When You Pray, Say: Forgive Us Our Trespasses
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Then Peter came up and said to Him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
“But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
“When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
“So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:21-35).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.” Thus writes Martin Luther in his explanation to the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism.
In the Large Catechism, Luther expands this further: “This part now applies to our poor miserable life. Although we have and believe God’s Word, do and submit to His will, and are supported by His gifts and blessings, our life is still not sinless. We still stumble daily and transgress because we live in the world among people. They do us much harm and give us reasons for impatience, anger, revenge, and such. Besides, we have the devil at our back. He attacks us from every side and fights—as we have heard in previous petitions. So it is not possible to stand firm at all times in such a constant conflict.
“There is here again great need for us to call upon God and to pray, ‘Dear Father, forgive us our trespasses.’ It is not as though He did not forgive sin without and even before our prayer. (He has given us the Gospel, in which is pure forgiveness before we prayed or ever thought about it [Romans 5:8]). But the purpose of this prayer is that we may recognize and receive such forgiveness…
“There is here attached a necessary, yet comforting addition: ‘As we forgive.’ He has promised that we shall be sure that everything is forgiven and pardoned, in the way that we also forgive our neighbor. Just as we daily sin much against God, and yet He forgives everything through grace, so we, too, must ever forgive our neighbor who does us injury, violence, and wrong, shows malice toward us, and so on.
“If, therefore, you do not forgive, then do not think that God forgives you. But if you forgive, you have this comfort and assurance, that you are forgiven in heaven. This is not because of your forgiving. For God forgives freely and without condition, out of pure grace, because He has so promised, as the Gospel teaches. But God says this in order that He may establish forgiveness as our confirmation and assurance, as a sign alongside of the promise, which agrees with this prayer in Luke 6:37, ‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’”
Forgive your brother as you have been forgiven. Easy in theory, difficult in practice. Impossible in fact, for sinful Old Adam. But not for the Second Adam, Jesus Christ. In fact, He forgives even though He Himself has no need for forgiveness. He is the sinless Son of God who comes as a Suffering Servant, who takes on our flesh and weight of sin and identifies with us sinners so fully that He prays: “Forgive us our trespasses.”
Truly remarkable! He’s innocent. He’s done nothing wrong, yet He suffers. He’s betrayed, arrested, denied, and abandoned. His friends and companions avoid Him like the plague. Many are His vigorous enemies. He’s ruthlessly mocked. Brutally beaten. Those who hate Him without any reason are too numerous to count. “Crucify Him!” they shout. And so, Pilate does the unthinkable. He hands Jesus over for capital punishment. The spikes are hammered through His flesh. He’s hoisted to hang, suspended between heaven and earth, in anguish and pain.
And what does Jesus say? “Just wait ‘til after the resurrection! You’re all a bunch of rotten so-and-so’s! You’ll all get yours! I’ll see to it Myself. I’ll unleash archangel Michael with all his mighty army of angels! Your cities will be dripping with your own blood when I’m through with all of you!”
No, none of that with Jesus. He speaks the opposite. The unexpected. What many hooked on religion would call a reckless and careless word. A word open for abuse: “Father, forgive them.”
The little Pharisee in each of us cries out at this injustice, this gross misappropriation of God’s grace: “You just can’t be absolving everybody under the sun, Jesus! What about those who won’t believe it or trust it? Don’t do it Jesus! You can’t run a religion on mercy! Everyone will take advantage of you!”
But Jesus doesn’t bother Himself with our concerns no matter how religious they might be. With profound pity He prays for His enemies. He prays for those putting Him to death. He prays for those who hate Him. He prays for those who don’t even believe in Him. He prays for all of them even as He is in the midst of suffering at their hands. “Father, forgive these poor people. They really don’t know what in the world they’re doing.”
That is His prayer for you, too. You think you know what you’re doing. But you don’t. You too, have abandoned Him. You too, wouldn’t be caught dead with an arrested and humiliated Jesus. You too, have wished Him dead rather than you, and shouted: “Crucify Him!” You mocked. You jeered. You pounded the nails! You hoisted Him up there! You wagged your heads. Your sin put Him there.
