As part of what we traditionally call “The Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus teaches the disciples the Lord’s Prayer using these words:
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” ~Matthew 6:12
Not sinners. Not trespassers. We are to forgive debtors. What does that mean and why does it elicit such strong feelings, especially when talking about real debts to real people? Maybe it is because forgiveness is fundamentally unfair!
We don’t like things that are unfair. We are taught (and we teach others) from little on to “play fair”. We teach personal responsibility and natural and logical consequences when people are “unfair”. We create systems of laws and punishments that foster a “level playing field” so that no one has an unfair advantage over another.
Problem is…that’s good in theory but in the real world, we experience life itself as “unfair”. It’s not fair that pandemics, floods, accidents and illness affect some much more than others. It’s not fair that some people don’t have the same value and influence in our systems of government and justice as others do. It’s not fair that some take advantage of others simply because they can. It’s not fair that some people are born with more resources, more opportunities, and more standing in society than others.
But there’s an even deeper spiritual issue to contend with when it comes to unfairness, especially when we are talking about forgiving debts: Coveting.
Ah yes, that commandment we like to forget because it’s got all that stuff about your neighbor’s ox and cows and manservants! But to covet is to desire something another person has and in this case we have the very, very strong desire to have the same “deal” as someone else. Advertisers are excellent at exploiting this aspect of human psychology.
Trivago does this as well as anyone. Two people book the same hotel and have the same happy experience. When it’s time to checkout, each pays what they agreed to. So far, so good. Still happy. The problem comes when one person pays a lower price and gets a “better deal”. What was a happy experience for the other person is now a humiliating and even stupid one. Our desire to covet the “the better deal” wounds us and that pain manifests as judgment and grumbling.
Jesus told a parable about wages that also applies to how we view debts, since wages are essentially a “debt” owed to us for our work. A landowner needed workers in the field. You know the story. He hires at sunrise, midmorning, noon, afternoon, and about an hour before quitting time. When he pays everyone the same wage (the wage the earliest workers agreed upon) those same workers started grumbling that they had worked all day and it’s not fair to pay others the same for less work. Jesus says there’s nothing unfair about it. The landowner chose to be generous and did no harm to anyone else. Still, who among us doesn’t covet a one-hour work day that pays full time!
Likewise, forgiving debts is certainly generous for those who receive it but at the same time, it doesn’t change any of the agreed upon conditions of anyone else. You would think we’d be happy for the relief others experience. Yet oh how we covet being the ones receiving that relief! Why is it them and not us? After the questions, can come anger, bitterness and resentment…all things that divide and destroy relationships, communities, and nations.
But there is an enormous GIFT to rescue us from all this. We believe we have all already received more “debt reduction” than we can measure! That’s an essential part of the prayer Jesus teaches. God forgives our debts. God forgives what we owe for the stupid, naughty, painful, irresponsible, ignorant, and selfish things we do. No amount of money could ever make those things right. God simply declares things to be alright. Pardon, release, forgiveness–for all of us! Perhaps that can help us let go of coveting the small, monetary forgiveness others experience.
Wow, I just wrote and deleted a whole lot more stuff about debt (because this is already too long). But maybe for another post… 🙂
Take care, everyone!