How many of you have heard the story of George Washington and the cherry tree? Tell the truth now! Sure, we all have—and in case you’ve forgotten it, the pun I just made is from a story about when Washington was six years old he received a hatchet as a gift. He tried it out on his father’s cherry tree leaving significant damage. When his father discovered what he had done, he became angry and confronted him. And young George bravely said, “I cannot tell a lie—I did cut it with my hatchet.” Washington’s father embraced him and rejoiced that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.
Well, I learned this week what I have always suspected—this story is itself a lie—it never happened. It was invented by a man named Mason Locke Weems after Washington’s death in 1799. Weems cashed in on Washington’s fame by selling a grieving nation a book with that and other stories about our first president’s virtues.
Now I’m not saying Washington was dishonest—but I did come across a true story this week about Washington that tells us he was at least forgetful. You see, a little over two hundred years ago, our first president borrowed two books from the New York Society Library on E. 79th St.—and he never returned them. Washington’s dastardly deed went unknown for almost 150 years.
Then in 1934, a dusty, beaten-up ledger was discovered in a trash heap in the basement of this famous New York City library. On its age-tanned pages were the names of all of the people who had borrowed books between July 1789 and April 1792. For example, according to the ledger Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton borrowed books—probably books with titles like: Dueling for Dummies and Everything You Wanted to Ask About Dueling But Were Afraid to Ask. But—unlike the president, they returned these books before their due date.
The ledger shows that on Oct. 5, 1789, Washington borrowed the Law of Nations, a treatise on international relations, and Vol. 12 of the Commons Debates—which contained transcripts of debates from Britain’s House of Commons. Beside the names of the books, the librarian wrote on the ledger only, “President.” And, as I inferred, the entry, written with a quill pen, contains no return date. The books were due by Nov. 2, 1789, and they have been accruing a fine of a few pennies per day ever since. I’m sure the librarians knew the books had not been returned but they never brought it up. After all, the borrower was the liberator of the country, a national hero, and the first president. You just don’t ask that guy for your book back. What happened to the books? Well, for the next 221 years, they sat on a shelf in Washington’s Virginia home, until 2010 when the Mount Vernon staff finally sent them back. The overdue book fines—adjusted for inflation—came to a little over $300,000. Fortunately, the current head librarian, Mark Bartlett, has graciously forgiven the fine.
Now—wouldn’t you love it if the people YOU owe money to were as gracious as Mr. Bartlett?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your mortgage company—your credit card companies—the bank that finances your car—your student loans—not to mention your library—wouldn’t it be great if they said, “No worries—we forgive your debt?” Of course—that’s not going to happen. I mean, the president may experience that kind of grace—but we DON’T, do we?! No—as John Ortberg puts it in his book, Everybody’s Normal Until You Get To Know Them, there is a very simple debt rule in the world today: “You owe—You pay.” And—if you’ve ever broken that rule—if you ever failed to pay a credit card bill or a car payment—-intentionally or by accident—you know what happens. First your creditor’s computer will obey its programming and automatically slap you with a nice fat late fee. If you still don’t pay up, you’ll get phone calls at all times of the day and night from mean people—individuals who could care less about your situation—people who seem to love making you feel like the scum of the earth. If you keep withholding payment on your debts they may even take you to court and garner your wages. I mean “debtees” don’t like it when debtors cease to obey the, “You owe—You pay” rule.
In fact, we have a name for those people on the street who lend money and are determined to get it back. We don’t call them “loan chipmunks” or “loan puppy dogs.” We call them what? Right! “Loan SHARKS!” because when it comes to debt, the unbendable rule of life is–SAY IT WITH ME: “You owe—You pay.”
I bring this uncomfortable subject up because in the next portion of His Sermon on the Mount—Jesus uses the image of debts and debtors to help us understand one of the foundational aspects of meaningful prayer—the kind of prayer a growing Christian learns to pray. Follow along as I read this familiar portion of Scripture: We’ll begin with Matthew 6:9 but our TEXT is verses 12, 14-15.
9 – “This then is how you should pray, ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be Your name,
10 – Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
11 – Give us today our daily bread.
12 – Forgive us our debts, AS we also have forgiven our debtors.
14 – For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
15 – But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Now, as you can see in our text, the Jewish culture equated SIN with DEBT. I mean Jesus wasn’t referring to our mortgage or our VISA bill here. No, this part of His teaching on prayer reflects the Jewish concept that all our lives are on loan from God. And I like that word picture, because the fact is everything we have is given to us by our Creator so every time we act in a way that violates our Creator’s principles for how to live—every time we break His loving laws through our actions or inactions, thoughts, words or deeds—every time we “spend” His gifts to us in ways that are contrary to His will—there is a very real sense in which it puts us in debt to Him.
