And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
I went to a little Roman Catholic elementary school, at Mass every morning I heard “forgive us our tresspasses…” In our family’s Orthodox church we sang “forgive us our debts…” Very confusing for a child like me. I remember citing it as a major difference between the Roman and the Orthodox churches – along with the sign of the cross – in conversation with one of the Marion sisters in the principal’s office. I was around ten. Of course as I grew it became clear that the debts/trespass issue had nothing to do with denomination and everything to do with what translation used. Many Orthodox ask the Father to forgive their trespasses. Everytime I would hear tresspasses used I would always wonder “why the difference?” and more importantly “which is correct?” Somewhere along the line I discovered the interlinear bible. An interlinear bible has the Greek and in our case English side by side word by word. It turns out the Greek word ὀφειλήματα, often translated as trespasses, means debt or more specifically “that which is owed.”
In Scripture everything has meaning. The Rabbis say that even the empty spaces have meaning. Word choices have meaning. Let us then assume that Jesus used the word “debts” for a reason and examine that more closely. Debts is a rather narrow word, a financial term. It means that which is owed, money borrowed, wages to be paid, obligation. A “debtor” is under bond to do a task. There are many places in Scripture that employ financial language when referring to spiritual matters; I would like to highlight just three. The first is from Luke’s Gospel and is the counterpart to Matthew 6:12
“And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.”
Here the word “sins”, in greek ἁμαρτάνω, literally means to miss the mark and is different than debts (ὀφειλήματα.) Bearing Luke’s word choice in mind let’s meditate on the forgiveness of debts in the famed Romans 3 our second selection.
“For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.”
Romans 3:22-26 (emphasis added)
The redemption (ἀπολύτρωσις) language here is often connected with paying the debt of someone else; often someone who has been made a slave to the creditor.
In financial language, Jesus bought our debt (talk about toxic assets) and then forgave it. We are redeemed, but that is only our Savior’s part – the part we could never accomplish. We must work out our salvation. We must forgive others. In the “Our Father” we are predicating our forgiveness on how we forgive others. This is deeply civic. As icons of the triune Godhead we are communal and that communion is only possible in Love (cf. Cor 13:4-8). Our model for Love is Jesus Christ – The Redeemer – the one who payed the debt once and for all; the one who forgives our debts as we forgive our debtors. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” is not merely a quid pro quo, akin to “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land” (Isiah 1:19-20), Matthew 6:12 is deeply soteriological, speaking directly to the Orthodox Theology of Salvation known as Soteriology. We are to “be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat 5:48)
Let’s end with one final pericope from the Gospel according to Matthew. One of the “Kingdom” parables we are all perhaps familiar with it is about a servant who owed ten thousand talents to his Lord. The servant couldn’t pay so the Lord ordered the man imprisoned and family and land be sold to pay the debt. Interestingly enough the servant “fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’” He does not ask forgiveness, but an extension. “And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” The parable doesn’t stop there. Right after he is forgiven runs into a fellow servant who owes him money.
“and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
I am a reader in a small Orthodox Christian parish on the edge of the prairie. I am married and have three children. The emergency room is my day job, at night I play mostly traditional American music on the banjo, guitar, mandolin etc. I am a PK and so is my spouse. Also an avid reader and book collector.