The Lord's Prayer (4)

A series of talks given on retreat, January 2008

Having spoken of physical bread, our relationship with the physical world, the Lord's prayer moves us on to consider our relationship with others.

At the heart of that relationship is forgiveness.
Forgiveness received from God, and forgiveness shown towards those who have taken from, offended or hurt us.

'Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us'

This is all wrong! It should be 'Forgive us our sins, so that we forgive those who sin against us'. God’s forgiveness comes first, and our forgiveness of others comes next.

That certainly is the logic of Matthew 18. In Matthew 18 Jesus tells the story of a ruler who has a servant who owes him about £10000. In those time it was Northern Rock kind of figures. The servant cannot pay, begs the master to have mercy on him and the debt is forgiven. The servant goes away and meets someone who owes him £5. But when the someone can't pay the £5 and begs for mercy, the servant does not show any mercy. He has him thrown into prison until he can pay. Of course the other servants see this and tell the ruler - who is furious. "I forgave you such a great debt. You were forgiven. But because you would not offer forgiveness to another, I now call in every single debt that you owe me".

So should not God's forgiveness come first, and then our forgiveness of others?

But in fact the Lord's prayer is not a denial of that. It is the case that divine forgiveness comes first. We are calling on God our Father. We are praying this prayer as believers. We are praying this prayer as forgiven sinners. We cannot pray to God without prior forgiveness. We have been forgiven, we stand in a state of forgiveness.

So it is as forgiven sinners that we are asking God to continue to have mercy, to continue to forgive us our sins, just as we forgive others.

We ask God to forgive us our large debts - our lack of trust, our ungratitude, our willful disobedience, our misplacing of faith, our fear driven decisions, our hunger for things, our submission to our demons and our lusts, our cold-heartedness and self-centredness (the list goes on!). We ask God to forgive us our large debts, just as we forgive others their small debts - the slight on our character, the person who misunderstands us, the questioning of our integrity, the one who stands in our way or who hurts us, who lets us down or takes advantage of us, who takes us for granted, who does not say thank you (the list goes on!)

The Kingdom of God, for which we have prayed, is about forgiveness. If we are not interested in forgiveness, in either receiving or offering forgiveness, then we have no part in the Kingdom of God. There is no place for us in God's kingdom if we are seeking revenge.

The Kingdom of God is about relationships built on forgiveness and mercy rather than on revenge.


Revenge says, 'What you do to me, I do to you'.

Last week, our daily readings were from the first chapters of Genesis. Cain kills Abel. He is sent out to wander the earth. He pleads with God, 'They will kill me'. God says, 'No. I will put my mark on you and if anyone kills you, veangence will be taken sevenfold on them'. Cain has a son, who has a son, who has a son, and so on until Lamech is born. Lamech is wounded by someone. Lamech kills him. Lamech boasts, 'If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold'.

That is revenge, in its brutal nakedness.

Later, when God gave the law to Moses, revenge is limited to reciprocity. It was severely qualified. If, before the law came, it was, 'You hurt me, I hurt you seven times over', in the law code it became: 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'.

Because of our nature however, it is difficult to build relationships or society on reciprocity justice. As one poster put it, 'If we lived eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, then the whole world would be blind and toothless'.


Jesus came to establish relationships and build a society on a different basis - forgiveness. He tells the story about the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18, in response to a question. Peter has asked him, "Lord, how often shall I forgive my brother? Seven times?" Jesus replies, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy seven times"

Lamech stands for the revenge society. If someone hurts him, he will hurt him 77 times over. Jesus stands for the society that is based on forgiveness. He asks us to forgive 77 times.

Of course, this prayer is not saying that forgiveness is easy.
It was not easy for Father God. It cost him everything - his Son

It is not easy for us.

When we have been hurt badly, when trust has been betrayed, when people have ruined opportunites for us, or made life very difficult - it is so easy to dwell on those things - to let them eat away inside of us.

Nursed grudges are very satisfying. They make us focus inwards. Who are they to do this to me? Do they realise how much they have hurt me? Grudges nursed allow us to think of ourselves as superior, as the martyr, that the world or God owes us something. And we nurse them and feed them, and they grow, and they in turn feed the hunger for revenge: I'll show them that they don't mess with me.

The problem is that when we feed grudges they end up feeding on us. They destroy us. I often use the illustration of the grandfather of one of the girls murdered by Myra Hindley. She was up on the moors, showing the police where the bodies were buried. There was tight security and a strict cordon round the area. The grandfather was stopped trying to get through into the restricted area. He had with him a long knife. The interviewer asked him, 'What were you going to do?' He replied, 'What the f.. hell do you think I was going to do?' You saw his face, and it was twisted with hate.

25 years earlier she had destroyed his life. But for the last 25 years he had allowed her to go on destroying his life.

Few of us, thankfully, have to learn to forgive at that level. But if we can begin to learn to forgive the lesser things, maybe we will be more ready to forgive the greater things.

Forgiveness is not easy. Even small debts niggle. I remember the person who I lent £50, probably about 12 years ago. He was someone I knew well. He really needed the money, and he said he would repay. But he didn't.

My guess is that he simply and genuinely forgot. But I didn't, I hadn't, and I needed to let it go.

So how do we forgive, especially when we have been hurt very badly? It is not easy, but it is about an act of will. It is about saying to God: ‘God, I cannot forgive, and I do not even think that I wish to forgive; but I know I have to forgive, so I ask you to help me to forgive. Give me the will to forgive’. It may be a prayer that we have to pray many times.

During the war Corrie Ten Boon and her sister were imprisoned in Ravensbruch concentration camp. Life was hell and her sister died. She tells of the occasion when, many years later, she was preaching about forgiveness. At the end of the service a man was walking out of church and put out his hand. ‘Thank you for talking about forgiveness. I was one of the guards at Ravensbruck, and I am very sorry and I am asking for your forgiveness.’ She said, ‘I could not forgive him. I prayed, and as an act of will chose to raise my hand to touch his. As my hand met his hand, I suddenly knew that I had forgiven him’.

Forgiveness, by the way, does not mean letting go of justice. It does however mean the handing over of justice to others and to God. That is what Jesus means in Romans 12:19-21. God alone sees the whole situation. He alone knows what is going on in the heart and mind of others.

The secret of forgiveness is the fatherhood of God. It is the mercy and love of God. As I, through the work of the Holy Spirit, begin to grow to understand just how weak and sinful and messed up I am, and just how much I am dependent day by day on the mercy of God - for forgiveness, for second chances, for life; and as I begin to understand just how beloved I am in God's eyes, then I am set free, released from the self centredness of unforgiveness.

Forgive us our sin as we forgive those who sin against us.


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