And Forgive Us Our Debts
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. We have arrived at that moment in the Lord’s Prayer which separates the sheep from the goats, the Presbyterians from, well, just about everybody else. If you’ve been a Presbyterian for a while, or have been worshiping with Presbyterians for a while, you have no doubt noticed how much more efficient we are when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer. The phrases we will be focusing on the next two weeks, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”, save a good seven syllables over those churches that would pray about “trespasses” and “those who trespass against us.” So if you’re church-shopping, just know the Presbyterians can save you two to three seconds on your Lord’s Prayer time in worship.
The real reason behind this difference, however, is not one of time management, nor of a preference of money over property, but of linguistics.
If you remember, we have talked about how there are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer: one in Matthew, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, which much more closely resembles the version all Christians pray; and one in Luke, taken from the Sermon on the Plain, which is similar, but shorter.
In Matthew, the Greek word used is best translated “debts”. It really does have that sense of “material obligation” and is the same word used for financial transactions. In Luke, the Greek word used is “sins”, which refers to failures or faults. It comes from a Greek root which was used in archery and referred to the missing of the target.
The use of “trespasses” comes from two sources, probably. The first is that, immediately after the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, Jesus speaks of “trespasses”, saying, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” The second origin is, well, it’s Origen, who was an important 3rd century theologian, and had switched out the Greek word for “debts” with “trespasses”.
If you follow all of these rabbit trails down through the centuries, from Greek into Latin into English, and then into various versions of English, you wind up with three different versions of the Lord’s Prayer: one which uses “debts”; one which uses “trespasses”; and one which uses “sins.”
Who cares? Is this really that important?
I remember taking Greek in Seminary, and spending hours translating the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew into the most accurate English I could render. I tried to find that translation this week to no avail; I’m sure it’s scribbled in a class notebook somewhere in our basement. But the one thing I remember is how pleased I was to discover that the Presbyterian version was “right” – that the Greek contained in Matthew really does mean “debts” and “debtors”. After all, one of the gifts of the Reformation, one of the marks left by the great theologians like Luther and Calvin, was the gift of Biblical scholarship, of studying the texts of the Old and New Testaments in their original Hebrew and English in order to cast aside all of the trappings that had been added through the centuries of church practice and tradition. The Scriptures took center stage again, and the written word was primary.
But now, my certainty evaporates a bit in the face of new questions and wondering. After all, as we’ve talked about over the course of this summer, Jesus prayed this pray in Aramaic, not Greek; what we have, even when we have the oldest Greek manuscripts, is – at best – a translation. And even the best translations are interpretations. But more importantly, we are not worshipers of the word made legible; we are worshipers of the word made flesh. So, how does this prayer, and our word choice within it, reflect our relationship to Christ himself, the incarnate Word of God?
All of these subtle distinctions fade into the background with this realization. Whether we are ultimately talking about “debts” or “trespasses” or “sins”, this part of the prayer is about seeking forgiveness for wrongs that we have done.
Our lessons this morning bear that out vividly. As we read that most salacious story about King David, we are struck by how corrupting life can be. David is God’s chosen, anointed, the one who receives the blessing and covenant which will never be broken, the same covenant to which the New Testament returns when speaking of Jesus and his birth in Bethlehem, the city of David.
And this same David manages to pull off a stunt so horrifying that we cringe to read it. Simply put, he has the hots for his neighbor’s wife, and takes advantage of his power to seduce her. When she becomes pregnant, David tries to cover it up by bringing Uriah back from the frontlines so that he will think that he is the father of the child. But Uriah turns out to be more righteous than David, refusing the comfort of his home as long as the ark of the Lord remains in a tent. So David betrays his own general, sacrificing him on the battlefield.
Is what David does a sin? Or is it a debt? Or a trespass? The difference suddenly doesn’t seem so important. What he does is wrong. Period.
The story becomes downright absurd when we put it next to the New Testament lesson we read. In it, Peter is trying to show off how virtuous he is, by suggesting that he is willing to forgive someone who has wronged him seven times, four more than the amount recommended by the rabbis of the day. But Jesus lets him know that that’s not enough: you should forgive seventy-seven times (or, as other translations have it, 490 times). Let’s not got hung up on the number, but on the sheer amount of mercy we are supposed to show.
What if you were Uriah? What if, instead of being killed in battle, you discovered what had happened and what David had done to you? Could you really find it within you to forgive David not just once, or three times, or even seven times, but over, and over, and over, and over again? If so, you are a much better person than I.
But Jesus doesn’t leave this lesson on forgiveness alone with pure mathematics. He goes on to illustrate in a parable, the story of the servant who was forgiven a massive debt, but refuses to forgive a small debt owed him. The hypocrisy is clear, and the moral message is straightforward: you have been forgiven; how can you not pass that forgiveness on?
If we’re honest, though, these are the kind of lessons that fade when faced with real world examples. How do you forgive that boss that treated you so unfairly? How do you forgive the doctor who botched your surgery? How do you forgive your spouse when they betray you?
You can’t. It is only God working in you that can. That’s the point of this parable on forgiveness: whether we want to call it a sin, or a debt, or a trespass, none of us is above reproach. We may pretend that we are noble because we haven’t murdered anyone, but we have all harbored rage and hatred for another. Would we really want the person sitting next to us in the pew to know our deepest thoughts and desires? Or do we think we are better off keeping them bottled up within?
We will speak more about forgiveness next week. And even that won’t be enough to satisfy the complexity of the topic and the questions that will remain. But for today, my word to us is this: those things within, those fears and sorrows, those debts and trespasses that you carry around in you, those things for which you cannot forgive yourself, these are the weights which only God can lift from your shoulders. Our ability to forgive begins with our willingness to be forgiven; and that can only happen when we are honest, truly honest, with the God who calls us into faithfulness.