Sunday, March 22, 2020 “Forgive Us Our Trespasses”
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Forgive Us Our Trespasses
Matthew 6 and 18:21-35 – March 22, 2020
Where I grew up, trespassing was serious business. In rural Washington and rural Montana, people did not like it if you walked across their land without their permission. They considered themselves the owner of the property and a trespasser would be violating that ownership. Many people felt like they had the right to defend that property as well. So, needless to say, if we were roaming around as kids and we saw a “No Trespassing” sign, we did not take that lightly.
We also did not take it lightly when we heard rumors from the other kids on our bus route that one of our neighbors especially did not like trespassers. At the time we lived six miles out of town and rode the school bus back and forth to school every weekday. On the bus, kids would get to talking, and the word was that the neighbor to the east of where we lived was a mean old man who hated kids and if you stepped onto his property, well, he just might shoot you. Of course this rumor struck some fear into our young, elementary school-aged hearts and as my brother and I would play in the hills around our house and go for hikes along the rocks that stretched to the east, we made sure we didn’t wander too far.
But one day, we got a little tired of walking the same paths and climbing the same rocks we had already explored. We wanted some new adventure. We were curious about what the rock formations were like beyond the area we knew. Maybe there were some new caves we could find or new forts we could build. So we went a little further than usual. We crawled through some barbed wire. We knew we might be getting close to our neighbor’s property, but we didn’t think we were that close, or at least if we were on his property we knew that the odds were his house was way down by the road and we were more on the hillside. Besides, were we enjoying the new territory, pushing our limits, testing our courage, seeing just how much farther from our house we could go.
In our eagerness to explore, however, we hadn’t realized that we had started walking down the hill, more than across the hill. Suddenly, we came to a clearing, and there, only about 200 yards away, was a house. We froze in our tracks. It had to be the house of the mean, old man! We didn’t dare move as we silently watched the house for any sign that he might be aware that we were there. Then we heard the door creak. Had he heard us? Then we saw him stepping out of his doorway. Had he seen us? What was that he was holding? Was it a gun? We were not going to stick around to find out, and without saying a word to each other, my brother and I turned and ran as fast as our little 10 and 8-year-old legs could carry us. We barely slowed down to crawl back through the barbed wire fence and we didn’t stop running until we were almost back to our house.
We never did find out if the man had actually seen us, and the reality was, he probably was not as mean as all the other kids said he was, and he probably did not have a gun when he walked out of the house. But at the time, we were scared. We knew we had crossed a line. We’d gone much farther than we should have. We hadn’t told our parents where we were going. We had gone onto our neighbor’s property without his permission, and we knew there could be consequences.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. This is the part of the Lord’s Prayer that we are looking at today. To trespass is to cross a line. It is to go beyond a boundary that you should not go beyond, for the safety of others and for yourself. To trespass is to disrespect someone else’s space. It is to get too close without their permission, be it on their property or in their personal space.
The Greek word in the Bible for trespass is “paraptoma.” It means a false step, to slip up, or to sin against someone. The word actually does not show up in the Lord’s Prayer. Rather, it shows up right after the main part of the prayer, in the version in the Book of Matthew. Just after telling his disciples how to pray this prayer Jesus then says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14:15). It is as if Jesus is reiterating a very important part of the prayer he just taught. In case his disciples didn’t realize how important forgiveness of sin is, he tells them again, but uses a different word, paraptoma, trespasses, to give them another way to think about.
In the main part of the prayer Jesus uses the Greek word, “Opheile” (oh-fay-leh) which actually means debt. He uses it twice in the Book of Matthew so that it sounds like this, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Jesus equates sin with debt, and anyone who has owed something to someone else knows what the burden of debt can feel like. Until it gets paid back, a debt can feel like a stone around your neck pulling you down. It can feel stressful, especially if you owe a lot more than you can pay at the moment. Whether it is simply money owed to a friend or something much bigger like a mortgage, a car loan, or a large credit card bill, debt can weigh us down and cause us to feel like we just can’t get ahead.
Take that feeling and multiply it times ten and you might know what being in debt might have felt like to the common people back in the time of Jesus. Back in ancient times, you could not declare bankruptcy or negotiate for new terms on a loan. If you defaulted or could not pay, it meant you could either be thrown in prison until your friends and family could pay to get you out, or it meant you paid off your loan by becoming an indentured servant or a slave to the one to whom you owed money.
