Debts, ὀφειλήματα (opheileimata). This is not an act of wrongdoing. This is an obligation of payment to another. This is something owed, and in our case, because of our sin, it is a debt we owe to God.
Forgive Us Our Debts
The Jews hearing Jesus teach this may have thought of the year of Jubliee. The Jubilee year was the one at the end of seven cycles of schmita, Sabbath years. Every seven years constitutes one cycle, so after seven cycles, or forty-nine years, God commanded a year of Jubilee in which properties revert to original owners, slaves are freed to return to their families, debts are forgiven, planting is not done, and vines are not harvested, because the fiftieth year is a sacred year.1 Jesus Christ is our Jubilee.
I find it difficult to pray “Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.” This is especially true if I move from the plural to the singular: “Forgive my debts, God, as I forgive the debts of others.” If my forgiveness of others is the standard for my own forgiveness, then I’m in trouble.
I do not find it difficult with physical debts. God has blessed me, and I enjoy passing those blessings to others without the expectation of being repaid. Jesus has taught us that it is more blessed to give than to receive,2 and having been on both sides of that equation, I have found that to be true. There is blessing in receiving, and there is great joy and blessing in being allowed to bless others who have need.
But I bear an abundance of emotional pain from my formative years, and I wrestle extensively with forgiving in that arena. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I was a target for the cruelty of others, as were many of you. There are events from those years that will be with me until I am in my grave, and while I want to say I have moved beyond those events, that pain, though lessened over time, does not go away. The things that happened, happened.
However, there is a substantive and effectual difference between bearing a scar, and obsessing over a scar, just as there is a very fine line between lingering pain and lingering anger. As Christ-followers, we must experience a year of Jubliee in our hearts and our emotions. As painful as the memories may be, what are my petty grievances when compared against the sin in my life of which God has forgiven and continues to forgive me?
Jesus also taught us to settle accounts with our adversary while still on our way to the court lest he hand us over to the judge, the judge to the officer, and the officer will throw us in jail until we repay the last penny.3 Elsewhere he compared the kingdom of heaven to a compassionate king who forgave the enormous debt of one who could not repay, and who in his grief prostrated himself before the king, begging him to be patient while the debt was paid off.4 This same man, however, was very unforgiving to one who owed him just a pittance, and refused to extend the same mercy and grace that had been shown him.
As Christ-following men and women, we must master this act and art of forgiving because of the extent to which we have been forgiven. Remember, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”5
1. Leviticus 25:8-13
2. Acts 20:35
3. Matthew 5:25-26
4. Matthew 18:23-27
5. Matthew 5:7