Text: Matthew 6:9-15
Lord’s Prayer series, week 4
I have been in worship settings where there are folks from different churches and different traditions present – maybe it is a conference of some sort, or a wedding or funeral – and we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We come to this part of the prayer and you hear a jumble of words, because people are saying different things.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Or, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Or, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Well, which is it?
In Matthew, it is debts. Mostly. Depending on your translation, but the more literal translation in the prayer itself, in verse 12, is debts. Although if you go on to verse 14, kind of an explanatory note following the prayer, it says that if you forgive others their trespasses, God will forgive your trespasses. So it is somewhat of a split decision.
But then, in the version of the Lord’s Prayer found in Luke chapter 11, it is “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those indebted to us.” Another split decision.
Being curious about the whole question, I did a little survey. I pulled 13 Bibles off the shelf – some were getting a bit dusty, to be honest – and I tallied the words used in those three verses – the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:12, the additional note in verse 14, and then in Luke 11:4. I used 13 different translations, from the King James to the NIV to the NASB to Today’s English Version to the Jerusalem Bible. For each translation, there was 1 tally per verse. So if a given translation read “forgive our sins as we forgive our debtors,” then sins and debs would each get half a tally.
OK, so are you with me on the methodology? Here are the results, which were a bit surprising to me:
Sins – 10 ½And there were 3 cases where what was to be forgiven was not actually specified. We are to forgive or we pray to be forgiven, but it doesn’t say exactly what we are to be forgiven for.
Debts – 9 ½
Wrongs 8 ½
Trespasses – 3
Offenses – 1 ½
Faults – 1
Transgressions – 1
Failings – 1
There was also one footnote saying that the Greek read “debts,” so if you add in that tally, it is a dead heat between “debts” and “sins” with 10 ½ votes each.
Well, if it is a tie counting Bible translations, maybe liturgical use would break the tie. Both the Lutheran Book of Worship and the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church had two alternatives: sins or trespasses. American Baptists don’t have an official worship book, but a worship manual published by a couple of Baptists used debts and a hymnal published jointly by the ABC and the Disciples of Christ a number of years ago also had debts. So, consulting the worship books on my shelves, it is a 3-way tie.
Well, what should it be? Did Jesus have more to say about bankers and debts, about lawyers and trespasses, or about religious leaders and sins?
I am reminded of the story of a dying man who gathered his lawyer, his banker and his pastor at his bed side, all lifelong friends, and handed each of them an envelope containing $25,000 in cash. The man made them each promise that after his death and during visitation at the funeral home, they would place the three envelopes in his coffin. He told them that he wanted to have enough money to enjoy the next life.
A week later the man died. At the showing, the lawyer, the banker and the pastor each concealed an envelope in the coffin and bid their old friend farewell. These three friends met a few weeks later. Soon the pastor, feeling guilty, blurted out a confession, saying that there was only $10,000 in the envelope he placed in the coffin. He felt that rather than waste all the money, he would send it to an orphanage in Africa. He asked for their forgiveness. The lawyer, moved by the pastor’s sincerity, confessed that he too had kept some of the money for a worthy legal aid charity. The envelope, he admitted, had only $8,000 in it. He said, he too could not bring himself to waste the money so frivolously when it could be used to benefit others.
By this time the banker was filled with outrage. He expressed his deep disappointment in the behavior of two of his oldest and most trusted friends. “I am the only one who kept his promise to our dying friend. I want you both to know that the envelope I placed in the coffin contained the full amount. Indeed, my envelope contained my personal check for the entire $25,000.”
Debts, trespasses, and sins. Which was it?
Well, think about Jesus’ audience. What were their primary concerns? They lived on a subsistence level and prayed for the food they needed for that day. The majority of persons in the Roman Empire were in debt. If a person had land, it was not uncommon to have to put one’s land up as collateral for a loan and then lose the land. People would become slaves to satisfy their debt.
This was such a problem that the Old Testament contains laws regulating debt. One of God’s commandments is to not charge interest on loans. The rich would frequently abuse the poor, so within the nation of Israel, there was to be no interest charged.
And then there was the Sabbath year. In the book of Deuteronomy we read, “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor.” Every seven years all debts are forgiven. Every seven years all debt slaves were to be freed.
And then there was the Jubilee Year. Every 50th year was to be a Jubilee year in which all land was returned to its original owners. Now, there isn’t much evidence that these laws were ever followed, especially the Jubilee part, but the intention in God’s law was that overwhelming debt and poverty was never to be a permanent condition.
The background of Jesus’ prayer is this culture of crushing debt. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But we are not to pray for First National to cancel the debt on our mortgage, or that CitiBank will say, “The three payments you have already made on your new Ferrari are good enough – we’re forgiving the rest of the debt and mailing you the title, free and clear.”
Rather, we pray that God might forgive our debts. Well, that‘s different. What do we owe God?
Created in the image of God, we have been given responsibility for the care and stewardship of creation. We owe this to God. We are to hallow God’s name – to treat God seriously and reverently. We owe it to God to do so. We are to invest our lives in establishing God’s kingdom on earth, in doing God’s will. We are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. All of this we owe to God. And we fall short.