Now you may wonder why when they come to this part of the Lord’s Prayer some pray-ers say, “debts” and others say “sins” or “trespasses.” Well Matthew’s gospel says “debts” because it was written primarily with the Jews in mind and, as I said, that was how they pictured sin—as a debt incurred with our holy God. On the other hand, Luke uses the word “sins” because He wrote his gospel with the Gentiles in mind and they wouldn’t have understood this “debt” comparison. And we get the word “trespasses” from William Tyndale who used that word when he translated the Bible into English back in 1525. But “debts, trespasses, sins” they all mean the same thing and, the sad truth is ALL of us are sinners, trespassers, or debtors. All of us break God’s loving laws. To continue the Jewish word picture, every human being has a mountain range of moral debt that we can’t hope to pay off on our own and meaningful prayer includes this admission—as well as our request that God forgive us.
But not only do we all sin against God. We are all sinned against by other people. We aren’t just the perpetrators of sin—we are also the victims of sin. We all ARE debtors and HAVE debtors.
You know what I’m talking about.
- Someone you thought could trust hurt you.
- Someone said bad things about you to your face or even worse—behind your back.
- Someone took advantage of you financially and they didn’t care what hardship that would bring to you or your family.
- A parent withheld the affection and blessing you desperately needed.
- A spouse left you or betrayed you.
- A co-worker took credit for your work.
I could go on and on—because we all do indeed have debtors in life—people who have hurt us—and if truth be told, forgiving our debtors is usually very low on our priority list. In fact, most of the time we don’t want to forgive. NO—we want our debtors to pay! They owe—they pay! After all, that’s the rule and we want it enforced! Well, as we continue our study of the Soar-er’s prayer I want us to understand what Jesus says about this attitude we all have had toward the debtors of life.
Our Lord makes it very clear how He feels about our unforgiving attitudes by using one little two-letter word: Do you see it? It’s in verse 12. The word is, “AS.” Read Jesus’ words with me.
Our Lord says, “Forgive us our debts, AS we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Now—that’s a small word—but a scary one! As Charles Williams put it, “No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word, ‘as’ in that clause.” Jesus is saying there is a definite correlation between the way you and I treat our debtors—and the way God Almighty will treat debtors like you and me.
Well, what exactly does Jesus mean here? How does God’s forgiveness of our sins against Him relate to our forgiving others who have sinned against us?
To find an answer to these questions I want us to turn a few chapters to the right to Matthew 18, verse 23 where Jesus tells a story that is a commentary on this phrase from our text. Our Lord shared this illustration in response to Peter’s inquiry about how to deal with his own debtors.
This fisherman-turned-disciple wanted to know how far to go when it came to forgiving the people who wrong us. And Jesus’ answer to his inquiry is a parable about the kingdom of heaven—something we’ve been talking about in our study. Follow along in your Bibles as I review this familiar story.
It’s a story of a slave who owed his king a huge debt: 10,000 talents. And one thing I want to remind you is that the size of the slave’s debt was staggering because back then one talent was a vast sum of money. I mean, in a whole year, all the taxes collected in Judea and Samaria added up to nearly 600 talents, so one talent was a ton of cash—and this guy owed 10,000! Well, what Jesus was doing here was taking the highest number in use back then and multiplying it—like when we say a zillion or something like that. It was a number too high to calculate—like my mortgage multiplied a zillion times. By using this staggering number Jesus was saying this king was an incredibly generous guy. I mean for a slave to come into such riches—well it was unheard of! Kings in those days just did not give national-debt-size loans to slaves. So, this King had a big heart. He gave out more Cadillacs than Elvis—more gifts than Oprah! And Peter and the other disciples who were listening would have thought, “Wow—what a generous king!”
A second thought that would have entered their minds is this: “What kind of slave would take so much money, blow the whole wad—and make no provision for the day of reckoning that was sure to come?” They would have concluded that this slave was an unbelievably dumb guy—the dumber and dumberest guy they had ever heard of!
A third thing Peter and the other listeners would have noticed is that this VERY generous king was also a king who was committed to JUSTICE—because a day came when he was going to settle accounts. I mean, this is not a story about getting off the hook because of vague bookkeeping by a sloppy king. This ruler was not the kind of guy to say, “Hey, you did the best you could. We’ll just let it go.”
