Sermon: “Teach Us to Forgive”

What trespasses, what debts, what sins is God inviting to you let go of, release, and forgive?

Teach Us to Forgive

The Rev. J. Carl Gregg

20 February 2011

Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

“Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4).

How many of you have been part of a worship service in which the Lord’s Prayer was prayed in unison using the word “trespasses?”  Indeed, many of us have frequently recited the line “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespassagainst us.”  In my childhood church we used the word trespasses every week until one Sunday when the associate pastor preached a sermon titled “Forgive Us Our Debts.”

In this sermon, he argued that the word trespasses was not in the version of Jesus’ Prayer in either Matthew or Luke.  He was mostly right. If you pull your King James Bible off the shelf, you’ll notice that Matthew’s version says “debts/debtors” — as in “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Luke’s version uses “sins/indebted”: “forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.”  To compare the King James with the New International Version — the other bestselling translation of the Bible among members of my childhood church, known popularly as the “NIV” — Matthew similarly uses “debts/debtors.”  Luke’s version is slightly different, using “sins”: “forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”

Beginning the Sunday after this sermon, my childhood congregation started praying the Lord’s prayer in unison using “debts/debtors” instead of “trespasses.” I was not privy to any complaints if there were any, but I presume the shift happened relatively seamlessly because it was hard to argue with the plain English of the Bible right in front of you — even if you hadn’t noticed previously that trespasses wasn’t in the King James Bible. It’s a forgivable error since “trespasses” sounds like the sort of Jacobean English we expect to hear from the KJV.  After all — without having done the research — if I were given a multiple choice test of what translation sounded most like the King James Version  — (a) debts/debtors” (b) “sins/sinners” or (c) “trespasses” — I would likely choose trespasses.

If you would have chosen similarly on such a multiple choice test, then you will be pleased to know that there is a venerable English version of the Bible that translates this petition using “trespasses” that pre-dates the King James Bible.  The King James Version was published in 1611 — and celebrates its 400th anniversary this year — but the Tyndale New Testament was published 86 years earlier in 1525.  Significantly for the liturgical tradition of praying “trespasses,” Tyndale translates the line in question from Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer as “forgeve vs oure treaspases eve as we forgeve oure trespacers.”  Strengthening the liturgical tradition many of us inherited was the choice to use Tyndale’s “trespasses” instead of King James’ “debts” in the highly-influential 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

As an aside, the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer were not the only ones to find Tyndale’s translation helpful. Scholars estimate that the King James Version incorporated 83.7% of Tyndale’s New Testament and 75.7% of Tyndale’s Hebrew Bible.  Tragically, despite his historic legacy, prodigious work ethic, and brave commitment to translating the Bible into the vernacular — at a time when the church hierarchy still jealously guarded against popular bible translation and interpretation —William Tyndale, in 1536, was tried for heresy — and was summarily tied to a stake and strangled.  As a final sign of disrespect, his dead body was burned. Ironically, less than four years after Tyndale’s wrongful execution — in one of those unpredictable twists of history — King Henry VIII (the same King Henry that had six wives and who had approved of Tyndale’s execution) approved the publication of four English translations of the Bible in England, including Henry’s official “Great Bible.” Like the King James Version that eventually would follow, all four were heavily influenced by Tyndale’s earlier English translation.

Setting aside this historical survey for now — despite its importance for both Christian history and liturgical tradition — I would like for us to shift our focus for how Jesus is teaching us to pray. And whether we translate the word as trespasses, debts, or sins, the common word that remains is Jesus teaching us to forgive.

In regard to the Christian practice of forgiveness, my personality is such that I do not usually grudge for long — although perhaps I have been fortunate in some ways not to have been repeatedly wronged on many occasions.  One instance that immediately comes to mind of me having to practice forgiveness is when I was in seminary and a professor responded to me asking a question about his class with unexpected and undue harshness. We were alone in his office, but the door was open and his yelling was overheard, such that when I walked out of his office the first two people I passed asked me, “What was that about?” I learned later from his graduate assistant that there were other instances of his unpredictable harshness and cruelty which seemed much more about his own issues that the situations at hand. I dropped his class because I already had enough credits to graduate without it, and complained in writing to the dean — although I’m not sure that the professor in question even got a slap on the wrap. In retrospect, I wish I had written an open letter to everyone in the seminary (students, staff, and faculty) about the incident, as well as a letter to the editor of the school paper and perhaps the local paper — because I have since come to see that people in administrative positions more often cover-up misdeeds than go to the effort of seeking accountability — and, as such, the covet silence and sweeping incidents under the proverbial rug as quickly as possible. As an epilogue, I will add that this professor ultimately was not tenured, and I have no idea where he is today.