Imagine the fear, then, of the servant who approaches the king in the parable Jesus tells today from the Gospel of Matthew. The servant owed the king more money than he could ever possibly repay in his lifetime. He has no choice but to throw himself at the mercy of the king. The good news is that the king is indeed, merciful. The king forgives the servant all the debt he owes. Imagine how relieved he must have felt! Imagine the weight that lifted off his shoulders! I remember what it felt like when my wife and I finally paid off our student loans. I remember the gratitude I felt when my in-laws helped us pay off some credit card debt, then said we didn’t need to pay it back. Those feelings would have only been a fraction of what that servant felt when he was forgiven.
You can understand then, why the listeners would have been shocked when Jesus continues his parable and the servant who has just been forgiven and who you would think would therefore be grateful and forgiving himself, demands that his fellow servant who owes him a small amount of money, pay back everything. Then, when the fellow servant cannot immediately pay it back, the ungrateful servant has his co-worker thrown in jail! None of us blames the king for being angry. None of us blames the king for then taking that ungrateful servant whom he had just forgiven and throwing him into prison. None of us blames the king and we are cheering against that ungrateful servant until at the end of the parable Jesus turns to us and says, “That is how my Father in heaven will treat you, if you don’t forgive each of my followers with all your heart.” Now we are convicted. We are confronted with our own ungrateful hearts. We are reminded that we often fall short of forgiving others like God has forgiven us.
It is interesting that the part of the Lord’s Prayer we are looking at is different from the other sections in that it asks something directly of us, as opposed to us just asking something from God. I like the way Bob Hostetler from Guidepost magazine puts it: Notice that Jesus linked our forgiveness from God with our forgiveness of others. The phrase can be taken to mean, “Forgive us in the same way we forgive others;” it can be understood as a suggestion that our forgiveness of others will set the tone for God’s forgiveness of us.
So when I pray, “Forgive us as we forgive others,” I am saying I want my mercy to be expanded. I want to forgive willingly, because that’s the kind of reception I want from God. I don’t want God to measure out my forgiveness in measly human ways; I want to measure out forgiveness to others in big ol’ God ways. I want to be quick to forgive. I want to forgive fully. I want to forgive repeatedly. Because all of those things are how I want—how I need—God to forgive me. (posted by Bob Hostetler in “How to Pray”, Guidepost magazine, on-line, March 5, 2020.)
In the days ahead we are going to need to be able to show a little extra mercy with each other. As we try to patiently deal with the precautions of the coronavirus, we might need a little extra forgiveness as we could more easily trespass against each other.
As I was reading more about the need to use social distancing this week to help stop the spread of the virus I was hearing the words of Jesus about not trespassing in a new light. It occurred to me that trespassing might not just mean violating the boundaries of someone’s property, but it also might mean violating the boundaries of someone’s personal space as well. In normal times we might not appreciate the person who gets too close when they talk or who hugs without asking permission first. We might not like it, however, in normal times we would tolerate it or not mind it too much. But in these times of social distancing such behavior could be dangerous. We might consider it trespassing in our space. How do we keep our distance then, while still being polite? How do we make sure we are not trespassing against someone else, while at the same time letting them know we still care about them?
Of course we can use the phone and computer to keep in touch, but there may be times when we still have to risk being near other people. When we are standing in line at the grocery store or at the pharmacy, we might get a little too close to someone else or they might get a little too close to us, and as we seek to adjust our spacing we may need to extend them a little mercy.
When my brother and I trespassed on our neighbor’s property we knew we had done something wrong, but our fear was magnified because we had believed the rumors about our neighbor. We assumed the worst about him even though none of it may have been true. Part of our challenge in the days ahead is to not let our fears of others get the best of us. By all means, we need to be cautious. We do indeed need to keep our physical distance. We need to not be afraid to remind others to keep their physical distance from us. But we also need to keep up our hope that others want to do the right thing as well. So, as we lose our patience with the family who might be stuck in the same house with us or with the neighbors nearby who we can’t help but bump into, let’s remember to still show a little mercy, after all, God has shown mercy to us. Amen.
-Pastor Erik Goehner
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