Renewing Our Worship: The Lord’s Prayer, Part 3

Forgiving debtors

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

This is tough one. We all know that we’re suppose to forgive others and not hold grudges. We just aren’t that good at it. In fact, we’re we often particularly struggle at the institutional level. I may more easily forgive the friend that insults me than the church down the road that insults my congregation or the nation that insults my nation. You see, we sometimes think that forgiveness is a personal duty, not a community duty. But Jesus makes clear that we are to forgive our debtors.

Now there’s more to it. Jesus’ choice of language is a reference to the Mosaic command to forgive debts every seventh year.

(Deu 15:7-11)  If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. 8 Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. 9 Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.

Obviously, Jesus is speaking of much more than financial “debts.” We understand that the metaphor refers to sins against us (and verses 14-15 make this abundantly clear). But we have to consider why Jesus chose this particular metaphor.

God, through Moses, required the Israelites to lend to the poor and to forgive the debt every seventh year.  God’s concern for the poor fills the Law of Moses.

In this passage God makes clear that his people will be judged by how well they treat the poor. Give generously, and “God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.” Refuse to give, and “you will be found guilty of sin.” To be in good stead with God, therefore, we must “be openhanded toward [our] brothers and toward the poor and needy in [our] land.”

The prayer makes perfect sense, you see, without the metaphor. It makes perfect sense in terms of literal debts, because the Jews were commanded to lend money to the poor — and to do so gladly.

Thus it makes perfect sense for God to require us to forgive our debtors. The harder part is God’s forgiving our debts to him. To pray this part of the prayer, we must think of ourselves as among the poor, owing God money that we can’t pay. We must be “poor in spirit” as Jesus said in the Beatitudes. We must see ourselves as indebted to God, asking for forgiveness of our debts purely out of God’s mercy.

Jesus was teaching: what’s true as to literal debts is more broadly true of sins. This gives us much more of the flavor of Jesus’ teaching. We should forgive sins for the same reason we forgive loans made to the poor — so God will bless us in our work and in everything we put our hands to. We forgive others because God forgives us. They don’t deserve it, but neither do we.

In more modern terms, Jesus is telling us to pray, “Be as generous to us as we are to the poor around us.” And this is a hard prayer to pray, isn’t it?

Adversity

(Mat 6:13)  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Here I disagree with the translation. “Temptation” translates peirasmos, meaning testing, trials, or adversity. It can also mean temptation. But it’s hard to imagine God leading us to temptation.James is quite clear that God cannot tempt (Jas 1:13).

However, God does at times lead us into times of testing and trial. The distinction is important. In English, if I “tempt” you, I’m trying to get you to sin. If I “test” you, I’m trying to get you to pass the test, although you may not. But James teaches us to face such testing with joy (Jas 1:2).

This leaves the meaning of adversity, such as times of famine or war. Acts 20:19 and Gal 4:14 are examples of the meaning “adversity.” Thus, Paul encourages us to pray for peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim 2:2). Hence, the meaning is likely, “Lead us not into adversity …” (This line of reasoning is taken for D. A. Carson’s commentary on Matthew in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary.)

This fits well with the roots of the Lord’s Prayer in the Jewish Kaddish, where the Jews prayed,

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

If the first clause is “lead us not into adversity,” the second clause is “deliver us from evil.” The Greek is ambiguous as to whether the word is “evil” (neuter) or “evil one” (masculine). We can properly pray for either one, but if the prayer is for protection against adversity, “evil” seems more appropriate. Eph 5:16 would be a parallel.

Taking the analysis a step further, we see that this part of the prayer is missional. Why does Paul urge us to pray for peaceful and quiet lives — free from adversity?

(1 Tim 2:1-4)  I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone — 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Because God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” You see, peace makes evangelism easier. The Pax Romana, the centuries of peace during which Rome controlled the Mediterranean world, allowed Christian missionaries to freely travel across much of Europe, Africa, and Asia, spreading the gospel. The rationale for peace is that God wants all men to be saved — not that God promises his followers peace and tranquility.

If we eliminate all selfishness from the Lord’s Prayer, and interpret in light of God’s will, “lead us not into adversity” is a prayer for peace so that we can better serve God. We tend to thank God for peace because war is so terrible, but rarely do we thank God for giving us a time when we can travel to nearly anywhere on the planet and preach the gospel. In many places Jesus presumes that his disciples will be persecuted — and why would this happen if they docilely sit at home enjoying prosperity? The pagans do that.

No, we aren’t told to pray for comfort and prosperity. We are told to pray for opportunity to serve God better. “God, give us peace and keep us safe so that we may better serve you.”

What If I Stumble?