I find it interesting that Matthew is the only gospel writer who includes this parable. I think the reason he did was Matthew was a tax collector. That’s how he made his living. He was a first century bean counter, so he understood debts and account settling. I’m sure he’d heard every lame excuse in the book, “My camel ate my taxes—honest.”
Well, when it was discovered that this slave had squandered all this cash, the king passed judgement and said, “Sell him, his wife, and his children, as well as all their possessions.”
And this was not an unusual thing. Imprisonment for debt was very common in Jesus’ day as a way of motivating relatives to cough up the cash in order to get their family members out of jail.
But remember this is 10,000 talents we’re talking about—an UN-payable debt! Relatives could never pay this off—so this guy and his family were doomed to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives.
And this wouldn’t have surprised Peter and the others because they knew the debtors rule.
SAY IT WITH ME AGAIN: “You owe—You pay.” Well in Jesus’ story right before the King slams his gavel and says, “Next case.” the slave takes one last desperate shot. He falls on his knees and begs, “Be patient with me! I will pay it all back!” Now—what are the odds that this guy could pay back all that money? Remember—he was an unemployed slave! There’s no way he could do that.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey I heard a newscaster say that if you were able to fill all the professional football AND baseball stadiums with water right up to the nosebleed seat section—a HUNDRED times—that’s how much water flooded the streets of Houston. Well the odds of this guy paying all that money back would be the same as one person removing all that Houstonian water—ONE TEASPOON AT A TIME. I mean, for this guy to make this vow it was really an insult to the King’s intelligence. There was no way he could pay it back—and I bet Peter and the others expected the king in Jesus’ story to respond by laughing. But in verse 27 our Lord said this generous king was moved with compassion. He looked at this frightened, selfish, desperate, dumb and dumberest fool—and was moved with a depth of pity that prompted him to do three things.
- First, he released the man. There would be no prison for him or his family.
- Then he gave them back all their possessions.
- But then the king went even further. He actually forgave the entire debt—all 10,000 talents of it!
I wish I had mortgaged my home with this guy! Now think about this for a moment. All this mountain of debt doesn’t just DISAPPEAR. Someone has to pay. Someone has to take a loss—and who is it? Right! It’s the KING! This generous, compassionate, justice-loving ruler is actually BREAKING the debt rule! He’s offering a whole new system of debt management. The king says, “You owe—I’LL pay! I’ll pay the unpayable debt. I will take the hit. I will suffer the loss. I will take the whole price of your selfish, irresponsible behavior on myself so you can go free. You owe—but I’ll pay.”
And as grace-driven Christians—we hear this and think, “Hey—this sounds familiar!” We think that because inside we know this isn’t just A story—this is OUR story, because our Holy God—our Almighty KING—is both lavishly generous and also painstakingly just. We know this story is an illustration of the amazing grace of our Abba. This is a picture of God’s economy when it comes to our debts. We owed—He paid.
As I said earlier, we each have a mountain of sin debt and we add to the pile all the time.
- • Any time we are impatient with our wives or husbands or children.
- • Anytime we gossip.
- • Anytime we lazily ignore someone in need.
- • Anytime we criticize someone in a group so that we will look good—instead of going to the person in private.
- • Anytime we entertain a sexually impure thought.
- • Every racist joke.
- • Every judgmental attitude.
All of this sinful stuff adds to the mountain of moral debt we owe our holy God. And—every single human being on this planet ADDS to their debt mountain in these ways every minute of their lives—including me. I will testify that I love this parable because it reminds me that one day long ago, when I was a little boy, I read in God’s book that He made this incredible offer to pay my debt—and I took Him up on it. If you’re a Christian you had a day like that as well.
Do you remember it? Do you remember the day you responded to our Holy God Who has said,
“You owe—I’ll Pay. I’ve sent My only Son to die on the cross and pay your sin debt.” If you remember that day, raise your hand. Thank you! As a forgiven debtor, I like how The Message paraphrases 2 Corinthians 4:19-21. It says: “God put the world square with Himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start—by offering the forgiveness of sins. How, you say? In Christ. God put the wrong on Him Who never did anything wrong, so you could be put right with God.”
Okay—that’s the FIRST part of this parable. In the SECOND part we are told that when this servant left the King’s presence he bumped into a fellow slave who owed him. He found a debtor—someone who owed him not a vast sum but a PALTRY amount—a couple bucks—lunch money from MacDonald’s dollar menu. As you can see, Matthew tells us that this slave made the same request to the first slave that he did to the king. “Be patient with me and I will pay you back your two bucks.” Well, imagine the shock Jesus’ listeners felt when this forgiven slave grabbed his peer by the throat and with not even one tear of pity, threw the guy into debtor’s prison. In fact, his graceless behavior makes me wonder if this guy even thought he needed the King’s grace in the first place. I mean, it makes me question whether or not he really thought he had done anything wrong when he squandered the King’s fortune. I say this because most genuinely forgiven people become forgivers themselves. After experiencing grace they want to live it—they want to give it.
