The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 3/13/94
Text: Matt. 18:21-35 (Matt. 6:9-13)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

In the book written by the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson called Prayers Written at Vailima, there is an unusual incident recalled. As you may know, Stevenson was an exceptionally religious man who insisted on family worship every evening... Scripture, hymns, prayers - all were included. But this one particular evening, Stevenson suddenly left the group before the worship was over. He had not been well, so his wife was concerned and went after him to see if he was all right. As Mrs. Stevenson recounted it in the book, her husband WAS all right, but he was feeling a sense of shock and anger at learning of some unexpected treachery on the part of one whom he had every reason to trust. He told her, "I had to leave. I am not yet fit to say, `Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.'"(1)

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt unable to pray that prayer because of some harbored grudge, some pent-up hurt? Or, more likely, have you just tended to mouth, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" without much thought?

Forgiveness is something with which we are all familiar. We appreciate being forgiven when we have done wrong. We know that forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith. In the Creed from week to week we say, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." Jesus Christ lived and died so that we might be forgiven. Christianity and forgiveness are inseparable.

Dr. Dan Baumann who teaches at Fuller Seminary tells of an incident from his childhood. He and some of his young friends had been out playing baseball one summer afternoon when suddenly, he hit the ball through a neighbor's window. He knew that he should confess his crime and face the consequences, but he remembers feeling a profound hope as he walked up to that neighbor's door that there would be no one at home. Ding-dong. Hallelujah. No one answered the bell. That evening, he told his parents what had happened and they insisted that he go back and try again. Reluctantly, he did, and this time there WAS someone at home. At the door, young Dan introduced himself, explained what he had done and offered to make restitution. The lady of the house invited him inside, handed him a dust pan and broom and asked him to clean up the broken window. He did, and he again offered to pay for it, but the lady refused to hear it. She told him that she appreciated his honesty in confessing what had happened and that he had no other responsibility in the matter. In fact, she even gave him a candy bar. Dr. Baumann said that he had never felt such a sense of relief in his life - he whistled all the way home. He felt so clean, so relieved, so forgiven!(2) Has anything like that ever happened to you?

"Forgive us our debts..." An aside here. If you have ever wondered why we Presbyterians say, "Forgive us our debts" while so many others use, "Forgive us our trespasses," here is the answer. "Trespasses" came into use in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (the Episcopal Prayer Book), a translation made earlier than the King James Version of the Bible in which the translation is "debts." The influence of the Prayer Book has been enormous on all English-speaking churches, even those not Episcopalian; the widespread use of "trespasses" results from this. On the other hand, English-speaking Presbyterians all over the world are influenced by the catechisms of the Westminster Assembly which cite the Lord's Prayer as the King James Version has it. Presbyterians have used that form ever since. The difference is not theological but historical.(3) A more MODERN translation of the prayer would be, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."

So saying, I will add that I think there is good value in continuing to use the metaphor of debts for sins. When we speak of sin as a debt, several things happen. One is that we remind ourselves that we are personally responsible for our sins (none of this, "the Devil made me do it"), just as we are personally responsible for any debt we incur. We cannot say that our sins are an accident, nor can we blame anyone else. We are responsible.

Another thing that happens when we use "debts" for sins is that we are reminded that sin jeopardizes our relationship with God. Has anyone ever owed you money and not paid you, or have you owed and not paid? Did that affect your relationship? You bet your life. "Forgive us our DEBTS," O Lord, so our relationship can be made whole again.

Of course, the Gospel says that God DOES hear that prayer and DOES forgive those debts. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."(4) All who come in faith and repentance HAVE that forgiveness because of what Jesus did for us on Calvary.

But there is a problem. This petition that we repeat from week to week does not end with "Forgive us our debts." We pray "Forgive us our debts, AS WE FORGIVE OUR DEBTORS." Hmmm. We would rather not hear that. Forgiveness is tough work. We would rather NOT forgive the drug-crazed thugs who mugged our grandmother on the way home from the market. We would rather not forgive the drunk driver who ran over our little boy. Sigmund Freud understood - he said, "One must forgive one's enemies, but not before they have been hanged."(5) It is a dog-eat-dog world out there, not a dog-forgive-dog world.

At least we have the church. It might be hard to forgive outside the fellowship, but at least in the sanctuary... Right! In this morning's paper is the story of the culmination of a long and bitter struggle in the Church of England regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood.(6) Outside the cathedral a dissenting priest stood beside a billboard declaring, "THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND MURDERED TODAY." Some 700 Anglican priests say they are going to leave the church because of this. Meanwhile, church attendance in Britain is at a low ebb - only 3 or 4% of the population attends worship. Why should they when what they see is Christians fighting other Christians?

In Ron Lee Davis's book, A Forgiving God in an Unforgiving World, he quotes a newspaper article headlined, "Two Factions - One Fellowship?", the true account of a church that was seeking a pastor. The church was polarized - two different camps, both of them contentious, strong-willed, and determined to get their own favorite to come and serve. The news article read as follows:

Yesterday, each faction sent its choice for minister to the same pulpit. Both spoke simultaneously, each trying to shout the other down. Both called for hymns, and the congregation sang two different songs at the same time, each side attempting to drown the other out.

Before the hymns were concluded both groups began shouting at each other. Bibles were raised in anger. Sunday morning service dissolved into chaos as both preachers continued to out-shout each other with their sermons.

