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The Lord’s Prayer: As We Forgive Others, Matthew 6:12-15, 18:21-35

As We Forgive Others

Matthew 6:12, 14-15, 18:21-35


Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch woman who, along with her father, her sister, and several other family members, helped many Jewish people escape from the Nazis by hiding them in their home after Nazi Germany invaded The Netherlands. They were eventually caught by the Nazis, and Corrie was arrested and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Her father died shortly after the arrest. Her sister died later in Ravensbruck. But Corrie lived.


After the war, she worked with concentration camp survivors and jobless Dutch people as The Netherlands rebuilt. She also traveled the world as a public speaker, sharing the message of Christ’s love and forgiveness, and of the importance of our willingness to forgive one another. In 1947, while speaking in a church in Munich, Germany, Corrie herself was put to the test.


At the close of the service, a balding man in a gray overcoat stepped forward to greet her. Corrie froze. She knew this man well; he’d been one of the most vicious guards at Ravensbrück, one who had mocked the women prisoners as they showered. “It came back with a rush,” she wrote, “the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man.”


And now he was pushing his hand out to shake hers, and saying:


“A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”


And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course –  how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?


But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face to face with one of my captors, and my blood seemed to freeze.


“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard there… But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein” –  again the hand came out – “will you forgive me?”


This fall, we’ve been walking through the Lord’s Prayer, a phrase at a time. And last week we talked about the incredible forgiveness and grace God offers us in Jesus Christ. We pray the words, “Forgive us our debts, or trespasses, as we forgive our debtors.” But neither the sentence nor the prayer end there. In the very next breath, right after we’ve asked God to forgive us for the sin that mars our lives, we continue, “… as  we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). And that phrase, “as we also have forgiven our debtors,” slaps us in the face with one of the core realities of life in the Kingdom of God – forgiven people are forgiving people. Say those words together with me: FORGIVEN PEOPLE ARE FORGIVING PEOPLE. That’s the difficult truth we’re going to wrestle with this morning.


You see, when we accept God’s forgiveness, we also accept God’s kingship in our lives. We become citizens of HIS kingdom. And when that happens, our values begin to be transformed. Things that once were so important to us are no longer so important. And things that we once considered unimportant become of utmost importance. And one of those values is the importance of letting go of our bitterness and resentment and willingly forgiving others, just as freely as God in Christ has forgiven us.


In Matthew 18, Matthew tells the story of a time when Peter came to Jesus and asked what he though was an important question: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Standard Jewish practice was to forgive someone three times for an offense. But Peter has been hanging around Jesus for quite a while now. He’s heard Jesus speak over and over again about the generous, extravagant love and grace and forgiveness that mark life in God’s kingdom, so he knows that three times probably isn’t enough. So he more than doubles the number. He wants to know how often he SHOULD, as a disciple of Jesus, forgive someone who keeps sinning against him. He wants to do what Jesus wants. He really wants to know. So he throws a number out there – should I forgive seven times? If the standard Jewish practice was forgiving three times, which, when you think about it, is way more than many of us forgive the same offense already, seven times seems like a lot of forgiveness. And in the Jewish worldview, the number seven was viewed as the perfect number, the number of completion. It reflects the number of days, or time periods, God spent creating the cosmos. So yeah, seven seems like a good number to throw out there.


But Jesus turns to him and says, “No, seven times isn’t enough. Try seventy seven times.” Or “seventy times seven,” depending on the translation you read. But the actual number isn’t the point. Jesus is saying, to Peter and to us, “If you’re still counting, you aren’t forgiving.” He then proceeds to tell a story, a parable. Turn with me to Matthew 18:23-35.


One of the king’s servants owes him 10,000 talents. That’s an exorbitant amount of money. In fact, it’s absurd. A single talent of silver was roughly 6,000 denarii. And a single denarius was an acceptable daily wage for a day laborer. So one talent is about 6,000 days worth of wages. A day laborer would expect to earn two talents over his entire working life. Ten thousand talents? That’s 60 million denarii. 60 million days wages. 200,000 years worth of work. Ten thousand, the Greek word “myria,” is the largest numeral for which a Greek word exists. We get our word “myriad” from it. And the talent is the largest sum of money for which a Greek word exists. Combine the two and you get something along the line of “zillions.” In today’s dollars, the sum would be somewhere around $3.5 billion. Jesus doesn’t tell us what the slave did to wrack up that kind of debt. It doesn’t matter. Maybe a really long run of bad luck at the poker table. I don’t know. Honestly, no human being could wrack up a debt that large. The point is, he owed it. And there was absolutely no hope of paying it back. But he begs the king to give him more time! That’s absurd. A single human life from beginning to end doesn’t have that kind of time. The king sees how desperate the man is, and knows how unpayable the debt is, and so he takes pity on the man and forgives his debt. Just like that. He takes the loss.


