Preparing for a new chapter in our church's life
“Forgive us our debts / sins”
“Words of faith are too well known to believers for their meaning to be knowable.”
Debt or sin…which would you prefer?
There is a clear difference in the wording of the Lord’s Prayer according to Matthew and the Lord’s Prayer according to Luke with regard this particular line.
Luke translates the line: “Forgive us our sins”
Matthew translates the line “Forgive us our debts”
The version of the Lord’s Prayer that we use in our liturgical books picks up Luke’s translation.
In using the word ‘Debts’ Matthew makes a clear reference to monetary debt, and in using the word ‘sins’ Luke suggests a much broader and in some ways more spiritual meaning.
So what are we to make of this?
First of all, it’s quite possible that Jesus himself used both words in the Lord’s Prayer. There is often a strange assumption that just because Jesus is reported as saying the Lord’s Prayer only once, he said it only once, but this of course is highly unlikely. It is also quite probable that as he recited this prayer frequently he subtly tailored some of its content to the groups and situations that he was speaking to. This is perhaps difficult for us, but it’s worth remembering that, as John the evangelist says, ‘not everything that Jesus did and said is recorded in the gospels, there’s just not enough pages!’ (paraphrased in the New Living Simon Translation.)
So let’s examine this in more detail.
For this current series we’re taking Matthew’s translation of the Lord’s Prayer as our text, so let’s start with the words he uses. ‘Forgive us our debts’.
To be indebted to someone is to have an unfulfilled obligation towards them. In the ancient world in which Jesus lived indebtedness was a big problem. Both within and outside of the people of Israel, the poor were forced to borrow money from the rich and in return enslave themselves to tyranny and oppression.
As Jesus spoke to those first century Jews they would have been familiar with the teaching on debt and slavery in their scriptures (the OT) and also the limits of acceptable practice within their community.
So as Jesus speaks about debt what would his hearers have known and called to mind?
The Torah had much to say about debt, and in particular how the community should regard indebtedness and even how it should manage those who were in debt. In telling people to pray for debt relief from God, Jesus immediately helps them to cast their minds back to the Torah and in doing so grasp yet another characteristic of God and his kingdom.
Firstly the Torah forbade the people of God from charging interest on loans made to each other, but allowed interest to be levied on loans made to foreigners. Listen to the following extract from Leviticus 25:35-38:
“If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent upon you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them with food at a profit. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.”
God delivered the Israelites out of Egypt and gave them the land as a gift. When the people were enslaved he redeemed them and provided for them. And so as God did for his people, so he expects them to do for each other. After-all, if a fellow member of the community is so desperate for help then surely it should be offered freely as an act of loving compassion rather than a commercial exchange and an advantage to be taken.
Likewise, if an Israelite was in debt to another member of the community, there were strict rules to do with how long the debt should last for, when it should be cancelled and what should happen at its cancellation.
Exodus 21:2-6 for example:
When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh year he shall go out a free person, without debt…”
Or Deuteronomy 15:1-3
“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 neighbour, not exacting it of a neighbour who is a member of the community…”
Verses 12-15 continue and command a staggering additional response beyond simply offering a debt slave freedom:
“If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man of Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you for six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. And when you send a slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you.”
And then the reasoning:
“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today.”
At various points in Israel’s history this system was widely abused and those in need were exploited by their countrymen (members of the same household of God) and Gods judgment is meted out in these cases. One particular case is found in Nehemiah when the prophet confronts the rich returning exiles and accuses them of taking advantage of the poor and needy Israelites who had not been carried off to Babylon. Having condemned them for their behaviour Nehemiah then goes on to demand that all that has been taken is restored, whether land or crops or money, and that the situation should be remedied.
Not just writing off, but restoring…
And so we begin to get a picture of what ‘forgive us our debts’ might be about. It is a request, harking back to the Torah, of release from the slavery of debt, and a prayer that the kingdom principles of God might be established and lived on earth as he desires. That the kingdom might come and Gods will might be done here on earth.