And yet Jesus prays for you: “Father, don’t hold their sin against them. I will answer for it. Look, Father! My blood! I am the Passover Lamb! The sacrifice! Do not damn them. Do not send them to hell! Condemn Me! Give Me what they deserve. Forgive them! For My sake!”
Your sin. My sin. Pilate’s sin. The soldiers’ sin. The crowd’s sin. The criminals’ sin. The chief priest’s sin. The world’s sin. All sin. Jesus bears it in His body. And its weight crushes Him. No sin left out. No sinner excluded. It crushes the life out of Him. That’s what it took to purchase full and complete forgiveness. To cancel all your debt. To set all debtors free.
Remember how Peter wanted to be so very careful with forgiveness? Seven times and then that’s it. But Jesus taught him and all of us that forgiveness has no limits. “Seventy times seven,” Jesus preached, and then He put it into practice.
The King in the parable forgives all. His forgiveness knows no bounds. It’s like a flood! It goes everywhere and gets everybody! It spills out all over the place. Jesus’ forgiveness pours out like water. Just like in your Baptism. No sin or sinner is outside His mercy. Not even yours or you. “Father, forgive them. Don’t give them what they deserve. Release them from your wrath and eternal judgment. I will pay their debt.”
And Christ’s prayer is answered. His mercy bears fruit. One of the criminals hears the forgiveness prayer. Once one of the mockers, now he’s a believer. “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” he pleads. And Jesus remembers him: “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise,” He promises.
The Roman centurion who is in charge of Jesus’ crucifixion also hears. And when Jesus dies he confesses: “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
“Father, forgive them,” Jesus prays. And you hear the answer to His prayer after you confess your sin. Daily you sin much. You deserve nothing but God’s temporal and eternal punishment. And yet the pastor proclaims in Jesus’ name: “Your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake.” And they are. For Jesus prays for you. He dies for you. And so we pray with Him with all boldness and confidence to our heavenly Father: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Divine forgiveness matters. Before God—it brings salvation. And before others—it gives life. Forgiveness for Christ’s sake shapes our lives in the here and now. We forgive others as God in Christ forgives us. “So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us,” the Small Catechism teaches. That is the point of Jesus’ parable from our text in Matthew 18. No revenge. No grudges. No paybacks. Be as reckless with your forgiveness as Christ forgives you. Let it flow to others like the water and blood that gushed from Christ’s crucified side. Don’t hoard it. Don’t damn it up. Don’t be stingy.
If you won’t forgive, that says something about what you believe about Christ and His death for you and for all. He died for everybody. Who are you to say: “No forgiveness for you Aunt Martha!”? Or “I can never forgive you for that, brother Earl!”? After all, God has forgiven them in Christ. He has forgiven each and every one of their sins, just as He has forgiven each and every one of your sins. Refuse to forgive and it will not go well with you. You’ll end up in jail, actually in the prison of hell. Imagine that. Forgiven-of-everything sinners who won’t forgive. Not even a little. Not even a lot. Can there really be such a thing? Of course not! It’s an oxymoron, a contradiction of terms.
And so we pray: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As you forgive others you are visible signs of God’s love in Christ for all. You are like a sacrament! God uses you to speak His word of reconciliation to those who sin against you in relationships that have gone awry! Your forgiveness spoken to others is the very comfort of God. It is the very divine assurance that their sin is forgiven for Christ’s sake.
When a wife says to her husband, “I forgive you,” or a husband to his wife, or a child to his/her parents—whenever any Christian forgives one another—it is God’s forgiveness. “I forgive you,” floods our lives with Christ’s forgiveness, with His very own kingdom among you. In that word of forgiveness, Christ truly reigns in and among sinners. And you too are strengthened in the truth that God in Christ has forgiven you.
No wonder Jesus teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” For as you forgive your brother or sister, you both hear this joyous Good News: “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.Adapted from a sermon series presented by Brent Kuhlman at a pre-Lenten Preaching Seminar on Luther’s Small Catechism the 3rd chief part—The Our Father.