There is a topic in church circles that is really an enigma. Many church committees and boards at all levels of governance spend most of their time discussing the topic in some form or other. It is fought over, cried about, pleaded for and occasionally celebrated in these meetings. But heaven forbid this same topic be brought up in the sanctuary. Somehow, we think God is only interested in spiritual things and God is only listening when we are in the sanctuary. The topic, of course, is money.
When it comes to talking about money in the sanctuary, suddenly it becomes personal. So forgive me for broadcasting this issue but I must. You see, we all deal with it. And occasionally some of us deal with an issue of money that is really taboo to be spoken of. That is being overdrawn at the bank. You didn’t let it happen intentionally, it’s just that your paycheck was late this month and the landlord cashed the rent cheque just before you were able to make a deposit. Maybe you intended to get to the bank on time, but your mom phoned and it took longer than you expected and the bank was closed by the time you got off the phone and you don’t know how to make a night deposit or how to move money from your savings account to your chequing account online. The result is the same. You get that dread message on your returned cheque that says INSUFFICIENT FUNDS. Those words just hang right up there with “Revenue Canada is going to audit your tax returns” or “a root canal is necessary” or “let’s stop dating and just be friends”.
You are overdrawn. You gave more than you had to give. You spent more than you had to spend. And guess who has to cough up the cash? Not the bank: they didn’t write the cheque. Not the store; they didn’t make the purchase. Not your mom who held you up on the phone, unless she is really sympathetic to your plight. In the grand scheme of things you can make all the excuses in the world, but a bounced cheque lands back in the lap of the one who wrote it.
What do you do if you don’t have any money? What do you do if you have nothing to deposit except good intentions? You could hope to win the lottery that week, or have an unknown wealthy relative die and leave everything to you, but if you are talking about your financial debt, the possibility of that seems slim to non-existent. If you’re talking about your spiritual debt, however, it has already happened. Your Father has covered your spiritual shortfall.
Debt (or trespasses as the King James version translates it) simply means to owe someone something. And if to be in debt is to owe someone something, then it is most appropriate we speak of debt in our prayers. The Lord’s prayer says “Forgive us our trespasses (debts) as we forgive those who trespass (are debtors) against us.” Aren’t we in God’s debt? Don’t we go further into God’s debt when we disobey God? He tells us to go north and we go south. He tell us to turn left and we turn right. Rather than love our neighbour, we hurt our neighbour. Instead of seeking God’s will, we seek our own.
Aren’t we in God’s debt when we disregard Him? He makes the universe and we applaud science. He heals the sick and we applaud medicine. He grants beauty and we credit Mother Nature. He gives us possessions and we salute human ingenuity.
Don’t we go into God’s debt when we disrespect God’s children? How does God feel when we mistreat one of His children? When we curse His offspring? When we criticize or gossip about a coworker, a relative? What about when we speak about someone before we speak to them? Every time we do one of these things we are writing a cheque on our heavenly bank account. And if Jesus had not covered us with His grace, we would be overdrawn every time. We have insufficient goodness to cover our sins. We have insufficient holiness to do it ourselves.
We could try making some deposits. Wave at a neighbour. Smile at my husband. Go to church next Sunday. But how do you know when you’ve made enough deposits? How many trips to the spiritual bank do you have to make? How do you know how much credit you need? When do you get to relax? The problem is, we never can. Romans 4:5 says “People cannot do any work that will make them right with God.” Only God can make the deposits we need and He has already done that.
There were several ways God could have handled our spiritual shortfall. He could have ignored our bounced cheques. But would a holy God do that? Could a holy God do that? If He did, He wouldn’t be holy. Is that how we want God to run this world anyway? Ignoring sin and therefore endorsing rebellion?
Another way was to punish us for your sins? He could have. He could have crossed your name off the book of life and wiped you off the face of the earth. But would a loving God do that? Could a loving God do that? He loves you with an everlasting love. Nothing can separate you from His love.
So instead, because God is both holy and all-loving, “God put the world square with Himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering the forgiveness of sins.” (2 Corinthians 5:19 The Message)
God took your statement flowing with red ink and bad cheques and put His name at the top of the account. He took His statement, which listed a million deposits and not one withdrawal and wrote your name at the top. He assumed your debt. You assumed His fortune. But He also paid your penalty. When you write a bad cheque, not only are you responsible for coming up with the funds to cover the cheque, but the bank charges an additional penalty for the insufficient funds. If you have a penalty with the bank it’s a hassle. But if you have a penalty from God it’s hell. Jesus changed places with us and put himself under God’s curse so that we wouldn’t have to. “He was wounded for the wrong we did; he was crushed for the evil we did. The punishment, which made us well, was given to him, and we are healed because of his wounds.” (Isaiah 53:5)
When we say the line “forgive us our trespasses” in the Lord’s prayer, it does not earn us grace. That has already been given to us. Instead, we pray that phrase to remind us of the forgiveness we have, not to attain a forgiveness we need.
