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The soldier, whose name is Karl, reaches out and grabs Wiesenthal's hand tightly. "I have to speak to a Jew," he gasps. "I have to confess the terrible things I've done so that I can be forgiven. So I can die in peace."
His ugly story comes gushing out. He was fighting in a Russian village where a few hundred Jewish people had been rounded up. His group was ordered to plant full cans of gasoline in a certain house. Then they marched about 200 people into the house, crammed them in until they could hardly move. They threw grenades through the windows to set the house on fire. The soldiers were ordered to shoot anyone who tried to jump out of a window.
"We shot," the soldier gasped, tears streaming down his face. "Oh God . . . I shall never forget it - it haunts me every minute of every day!"
The young man paused and then said, "I know that what I've told you is terrible. I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. I know that what I'm asking is almost too much, but without your answer I cannot die in peace."
Imagine how Simon Wiesenthal is feeling. This soldier's ugly story doesn't simply concern unnamed, faceless strangers far away. Simon has already had 89 of his own relatives killed by the Nazis. And now he's been locked in a concentration camp, doomed to die with all the others. This soldier owes him and his people a horrendous debt. Isn't it time to demand payment?
You know what? Even the best among us spend time demanding payment. Think about it. Doesn't someone owe you something? An apology? A second chance? A fresh start? An explanation? A thank you? A childhood? A marriage?
I imagine if we were to think about it, you and I could make a list of a lot of folks who are in our debt. Your parents should have been more protective and nurturing. Your children should've been more appreciative. Your spouse should be more sensitive. Your preacher should've been more attentive.
The question is, what are you going to do with those in your debt? People in your past and present have dipped their hands in your purse and taken what's yours. What are you going to do?
Do you know what Simon Wiesenthal did at the bedside of that dying and repenting Nazi soldier? Here's what he tells us: "I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands, his pleading eyes. At last I made up my mind and without a word I left the room." So the German died unforgiven by man.
Wiesenthal survived the concentration camp. But he couldn't forget the SS Trooper. He wondered, troubled, for years whether he should have forgiven the soldier. He told his story in the book Sunflower and ended it with the haunting question for every reader, "What would you have done?" That's today's question. What do you do with those who are in your debt?
Few questions in life are more important. I'm discovering that dealing with debt is at the heart of wholeness and health in life. It's also at the heart of the Lord's Prayer, Jesus' model prayer for His followers. He doesn't beat around the bush or tip toe through the tulips. He goes straight for the heart.
This is passion number five of real prayer. And it's probably the hardest of all to pray. Look at it with me.
Matthew 6:12. Let's start at the beginning of the prayer (vv. 9-12): "Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."
What is Jesus really saying here? What's the passion He describes the people of His Kingdom possessing? It centers around two powerfully significant words: "debt" and "forgiveness." And according to Jesus, these two words have two dimensions. Both equally important. So let's take a look.
The New Testament uses five words to describe sin. Each one provides an unique nuance to the meaning. In today's verse, the word for sin is a debt, to owe someone something.
Here's the reality, my friends. We are all in God's debt. Everyone of us. Why? Because we've disobeyed Him. That's sin. He tells us to do something, we do the opposite. You and I have accumulated a debt so large that our bank accounts will always read out "Insufficient Funds." We don't have what it takes to pay God back. No matter how many deposits we try to make, the account still says "Insufficient Funds."
This is the reality Jesus is trying to describe when He tells the story in Matthew 18:23-25. When the King begins to settle his accounts payable, he discovers a servant who owes him big money. Ten thousand talents. Here's the immensity: one talent is worth 6,000 days wages for the average worker. So this debt is worth 60 million days of work. Assuming there's a six-day work week, this debt represents 191,693 years of work.
What's the point? Jesus is trying to show us that our debt to God is infinitely impossible to pay back. We owe Him far more than we could ever repay. And yet He demands payment. The debt cannot continue to exist. You can't operate a Kingdom on debt without finally destroying everything. The debt must be paid.
So what happens in the story? Verse 27: "The master felt sorry for his servant and told him he did not have to pay it back. Then he let the servant go free."
The King cancels the debt. How? Does he simply say, "Oh well. It doesn't matter. We'll just write it off. Money's only money. No worries!"
No. When Jesus hangs on the cross and comes to the end of His life, John records Him saying (John 19:30), "It is finished!"
This is a financial term used to announce the final installment, the ultimate payment of a debt. "It is finished!" Jesus cries out. "I have paid the debt of sin for every human being who will live on this planet of rebellion. It is finished! The debt is paid in full!"
