Jesus teaches that those who are forgiven much, love much (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus teaches that we are to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Moreover, he teaches us that our neighbour includes our enemy (Luke 6:35, 10:25).
Jesus was teaching the remnant of the people of Israel, sons and daughters of Abraham. His disciples were Jews; a covenant people, redeemed from slavery out of Egypt and brought to a promised land. Their confidence was in the Law and the system of worship and sacrifice ordained by God. They lived knowing God’s love for them and in the light of his promises to them.
As a nation Israel had been faithless and experienced deportation and subjugation but lived in the expectation of being restored through a Saviour to their former glory. In the time of Jesus, they lived in the expectation of deliverance from their cruel oppressors, the Romans. Their confidence was in their identity as children of God and God would deliver them.
Each morning the faithful Jew would pray, standing, honouring God, recalling his faithfulness to Israel and asking for what was needed to live. The oppression was severe and their needs were great. The religious system failed them and marginalised them. They were over taxed and traumatised by a harsh invader. This was the mess Jesus taught into. He teaches that the lost are not judged, they are precious and all their needs will be met through prayer. He learned tis from the prayers of Israel.
At the heart of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, given to his disciples, is forgiveness. In Mark 11:20-25 he says, as he does elsewhere,
“… whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in Heaven may forgive your trespasses”
In Luke 6:37 Jesus says, “…forgive and you will be forgiven, …”. In Luke 6:27 Jesus says, “…forgive your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
And so, Jesus teaches that prayer is built on forgiveness. Indeed, to know God’s forgiveness we need to first forgive. To not forgive is sin and separates from life, separates from walking in the forgiveness of the Father. Forgiveness is given through grace to God’s people and is effective when others are forgiven.
For us as Gentiles, Jesus makes the way for us to become people of God and the good news of Jesus, the message of Jesus, is that all through belief in him are forgiven. Those who believe in Jesus are forgiven (Acts 10:34-43). Our foundation as followers of Jesus is Jesus, not a religious system and, as those forgiven by the Lord, we are called to forgive (Ephesians 4:32). Our forgiveness is a free gift. Grafted into Israel, we are called to forgive just as they were by Jesus.
Forgiveness can be seen as our teacher. The grace available to the people of Israel is extended to us, available to all in Christ Jesus (Romans 5-6). Sin has no power over us in Christ. Forgiveness teaches us how to live under grace. Forgiveness is the foundation of our prayer just as it was for Israel. To not forgive is sin. Sin is its own punishment and without forgiveness faith withers and is a curse. Jesus call us to forgive and in knowing our lack he fills us up with his love. The way of peace and life is forgiveness.
The tension is that to be fully forgiving is impossible and is a daily struggle. We are no longer bound by sin but each day we are faced up with our own failings and the failings of others to us and those around us. It’s a constant call to forgive. The moment we make forgiveness into a system, a tick list or a form of words we lose the power of our calling. We need to wrestle with the tension.
Jesus’ words disrupted the Jews and today they disrupt us; they are uncomfortable. Forgiveness needs to be lived, it cannot be formalised. As we receive the truth through the Good News that we are unconditionally loved and forgiven, Jesus inserts a condition, to be forgiven we must forgive. Both are true! We are forgiven by grace and we are forgiven in forgiving others. Forgiving others in God’s eyes secures the fact of our forgiveness. Our forgiving shows we are forgiven.
When we pray, forgive us our sins as we forgive others we could also pray Psalm 23. In Psalm 23 we read that God has prepared a banquet in the midst of our enemies. In Jewish thought, you can only eat with those you are at one with. The call has always been to love our enemies. Jesus shows us how, forgiving those who crucified him. We are called to an active faith in him which is beyond a meaningless form of words. In the prayer that Jesus teaches us, we learn that faith without forgiveness leaves us unchanged and creates an earnest desire in us. It is those who persevere who are saved: those who love much who have been forgiven much.
Yet again we arrive at love. In our weakness, we may find forgiveness a trial, yet knowing we must forgive and acting towards others in a forgiving way invites God in. We are created free to forgive. Unforgiveness is bondage.