On the way to church Sunday I listened to Don Henley singing “Heart of the Matter” because I was preaching on forgiveness—the line in the Lord’s Prayer about sins or debts or trespasses. I ended up adding the lyrics to the end of my sermon. I also listened to the Lyle Lovett song I had already planned to mention, “God Will,” which has a different take on the idea. Ultimately, I think Henley is spot on: it’s about forgiveness.
One of the challenges of preaching is deciding how much of the story to tell, or perhaps I should say how much of it to read. Wherever we start in the Bible, we are starting in the middle of the story. The context is larger than the passage we read. This morning, for example, we split one long reading into two rather than read two different passages because I wanted you to get a fuller picture, and even then, we are still picking up the story in the middle of the action.
The translators divided the Bible into chapters and verses, which helps when we need to find something in particular, but it gives a false sense of order. Sometimes verses begin in the middle of a sentence or a thought, and much of the time a new chapter begins in the middle of a story, leaving us to think things are less connected than they are.
Matthew 18 begins with a question I think is worth noting, even though we didn’t read it this morning. Verse one says,
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
It was a question the disciples asked more than once even though they walked with Jesus everyday as he talked about loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves. They watched the way he listened and loved people, they heard him talk about living with compassion and humility—and still, when they had a chance to ask a question they wanted to know who was going to be first in line.
It makes me think of a t-shirt I saw one time that said, “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.”
Jesus answered by calling a child to come to him and then he said,
“I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
Then he told the parable about the shepherd leaving all of his flock in their pen so he could go and look for the one sheep who had gotten lost, which led into the section we read about being intentional to keep our relationships with each other current and constructive and forgiving one another four hundred and ninety times, and then to the parable about the ruler who forgave a huge debt only to see the forgiven one show no mercy at all to another who owed him pocket change.
Like I said, it’s hard to know how much of the story to tell.
This morning, let’s start with what someone called to First Rule of Theology: “There is a God and it’s not me.” It’s a statement of appropriate insignificance: I’m not the center of the universe. But there’s more than one way to think about it. Lyle Lovett sings:
who keeps on trusting you when you’ve been cheating
and spending your nights on the town
who keeps on saying that he still wants you
when you’re through running around
and who keeps on loving you when you’ve been lying
saying things ain’t what they seem
God does but I don’t
God will but I won’t
and that’s the difference between God and me
“There is a God and it’s not me” is drawing a different distinction. It’s a good paraphrase of the first line of the Lord’s Prayer actually—another way of hallowing God’s name. It even ties in with the next line—our request that the love of God would be as pervasive and visible on earth as it is in heaven. When we start by affirming that God is the Ultimate Priority of all creation—our Creator, our Center, the One to whom we owe our very existence, the One who calls us into relationship—then the reality that all of us—and by us, I mean every living thing—have small parts to play in the grand scheme of things. It matters that we are here, but we don’t matter more than anyone else.
Yes, Jesus said God knows every hair on our heads (which is a bit more of a challenge for some than others), and Jesus also said that God knows when a sparrow falls from its nest. God counts both feathers and hairs as appropriately insignificant. We are all wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved and so is every living thing. We are vital participants in creation, but God is the center, the source.
There is a God and it is not us—which brings us to forgiveness.
“Forgive us our sins (or debts or trespasses) as we forgive those who sin (or trespass) against us (our debtors).”
This sentence is the one with the most options, when it comes to church traditions. In my church life, I have been in churches that used all three words, mostly because that is the way the prayer had been handed down to them.
The word trespass entered the prayer thanks to William Tyndale’s translation in 1525. In his day, the word carried a sense of transgression or wrongdoing that is not a part of the way we use the word today, other than in the Lord’s Prayer. Debt came into English around the same time as trespass and has continued to carry the idea of both a financial obligation and a wrongdoing. Sin is the oldest of the three words and it has always meant pretty much the same thing.
Without wearing you out with language stories, it’s worth noting that Matthew and Luke use different Greek words for sin in their versions of the prayer. Maybe the takeaway should be in the course of human history we have figured out lots of ways to do damage to one another. Whether it is a sin, a debt, or a trespass—how do we forgive?
So, for a minute, let’s leave those words out and listen to the sentence: “Forgive us as we forgive others,” and as we do, I want you to notice the preposition: as. We can take that little word in several directions:
forgive us in the same way we forgive others;
forgive us while we are forgiving others;
forgive us provided that we forgive others;
forgive us because we forgive others.
When we look at the parable, it seems the ruler forgave the debt of the servant without any preconditions, but when he heard that the servant had not shown the same compassion to the one who owed him money, the ruler reconsidered.
It’s important to remember that a parable is not an allegory where every character lines up with someone in real life. The story is not as simple as God is the ruler and we are the one who had his debt forgiven. The meaning runs deeper than that. Sometimes, we may be the ruler; we may be the one who has the chance to show gratuitous grace to someone else, to forgive a debt to one who feels overwhelmed by what they owe. It doesn’t happen every day, but we all have the power to forgive.
Sometimes, we are the one who had their debt forgiven. We get a fresh start, but not because we earned it. Again, it doesn’t happen every day, but those “resurrection stories” can be life changing.
Then, as hard as it is to admit, sometimes we are that same person who holds on to what we feel is due to us so tightly that we can’t see beyond ourselves. We make our satisfaction our priority. We choose to turn a relationship into a transaction that puts us as the center of it all, that makes us the priority: you owe me and you have to pay now.
But we can’t live like that. We can survive—maybe—but we can’t flourish. Again, by we, I mean every last one of us. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.”
The only way we truly understand forgiveness is by passing it along, by doing unto others as God as done for us, so we pray, “Forgive us our sins, debts, and trespasses so that we can show our gratitude and our grasp of our place in the world by forgiving others.”
Forgive us when we decide we are the center, when forget there is a God and it is not us.
As I have said before, if you or someone you know is in an abusive or damaging relationship, Jesus was not saying you have to stay there. Forgiveness does not mean agreeing to be victimized or traumatized by someone else. Forgiveness from afar is not the same as trust.
Forgiveness does not necessarily mean forgetting. We all live with scars. Healing does not always mean there is no trace of the injury. What it does mean is to keep things in perspective, to remember we are not the center of the universe. We are significant specks in a universe that is a wondrous web of relationships. When we forgive one another of our sins and debts and trespasses, we create life, we create possibilities because we foster our relationships with one another. When we receive forgiveness, we foster our connectedness as well.
So, let me ask this question: what has been unforgiveable in your life? What are you holding that needs to be released, that needs to be forgiven in the same way that God forgives you?
As we hold those hurts, perhaps we can begin by reminding ourselves that violence is never a solution for violence. Nothing is solved by striking back. Our woundedness will not be healed by inflicting other wounds. There is no such thing as redemptive violence or compassionate revenge. Forgiveness breaks the vicious circle that destroys relationships. Forgiveness creates possibilities of living beyond things that feel insurmountable. Forgiveness is a tangible way of choosing relationship, of choosing one another, of saying, “You are more important to me than my feeling like I got even.” Forgiveness is how we stay alive in this world, how we remember we are all in this together.
As one of my favorite hymn writers, Don Henley, sings,
I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter
but my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter
but I think it’s about forgiveness . . . Amen.
PS—I might as well let you sing along . . .