I love the way Max Lucado, in his book The Great House of God, puts it: "Jesus took your statement flowing with red ink and bad checks and put His name at the top. He took His statement, which listed a million deposits and not one withdrawal, and put your name at the top. He assumed your debt. You assumed His fortune. And that's not all . . . If you are overdrawn at a bank, a fine must be paid. If you are overdrawn with God, a penalty must be paid as well. The fine at the bank is a hassle. But the penalty from God is hell. Jesus not only balanced your account, He paid your penalty. He took your place and paid the price for your sins." (P. 113)
So Jesus pleads with us to pray regularly, "And forgive us our debts." He wants us never to forget the immensity of our debt and the infinity of His forgiveness. That's what brings you and me freedom and liberation! Only Jesus breaks our chains and removes our shackles. Only Jesus frees us to live in the present.
My friend, if you haven't prayed this part of the petition yet, won't you do it right now? It will change your life every day of your life. Pray it. Admit your poverty and then claim His Gift: "Forgive us our debts."
But if you noticed, there's a second dimension to these two words we're looking at, debt and forgiveness. The first is the vertical dimension - God and us. The second is horizontal. What does the petition say? "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Now Jesus is meddling, isn't He! He's getting tough! But you see, Jesus knows that for complete freedom and liberation, we need to address this relational dimension as well.
Like the little four-year-old prayed: "Forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets." Not a bad paraphrase!
TIME magazine several years ago told about a Sarajevo man named Pipo. He was partners in a restaurant with a Muslim man. They were good friends. Until Pipo's mother was jailed and beaten by Muslims.
"When she got out," Pipo recalls, "she wouldn't talk about it. That's when I picked up a gun and began shooting Muslims. I hate them all!"
So Pipo vowed to live his life in revenge and hate against any Muslims he could find. He became a sniper and through the years shot and killed 325 people. But the more he killed, the less free he felt. It's taken a toll.
"All I know how to do is kill," he told the reporter. "I'm not sure I'm normal anymore. I can talk to people, but if someone pushes me, I'll kill them. In the beginning I was able to put fear aside, and it was good. Then with the killings I was able to put my emotions aside, and it was good. But now they're gone. I have no feelings anymore. I went to see my mother in Belgrade, and she hugged me, and I felt nothing. I have no life anymore. I go from day to day, but nothing means anything. I don't want a wife and children. I don't want to think."
Straight talk from a person who has chained himself to the past, who refuses to let go. Now he has nothing. Even the feelings of hate that empowered him and drove him and compelled him are gone and he's become simply a robot who breathes and walks and shoots. Trying to imprison others, he's become a prisoner himself.
"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Jesus is letting us in on one of the most profound secrets of liberated living: our willingness to forgive others the wrongs they've done to us. Our willingness to no longer demand payment from them. Like we did with our own sins, we do with theirs - we take their debts to the cross and let Jesus make the payment. We let it go.
So why should we do it? Paul and Barbara Sanders, in their book Choosing Forgiveness, suggest four reasons why we should forgive.
Number one, Jesus tells us to forgive. When we are willing to forgive others, we are acting in obedience to Him. And in the progression of this petition, we see that those who recognize and accept their own forgiveness will naturally turn around and forgive others. These two experiences are bound together like yin and yang. Each needs the other to exist. To receive the gift and yet not pass it on is the highest form of insanity and ingratitude.
That's why the story in Matthew 18, as Jesus continues it, shows the absolute shock and even anger of the King when he finds out that the servant whose infinite debt he just canceled went out and refused to forgive a colleague's minuscule debt! It's inconceivable that this should ever happen.
This is why Jesus is so tough on unforgivers - this incongruity of sinners refusing to forgive sinners boggles God's mind. There's no honest way to put up with it. So He says, at the end of the Lord's Prayer (vv. 14-15), "If you want forgiving from God and you cannot forgive someone who needs a little forgiving from you, forget about the forgiveness you want."
The point is, number one, we forgive because Jesus tells us to forgive because we know we need to be forgiven and He's already forgiven us. The horizontal will naturally follow the vertical. It's our response to His grace. It's a package deal!
Number two, forgiveness aids our recovery. You see, forgiveness doesn't just benefit the receiver, it benefits the giver. Revenge, anger, hate take their toll on our feelings. Remember Pipo the sniper? He's living in a waste land of his bitterness and hate.
