Today, Matthew 6:12: “And forgive us our debts, as also we forgive our debtors.”
For a moment, whatever we think about when we think of “forgiveness,” we’ve got to forget it. It does mean the pardoning of sins and it does apply to individuals, but when we think about forgiveness in Jesus’ context and first century Judaism, it takes on a much larger meaning than 21st century Westerners are usually ready to give. Forgiveness for the Jews is, first and foremost, a national hope, not an individual hope. (The primacy of individual salvation, I would wager, is only a 200-year-old phenomenon.)
You’ll remember we’ve been speaking about first century Jews as a people who still, though they physically live in Palestine, consider themselves far from the Promised Land. The first century Jews remain in exile, though they returned from Babylon 500 years earlier. So, why did Israel enter exile in the first place? What reasons did, say, the chronicler (whoever wrote 1 & 2 Chronicles) give for the nation’s destruction? It was, precisely, their rebellion against Yahweh. They did not follow the Covenant given by the Lord through Moses at Sinai. In short, they were banished for their sins.
If Israel was exiled as a result of her sins, what must happen in order for her to return? In order for Israel to return from her exile and to be restored, something had to be done about the sin that put her in bondage in the first place. If Israel was to be freed from exile, her sins had to be dealt with. She had to be forgiven.
So when Jesus leads this crowd of Jews in a prayer and recites, “Forgives us our debts,” they are saying to their God, “Lord, do whatever you have to do to bring us back from exile.” “Do what must be done to take care of the sin that put us in figurative and literal chains.” Remember the promises of Ezekiel 36? “Do whatever you have to do to make those things happen.” Forgiveness, as far as Israel is concerned, is about undoing the sins they had committed that put them in exile. Forgiveness is the necessary act of God that allows the world to be made right.
And part of that restoration would include, in the Jews’ minds, release from the rule of their political oppressors.
“…As also we forgive our debtors.”
As seemingly revolutionary as the rest of the prayer has been up to this point, this particular phrase is specifically anti-revolutionary. But it is far from status quo.
Those who kept Israel in debt were their very oppressors. One way to keep people in bondage is to hold significant debts, debts for which it will take their whole lives to pay off. To hold someone in debt is to say, effectively, “I own you.” So severe was this problem for the first century Jews that within a generation of Jesus’ resurrection, when the most serious and final Jewish revolt against Rome took place, the rebels’ destroyed the record of debts kept in Jerusalem. With no record of debts, there would have been no official way to keep people in economic bondage.
But charging into the hall of records and burning the debtors registry is definitely not forgiveness. Though the burning of the record of debts did not occur until 30 years after Jesus’ ministry, it is precisely this mindset, this hope that Jesus here prays against. “Forget about these revolutionary ideas,” Jesus is saying. “Though we’ve been praying up till now for God’s kingdom to come, which must, of course, displace the current Roman regime, this godly revolution ain’t happening like you think it’s happening.”
Rather than toppling their debtors, the prayer calls for the Jews to release their debtors from vengeance. A difficult pill to swallow.
Imagine, again, the scene. Father in heaven … A reference to Psalm 2, which speaks of God as king of creation, laughing at the pagan rulers. Let your name be sanctified … A reference to Ezekiel 36, which speaks of Yahweh restoring His holy name by restoring Israel’s fortunes. Let your kingdom come … If the kingdom’s going to come, it’s got to displace another kingdom (Rome, perhaps?). Let your will be established … And not Roman will, please. Up to this point, the crowd around Jesus must be feeling pretty good about Jesus has to say. This is the kind of prayer they can get behind. Perhaps they’re even cheering him on with each phrase.
Give us today the bread we need … A reference, perhaps, to manna and a “stiff-necked and rebellious” people wandering in the wilderness. Hmm, that’s a strange direction to take this prayer. Forgive us our debts … Yes, please! As we also forgive our debtors … Whoa! Hey! That’s not what I signed on for. I have little desire to not hold my debtors accountable for keeping me in undue bondage.
Suddenly, this prayer is heading in a new direction. Suddenly, Rome is not the only one that must change. Jesus is praying, perhaps all along, for the change of Israel as well.