Now, this servant, whose ridiculous debt has just been forgiven, leaves the king’s chamber and sees another servant who owes HIM some money – 100 denarii. Still a large sum of money. 3-4 months worth of work. But more realistic. And repayable. He owed his fellow servant 1/600,000 as much as his fellow servant owed the king. By comparison, it was nothing. And, just like his buddy had done before the king, he falls on his knees and begs to be given more time to repay the debt. Using exactly the same words the other servant had used in his ridiculous request before the king. But the servant, who has grabbed hold of him and is choking him, refuses to give him more time, and tosses him in debtors prison until his family can pay his debt. And this was a common practice. He was perfectly within his rights to do this. Except …


He had just had his own debt, 600,000 times more than the amount owed to him, completely forgiven. The other servants saw all of this, and reported it to the king. And the king was enraged. “You owed me so much, and I forgave your debt. You were owed so little by comparison, and you couldn’t find it in you to forgive, just as I have forgiven you?” And he turned the man over to the jailers, until his debt could be paid. Which it couldn’t. This was a life sentence. Except that the word used here doesn’t actually mean jailers. Some translations soften the blow by using that term. The actual word used is the word for torturers. He isn’t being detained, he is being painfully punished.


And then Jesus says this: “So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). And this isn’t the only time this appears in Scripture. Jesus, in Mark 11:25 says “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” James 2:13 says, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Jesus, in Matthew 6:14-15, right after the Lord’s prayer, knowing the revolutionary nature of this prayer, immediately says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Ouch. This isn’t an accidental slip by Jesus. But it sounds like salvation by works to me. So what is Jesus saying here?


There are a couple of things we have to understand. The first is that God expects those who follow Christ to begin to actually be transformed by the Holy Spirit and become more and more able to live as Christ lived. Or maybe the more accurate way to say it is to say that being a Christian means that we begin to learn how to let Christ live his life through us, in our lives. God’s forgiveness isn’t a result of our willingness to forgive others. His forgiveness of us comes first. We don’t forgive SO THAT God will forgive us. We forgive BECAUSE we have been forgiven so much. And God is shaping us into the image of his son is the way Paul explains it. And God’s love is marked by forgiveness, even toward those who seek to and even are hurting him. Remember the words of Jesus as nails passed through his hands and feet? “Father, forgive them, for the do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).


The second thing we have to remember is that while salvation is undeserved and unexpected, it is not without conditions. The Bible pictures the impact of God’s love in Christ in different ways. One image is of a sculptor reshaping us to look more like Christ. Another is of fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, mercy, and self-control being produced in our lives, like we are the branches of a tree connected to Christ the main trunk; or we are fruit-bearing branches connected to the main grapevine, which is Christ. The point is, when we are connected to Christ, and that is the definition of a disciple of Christ, then his fruit is produced in our lives to the extent that we participate with him, engaging in disciplines that serve as plant-food and fertilizer which allow the fruit to grow.


Obviously, another one of those fruits is a willingness to forgive those who personally hurt us. Jesus has already said that we are to love our enemies, and loving my personal enemies, people I don’t like and who probably don’t like me, includes with it a willingness to forgive. We are people who have been forgiven by God. Therefore, we are to live as a people of forgiveness. Those who live by God’s forgiveness and mercy aspire to mirror them. We imitate them.


J.I. Packer included this poem in his small book on the Lord’s Prayer:


“Forgive our sins as we forgive,” – you taught us to pray;

But you alone can grant us grace To live the words we say.


How can your pardon reach and bless The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let Old bitterness depart?


In blazing light your cross reveals The truth we dimly knew,

How small the debts men owe to us, How great our debt to you.


Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls, and bid resentment cease;

Then, reconciled to God and man, Our lives will spread your peace.[i]


Now, what IS forgiveness, anyway? Forgiving isn’t forgetting, and it doesn’t necessarily always lead to reconciliation or restoration. Those two things require the cooperation of two people. Forgiveness certainly doesn’t require me to trust someone again immediately either, and it isn’t about making myself a doormat people can simply run over. Forgiveness isn’t tolerating sin. It is possible to forgive past sin and take a stand against future sin. “I forgive you, but I’m not going to let you keep hurting me either.” Forgiveness is resolving to live with the consequences of someone else’s sin on my life.


My willingness to make the daily decision to forgive those who hurt me, on purpose or accidentally, is one of the primary marks of a Christ follower. So whether or not I pray a “sinner’s prayer” doesn’t in the end make me a Christian. It can be a step if it is heartfelt, but it isn’t an end in itself. I am a Christ follower insofar as his fruit is present to some extent in my life, and the expectation is that the more mature the branch, in other words, the longer someone has been following Christ, the more fruit it should produce. A forgiving spirit is a defining mark of a Christ follower. An unwillingness to forgive is a signal that I am not connected to Christ, that his life does not dwell in me, and therefore I stand condemned before God. That doesn’t mean forgiveness won’t be a struggle. It means that it is a fruit that is present in my life and becomes more prevalent as I grow and mature in Christ.


Corrie ten Boom is standing there, facing this man who had been her jailer, who had used his crop to beat her, before whom she’d been made to march to the showers naked. And his hand is outstretched. He is asking for her forgiveness.


“And I stood there –  I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven –  and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place – could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?


I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it – I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. Jesus, help me! I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”


Corrie thrust out her hand.


“And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart.”


For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then. But even so, I realized it was not my love. I had tried, and did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit.”[ii]


Who am I to hold on to bitterness and grudges, when God has forgiven so much in me? Who am I to think that the God who has forgiven so much in me will not also give me the strength, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, to forgive those I need to forgive? “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Forgiven people are forgiving people. Let us pray.



[i] J.I. Packer, Praying the Lord’s Prayer (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 82.

[ii] Corrie ten Boom, with Jamie Buckingham, Tramp for the Lord. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975), 217–218.