That’s what Zacchhaeus did. Remember? When he realized his sin and experienced the grace of God, he said, “I’ll give back four times what I cheated anybody and half of what I own to the poor.” As Ortberg puts it, the first slave, “didn’t want grace. He just wanted off the hook. And there is a world of difference between the two. When you want to be forgiven, you want to rebuild a relationship. You want to repent. You want to set right anything you can, not to earn it, but because that’s part of reconciliation.”
But this selfish slave didn’t act that way did he!? Well, don’t worry. He didn’t get away with it!
In the next part of Jesus’ parable, the King learned of this graceless servant’s cruel actions and had him thrown into prison until he paid back the full 10,000 talents! And then comes one of the most frightening verses in the Bible. Jesus says, “This is how My heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
This brings us back to our question doesn’t it?! As I said earlier by using this little word, “AS”—Jesus is saying there is a connection between our debt relationship with GOD and our debt relationship with PEOPLE who have wronged us. Well, what’s the connection? Is Jesus telling us that we EARN our forgiveness from God by forgiving other people? Everyone shake your head left to right—because NO—that’s not what Jesus is saying. Allow me to explain. The Bible refers to two distinct kinds of forgiveness we receive from God.
A. The first kind is our forgiven STATUS.
Some call this JUSTIFICATION because as Romans 5:1 says, “Since we have been justified through faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This word that we translate as “justified” comes from a Greek word that is a legal term that means, “to be made right with someone.” The word “justified” pictures a person standing in a law court accused of some crime and the evidence is presented. I’m sure our own resident Magistrate Judge, C. C. Day would tell you that if a judge looks at the evidence and determines the person not to be guilty of the crime, he would acquit the person. That action by the judge justifies the person, because the person is declared innocent of the accusation and therefore free to go. It’s just as if he’d never committed the crime. Well, in Romans 1, God is the judge and we are the defendant and we are guilty—all of us—but as I said a moment ago Jesus stepped up and paid our sin debt.
On the cross, He took on Himself the punishment we deserved. We owed—He paid—and because of that we can be declared right with God—justified. When we personally decide to put our faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord, we receive forgiven STATUS and this is good for all eternity—because when He died on the cross, Jesus didn’t just pay for our past debts, sins, and trespasses—but our PRESENT debts, sins and trespasses—and our FUTURE debts, sins, and trespasses!
We’ll never again stand guilty in God’s courtroom. Our status before God has been permanently altered. If you’ve trusted in Christ, you’ll never be more justified before God than you are right now.
B. The second kind of forgiveness is what we might call the forgiven EXPERIENCE.
This is the kind of forgiveness we read about in 1 John 1:9 where it says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Now, John’s little epistle was written to Christians—JUSTIFIED DEBTORS—so why would he encourage people who are already justified to still confess their sins? After all, they have a forgiven STATUS that nothing can take away. Well, the difference here is that John is talking about a different kind of forgiveness. You see, when we sin as Christians—and Christians do indeed sin—when we SIN our STATUS before God is unchanged but our present EXPERIENCE is. When we sin, we feel distant from God. Sin damages our closeness with our Abba. So, when we confess our sins as justified Christians, we’re not asking to be justified again, but to be cleansed. We’re saying we need to once again EXPERIENCE the forgiveness that is already ours through justification.
Let’s use parenting as an illustration of this principle. How many of you moms and dads have children who disobey you? How many have teens who have disrespected you? If you are sitting next to a parent whose hand is not raised, turn to them and say this, “You are a liar—the truth is not in you!” All living breathing parents have children who sin against them!
Well, when they do this—when our kids disobey—do we disown them? Do you hire an attorney and have your name taken off their birth certificates? You may have been tempted at times to do that but no—of course you don’t do this. However, you do want them to confess and apologize—and until they do, let’s just say things are kind of quiet around the house. There’s a chill in the air unrelated to the thermostat. Well it’s the same with our ABBA. As Christians when we sin, He doesn’t disown us. We’re still His children—but our present relationship with Him suffers!
As Lucado puts it, “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 with God. Just as unconfessed sin HINDERS joy, confessed sin RELEASES it. Dealing with debt is at the heart of your happiness. It’s also at the heart of the Lord’s prayer.”
