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Debts or Trespasses? And Other Riffs on the Lord’s Prayer

July 20, 2014

Crossposted from Gaudete Theology, as I expect and hope that the commentariat and my cobloggers here may take up rather different points in their responses. 🙂


Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil. Amen.

Those are the words I learned as a child, and still most frequently use when I pray. But sometimes I riff on it.

At some point in young adulthood, I encountered a translation that used “debts” and “debtors” instead of “trespasses”, and a commentary asserting that when Jesus talked about forgiveness, he was typically preaching to the people at the top of the wealth/power hierarchy. It was the people in positions of wealth and privilege who were called to forgive the debts of those who owed them money: not the other way around. This made sense to me in a “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable” kind of way.

The economic metaphor also helped me understand more concretely what forgiveness meant. I knew what it meant to forgive a monetary debt: it meant tearing up the IOU, wiping out the debt entirely, declaring “you don’t owe me that money anymore.” And, at least if you’re not an asshole, you also don’t bring up how generous you were in writing off that debt whenever there’s a conflict or negotiation between you and the person whose debt you forgave. A debt that’s forgiven is done, it’s over, it’s off the books.

In my first scripture course in grad school, I learned about the parallelism that permeates much Hebrew poetry, and I began to look for it everywhere.

Our Father in Heaven, / may your name be holy.
May your reign come / and your will be done
on earth / as in heaven.
Give us today / our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts / As we forgive our debtors.
Don’t lead us into temptation / But lead us out of evil.

I could even see some nested structure: “Our Father in heaven, holy is your name” has an ABBA structure (name/holy/holy/name).

Parallelism isn’t just aesthetic word games, though; like any other literary device, it accents the important concepts and brings out relationships between ideas. So I found this a fruitful reflection.

This form makes clear that “debts” beats “trespasses,” at least in English, by having a properly directional noun for the acting subject that makes sense with a possessive. “As we forgive our debtors” is perfectly clear. “As we forgive our trespassers”… not so much. Those might be our trespassers, that we sent out to trespass on other people’s lawns to go stir up trouble or hand out leaflets or sell Girl Scout cookies. And the connection with lawns (which is where I mostly saw “No Trespassing” signs as a kid) and the associated trivial level of infraction was also unhelpful.

Lately, though, I’ve been riffing on the Lord’s Prayer with a brain well soaked in mimetic theology.

Our Father in heaven / holy is your name.
May your reign emerge / and your will be enacted
On earth / as in heaven.
Give us today / what we need for today
And forgive us our trespasses / so we learn to forgive those who trespass against us
Do not put us to the test / but free us from evil

“Trespasses” is making sense again, in this theological framework in which defining my identity over against somebody else is sinful, and pacifically receiving my identity from God is holy; in which my righteous indignation is a surefire giveaway that I’ve been scandalized and hooked into mimetic rivalry with somebody who has done whatever it is they did to make me say “how dare they”: how dare they trespass against me or mine like that.

Forgive us our trespasses
So we can let go of that bristling defensive posture,
that tendency towards escalation, that mirror-imaging of sin.
Forgive us our trespasses
To remind us how it feels to be welcomed,
To remind us that we are no better no purer no holier
Than those who trespass against us.

Keep us out of that temptation
And free us from that evil

For yours, not ours, is the reign, and the power, and the glory:
Foreverandeveramen.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2014 10:33 am

    How about both/and, as in Shakespeare’s Romeo (and Juliet)?

    ROMEO: [To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
    This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
    My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
    To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

    JULIET: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
    Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
    For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
    And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

    ROMEO: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

    JULIET: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

    ROMEO: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
    They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

    JULIET: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

    ROMEO: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
    Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

    JULIET: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

    ROMEO: Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
    Give me my sin again.

    JULIET: You kiss by the book.

    Nurse: Madam, your mother craves a word with you.

    ROMEO: What is her mother?

    Nurse: Marry, bachelor,
    Her mother is the lady of the house,
    And a good lady, and a wise and virtuous
    I nursed her daughter, that you talk’d withal;
    I tell you, he that can lay hold of her
    Shall have the chinks.

    ROMEO: Is she a Capulet?
    O dear account! my life is my foe’s debt.

  2. July 21, 2014 10:59 am

    Interesting how for

    ὀφειλήματα / opheilēmata / and ὀφειλέταις / opheiletais /

    the Vulgate has

    debita and debitoribus

    And then the Old English has

    gyltas [“guilt”] and gyltendum [“ones guilty against”]

    And then Wyclif has

    dettis [sounding like the Latin] and dettours

    But then suddenly Tyndale offers

    treaspases and treaspas

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Lord's_Prayer_in_English

  3. July 21, 2014 11:56 pm

    Thanks Kurk! Any comment on the semantic field and/or other scriptural uses of the Greek?

    The move from debita to guilt looks startling to me. I can see debt from debita, and trespass from guilt; but I don’t see how one gets to guilt in the first place.

  4. July 22, 2014 10:23 am

    Victoria –
    It’s not uncommon in extra biblical Greek literature (i.e., beyond the LXX and NT) to find the idea of debtor forgiveness or absolution, using the phrases found in Matthew’s Greek Lord’s prayer. For example:

    those who were in Nicias’ position were compelled to **absolve** their debtors of just debts and to surrender their own property to blackmailers.

    οἱ δ’ ὥσπερ Νικίας διακείμενοι ἠναγκάζοντο τοῖς τ’ ὀφείλουσι τὰ χρέα **ἀφιέναι** καὶ τοῖς συκοφαντοῦσι τὰ αὑτῶν διδόναι.
    — Isocrates, “In Euthynum”

    On your other point – “guilt” is just my gloss for the OE gyltas, which seems to have the additional sense of “debt.”

    For example, in Matthew 17:24, it’s used for the “temple tax”
    and in Matthew 18:32 it’s used for what a slave owed
    and in Matthew 27:37 it’s used for the accusation of Jesus on the placard above his cross (i.e., his debt to society, his charge of guilt).

    http://books.google.com/books?id=4BNAAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA50&lpg=PA50&dq=gylt#v=onepage&q=gylt&f=false

  5. July 22, 2014 10:32 am

    Tyndale, perhaps, used “trespass” as “debt” as well. Here’s from a text dated around 1307. Notice how often the word is used in this sense of something owed; on page 79, for instance, there’s “forgaf alle his trespas” and on page 94 “Forgif him his trespas, Jhesu, þat lete þe slo” and on page 116 “If trespas be misdryuen, & do þin owen socoure, & I wille mak amendes, tak a day of loue.” There are 38 uses of the phrase in this short text, but is any somehow conveying anything but debt as transgression? Is there any sense of ignoring the “No Trespassing” signs?:

    http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/ABA2096.0001.001/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

  6. May 25, 2016 4:10 pm

    Debts and debtors. Jesus overthrew the money changing tables. People seem to forget that a lot of problems in Jesus’s time (much like now and always…) stemmed from usury and reinforces by the “law”. It was half the reason he came to us, was to show the people that the law was dead and the new covenant is the way to go. Right?

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