To live a life of unforgiveness is to live in continual pain, a pain that will never heal itself. Never! Continually demanding payment from the wrong-doer turns bitterness inward. It's like drinking poison which ultimately eats out our innards. That's why Pipo describes himself literally as a zombie. The walking dead. The final end of refusing to forgive.
Lewis Smedes, in his book Forgive and Forget, puts it this way: "The only way to heal the pain that will not heal itself is to forgive the person who hurt you. Forgiving stops the reruns of pain. Forgiving heals your memory as you change your memory's vision. When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life . . . and the prisoner you set free is yourself." (P. 133)
Number three, forgiveness releases the wrong-doer's power over you. See, if you and I are living a life of anger, resentment, and unforgiveness from our hurts, we're still being controlled by the person who hurt us. Revenge, anger, bitterness, hatred bind us like glue to the person. We might as well be siamese twins, joined at the heart. Because everywhere we go, we're taking them with us.
But when we choose to release that person from debt, when we no longer demand payment from them, when we forgive, we engage in one of the most empowering acts possible. We choose our freedom.
Jesus describes this reality in an interesting way in Matthew 5:41. "If someone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles."
Jesus is referring to the hated practice of Roman soldiers demanding that a Jew carry his load for him. Imagine feeling the helplessness and powerlessness of being forced. So when Jesus tells them to go the second mile, the Jews shake their heads in anger. "Forget it! We're not going one extra inch for them!"
But think about the dynamics here. Paul and Barbara Sanders make this point in their book: in the first mile, the soldier has you under his control. You're trapped. If you stop there, you walk away in anger and bitterness. You lose!
But when you go the second mile, you're under your own control. In the first mile he has you. In the second optional mile, you have him. Your act of power, responsibility and choice sends you away in freedom.
Lewis Smedes comments: "Only a free person can choose to live with an uneven score. Only free people can choose to start over with someone who has hurt them. Only a free person can live with accounts unsettled. Only a free person can heal the memory of hurt and hate."
So are you a free person today because you're a forgiver?
And finally, number four, forgiveness doesn't mean the hurt was right. Jesus isn't talking about cheap forgiveness here. It's not cheap with God. God paid an infinite price to offer us forgiveness showing that He refuses to minimize our debt.
Forgiveness is never cheap! It always looks at the hurt and the one who did the hurt directly and honestly. And it calls sin for what it is. "What you did to me was wrong! Unacceptable! And you owe a debt to me! And I have the right to demand payment!" Only realists can be forgivers.
That's why forgiveness is so difficult and so few do it. As the Sanders put it, forgiveness embraces Gethsemane before Calvary. It faces the pain and the struggle of humanity. "I don't want to do this, Lord! Take this cup from me! It's too hard!" We wrestle with the hurt and with our own weaknesses. We stop making excuses for ourselves. We face our own needs and responsibilities.
And then, after Gethsemane, we take it all to Calvary where we stand together at the foot of the Cross in need of the cleansing power of the Jesus. We place our hurts and pains, both self-inflicted and people-inspired, on Jesus. We give up our demand and our right for debt payment from the ones who hurt us and we let Jesus' punishment make the payment for us all. This is forgiveness at its most expensive and effective level.
So why should we forgive? 1) Because Jesus tells us to, 2) because it aids in our recovery, 3) because it releases that person's power over us, and 4) because it's expensively effective.
So are you free today? Has God's forgiveness set you free from your own debt to Him? Has your forgiveness set you free from others' debts to you? Are you ready to pray today, "And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?"
Last November Dennis and Judy Shepherd found themselves in court face to face with the cold-blooded murderer of their son Matthew. The murderer, a 22-year-old young man, along with his buddy, a year before had posed as homosexuals and lured Matthew from a bar in Laramie, Wyoming. They drove him to the outskirts of the town, stripped him, tied him to a fence post, savagely pistol-whipped him into unconsciousness and then left him to die. Everyone knew Aaron McKinney would get the death penalty.
On the morning of November 4, 1999, Dennis and Judy looked into the eyes of this killer and what they said stunned the world. "I believe in the death penalty," Mr. Sheperd began. "I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives."
The county prosecutor commented on this amazing act. He said, "The Shepherds lost what was most important to them, but they could look in the eyes of the man who took their son and give him mercy."
That, says Jesus, is the path to freedom. Forgiveness. God has graciously given it to us. Are we willing to pass it on? Don't you want to really be free?
Greg Nelson, CVC Senior Pastor
February 12, 2000