No doubt Lucado was inspired by Psalms 32:1 where it says, “Happy is the person whose sin is forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned.” When we name our sins and failures before God in prayer, and ask for His cleansing, we experience forgiveness and the joy that comes from renewing our relationship with Him. I believe it’s this EXPERIENTIAL aspect of forgiveness that Jesus is talking about in His prayer model. That’s the connection. This is what the “as” is referring to. I mean, our Lord is not saying, “If you don’t’ forgive people, you’ll lose your justification and cease to be a Christian.” No—He’s saying, “If you don’t forgive, our relationship will suffer because you won’t experience My forgiveness. You pay the price of a close walk with Me whenever you refuse to forgive. We won’t be AS close as we are whenever you repent.”
Walter Wink—who spoke here at Redland several years ago—tells of the Grossmeyers, a couple on a sort of peace-making mission in Poland a few years after WWII. They were emissaries of Christians in Germany and they went to Christians in Poland and asked, “Would you be willing to meet with some Christians from West Germany? They want to ask you for forgiveness for what Germany did during the war and begin a new relationship. Would you meet with them?”
There was a long silence. Then one of the Polish Christians said, “What you ask is impossible.
Every stone of Warsaw is soaked with Polish blood that they spilled. We cannot forgive.” And the Grossmeyers understood their emotional response. They knew what had happened. Well, they finished their visit and were about to leave but they asked if they could conclude their time together by gathering and praying The Lord’s Prayer in unison. And the Polish Christians kind of automatically agreed. So, these believers knelt down and prayed as Christians have in every country, through every century, for 2,000 years now: “Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us today our daily bread—and… They stopped. They couldn’t pray anymore. There was a long tense silence in the room and finally the one who said they couldn’t forgive said, “I must say ‘yes’ to your request because if I don’t forgive, I can no longer pray this prayer. I can no longer call myself God’s child if I don’t forgive. Humanly speaking, I can’t do it. But God will give me the strength.” So, they finished the prayer—and 18 months later, Polish Christians and West German Christians met in Vienna and established a friendship that lasts to this day.
Now—I can’t help but wonder how many marriages might have changed over the past 2000 years—and how many friendships or families or churches might have been similarly healed—if when the Lord’s Prayer was prayed believers just stopped at that line like those Polish Christians did—and let the Holy Spirit work. In fact, I’d like us to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to do exactly that in our midst this morning. I want us to bow our heads and pray the Lord’s prayer—and when we get to our text for this morning let’s stop. I’ll say a few things and then I want us to take some time to search our hearts as we listen to God’s Spirit. Okay? Let’s pray together:
“Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be Your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us today our daily bread—and…”
Now—in the silence that is to come, let God’s Spirit speak to you. Maybe there’s a pain in your heart because of something a friend or a coworker or a sibling or a parent—or a fellow believer—or even a PASTOR did to you—and ever since deep inside you have been saying, “You owe—you pay!” Well, if you feel that way, then I would remind you once again of the mountain of debt that God forgave you. As the old poet put it:
“Forgive our sins as we forgive—You taught us Lord to pray
But You alone can grant us grace—to live the words we say
How can Your pardon reach and bless—the unforgiving heart
That broods on wrongs and will not let—old bitterness depart?
In blazing light, Your cross reveals—the truth we dimly knew;
How small the debts men owe to us; How great our debt to You.
Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls—and bid resentment cease
Then reconciled to God and man—our lives will spread Your peace.”
As this poet infers, you’ll never have to forgive someone more than God forgave you—let God use that realization to begin to thaw your heart toward this person. Another thing I want you to realize is that whenever we forgive—whenever a relationship is healed it’s a wonderful thing—a powerful thing—a miraculous thing! As Yancey says, “There is a slight shift in the balance of power in this world.” when we allow God to empower us to forgive others. Wouldn’t you like to be a part of that kind of shift this morning? If so, in the quiet moments that follow ask God to help you forgive.
Are you ready to finish the prayer? If so, pray with me:
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever AMEN”
As we stand and sing, you may need to continue to sit and pray for God’s help in forgiving your debtors, whoever they may be—and that’s fine. Take all the time you need. But—if you’re here and you’ve never asked God to forgive you of your sinful state—if you’re not a Christian and don’t have this forgiven status before God that I’ve talked about—I urge you to pray right now. Admit to God that you are a sinner—and ask Him to forgive you based on Jesus’ death on the cross. Commit to follow Him as Lord and come and share that decision with us. God may be leading you to join our church family—come—come as God leads.