God took our account, with all its red ink, bad cheques, insufficient funds, overdrafts and wrote “paid in full” across it when Jesus was crucified on the cross. That is how God has dealt with the debt we owe God. But what about the debt we owe others?
Having reminded us of the grace we have received, Jesus goes on in the Lord’s prayer to speak of the grace we should share. As we live in this world, we are going to run up against people (unless you choose to become a desert hermit, but then you wouldn’t be hearing this sermon). And people hurt people, intentionally and unintentionally.
Jesus does not question the reality of our wounds. He does not doubt that you have been sinned against. The issue is not the existence of pain, but rather the treatment of pain. What are you going to do with your debts/trespasses?
For the characters in the parable, their debts were treated in several different ways. The king originally ordered the first debtor to sell everything (including himself and his family) to repay the debt. The second option that could have been presented was that the man be given more time or additional tasks to be able to pay back what he owed. The king decided on a third route however, and forgave the debt altogether. As the story continues, though, we find that the servant, who was also owed, does not follow his sovereign’s example and in the end this ultimately causes him all kinds of grief. The servant paid a high price for not forgiving those who owed him,
When we do not forgive the trespasses of others there is a high price to pay. We pay a price relationally. Holding a grudge, harbouring bitterness, keeping the hurt alive all ruin relationships. Max Lucado uses the example of a bounty hunter. Bounty hunters were those men of the old west that helped others get vengence. But did you ever notice that a bounty hunter always travels alone? Who wants to hang around with a guy who settles scores for a living? Who wants to risk getting on his bad side? Sometimes when people share with you the difficulties they have with others, rather than being able to offer your sympathy you may be thinking, “I hope I never get on this person’s bad side.” Hang out with the angry and you might catch a stray bullet. Debt-settling is a lonely occupation.
When you do not forgive the trespasses of others you pay a price physically as well. Resentment is like a prison. When we resent the actions or words of someone, we put them into the prison. The problem is you have to guard the prison all the time. If you are out to settle a score you can never rest. After all, your enemy may never pay up. As much as you think you deserve an apology, your debtor may not agree. The racist may never repent. The chauvinist may never change. The sharp-tongued may never soften. The leaver may never return or feel remorse for leaving. As justified as you are in your quest for vengeance you may never get a penny’s worth of justice. And if you do, will it be enough? How much justice is enough to satisfy us? This kind of resentment can and eventually will wear you down, exhaust you, drain your energy.
When you do not forgive the trespasses of others you also pay a price spiritually. The last part of Matthew 6: 9-15 may be a little confusing. It says “If you forgive others for the wrong they do to you, your Father will forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” That sounds like bargaining on God’s behalf but it isn’t. It sounds as though our sins won’t be forgiven by God if we refuse or are unable to forgive others. It sounds like our forgiveness from God is earned. It sounds as though mercy is a merit which save us. But that interpretation is wrong because it is contrary to the rest of scripture. If we can attain forgiveness by forgiving others, or if we can attain holiness by doing good deeds, why do we need a Saviour? If we can pay for our sins through our mercy, why did Jesus die for our sins? If salvation is a result of our effort, then why did the apostle Paul insist, “You have been saved by grace through believing. You did not save yourselves. It was a gift from God.” (Ephesians 2:8) Salvation is a free gift.
So why, if we are already forgiven by God, did Jesus teach us to pray “forgive us our trespasses”? If one of my children violates one of my standards or disobeys a rule, I don’t disown them. I don’t kick them out of the house or insist they change their last name. But I do expect them to be honest and apologize. And until they do, the tenderness of our relationship will suffer. The nature of the relationship won’t change, but the intimacy will.
Confession does not create a relationship with God, it simply nourishes it. If you are a believer, admission of sins does not alter your position before God, but it does enhance your peace and intimacy with God.
When we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” we are asking God to treat us as we treat our neighbour. Give me what I give them. Grant me the peace I grant others. Let me enjoy the same tolerance I offer. That’s what we are saying in those words. Whatever we offer others is what we are asking God to return to us. I guess we’d better be careful then, of what we offer. Forgiveness to others, for forgiveness from God. Mercy to others, for mercy from God. Love to others, for love from God. Peace with others for peace with God. Intimacy with others, for intimacy with God.
In a world where we have to deal with other people, where we have to get along with other people it might be wise to remember the story Dale Carnegie shares. In a visit to Yellowstone Park he saw a grizzly bear. The huge animal was in the center of a clearing feeding on some discarded camp food. For several minutes the bear feasted alone; no other creature dared draw near. After a few moments a small skunk walked into the meadow toward the food and took his place next to the grizzly. The bear didn’t object and Carnegie knew why. “The grizzly,” he said, “knew the high cost of getting even.”