Finally, one of the Deacons called the Police. A few minutes later two Police officers came in and ordered the congregation - or congregations - to be quiet and return to their homes. The rivals filed out, still arguing.

That evening one of the members of the church called a "Let's be friends" meeting. It ended in a brawl.(7)

Church conflicts are not always as public or as ludicrous as this one, but the world IS WATCHING when the church fights its Civil Wars. The gospel of love and forgiveness is brought down in shame and discredit when unforgiving Christians battle each other in unforgiving churches.

Still we pray, "Forgive us our debts AS we forgive our debtors." Sounds dangerous. It obviously sounded dangerous to Robert Louis Stevenson. What are we to make of it in light of all the Scripture has to say about God's free grace and these other promises of divine forgiveness? Does this deny all that?

No. Here is why. What Jesus wants us to understand is that there is no practical way that we can experience forgiveness unless we are willing to make it a two-way street. If God is a forgiving God and we are UNforgiving creatures, we will never be able to get along - there is no fellowship between opposites.

As to the necessity for a forgiving spirit, Jesus makes that most clear in the parable we read. It follows after Peter asks to what extent forgiveness should go. Peter knew that the rabbis taught that one should forgive another THREE times for the same offense but no more. However, Peter also knew that Jesus was generous, so he suggested that forgiveness might be offered more than twice that much - SEVEN times. You remember Jesus' reply: He told Peter, not SEVEN times, but SEVENTY-SEVEN TIMES (or as the King James Version has it, SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN); forgiveness should be unlimited. Then he told that story of the fellow who, in spite of being forgiven an astronomical sum by his king, refused to forgive the debt of his buddy who only owed him a few bucks. Word of the situation got back to the king, and the king was mad...MAD. He had that unforgiving fellow, the one who had been forgiven so much, thrown into jail until that huge debt could be paid, the same jail to which the unforgiving one had sent his buddy for non-payment of a piddling amount. Then Jesus said, "So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Now, I doubt that Jesus would want us to make any hard theology out of this because we would decide God offers forgiveness on the basis of a quid pro quo: God will forgive only if we will forgive also. But I think the message is this: God's forgiveness, just like God's salvation, has limitations on it, limitations that take into account human responsibility. As much as God wants us to enjoy divine fellowship, WE can limit that fellowship by our own action or inaction.

"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." We pray the prayer because we need forgiveness ourselves. We pray it because it can help to restore broken relationships with others. And we pray it because the way in which WE forgive will affect our relationship with the Lord. When we seriously ask to be forgiven as we forgive, we begin to see ourselves with some objectivity, we begin to laugh at our own pretensions, and we make a stab at bursting the bubble of our own self-righteousness. In other words, we begin to be more of what God wants us to be.

A little boy passed a Pet Shop on his way home from school. Each day he would stop and play with the dozen or so puppies that were kept in a pen in the display window. Finally he got up enough courage to ask the owner of the store how much one of the puppies would cost. The owner told him the price, and the boy went home and began saving his weekly allowance.

He returned a few weeks later with his piggy bank tucked under his arm. Smiling broadly, he lifted his bank onto the counter and broke it open. "It's all there!" he said joyfully. "So I see," said the owner, as he began to sort through the nickels and dimes and quarters. "There's the pen. Pick out any one you like."

The puppies were yelping, wagging their tails, and crawling all over each other...all but one who sat forlornly off in the corner of the pen. The boy reached past all the others, picking up the one lonely puppy. He brought it to the counter and presented it to the shop owner.

"Oh, you don't want that one," said the man. "Why not?" asked the boy. "Well, he's crippled. Just look at his leg. Son, you want a puppy who can run and play with you in the park. You don't want a crippled puppy."

The little boy set the puppy down on the floor and lifted the cuffs of his pants. There were a set of braces, reminders of a childhood disease. The lad said, "Yes, he's crippled. But I'm crippled too. I thought since we were both crippled, we could be better friends."(8)

What a parable for the church. We are all crippled, aren't we? Our wounds come in many different forms, but we are all crippled. We came to Christ to be healed. He gathered us together with others looking to be made whole, his plan being that we, the church, be a healing community for all who are broken, bruised and bleeding - and since we are all crippled, we could be better friends. But the Lord's plan for the church can only be carried out as we make our fellowship of faith a place where people are loved and accepted.

"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." As Robert Louis Stevenson knew, those are more than just words. They are a genuine commitment to follow the one who hung on a cross and said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Is that kind of commitment evident in your life? If it is not, then by God's grace, you can pray, "Father, forgive me MY debts and give me the spirit of Jesus that will help me forgive others."

Let us pray.

O God, we confess that ours are not forgiving spirits. We are quick to condemn, slow to pardon and have memories like elephants. We do not forgive as we would like to know forgiveness for ourselves. Help us, Lord, that we might be effective witnesses to a world that needs to know of your forgiveness. For we pray it in the name of Jesus. Amen!

1. Quoted by Elton Trueblood, The Lord's Prayers, (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 55

2. Dan Baumann, Dare to Believe, (Glendale, CA: Regal Books, 1977), pp. 139-140

3. Albert Curry Winn, A Christian Primer, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), p. 64

4. I John 1:9

5. Quoted by Philip Yancey, "An Unnatural Act," Christianity Today, 4/8/91, p. 36

6. "Ordained women end tradition," Greensboro News & Record, 3/13/94, A9

7. Quoted by Ron Lee Davis, A Forgiving God in an Unforgiving World, (Eugene Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1984), pp. 79-80

8. Davis, pp. 63-64

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