In asking for our debts to be forgiven we ask God for more than the cancelling of what is owed, and ask as well for a restoration that set free and sent out, not empty handed, but blessed with the provisions and blessings appropriate for a member of the divine household.
“And when you send a slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you.”
Looking at the Lord’s Prayer with a fresh perspective
Does this background information about debt and debt forgiveness help you to grasp the fuller meaning of Jesus words in this line of the prayer?
What aspects of the debt forgiveness laws do you find most surprising and why?
What is your response to such a counter-intuitive system of debt forgiveness?
In what ways does the Lord’s Prayer challenge aspects of your life?
Forgive us our debts please God…
In light of the teaching of the Torah with which Jesus hearers would have been familiar, the petition to be released from debt takes on a whole host of new meanings and significance. Not only it seems are we asking God to wipe the slate clean and to cancel the account, but we’re also asking him to set us free from slavery, and to send us out restored and with an armful of goodies – finest shorthair goat anyone..?
It’s true to say that as we read this line within our own cultural frame-work we perhaps have a more limited picture of what debt release constitutes. In expanding our understanding of what debt release is all about we expand our understanding of the nature and character of the God who himself is willing to set the debtor free and who calls us to be willing to show the same kind of mercy.
As Christians we see the sacrifice of Christ as being the pinnacle of Gods ‘release from debt’ strategy. His ultimate action in offering forgiveness of sins and release from debt though can sometimes be seen in a purely transactional sense, and this I think, in the context of all that we have learnt about debt forgiveness is to see only part of the picture.
So what is it to be in debt to God?
In many respects the second half of this prayer is easier to apply, ‘as we forgive those who are in our debt / sin against us’ – what are we to make of the request to God to forgive us our debts? Why would Jesus first hearers be told to pray this?
Let’s stick with Matthew’s economic focus to begin with. If Jesus is telling his early hearers to quite literally pray for release from economic debt and the slavery and oppression that entails, then in effect he’s asking them to pray an extension of ‘your kingdom come’. For Jesus the observant Jew, the Jubilee laws around debt forgiveness were an important part of the correct ordering of society, or to put it another way, of making earth like heaven. And so on the simplest level perhaps Jesus was asking his hearers to pray that Gods desire and law might be fulfilled, that the community might live as called.
But there’s probably more to it than that. It’s possible that the word Jesus used for ‘debts’ was ‘khoba’ which carries connotations of both debt and sins. Although the meaning of this one Aramic word means both, Greek (and English) need two separate words, hence ‘debts’ and ‘sins.’ So let’s explore this idea too.
If this indeed the word Jesus used then we’re faced with two things for which we’re asking forgiveness.
For those things which we have failed to do – we ask forgiveness for failing to do what God requires (we are in debt to him)
For those things which we have done – we ask forgiveness for doing the things we should not do (we have sinned)
In praying for forgiveness in this way we’re effectively asking God to release us from the burden and enslavement of unfulfilled responsibilities and the guilt of active disobedience.
We believe of course that this forgiveness and the resulting reconciliation is obtained in Christ and appropriated by faith, and that this is at the same time a ‘once for all’ and an ongoing action. Hence we pray for this repeated active forgiveness of both what we fail to do and what we do. It’s interesting to note that the request for forgiveness occurs immediately after the petition for daily bread, underlining the fact that like daily bread, daily forgiveness is required for the faithful to live. We also notice that the prayer is not “forgive me my debts” but “forgive us our debts” – as with every part of the prayer it is communal in its focus and recognises that for the whole people of God to live in the fullness of what the Lord intends, the whole community must be united in its recognition of the need for forgiveness and willingness to offer forgiveness. Only when the community of faith lives in such a way can the pilgrimage through life continue.
Looking at our church with a fresh perspective
It must surely be true for each and every one of us that as we look at our church we are able to identify those who we feel owe us a debt or who have sinned against us, and those to whom we owe a debt and against whom we have sinned.
What will we do? As we pray this prayer, conscious of what we ask from God, are we willing to offer the same to our brothers and sisters in Christ?
If forgiveness is not present, or if we deny our own need for forgiveness then the truth is not in us says John the Evangelist.