There’s another way to interpret this. Many commentators disagree with Carson’s interpretation and suggest that the prayer is, as normally translated, a prayer to escape the sin that comes from temptation. Lenski says,

“Temptation” is here used in the pregnant sense, referring not only to the act of tempting or of being tempted but to any situation in which, because of our own weakness and Satan’s cunning, we should succumb to sin.

If so, then “Lead us not into temptation” means “lead us away from situations where we find temptation to sin.” And we are given this promise that we may rely on –

(1 Cor 10:13)  No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

God doesn’t promise us freedom from temptation, but he does promise deliverance from evil. There will always be a path out.

But, again, we have to ponder the prayer in a community setting. Why is it important that we pray this as a church? Well, my sin doesn’t just blacken my own soul. My sin blackens the name of the church, the body of Christ, and so blackens the name of Jesus.

We often forget this, and figure our sin is personal and so interferes solely with our personal relationship with Jesus. But it’s bigger than that.

Consider DC Talk’s “What If I Stumble?” –

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“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today
Is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips
Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

Is this one for the people? Is this one for the Lord?
Or do I simply serenade for things I must afford?
You can jumble them together, my conflict still remains
Holiness is calling, in the midst of courting fame
Cause I see the trust in their eyes
Though the sky is falling
They need Your love in their lives
Compromise is calling

What if I stumble, what if I fall?
What if I lose my step and I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue when my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble, and what if I fall?

What if I stumble, what if I fall?
You never turn in the heat of it all
What if I stumble, what if I fall?

Father please forgive me for I can not compose
The fear that lives within me
Or the rate at which it grows
If struggle has a purpose on the narrow road you’ve carved
Why do I dread my trespasses will leave a deadly scar
Do they see the fear in my eyes? Are they so revealing?
This time I cannot disguise all the doubt I’m feeling

What if I stumble, what if I fall?
What if I lose my step and I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue when my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble, and what if I fall?

What if I stumble?
Everyone’s got to crawl when you know that
You’re up against a wall, it’s about to fall
Everyone’s got to crawl when you know that

I hear You whispering my name [You say]
“My love for You will never change” [never change]

What if I stumble, what if I fall?
What if I lose my step and I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue when my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble, and what if I fall?

What if I stumble, what if I fall?
You never turn in the heat of it all
What if I stumble, what if I fall?
You are my comfort, and my God

Is this one for the people, is this one for the Lord?

The power of this song is that the prayer to escape temptation is not personal. It’s to preserve our example and not bring shame to Jesus. It’s a missional interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Conclusion

The Lord’s Prayer is designed as a community prayer, and the repeated recitation of the prayer is designed to remind us of why we are part of God’s family. We begin by acknowledging God as our Father, and then we pray that God’s mission to bring all people into his Kingdom will be succesful.

We next ask for our debts to God to be forgiven, just as we forgive debts owed to us by other. We remember that this is a reference to God’s command to care for the poor, and so we are asking God to treat us with the same grace we extend to the poor — as well as to those who sin against us. Both thoughts are there.

We next pray for one day’s bread, just enough to keep body and soul together so that we may serve God.

We finally pray to be free from adversity, or for deliverance from temptation, for the sake of God’s mission.

When we realize that the prayer begins with a petition for God’s mission to be fulfilled, and that the prayer is given as part of the Sermon on the Mount, we can rid ourselves of all selfish interpretations. It’s not just a bit of praise followed by a petition to be forgiven and fed. It’s submission to God’s plan for his people. It’s entry into God’s mission.

We need to pray it regularly.

Or sing it.

I’ve earlier posted Baba Yetu, the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili. Here it is in Aramaic — the native tongue of Jesus:

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I just think that’s really powerful.

One of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard was the Lord’s Prayer sung solo.

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There are many arrangements and melodies easily found on YouTube, many of them quite excellent.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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2 Responses to Renewing Our Worship: The Lord’s Prayer, Part 3

  1. nick gill says:

    NT Wright interprets Jesus' use of 'peirasmos' with reference to the Messianic woes. Not *exclusively*, but it was not an idea that I'd even heard of until I read his writing about it.

    I think it particularly fits Jesus' use of 'peirasmos' in Gethsemane — Stay awake and pray, so that you don't get caught up in what's going to happen to me.

    As we grow in Christlikeness and carry our own cross, eventually we will encounter our own 'peirasmos'. Jesus didn't WANT it anymore than we do — but the path to glory leads through the tomb, not around it.

  2. Todd says:

    I have often used "What If I Stumble" as a devotional backdrop for my own prayers. Shameful I know, but the music helps me keep my focus.

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