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The Lord and His Prayer (3): Forgive & Deliver: A Book Review


Lord & His PrayerForgive Us Our Debts As We Forgive Our Debtors

Today’s world trivializes forgiveness. As N.T. Wright points out in his fourth chapter of this delightful little book, when you live by the philosophy, “If it feels good, do it,” there is nothing to forgive. To replace genuine forgiveness,

…our generation has been taught the vague notion of ‘tolerance’. This is, at best, a low-grade parody of forgiveness. At worst, it’s a way of sweeping the real issues in human life under the carpet.

To illustrate the radical forgiveness Jesus teaches – and teaches us to pray for – he turns to the parable of the prodigal son, or (as he calls it) The Parable of the Running Father.

If the Father in the story had intended merely to tolerate the son, he would not have been running down the road to meet him. Forgiveness is richer and higher and harder and more shocking than we usually think.

That the father in this parable would run at all is shocking; people of stature simply did not run. That would show a loss of dignity – almost as if the President showed up for his state of the union message in a swim suit. Yet, this father ran to greet a son who had insulted and shamed him. Jesus told this parable to explain why he was associating with the “wrong” kind of people, and he told it to people who were acting as the older brother in the parable. Two earlier parables in Luke 15 spoke of the joy over recovering what had been lost, rejoicing even among the angels in heaven.

And the attitude of the older brother highlights the second part of this prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Following the teaching about the prayer, Jesus added this comment: “For if you do not forgive your debtors, neither will your Father in Heaven forgive you.”

Wright suggests that we do not forgive in order to be forgiven – but because God has forgiven us, and so we now live as “forgiveness-people.” We forgive because God has forgiven us. This shows how the prayer and the life of the pray-er are to come together in the kingdom of God as His God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven.

John came preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins by the banks of the Jordan, perhaps symbolizing God’s fulfillment of His promise as He had fulfilled His promise to Israel to lead them to a land of their own, which they entered by crossing the Jordan. He said the kingdom of God was near, that their real return from exile was about to occur.

When Jesus came, He took this message into the highways and byways of Israel. But He did more: He announced that since He was casting out demons by the finger of God, the kingdom had arrived in His own person. When He told a man his sins were forgiven, onlookers asked themselves, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Then to show that He indeed had power on earth to forgive sins, he healed the man who was sick of the palsy. The kingdom of God was among them, in their midst.

Now, they were to live as kingdom-people; they were also to be forgiving among themselves.

Yet, Wright takes our prayer for forgiveness to a different level:

To pray this prayer is therefore, in its largest meaning, to pray for the world. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’; lift up your eyes for a moment, away from your own sins and those of your immediate neighbor, and see the world as a whole, groaning in travail, longing for peace and justice; see the endless tangles in which politicians and power-brokers get themselves, and the endless human misery which results…. Collect all these images and roll them into one, that of a young Jewish boy off in the fatr country feeding the pigs; and then, with your courage in both hands, say ‘Forgive us our trespasses’; I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned…’ But as you say it in your prayer, with the whole world of pain in view, allow your praying heart to see the next scene, with the Father doing the unthinkable, the disgraceful thing, and running down the roiad to meet his muddled and muddy son.

In praying and living this prayer, the church is to be praying and living the Jubilee, the time when slaves were set free, debts were forgiven, and people returned to their homes.  This is to be our message, a message which must be backed up with our lives.

Lead Us Not into Temptation, But Deliver Us from Evil

In chapter five, Bishop Wright takes us to Gethsemane that we might understand this part of the prayer:

Gethsemane suggests the deepest meanings of the prayer: ‘Do not let us be led into the Testing, but deliver us from Evil.’ Again and again Jesus says to his followers: Watch and pray, that you may not enter into Temptation. Now it would be absurd to suppose, at that moment of all moments, that Jesus was telling his followers to say their prayers in case they might be tempted to commit some trivial personal sin. No, Jesus has seen that the moment all his life has pointed towards – the moment all Israel’s history has been driving towards – is rushing upon him. The word ‘temptation’ here means ‘testing’ or ‘tribulation’. The great tribulation, the birthpangs of the new age, the moment of horror and deep darkness is coming swiftly towards him. And in his own moment of agony he fears, with good reason, that the whirlpool of evil which is to engulf him will suck down his close followers as well. Jesus knows that he must go, solo and unaided, into the whirlpool, so that it may exhaust its force on him and let the rest of the world go free. And his followers must therefore pray: Let us not be brought into the Testing, into the great Tribulation; Deliver us from Evil.

Yet, when Jesus prayed in the Garden, He did not escape the Testing – but by being obedient, He overcame it.

This is what we also are called to do: to go through the fiery trials and emerge triumphant. The Great Tribulation was for Jesus alone. We are promised that we will not be tempted beyond what we can bear. Neither was Jesus, but by the Spirit of God He was able to be obedient, even in His death. So can we – when we pray this prayer as He prayed it.

We need to understand what evil is. Wright says there are three wrong approaches to evil:

  • Some have a head-in-the-sand approach in which they deny that evil does even exists, or that if it does, it need not concern us.
  • Some wallow in evil and see it everywhere. These become paranoid, seeing demons behind every bush.
  • Others become self-righteous. Of course evil is “out there” – but we are the righteous ones.

He compares these three approaches to evil to the three major sects of the Jews. The Sadducees minimizes evil so much they practically deny it exists. The Essenes saw evil on every hand to such an extent that they wanted to withdraw from the world. The Pharisees became self-righteous guardians of morality and tradition. Each of these approaches is wrong.

On the other hand, Jesus knew the reality of evil and faced it in all of its power. The result was Gethsemane and Calvary.

This is why, as we follow Him, we must learn the reality and horror of Evil – but not be intimidated by it.

To omit the petitions about ‘testing’ and ‘evil’ off the end of the prayer would indicate the first wrong route; to make them the only significant part of the prayer would be the second wrong route; to see yourself as the answer to the prayer, as the people through whose virtue the world will be delivered from evil, would be the third.

This part of the prayer, in its setting, recognizes the reality of Evil – but also the reality of the Victory over Evil. It is not only “out there,” but is also “within” each of us.

To pray ‘deliver us from evil’, or ‘from the evil one’, is to inhale the victory of the cross, and thereby to hold the line for another moment, another hour, another day, against the forces of destruction within ourselves and the world.

What would it mean for us to truly pray this prayer in its context of God’s greatness and provision?

We would recognize the reality of evil and the fact that we must resist it. We would also see the power of God promised to us that we might be able to overcome the darkness. We would pray these prayers from the thick of the battle, not from the safety of the side-line. In this, we would be “completing in [our] flesh that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (see Colossians 1:24).

This chapter addresses matters we would rather not think about, that evil is real and that overcoming it demands that we suffer. The church in the western world has forgotten that suffering is a part of our call, that it is not a “strange thing” when we endure the fiery trials. Yet, we need to be aware that “all who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”

Our time of testing will come. Jesus is attempting to prepare us for it.

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