For this morning I will share that not long after the initial incident, I thought I had forgiven him and put the matter out of my mind.  However, about a year later, I was studying on a porch swing outside the graduate school housing, and saw him unexpectedly walk out of one of the apartments.  I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and I suddenly felt my stomach twist into a knot.  I thought to myself, “Wow. A year later, and I’m still angry at him.”  I had thought that hims “trespass against me” was all in the past, but, in reality, my wound was still simmering not far beneath the surface.

I relate this story to you as one of many examples I could offer of how forgiveness really is a Christian practice.  And like practicing the piano or practicing basketball, you get better the more you practice. The more times you practice a sonata or shooting free throws, the more that action becomes ingrained as a habit. Similarly, the more you practice forgiving, the easier forgiving becomes. In recent history, the most famous example of the Christian practice of forgiveness and reconciliation is probably the Amish community in Pennsylvania, who after the 2006 school shooting, went immediately to comfort the familiar of the assassin.  They sought not to condone his egregious transgression, but to stop the cycle of violence — instead of seeking revenge — in the hope of working toward a more hopeful future.

Despite these and other inspiring examples, practicing forgiveness is easier said than done — as I have confessed with the story of one of my professors. But ultimately, forgiving others is often as much for our own mental and physical health as for theirs — because holding on to resentment can dominate the life of a victim.  In this vein, let me share another story — this time a famous Zen tale of two Buddhist monks:

Two monks were walking through the forest and came upon a woman unable to cross a river. Seeing the need, one monk picked up the woman, carried her across and set her down on the other bank. Both monks proceeded on their way, but miles later it became evident that the second monk was disturbed. When the first monk inquired as to why, the second monk said he couldn’t understand why the first monk had violated his vows by touching a woman. The first monk responded, “I put the woman down miles ago, and you’re still carrying her.”

Thus Jesus — who taught us when he prayed at this own wrongful execution, “Forgive them, they know not what they do” — teaches us to pray for forgiveness for ourselves only to the extent that we have forgiven others who have trespassed against us.

Finally, before drawing this sermon to a close, I would like to note one final angle of how Jesus is teaching us to pray this morning. We have explored some of the implications of this petition concerning trespasses, but there is an equally important reason that some translations of the Gospel of Matthew and the associate pastor of my childhood church used the word “debts” — as in “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  And perhaps in our own day of debates concerning “Third World debt forgiveness,” our country’s own massive $14.3 trillion national debt, and the widespread personal debt, the financial implications of praying “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” is particularly relevant.

I invite you to consider that the financial angle of this petition was also very much on Jesus’ mind as well. Consider, for example, this passage from Matthew chapter 18:

21 Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Rabbi, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So God will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

These are harsh words from Jesus, but I think they reflect the inner and outer hell we can create for ourselves when we fail to forgive, whether emotionally or financially.

As we prepare to move into a time of contemplative silence, I invite you to consider how God is speaking to you this morning. How is Jesus teaching you to pray this morning? What trespasses, what debts, what sins is God inviting to you let go of, release, and forgive?

APPENDIX:

Civil Version of The Lord’s Prayer: Revisioned from Mathew 6 by Hugo Blasdel (HBlasdel@gmail.com)

9 Contemplate within, among, beyond: We accept the world as it was, is now, and will be – with all that we are.

10 May where we come from, grow to match the best of humanity. See emergence move evolution.

11 Let us be sustained on the path daily.
12 Let us love all of our neighbors as ourselves, as we have loved life and felt its love.

13 Let us be true and in spirit always. SO BE IT.

Notes

1 Many books have been published recently in recognition of the King James Bible’s 400th anniversary that survey the material in the sermon on Tyndale and related anecdotes. For one accessible starting point see, The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today by David Norton (2011).

2 For an extended reflection on the Christian practice of forgiveness, see Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis by L. Gregory Jones (1995).

3 On practicing forgiveness, see Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy.  In regard to the Holocause, Simon Wiesenthal famously wrote The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. On South African apartheid, a classic work is No Future Without Forgiveness by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

4 Similar to the Amish story are the many stories of related by the organization Murder Victim’s Families for Reconciliation. To learn more, visit http://www.mvfr.org/.  For another alternative model to the dominant model of punitive justice, see The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr.

5 On the national debt figures, see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/12/us/politics/12borrow.html?ref=nationaldebtus.

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2 Responses to Sermon: “Teach Us to Forgive”

  1. Pingback: “Costly Truth, Costly Forgiveness” (A Progressive Christian Lectionary Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20) | Carl Gregg

  2. Pingback: Carl Gregg » “Costly Truth, Costly Forgiveness” (A Progressive Christian Lectionary Commentary on Matt 18 for Sept 4, 2011)

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