Debts or Trespasses?
One of my favorite moments in ecumenical worship is the train wreck between traditions over debts and trespasses during the Lord’s prayer. I like it because it is an uncomfortable space that forces us to recognize the division in the Body of Christ and the space that division creates for the movement of God’s Holy Spirit. That uncomfortable space leads me to wonder how often we robotically recite that portion of the prayer, and how often we deeply consider what it truly means to forgive and be forgiven of our debts – whatever that means.
Let’s begin by getting the language of debts and trespasses out of the way. I’ll also ask the historians among us to forgive this brief and crude brushstroke of history. In the fourth century of the Common Era, the Latin Vulgate – translated from original manuscripts by St. Jerome – became the official cannon of scripture (the Bible) for the Roman Catholic church.
In 1526, inspired by the protestant movement in Switzerland and empowered by the invention of the printing press, William Tyndale began to produce Biblical material translated from the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. In Tyndale’s work the Lord’s prayer uses the word “trespasses,” presumably as a way to talk about wrong doing. In 1611 the King James Version was printed, replacing trespasses with debts. And in 1989, the New Revised Standard Version maintained “debts” as a more accurate version of the original Greek in one place, and “trespasses” in another.
The scholarly argument is that the context of Mathew’s Gospel is about repayment of something owed, whereas the context of the Greek in Luke’s Gospel is about making mistakes that need to be accounted for. For those in the protestant, Reformed tradition the idea of repayment of sin on our behalf fits pretty well, so we tend to like saying, “debts”.
Some congregations use the ecumenical version, which was produced by the Consultation on Common Texts – the same body that is responsible for the lectionary readings many congregations follow – and was printed in our hymnal by the Office of Theology and Worship. It simply replaces both choices with something that most people agree on – sin.
One Pastor tells the story of supply preaching in a congregation that uses the ecumenical version. Her son occasionally worshiped with her and sometimes at his father’s PC(USA) congregation. At the door he stopped her and said, “WAIT! Mommy, is this a debting or sinning church?" I replied, "Oh honey – this is a sinning church." A member who was passing by said, "You got that right."
Truly that is the core of the issue – sin and forgiveness. We can argue all day about language of economy and language of property or the historical politics of the church and our penchant for doctrinal lines in the sand, but the issues are sin and forgiveness. What does it mean to sin? What does it mean to forgive? What is the relationship between the two? What is our role, and what is God’s?
Our passage from Numbers recounts the giving of the law, which is the origin of our awareness of sin. It is the origin in the sense that a road with no posted speed limit is a road you make up your own mind about. I used to think that this passage described a mean and vengeful God. I mean, everything’s fine if you don’t make any mistakes – but if you do, God’s going to come after you and your family like the mafia. What I have come to understand, however, is that forgiveness does not mean there is no consequence. It simply means that the consequences are not binding or permanent in the way that God’s love and forgiveness are.
So sin is the cause that sets the ball rolling, but that does not mean that everything is directly related in the sense of Karma and cosmic payback. Sometimes the chaos of this world simply spills over into our lives. Sometimes we are victimized by the actions of others. Such is the case of David, a man after God’s own heart, as he hides in caves and prays for redemption. What does he do? He confesses his shortcomings. He repents. Repentance is not required because we should be so self centered as to believe that our actions can manipulate the hand of God. Repentance is required because it prepares us for God’s involvement, it removes the delusion of our entitlement, and it acknowledges the participation and our expectation of God’s involvement as the source of our forgiveness.
True forgiveness moves us toward reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation do not mean giving permission to harmful behavior. It means moving forward despite the injuries between us. It means being defined by our agreements rather than our conflicts.
All of this leads us back to the Lord’s Prayer, and the words of Jesus about forgiveness. In Mathew’s version, Jesus adds a little interpretive kick at the end. He says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Ouch. You mean I have to forgive Osama, Obama, Bush, and that person from the third grade that made me feel like a jerk? Yeah. But, here’s the thing. The forgiveness of God is not transactional. We don’t earn God’s love. We can’t earn God’s love! Love does not come with conditions and expectations. So what is Jesus talking about here?
Maybe it isn’t about God’s ability to give as much as it is about our ability to receive. I saw a posting on facebook the other day that said something like that. It said, “What you do with any opportunity God gives you will determine what opportunities God gives you!” I would change that just a bit to say, “What you do with any of the opportunities God gives you determines your ability to see all of the opportunities God gives you.”
So, must we forgive in order to be forgiven? Yes, but not because of God. We must forgive in order to have the capacity to receive God’s forgiveness – for the amount of grace we are able to offer is equal to the amount of grace we are willing to receive. And although this sounds like a fairly massive task that really only applies to our deepest wounds and most offensive relationships, I think it begins in the simplest and smallest places we can provide.
I had a young, sincere Christian teach me that once. I was managing a restaurant and one of my waiters routinely messed up. I spent more time fixing checks during his shifts than any other, and they were mostly his. After a while he stopped asking for help. Instead he would walk up to me and say, “You’re just going to have to find a new way to love me today.”
That is the opportunity of forgiveness, finding a new way to love one another – every day. That’s one of the valuable things about Christian Fellowship. It gives you a space to forgive regularly, so that it becomes more of an instinct in other places. I think it is fair to say that we are a sinning congregation. I think it is fair to say that we are a reconciling congregation. I think it is fair to say that in the present darkness of this world we whisper prayers that shine as light because of our ability to forgive – in fact, that is the only way any congregation can do it. Amen?
Next week we will look into the heart of that darkness with our final exploration of the Prayer of Jesus, based on the phrase, “Deliver us from evil.” Now let us stand and sing to the glory of God.