The Lord’s Prayer: Forgive Our Debts
In the laws of the Old Testament, every seventh year was referred to as a Sabbath year, or a shmita. During this time, no one was to do their typical agricultural duties, but allow the land to rest from its work. If fruit or vegetables grew, everyone was free to take as they needed. Additionally, all debts would be forgiven between Hebrews and pursuit of this debts was no longer allowed among the people.
However, every seventh cycle of the shmita, an even greater celebration occurred. Not only was the land allowed to rest and all debts forgiven, all slaves were freed and all ancestral land was returned to its rightful owners. This ensured that the people weren’t abused, that generations were not hopeless, and that God’s people were not forced into lives of subjugation, but were able to live as he intended: a healthy community that points to him.
Of course, that’s not how it always played out. The prophet Jeremiah records these words from God:
The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I myself made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, “Every seventh year each of you must set free any Hebrews who have been sold to you and have served you six years; you must set them free from your service.” But your ancestors did not listen to me or incline their ears to me. You yourselves recently repented and did what was right in my sight by proclaiming liberty to one another, and you made a covenant before me in the house that is called by my name, but then you turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back your male and female slaves, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them again into subjection to be your slaves.
The Jewish people chose to harden their hearts, to not forgive others’ debts, to not release their neighbors from their bondage. And all of this in the face of what God had done for them: freedom from Egypt, a land of their own, and a cooperative partnership, rather than authoritarian tyranny, in his mission.
When Jesus prays the words “forgive our debts as we have forgiven our debtors”, I believe he is speaking on two levels. The first is the real, true reality of debt. Grounded in the Jewish law and Scriptures and in the context of being under the subjugation of yet another power Empire, Jesus had genuine concern for the well-being of those around him. Jesus took the ethics of God seriously (as should be obvious) and that includes the ethics surrounding forgiveness in the financial realm. If within God’s people we are constantly concerned about what we are owed or what we owe to each other, we betray the free-flowing gifts that God has offered us.
And, of course, Jesus is speaking of forgiveness on a more meta-physical level. Importantly in this prayer, Jesus has already made the presupposition that we have forgiven our debtors. There is not a command within this prayer to forgive, but an inherent belief that if we are in communion with God, and have the confidence to ask God to forgive our debts, then we have done the same for others. Our forgiving and our mercy are an outpouring of God’s forgiveness and mercy towards us, and if we do it right, this become an endless cycle of forgiveness that leaves none without mercy.
Much of the story of the gospel is centered around the concept of reconciliation. And our part in this is not just that we are reconciled to God, but we are reconciled to each other; the human relationship is restored. So let us forgive our debtors and come to understand what mercy means.