Debt in the ancient world meant slavery. If you could not pay your debt your property was taken first, then your wife and children, then you, to work as slaves for the patron who loaned you the money. To forgive such a debt was to free your slave, to free your neighbor, to give up control over their lives and property and family.
That is why the Original Testament, the Torah, forgives debts every seven years: to limit the slavery. That is why, after a struggle of centuries, Western legal systems limit the power of lenders to recover bad debts. But we still try to gain control over other people. I am not talking about a voluntary market in goods or labor. A boss does indeed control a big part of our lives but the boss pays for the privilege and, mostly, we do what they say because we need the money. Sometimes we talk as if we were enslaved by gas prices or a mortgage, but that trivializes real slavery, their suffering and their lack of freedom.
No, the control I am speaking about is more subtle and less public. Sometimes when we give a present it obligates the receiver to some favor. The Mafia works like this, a network of favors and obligations, some of them lethal. Sometimes it is mother guilt, not limited to mothers but clearest when they do it.
Fourteen hours of labor and you cannot make a phone call? A family is a web of interlocking tasks and abilities but not a spider web of traps. We need respect and love, not control and dominance, at the center of our relationships.
Too often we find ways of controlling other people with various tricks. I mentioned guilt. An unpaid loan, although no longer enslaving, is still a good leash. Favors. Gifts beyond what the receiver is able to return. And sins against us that we save like photographs of dead relatives and bring out when we want something from the sinner.
This petition requires us do something against our interests. Is it nice to forgive? Sure, but that is not the point. Does it make us better people when we forgive? Sure, but that is not the point either. The real point is that we must give up control of the other, we must return to them the ability to tell us no. We must free them from the slaveries great and petty of obligations, debts, guilts, and pay backs. For the object of this part of this petition,
…as we forgive those who trespass against us.is not our sorry souls but the life and freedom of our neighbor.
It gets a little tricky if there is no attempt to repay the debt, in other words unrepentant sins against us. We can offer forgiveness but we do our neighbor no favor if our forgiveness is less binding that our lord's forgiveness of us. When we are forgiven by our Savior He expects repentance and better behavior. The grace is free but it is not without obligation and gratitude. It must be the same for our neighbor, those who owe us. The offer of forgiveness of a debt carries with it an opportunity for the debtor to make some sacrifice and some restitution. If not, we doom our brother to low character and a life of con games and deception.
Think of how He enabled you and I to overcome our pet sin. If He just keeps forgiving us without the obligation for repentance and gratitude, we will keep sinning. But with the Spirit that comes to us in Word and Sacraments we are abled to fight against anger or pride or whatever we sink into if left alone. Even knowing I did not do it alone, but only with His help, still, I believe my greatest achievements are those few times I have overcome myself. Accepting forgiveness means accepting our guilt and accepting the obligation to heal ourselves and forgive our neighbor.
When it comes down to it, we can do no other. For we are often on the receiving end of forgiveness ourselves. That is why the
…forgive us our trespasses…comes first. It reminds us that we are responding to His grace with grace of our own, from Him to us and from us to our neighbor. The good news we give our neighbor was first Good News to us.
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