather the ashes that were left and give him a proper burial.
She then explained that she now had no family as her husband and son had been her only family members. She wanted Mr van der Broek to become her son. He was to visit her twice a month in the ghetto where she lived, spending the day with her each time. In those days she would pour out on him the love that she had left which would otherwise have gone to her son and husband.
Then, thinking back to her husband’s last words, she asked to be helped to cross the courtroom. She wanted to take Mr van der Broek in her arms and embrace him so that he could know that he was truly forgiven. Assistants from the court moved to the side of the woman to help her to do as she asked. As they were getting ready to lead her across the courtroom, Mr van der Broek was overwhelmed by what he had just heard and fainted.
In the courtroom, watching all the proceedings, were the woman’s friends and neighbours who had listened to all the details of the case. Like her, they too had endured years of oppression and injustice at the hands of the white South African people. Gently a sound emerged from this crowd. It was not a sound of triumph or protest but the soft singing of a well known hymn: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.’
As Mahatma Ghandi said, ‘The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor