Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” What does it mean to be a debtor? What does it mean to have debtors? What is Jesus asking us to pray?
Maybe the simplest way to explain this is in the arena of finances. Let’s say that you have borrowed money to buy a house and a car and have used a credit card to pay for gasoline, groceries, and clothing. Who is expected to pay the monthly mortgage or payment? The basic rule of society can be summed up quite clearly: You owe . . . you pay! It is a rare thing indeed to have someone else offer to pay off your debt. You are a debtor, and the bank wants their money.
If you are not sure how this rule works, feel free to test it out. Go to your bank and ask to chat with a bank officer. Express your feelings honestly: “This debt that I carry is just too much for me. It’s hampering my lifestyle. It is hard to pay these bills every month. In fact, paying back the money I owe you is getting a bit depressing. So, I think I’ll quit. Are you comfortable with my choice?”
You’ll likely discover that people who lend money are quite touchy about the whole “paying it back” thing. They keep very careful accounts of what is owed to their institution. If you fail to pay back a bank, you will learn that they have a whole team of people ready to help you realize the importance of repaying your debt. If you borrow from a less reputable institution, they sometimes have people on the payroll who will make a personal visit and do whatever it takes to get the money you owe. There is an aquatic animal metaphor for a person who loans money and collects by using strong measures. We call that person not a guppy, a goldfish, or a clown fish . . . but a loan shark. They know the rule: You owe . . . you pay.
In this prayer, Jesus is addressing another kind of debt. It is the debt of sin and moral failure. The truth is, each one of us has a mountain of moral debt we can’t pay off. It is a debt against God and other people. We also know that others have sinned against us and they can’t pay their debt either. Each one of us has been the perpetrator of sin and the victim of sin. We have debtors and we are debtors.
As Jesus teaches us to pray, he calls us to ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. Charles Williams wrote, “No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word ‘as’ in that clause.” Why? Because Jesus makes a correlation between the way I treat my debtors and the way God Almighty will treat me as a debtor.
John Ortberg and Kevin & Sherry Harney, Lord’s Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).
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