Sunday, July 8, 2012

Forgiveness as Jubilee: Uncovering Sins, Trespasses, and Debts in Lord's Prayer

Forgiveness is difficult for us to wrap our brains around. We have been the offended and the offender; we have been the one in need of extending forgiveness and find it difficult, if not impossible to offer. We have also been the one who has longed to be offered forgiveness, but wonder if the mistakes we have made have burned bridges beyond repair.

So when we hear Jesus' words, forgive us and forgive others, they may sound well and good, but is forgiveness really as simple as apologies delivered and accepted?

Still more, the matter is complicated whenever you walk into an ecumenical setting, with believers from Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian traditions. We don't even say the same things are being forgiven.

If you have ever concluded a prayer circle with the Lord's prayer and you get to this line, you know what I mean, "Forgive us our sins/trespasses/debts as we forgive...well...all those things, Lord."

So it may be best, when trying to engage this line in the Lord's Prayer, to explore the witness of each tradition's interpretation.

Forgive Us Our Sins as We Forgive Those Who Sin Against Us

The forgiveness of sins, through the person and work of Jesus, is a staple within the Christian tradition. One of the earliest confessions, the Apostles' Creed, declares that "I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting."

When we think of sins as they relate to forgiveness, a lot of times we may begin to develop a list of infractions we or others have committed that leave us with a sense of guilt. So forgiveness becomes our means to release ourselves or others of guilty consciences for cultural and/or religious taboos breached, or at least doing what may cause Grandma, or even Jesus, to blush in shame.

Forgiveness is much more than what is illustrated in this clip. And sin is much more complex than personal infractions that corrupt our conscience.

Forgiveness in the Lord's prayer is a word that refers to "sending away" or "letting go." [2] It is not forgetting, as in forgive and forget, as though you were not shamed, offended, disgraced, or abused by another, but as in "to be set free" and "to be liberated" from something.

What is that something?


So forgiveness is to be set free from the captivity of our sin and the sin of others.

By offering forgiveness we begin the process of liberation.

And sin in the first century and the years that led up to that was understood as personal and corporate behaviors and conditions that distorted a person's ability to live into God's dreams for the world to their fullest potential. Sin was what crippled both person and communities. Sin distorted the image of God in others.

You can see why it would need to be forgiven and sent away.

I hear stories of a longing for this kind of forgiveness all the time, the desire to send away and let go of what is crippling someone's ability to live into the fullest humanity:

I cannot walk down the halls of my school without being called ______. They don't even know me or what I am going through.

What does it look like to send these sins of bullying away, so that youth can be who God has created them to be?

Then I talk to folks in Honduras who cannot trust their own police force because the "protection" are just as involved in violence and corruption as the drug lords who pay them under the table.

How do we send away political corruption as we pursue forgiveness?

Spend any amount of time with an addict, you quickly realize that forgiveness also takes on new meaning. What would it look like to send away and let go of the bottle, the flask, and the greed? These things need to be forgiven not because consciences cannot handle the guilt, but because they distort what it means to live life and life to the full. They rip families and communities apart.

One of the more difficult phrases, as mentioned, that has unfortunately been lumped with this conversation is "forgive and forget."

Is that even possible? Is that really what God intended?

In Scripture, it seems that God has a pretty good memory. But God's memory and desire for God's people also to remember exists so that the pain, injustice, hurt, and suffering caused by sin will not be duplicated.

But if we forget sin we will repeat sin.

At a recent panel on non-violence held at a youth ministry conference in D.C., I heard Mennonite scholar, Carl Stauffer, say that we need to replace forgive and forget with remember and repent.

When we remember the effects of personal and social sins, we are enabled to repent and turn away from them. When we remember and repent we validate those who suffer as a result of sin, liberate those who are oppressed because of our sin, and dignify those whose humanity has been distorted because of the effects of sin. This often includes holding offenders accountable. To forget is not to forgive. Instead, remember and repent so to live more fully and faithfully as disciples of Jesus who said "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."

Forgive Us Our Trespasses as We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us

Whenever I used to recite this line in my Lutheran church growing up, immediately what came to mind was those signs posted on trees in the woods I used to explore. They evoked both curiosity and fear. What would happen of I trespassed on property not mine and built a tree fort in one of these oaks?

Thankfully, I never found out.

However, I think this was helpful for my understanding of trespassing. If you cross into land and territory that you do not own without the landowners permission, you have trespassed. In a sense, if you take any property that is not yours, you have committed a trespass.

So, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?

Maybe we should ask Native Americans what this means?

Maybe we should ask those pushed out because of gentrification in our cities and boroughs what this means?

Maybe we should ask anyone who has seen their land, their heritage, their history, and their culture infringed upon without their permission to explain what it would mean to forgive, to let go, and to send away these trespasses?

A first-century hearer of Jesus' prayer would have known as they leaned in and heard the utterance. Their land had constantly been exploited, traded, and taken over by foreign empires. They lived as strangers in their own land.

