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. 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 those 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?
To put all those questions more simply: what does it mean to forgive others?
This morning, we have the rare opportunity to hear an entire book of the Bible read during worship! Don’t worry; it’s a short one. Philemon is all about debts, debtors, and forgiveness. Let’s hear it together now:
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 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, live out forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
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 either 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.
Let’s be clear this morning: slavery is repugnant. By no means would we, in our modern standard, fault Onesimus for running away. No human should be owned by another human.
In the society in which Onesimus and Philemon lived, however, some humans did own other humans. Wealth was attached to that ownership. So while we may be repulsed by the ancient reality of slavery, the reality is that there’s a real debt that’s owed to Philemon. This letter isn’t about some abstract or metaphorical 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.
We today would tell Philemon to forgive the debt owed because it’s the moral thing to do, based on our morality around slavery. But of course, that was not the standard in Roman times, when Paul wrote this letter. So perhaps the best way for us to understand this reality this morning is to think of it like defaulting on a loan we owe a bank. When in default, we’re charged interest on the payments we missed. Why would a bank choose to forgive that interest? And then, why would the bank choose to forgive not only the interest but also the payments we missed? That’s what Paul is asking Philemon to do: forgive the debts like a bank forgiving our missed payments and the interest accrued.
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? In their society, Onesimus should have to pay for the consequences of his actions: his decision to run away.
Why should Philemon forgive the debt?
While none of us own slaves, we can certainly relate to the idea of 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.
Then, we have debts we have taken on. We have banks to whom we owe money, perhaps, or other entities. If we’re like the average American family, we have $90,460 of consumer debt: cars, credit cards, and the like. Maybe we’re the ones who have borrowed from family members or who have lived off the support of members of our families when we went through rehab or prison.
So we have people who owe us money, and we owe money ourselves.
Then, there are less tangible debts. We 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 have felt this very real debt at times 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. Whether they’re financial or less tangible, we know the weight of debt. It’s a weight many of us can relate to.
When we carry those debts, they gradually destroy our relationships as they gradually destroy us. Some of us may 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, the biggest small town ever, could be quite often. And those feelings, those hard emotions of anger, bitterness, and guilt, gradually eat away at our souls like a disease.
Just as the financial debt we carry gradually eats away at our finances, entrapping us, perhaps leaving us feeling like they are debts we can never repay. Or, when we are owed money from someone else, that debt clouds the relationship, putting a weight of debt between ourselves and the debtor.
So we can relate on a level with Philemon and Onesimus. Like Philemon, we’re owed debts of various kinds: financial, gratitude, or repentance and remorse. And like Onesimus, we owe others debts of various kinds: financial, gratitude, or repentance and remorse.
And to us, like to Philemon, Paul says forgive them all. Release each other from the debts we carry.
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 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. 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, from that beautiful chapter on the nature of love, that 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. Which is astounding because we can think of many wrongs God could list in a record of wrongs kept against us. 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 was true. We would stand indebted to God if a record of wrongs was kept against us.
We would have debts of gratitude, of repentance and remorse, and even financial debts we would owe God: debts of gratitude for all that God has given us and for our very life, debts of repentance and remorse for how we have mistreated those gifts and for the ways we have sinned, and financial debts since every cent of wealth attached to our name ultimately belongs to God.
We have debts we would owe God.
But Michael W. 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. There is no record of wrong kept against us; there never has been!
Even though we should owe God a debt we could never repay, we owe God nothing. God’s grace means that God gives us the free gift of love, no strings attached. God desires relationship with us and will not allow any action taken by us to stand in the way of that. This is one of the things that’s particular about Wesleyan, Methodist, theology: we do not believe we owe God a thing. God has already forgiven those debts out of God’s love for us, expressed as that free gift of God we call grace.
In doing so, God has set the example. Paul explains that example in stating why Philemon should forgive Onesimus. We should treat our human relationships as God has treated us.
In other words: 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 a financial debt stemming from someone’s wrongdoing.
That’s radical. But that’s what Paul tells Philemon to do: keep no record of wrongs; forgive as God has forgiven you. 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.
In other words: forgive as God has forgiven us, keeping no record of wrongs.
Not that our forgiveness of others makes God forgive us but, rather, that our forgiveness of others is how we live out how God has already forgiven us, showing love and grace as God has shown us love and grace.
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 to release from debt by keeping no record of wrongs, and thereby experiencing freedom.
That’s what Paul is encouraging Philemon to do: wipe the slate clean, keep no record of wrongs against Onesimus, to allow them both to experience the freedom of release from debt and restored relationship.
T hat’s what Paul is encouraging us to do this morning through this short letter we call Philemon.
So, this morning, consider: what record of wrongs might you be keeping? 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 their record of wrongs erased?
And also consider: what record of wrongs are you keeping against yourself? What wrongs have you committed? Who in your life needs you to go and offer your forgiveness? What guilt do you need to be released from? How do you need to forgive yourself?
After receiving of the elements during communion, come to the altar as you are able and offer the record of wrongs you carry to God, experiencing the freedom that’s offered here.
As Methodists, we believe that God’s grace is given to us afresh and anew when we come to the table. Communion is not merely a symbol, nor is it simply remembrance; God is actively moving and working in our lives in a special way when we come to receive. And that special outpouring of grace can mean the grace for us to release others from their wrongdoings and to feel released from ours; to have the record of wrongs scrubbed clean.
At the start, I said I’d once heard that famous line from the Lord’s Prayer translated this way: out of our brokenness, make something beautiful, as we give your beauty to those who have broken us. This is what God does: takes what’s broken and makes something beautiful. That’s what love does. That’s what grace does.
God keeps no record of wrongs, instead choosing to take our brokenness and make something beautiful out of our lives.
If God keeps no record of wrongs, let us do the same, for we have never been unloved.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.