But there is more. We pray that God might forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Here, the language of debt is especially difficult for us. Forgive someone for treating us poorly? It’s hard, but probably manageable. Forgive someone for the pain they have caused us? It’s not easy, it may take time, but it is possible. It’s do-able. But forgive somebody who owes us money? Forget it.
Of course, the line between debts and sin and trespasses is blurred. Jesus is not speaking exclusively of financial debt.
Jesus spoke the common language of the day, Aramaic. The prayer was first spoken in Aramaic and was translated into Koine Greek, the common everyday language of the empire and the language of the New Testament. And in Aramaic, the word for debts and sins is the same word. So in the original language, the language behind the language of the Bible, it is ambiguous as to whether it is debts or sins, or maybe it is supposed to be both.
At a practical level, for us, the bigger problem is not debts or sins. It is forgiveness, period. Forgiveness does not come easily or naturally to us.
Forgiveness is hard because we have so few models of real forgiveness. In our daily lives, where do we see it? Where do we see it at work or at school? Where do we see forgiveness in public discourse? Where do we see it in our families? We can think of a few examples, maybe – but not many.
Tom Long told about a preaching class he taught. He announced that there was going to be a test. The class looked at him apprehensively – they had not been expecting this. There would not be a grade on the test, he told them, but it was an important test nonetheless. It involved being given a list of theological words and students writing about how they had experienced these concepts in a personal way. If preaching means making such ideas real and understandable, Long told the class, then students needed to be able to articulate what these things meant to them.
The first word was hope. The class had no problem writing away about hoping for a baby to be born, about high hopes for their children, about standing at a bedside and praying hopefully for healing, about standing at a graveside and hoping for joy to rise from sorrow. They knew about hope.
The next word was faith. Again, the pens got to writing. They had chosen a life of ministry, after all. Many had left careers to come to seminary. They had trusted God’s voice and followed. They knew about faith.
The next word was forgiveness. Long said that the pens stopped writing. When students did write, it was about fairly trivial things. A mother forgiving a child over a broken vase, a high school teacher not holding a bad test score against a student, things like that. They were preparing to preach a gospel rooted in forgiveness, but they did not have a lot of concrete examples of forgiveness in real life. They had not experienced much of it for themselves.
To be honest, deep forgiveness is not so common. Now, failing to forgive may be human. Holding on to the hurt may be natural. But in refusing to forgive, in holding on to the pain, we are only hurting ourselves. Anne LaMott wrote that refusing to forgive is like “drinking rat poison, and then waiting for the rat to die.”
Barbara Brockoff told about a neighbor who had a sign in his front yard for many years. The sign sat on a pile of dark, ugly sheets of aluminum. The sign was lighted at night and could be read from a distance. It read, “This Alcoa aluminum with a 30-year guarantee is no good.”
The house was newly painted, the lawn was mowed, there were beautiful flowers in bloom. It was an otherwise lovely home, but its beauty was marred by this ugly sign. Apparently, the owner had a bad experience and used this sign to get even. But who was really being hurt by this grudge?
Forgiveness is hard. Even when we become victims of our own lack of forgiveness, it is still hard. In fact, it may be more than just hard. There is a sense in which forgiveness is downright impossible.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our sins (or debts, or trespasses or offenses or wrongs) as we forgive those who sin against us.” It is pretty presumptious, if you think about it. We pray this as though we can forgive the way God forgives. As if our forgiveness is in the same league as God’s.
“Forgive one another,” we are told, as if by a sheer act of will we can get past the deep pain we have experienced, as though we can just change our heart by a decision of our mind.
But you know, the Bible frequently asks us to do things that we really can’t do. Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Pray without ceasing.
To forgive another – to truly, deeply, completely forgive – can be an impossible task. But maybe we need to look at forgiveness in another way.
Timothy Haut, a pastor colleague in Connecticut, wrote:
Forgiveness is something we cannot just do as a technique to make us better than we were, to heal an old hurt, or to free us from a corrupting power that diminishes us. Of course, forgiveness helps us in all those ways. But forgiveness seems to mean that I willingly dip my heart into the fountain of God’s love so that I may be a channel of that love, and if I am observant and patient, I see miracles. Grace, joy, wonder, healing--all these things start to happen in me and in the other, too.I think maybe this is why we pray first for God’s forgiveness. We pray for God’s forgiveness, and as we experience that forgiveness we are able, however imperfectly, to forgive those who have wronged us. It is the experience of God’s forgiveness that makes our forgiveness possible.
Forgiveness then is not simply something we decide to do, but it is a process that grows out of our own experience of God’s love. It’s not so much that we grant forgiveness but we participate in God’s forgiveness.
Jesus’ ministry was overflowing with forgiveness. To one sinner after another he said, “I forgive you.” “I forgive you.” It was a behavior so threatening, so upsetting to the way the world worked, that bankers and lawyers and religious leaders alike condemned him to the cross.
And then he forgave even that.