For the small time farmers and day laborers who listened to Jesus in Galilee, forgiveness of debt was a serious issue. Just like today, farmers often need to take loans in order to plant a crop; fishermen may have need to take a loan in order to finance new equipment. Even though the Law forbid charging interest on loans, this applied only to the Jews. If a Galilean worker owed money at interest, he may have been in debt to a Gentile landowner. A prayer for debt-relief would have been very attractive indeed!
However, debt is often associated with the debt of sin. Jesus’s followers are a movement characterized by forgiveness. Many experienced radical forgiveness from Jesus. Those who followed Jesus were reformed tax-collectors, prostitutes, outsiders, etc. (Luke 7:36-50). People who had experienced healing also represent a form of forgiven since there was an association of sin with major disease for some in the Second Temple period (Mark 2:1-12).
Is Jesus saying “confess your sins to God and you will be forgiven”? Does this imply if you are not confessing your sins they will not be forgiven? First, Jesus is not talking about “how to get saved” here, so the confession of sin in Matthew 6:12 is a requirement for salvation. The original audience are the inner-circle disciples of Jesus, the very people he has chosen as his closest followers. The person praying a prayer of confession already has a relationship with God.
Second, if the person praying is already right with God, why must they confess their offenses? Confession of sin allows a person to recognize they are falling short of the glory of God and are still in need of God’s forgiveness.
Third, nothing in the Bible suggests the follower of Christ must confess every sin along with all of the gory details. The point is acknowledgement of God’s grace and mercy for our daily offenses.
Fourth, the person praying a prayer of confession is “in their closet.” This is not a public confession before the whole congregation. I recall a prayer meeting I was leading many years ago when a person began to publicly confess some rather specific sins during a prayer. In that case, the person was more gossipy about what they had done, looking for some sort of public affirmation they were “not all that bad.” The true disciple of Jesus should not draw attention to themselves even in their confession of sin!
I suggest that the true disciple of Jesus has a healthy understanding of sin and how it affects their relationship with God. This is not some sort of self-flagellation nor should confession of sin lead to extreme low self-esteem (“such a worm as I”). Healthy confession of sin reflects an honest and open relationship with God.
The second part of the line is important too: we are to forgive others. Jesus will return to the theme of forgiveness in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-44). The focus in that parable is on forgiving those who have wronged us even if they are unable to “pay their debt.” Forgiveness of others is based on the common Old Testament theme that God is the avenger. In Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus reversed the popular view that one can hate their enemy and seek revenge when wronged. Rather than seeking revenge, Jesus says, pray for your enemy and allow God to avenge you.
Forgiveness was an important part of the Judaism of the first century. The Jewish people knew that they had to be forgiven by God, and that they too needed to forgive their neighbors of their offenses against them. Sirach 28:1-7 is remarkably similar to Jesus’s call to forgive others.
Sirach 28:1–2 (NRSV) The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance, for he keeps a strict account of their sins. 2 Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.
If Jesus’ followers are forgiven, they too must be forgiving people. But this is much harder to do than say. Contemporary (western) culture tends to glorify revenge, but so did the Romans. The Bible, however, consistently describes God as the avenger of the weak. Forgiving people who have wronged you is difficult because we have to let go of a lot of pain, hurt, anger, most of which we really enjoy!
Most people are aware of some great act of forgiveness, perhaps a person deeply hurt forgives the criminal who wronged them. Sometimes it is easier for a Christian to forgive someone of a crime than to live out the ideal model of forgiveness described in the Sermon on the Mount by daily forgiving the little offenses against us.
The forgiveness Jesus describes in this line frees us from the chains of our debt. Most people know what it is like to be freed from a debt of money (paying off a loan, for example). If you owe a friend money, that debt can do serious damage to your relationship. By forgiving debts of offense against us, by accepting forgiveness when it is offered, we can be free from the weight of the debt. The true disciple of Jesus lives out the forgiveness they have received in their relationships with their brothers and sisters in Christ.