The Debts We Owe | Sermon from 7/7/19

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. 

We say it every Sunday. Some of you say it multiple days a week as a part of your prayer practice. My current prayer book has me praying it daily after I sit for a time of silence. Right there, in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer, the only prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, and the prayer of the church ever since, we pray that line:

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. 

In my Presbyterian upbringing, I grew up saying it this way: forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 

More contemporary versions of the Lord’s Prayer say it this way: forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others. 

And, once, I heard it translated this way: out of our brokenness, make something beautiful, as we give your beauty to others who have broken us. 

No matter how it’s translated, the request is clear: God, forgive us our wrong doings just as we forgive others their wrong-doings. Which means that the two are linked in some way. Does this mean that, in order for God to forgive us, we have to forgive others? Does this mean that God must forgive us first in order for us to be able to forgive others? Or is the relationship symbiotic, with our forgiveness of others feeding God forgiving us, which allows us to forgive others, and round and round we go? 

What does it mean to forgive others?

Debts, debtors, and forgiveness are what our next book in the small books of the Bible series is all about. Let’s read together Philemon, a private letter from Paul to a friend of his.

Scripture 

Paul is in prison. Where, exactly, is a matter of dispute, but he’s definitely in prison, writing a letter to Philemon. The letter is also addressed to the church that meets in his house, suggesting that Philemon is either hosting a house church or is the pastor of that church. And while Paul includes other leaders of that church in the opening of his letter, what he has to say to Philemon is of a very personal nature.

Onesimus is a runaway slave. At least, that’s almost certainly what’s happened here. Philemon is Onesimus’s master and, for whatever reason, Onesimus has run away, probably fleeing with some money or something else of value. 

And, somehow, Onesimus has run into Paul, such that Paul writes to Philemon asking that Onesimus be received back by Philemon graciously, without any outstanding debt. He asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus both his trespasses and his debts, literally. 

For Onesimus has an outstanding debt. According to Roman law, for every day he’s gone from his master’s home, he owes a debt equal to a day’s wage. This collects in perpetuity, such that Onesimus owes a large debt. Even though Roman law allowed for slaves to own property and valuables such that some slaves in the ancient world became wealthier than their masters, it was unlikely that a slave could repay the debt incurred by running away. Onesimus, if he returned or was captured and forced to return, would owe a debt he could never repay. 

And Paul thinks that Philemon should simply forgive that debt. 

Paul’s rationale is clear: God forgave you out of God’s love for you, Onesimus is your brother in Christ, so forgive Onesimus as God has forgiven you. In other words, forgive him his debts, as God forgave your debts. 

It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful, but Philemon has incurred a real loss. 

The debt here is real. Philemon has lost productivity. Whatever Onesimus did for him, it’s not being done as efficiently or not being done at all, because he ran away. There’s real financial loss for Philemon and his household; the very household that’s currently supporting a church.

Even though slavery is repugnant, we must allow ourselves space to realize that Philemon has incurred real financial losses; has a real debt that’s owed. This letter isn’t about some abstract concept of forgiveness or debts, like when Paul says that the wages of sin is death in Romans. No; this is real financial debt based on real trespasses incurred from the loss of a household slave.

So why, exactly, would Philemon choose to forgive Onesimus, and especially why would he erase the debt owed to him by Onesimus, when there’s real loss incurred because of Onesimus’s bad behavior? It’s analogous to having to pay the consequences for our actions. If we commit a trespass, there are consequences for our actions; a debt that’s owed. I got a speeding ticket recently. I incurred a debt and paid that debt. The City of Graham, Georgia, is now $416 wealthier than it was. Our bad behavior incurs consequences, debts, that are owed. 

So while none of us own slaves, we can certainly relate to this, for we have committed bad actions and had to pay the consequences; pay the debts. We can also relate to Philemon, perhaps even better than to Onesimus, because we have people in our lives who owe us a debt. 

We have people who have cost us real money. Maybe that’s because they encouraged us to make a bad investment. Maybe that’s because of an inheritance dispute. Maybe that’s because we were cheated out of it. Maybe that’s because we have relatives who are in and out of rehabs, prisons, and the like and are constantly in need of funds. Whatever the case, we have real people in our lives who owe us a debt of funds, perhaps one that, like Onesimus, can never be repaid.

We also have people who owe us a debt of gratitude and have yet to show it. We’ve worked hard for them, we’ve gone the extra mile, we’ve labored long and hard, and we receive no thank yous, no appreciation, no show of gratitude at all. I felt this very real debt a few weeks ago when someone else was given credit for my hard work. We are left feeling that they are indebted to us: a debt of gratitude. 

Or we feel that debt of gratitude in a different way. We receive a gift out of the blue, something very thoughtful and meaningful, and we feel we must repay that kindness; a different kind of debt of gratitude. 

And then there are times where we are gravely wounded by someone else. They owe us an apology. For their harsh words, for their unkind actions, they need to apologize. We are owed that apology; a debt of remorse and repentance. 

