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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Midweek Lent 2011 + Lord, Teach Us to Pray

Week 4: “The Obvious (?) Solution” Fifth Petition, the Lord’s Prayer
Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Matthew 18:21-35

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

“Forgive us, God, just as we forgive others.” Is there any way to say that which doesn’t cause us to hesitate? We might struggle to pray for daily bread, as I talked about last week, but this petition could be even more difficult. Tying our own forgiveness to our ability or willingness to forgive others is a little daunting.

Jesus gives us this prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, to teach us to pray, and this petition is one we need every day. But it’s not easy to pray. And the difficulty isn’t just in the second half, to be honest. We’re not entirely thrilled with the first part, either. It’s a toss-up whether we’re less willing to admit our own wrongdoing or to forgive the wrongs others have done to us.

But maybe we’re missing something here. Martin Luther said this is a petition to gladden us, a prayer we can “use and practice every hour, keeping it with us at all times.” (Large Catechism) He saw great joy in the first part, that we can turn to God who has already promised to forgive us, and honestly face our flaws, our sin, our brokenness. We can turn to God in confidence that God will forgive, and admit all, tell everything, and trust in God’s love. And as for the second part, Luther says there’s comfort in it. Though it seems at least in the Large Catechism he doesn’t really explain what that comfort is, I think I might know. And I do believe this – our Lord Jesus would say that praying this petition hourly, daily, all our lives, is central to living in the grace of God for the world.

The first part first: we’re invited to admit our own sin and brokenness.

The story Jesus tells Peter today responds to Peter’s complete lack of focus on his own reality. Whatever the precipitating circumstances were that caused Peter’s question, Jesus is aware that Peter’s view of sin is uni-directional. He only wants to know how he can limit his forgiveness of others – what’s the bar, the standard, the end?

To be fair, he sets it rather high. Not many of us would willingly forgive the same offense seven times running. But Jesus focuses him and us on the reality that while we’re withholding forgiveness from others, we’ve received infinite forgiveness from God.

The key to this story, and to Jesus’ understanding of forgiveness, is relationship restoration. The relationships are what is repaired, or needing repair: between the king and the servant, and the servant and his fellow servants. Forgiveness in the Bible is most often about re-creating a broken relationship, be it between God and us, or between people.

So the reaction of the king to the unforgiving servant is in part so strong because he believed that his relationship with the servant was restored by the forgiveness. The fact that the servant was unwilling to forgive another person showed that he wasn’t living in that relationship in any significant way – he only saw forgiveness as avoiding punishment. But that’s not the point of biblical forgiveness – it’s always about God wanting us back, and wanting us restored to each other, not about getting out of something.

This is why we want to pray the first part: we want to be back in a loving relationship with God. We have nothing to lose in confessing and turning to God but our pride (and Luther reminds us how foolish that is) and everything to gain in a new relationship with God.

But what about part 2, the other part?

Forgiving others and asking their forgiveness is one of the hardest things we do.

In the the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, there was a series dealing with the little boy Calvin insulting his friend Susie. In one key strip, Calvin realizes that he feels sorry he’s hurt her. But when his friend the tiger says “Maybe you should apologize to her,” Calvin replies, “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution.”

That’s our dilemma – asking forgiveness of another, and offering forgiveness to another require a vulnerability that we’re often not willing to have. But if we don’t do it, we live with the pain of the broken relationships. We keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution, when this is the only one that makes any sense. It’s the only one that can restore relationships.

And that’s the key to Jesus’ command in this parable, and repeated in this petition. We are commanded to forgive each other because it’s the only way to healing and new life with each other. As long as we persist in believing we’re in the right, we will live with the pain of our disrupted relationships, no matter who is at fault in the disruption. And if I could add to Luther, I think this is where the comfort of this second half comes – in forgiving others and seeking forgiveness from them, we find the same rich, joyful life we find in seeking God’s forgiveness.

I learned this many years ago in a way that deeply affected me. I was pretty young, and there was a person who was very hard on me, unkind, and said things to me and to others about me that weren’t kind or true. I’d tried to talk through with this person what was wrong, to no effect. It didn’t help at all that others told me this person did this to everyone – I felt I should find a way through it. But I was firm in my self-righteous belief that I at least wasn’t in the wrong.

But as God often does, the words of Scripture kept pushing at me. I’d read stories like today’s, or pray the Lord’s Prayer, or hear Jesus’ command to love, and think “I’m not doing this very well.” So finally I gave in. I prayed for this person. Here was my prayer, initially: “Dear God, help me forgive this person. But I have to tell you that I don’t want to – I’m only praying this because you say I have to. So you’re going to have to work hard on this one.”

Not the most gracious of prayers, but it got me through. And for awhile I prayed that prayer. I tried to pray for this person every day. And what was amazing to me was that over time I didn’t need to be so obstinate in my prayer. I began to pray that God’s love be real to this person, that this person be filled with God’s joy – something I began to see they needed badly. And the result was that after a few months, my prayers for this person were all about them, and their needs, and that they know God’s grace as real.

This person never stopped being unkind to me, that I could ever tell. But the miracle God worked in me is that I eventually found I wasn’t angry or hurt – I only had pity and compassion for this person. Given my attitude when I began, this is all God’s grace.

And that’s what Jesus is promising in this petition – that our forgiveness from God and our forgiveness of each other will transform us into new people, regardless of what the other person has done.

And of course Jesus is saying in this petition and parable that we can hardly deny forgiveness to another person when we’ve received it in full from God. But what he means is that if we do not forgive others, we are living as if we haven’t been forgiven by God – we are living as if there is no new relationship of love between us and God. And through this prayer Jesus promises that God will change our hearts and make us filled with the grace that we’ve already received from God, grace that we can then offer others.

And that’s definitely something worth praying for.

At the bottom line, we need this petition because we need to ask God’s help in doing it. Without God’s help, we’d never confess or forgive.

As I experienced, God changes our hearts even when we think right up front we don’t want them changed. And with the difficulty we have with both directions of forgiveness – divine and human – I’m thankful Jesus tells us we ought to pray for this. As Luther says, when our heart isn’t right with God we lack the confidence and do not dare to pray this petition. So thanks be to God that Jesus commands us to do it, whether we dare or not – and then gives us the confident heart to live in it as well.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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