And Jesus told them to forgive their trespasses as their trespasses had been forgiven?

They were invited not to harbor hatred and hostility against their enemies, i.e. their trespassers. They lived within a system that promoted expansive conquest, and some of them within earshot participated within it just as much as they were victimized by it. So Jesus' invitation was to be delivered from the system entirely.

It was as though Jesus said, stop taking what is not rightfully yours. And what has been taking from you unjustly, become a part of a new economy whereby you do not retaliate and further the animosity. Instead, find good news in the kingdom of God that works towards the justice of God and will one day level the playing field. Remember, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God's justice, for they will be satisfied (Mt 5

In your forgiveness, you begin to participate in God's justice, the on-earth-as-in-heaven kingdom of God.

Yet, when I hear this I am not sure what this means to those who have had their identities, sexuality, and integrity trespassed against. Like those caught up in human trafficking, whose dignity is trespassed against in their quest to escape poverty...[3]

I am not sure what this prayer means in these cases. I certainly would not suggest victims need to search their hearts and find an ability to forgive and forget.

But maybe Jesus' words here are a call for all of us to remember those who are trespassed against and have had their dignity stolen. We then advocate for their liberation and the injustice to be sent away...far, far away.

Again, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Forgive Us Our Debts as We Forgive Our Debtors

We finally come to the lyric most familiar to our tradition. Actually, it is the one most faithful to the text, opheiletēs, meaning "debtors."

We have unfortunately become too familiar with debts and debtors. Our economies, governments, and personal finances live and die by them. We work to live and live to work.

Those in District 2 throughout Panem in Suzanne Collins' trilogy, The Hunger Games, were also familiar with debt and the hope for related forgiveness...

(Mockingjay, p. 79-80.)

I don't think Collins illustrated this without an awareness that she was crafting a socio-economic commentary. Twenty-first century economics pose few means to avoid debt, or to have debt forgiven, and so many find themselves caught between increased loans or signing up for our own variations of "peacekeeping" just to avoid becoming an indentured servant to the system.

The Hebrew people, when they were first loosed from Egyptian captivity, also knew about the oppressive nature of debt. The book of Leviticus underscores what is called the year of Jubilee.

In other words, every fifty years debts were forgiven, canceled, sent away, and let go, "on the tenth day of the seventh month- on the day of atonement" (Lev. 25:9). All land was returned to original owners and slaves were to be granted freedom.

This is what Jesus was hinting at. We are to pray for Jubilee. The disciples were the beginnings of a new kind of jubilee community where sins were forgiven, trespasses sent away, and debts loosed. That's why the book of Acts illustrates the earliest faith communities practicing a radically different form of economics where all things were held in common and no one was in need. Poverty eliminated. All this wrapped up in the life and teachings of Jesus who told the parable we read today (Mt 18:21-34), surely with this prayer at the forefront of his mind and the minds of those who listened closely.

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who had compassion on a slave's elaborate debt and forgives them. All of them.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

But this slave, whose debts have been sent away by the compassion of the king, instead of responding with forgiveness and compassion to his debtors, demands repayment. Forgiveness is not exercised. Jubilee stunted.

The king gets word, "I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?"

Debtors who experience jubilee should practice jubilee.

N.T. Wright says it this way, "Redeemed slaves must live as redemption people" (The Lord's Prayer as Paradigm..).

What would it then look like for the church today to practice jubilee, to live as redemption people, and to share the burdens of the uninsured, the homeless veterans, the poor immigrants, and unemployed single parents? Can we work towards the sending away of their debts as we share our abundance of resources?

Is this not what Jesus meant when he said, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?

It can be said that at the center of the gospel is this prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples. It is a gospel in miniature. And at the center of the prayer is forgiveness.




Forgiven. Through the cross- sent away. By the empty tomb- let go.

That's good news.

This prayer reminds us each week, when we proclaim it together, that the church is a jubilee community. Somehow our extension of forgiveness is mysteriously connected to God's forgiveness. Our offering of forgiveness, in all it's varied forms, moves us towards the day when God will bring the whole world to its ultimate jubilee.

Forgiveness is messy. Forgiveness is complicated. Forgiveness is jubilee.

Where do you need forgiveness on this day? Where do you hear Jesus whisper to you by the Spirit opportunities to extend forgiveness? Where do you long to see sins, debts, or trespasses sent away and let go personally and around the world?

Sins. Trespasses. Debts. Forgiveness.

May we be a jubilee people who pray for this every morning, evening, and moments in between. Amen.



[1] The photo above was originally posted by Roger Wolsey on a post pertaining to Occupy Movement:“occupy”-protests/

[2] The Greek words in Matthew 6:12 are ἄφες and ἀφήκαμεν, referring to sending away and letting go.

[3] See the film, Call and Response, as popular artists advocate for victims of sex trafficking. There are many other ways to engage this heinous crime against humanity that particularly targets young, poor women.

[4] This is a variation of the text I preached in worship today, July 8, 2012.