Of course, there’s the flip side of that as well. We realize that we have done wrong and have yet to apologize for it. We should, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do so. And so we have ourselves a debt of remorse and repentance that’s owed to someone else. 

In these ways, and I’m sure in others, we have debts that we carry with us. Debts of money, debts of gratitude, debts of remorse and repentance. Real debts. Real things we either owe to others or things owed to us by others. 

And these debts weigh a lot! They burden us, just like real financial debts. Dana and I have known times in our lives where we have been in significant debt that has strained our family’s finances. When we bought our first house in Macon, in quick succession we bought a car and had a baby. Suddenly, with a mortgage payment, a car payment, daycare and doctor bills, and student loans, we had little income left over for anything else. Our debts weighed heavily on us, entrapping us by entrapping our finances. 

Just as our debts of gratitude and debts of remorse and repentance weigh heavily upon us. They gradually destroy our relationships as they gradually destroy us. We go to bed too many nights daydreaming about getting even or daydreaming about receiving that gratitude or that apology we’re owed. We have those feelings of anger, bitterness, or guilt whenever we see that person which, in this town, could be quite often. And those feelings, those hard emotions of anger, bitterness, and guilt, gradually eat away at our souls like a disease. 

So why should we forgive? Why should we do as Paul commands Philemon? These debts are real and we’re owed. To release that debt means we will never receive what we are justly owed. How does that make sense? So no matter how poetic, why should Philemon forgive Onesimus his debt and his trespasses?

Like Philemon, we know what it is to be owed a real debt. We know the burden, the cost, of being owed something. Think of those people right now who owe you something. That burden feels pretty heavy, right?

What do we do with that burden? That weight? What does it mean to forgive? 

Paul commands Philemon to forgive on the basis of love. In verse 9, he declares that he appeals to Philemon on “the basis of love.” From there, he unfolds his argument as to why Philemon should release Onesimus from his debt. In this letter, love is the motivation, love is the power, of forgiveness. 

That’s because, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:5, love “keeps no record of wrongs.” If we love others like God loves us, we keep no record of wrongs against them. 

The love God gave to us through his Son, Jesus Christ, is a love that keeps no record of our wrongs. And we have many. We are born into this world tremendously indebted to God. We have done the wrong thing, said the wrong thing, embraced the wrong thing. We have been cheaters, liars, and haters. We have wounded others, we have been greedy. 

As Michael W. Smith, the Christian recording artist, puts it, “I have been unfaithful, I have been unworthy, I have been unrighteousness, and I have been unmerciful. I have been unreachable. I have been unteachable. I have been unworthy. And I have been unqualified. And sometimes, I have been unwise. I’ve been unfit for blessings from above.”

This is true of us all. And not in the academic sense. We each have had moments where each of those qualities is true. 

But Smith continues, “But because of you, and all that you went through, I know that I have never been unloved.” 

Love keeps no record of wrongs. 

God forgives all of our sins, all of our trespasses, and thus no debt is held over our heads. We owe God nothing. Nothing! 

And so it should be for our human relationships. No one should owe us anything. 

Forgiving others, as God has forgiven us, means to keep no record of wrongs against others. It means keeping no debt ledger, whether that be a debt of gratitude, a debt of remorse and repentance, or an actual financial debt because of how you were cheated or swindled. 

That’s radical. But that’s what Paul tells Philemon to do. And that’s what God tells all of us to do. 

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Not that our forgiveness of others makes God forgive us but, rather, that our forgiveness of others demonstrates to us how God has already forgiven us. 

And, here’s the magic: keeping no record of wrongs, holding no debts, is freedom. 

That burden you’re carrying? It’s gone when you choose to forgive someone a debt owed to you. 

Those feelings of anger and bitterness? They’re gone when you choose to forgive a debt owed to you. 

Those feelings of guilt? They’re gone when you go and offer someone your apology. 

There’s tremendous freedom in forgiveness. To forgive is different than to forget. Someone who has hurt you ought not be trusted with your vulnerability in the future. Someone who has gravely wounded you might mean that you hold that relationship at a distance. Trust is different than forgiveness, but often they get equated, because we say we are to forgive and forget. 

To forgive doesn’t mean to forget, blindly trusting again. To forgive is different. To forgive is to release from debt. It’s to not use the memory of the offense as something to hold over someone. It’s to not allow that memory of an offense you committed to be held over you. 

To forgive is to release from debt. 

Who, in your life, needs to have their debt forgiven? Your spouse? Your coworker? Your family member? Someone here at the church? Someone in the community? Who, in your life, needs to have their debt forgiven? 

After receiving of the elements, come to the altar and offer their debt to God, saying that you’ll forgive it. 

Who, in your life, needs you to go and offer your forgiveness? What guilt do you need to be released from? 

After receiving of the elements, come to the altar and offer that debt to God, pledging to go and offer your apology. Even if they don’t forgive you, your action will free you from keeping a record of wrongs against yourself. 

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. 

God forgives us because God’s love keeps no record of wrongs. Remember your own sinfulness, remember your own unfaithfulness, and remember that, you have “never been unloved.” May that spur you on to love others, as God has loved you. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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