Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon point out that this section of the Lord’s Prayer is the “most difficult to pray, the longest and most involved petition in the prayer itself.” Author NT (Tom) Wright suggests the reason forgiveness is such a potent topic in the Christian faith is because for many believers knowing how and when to forgive another can be the most difficult part of one’s faith journey. Why? William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas think they know the answer. “If you have ever been forgiven by someone, you know the way in which that forgiveness frees you, releases you in a way that is close to Divine.” In other words we all want to be free, free to be who God wants us to be. Holding on to the hurt that you suffered at the hands of the other or to the guilt of what you did to another imprisons you, limits you and enslaves you. Jesus came to set the captives free. Jesus came to forgive and release us from whatever binds us and constricts us.
But what did Jesus mean by “forgive us our trespasses and forgive those who trespass against us”? Let’s look at the context. We don’t live in Jesus’ time or the times of the early church, when most of the scriptures were written. In those times forgiveness usually had to do with deep seated guilt around something someone had done or a financial debt someone owed to a landowner that kept you forever beholden to another, a slave in a real sense. “The problem of debt was very serious in Jesus’ time. When the revolutionaries took over the Temple at the start of the Jewish war against the Romans, thirty years after Jesus’ day, the first thing they did was to burn the records of debt. The early church certainly believed that Jesus was talking about actual debts”
Forgiveness in that context can only be heard and experienced as Good News and being set free. In our context where we tend to think about forgiveness in terms of what others have done to us and rarely consider our economic debt as oppressive or a condition of slavery forgiveness becomes something we feel we must do for another even when we don’t want to and resent the pressure to do so.
Still those who carry the burden of a hurt others have done to them can find the affliction to be as oppressive as a financial debt or something we might have said or done to others. One issue that the church has had to come to grips with is the matter of domestic abuse. There was a time in the church where abusive partners would use scripture to shame a victimized spouse into returning to the household only to see the abuse continue. I have a good friend in Ministry who often tells me that there may be sins that God can forgive that we humans cannot, at least not in this lifetime. It is very easy for me as a heterosexual white male to think of forgiveness as a “must-do” but what of the Jews who survived the holocaust, the African-Nova Scotians who endured systemic racism, and what of the First Nations people who were torn away from their families to live elsewhere, taught that their language was primitive, their spirituality demonic and their history uncivilized?
NT (Tom) Wright says that what Jesus brought to the world was a sense of being set free from the past, from things that hold us down, to be unburdened, unchained and ultimately set free to be all we are meant to be. When Jesus forgave sins the religious authorities wondered who had given him this authority. The truth is that God created us to be fully human, fully alive to the love of our creation. If a believer is held down by debt, he must be set free. If she is held down with guilt, she must be set free. If he is held down by something said or done he must be set free. And if what was done to you has held you down then the possibility of forgiveness can offer the promise of freedom. But that promise must be one that those who were wronged choose freely, one where there is confidence in reconciliation and change.
Our current Moderator of the United Church Jordan Cantwell recently wrote a reflection on what it means for us to be in the spirit of forgiveness with our First Nations brothers and sisters. “Thirty years ago this August, at the 31st General Council in Sudbury, Moderator Bob Smith responded to the request of First Nations people in the United Church for an apology for the church’s role in colonization and the destruction of their cultures and spiritual practices. His words were painfully honest, speaking truth not just to what European civilization had visited upon Indigenous peoples, but also to what we had brought upon ourselves: We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be. Two years later, the Indigenous church acknowledged the Apology as an important step forward and expressed its hope and prayer that the Apology is not symbolic but that these are the words of action and sincerity. On the guidance of Elder Art Solomon, the cairn created as a symbol of this apology was not completed. It stands as a reminder to us of the promise we made and the work still required to fulfill that promise. It is a comforting thought, that we can revisit the past, and although we cannot undo the harms we have caused, we can make amends. We can repair what we have torn apart and restore what we have destroyed.”
I think forgiveness can be a source of new life for both those confessing wrong-doing and those who have been wronged. NT (Tom) Wright describes the whole process of being liberated from the burden of guilt and the burden of holding on to something hurtful being akin to breathing. “Once we start inhaling God’s fresh air, there is a good chance we will start again to breathe it out, too. As we learn what it is like to be forgiven, we begin to discover that it is possible, indeed joyful, to forgive others.”
If the pain of the past has become so great that you need to breathe this kind of fresh air the power of this prayer can be liberating and life-giving. This past could be something you did or said, something someone else did or said or a social sin done to you as part of a larger group or something you are part of that has harmed a group. In each case there is work to do. Like the unfinished cairn our forgiveness needs to be acted out in real time, for others to see and for we ourselves to know. Words can be meaningless or they can change everything. Only God knows what is on our heart but we can know the authentic truth of our words when we lives them out in acts of reconciliation and justice.
My friends, words can set us free, the truth can set us free, and reconciliation can set us free. But there is real work to do, real change to experience and a new Spirit to embrace. Forgiveness is a gift but one we must accept with love and responsibility. As witnesses to what we know Jesus can do in our life, the power of being released and given freedom, we can testify to what forgiveness means. With humility and gratitude let us live as forgiven people, loved people and compassionate people.