Debts and Trespasses

When saying the Lord’s Prayer together, as we do every week, the church we currently worship at uses the wording “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”.

I don’t know whether this is something that happens across the denomination or whether it’s just our church, but I’ve been saying it almost every week now for a couple of years, and part of me still wants to come out with the traditional wording of “trespasses”. “Debts” and “debtors” still feels weird to me. Not wrong, just weird. Something I’m still not entirely used to.

It’s an interesting choice of wording, and communicates something a little different to the traditional “trespasses” and “those that trespass against us”, and I thought it might be interesting to examine the difference.

“Trespasses” is a term from the conceptual area of land ownership. If you’re on my land without permission, we call that trespassing. In contemporary usage, that’s its only meaning: get off my land.

However, the older translations of the Lord’s Prayer seem to apply it much more widely. The idea is of being in a place where you should not; this may be a physical location, or more metaphorically, setting yourself on the throne and trying to make the decisions for yourself that rightly belong to God. Or invading another’s metaphysical territory; running your own rights over and through someone else’s domain without their permission, or as we would normally describe it, being arrogant and self-centred. Taking liberties with someone. Expecting them to bend to whatever it is you want to do.

Thus, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” carries the sense of asking God to forgive us for the times we try to act in His place or run our own rights over someone else’s domain, as we forgive other people for running roughshod over us and arrogating rights to themselves vis-à-vis us without our necessarily granting them.

Not that we necessarily need to let them continue running roughshod over us, but we do need to forgive them, because we also run our own rights over God’s domain and need forgiveness.

“Debts” and “debtors” carries a rather different connotation.

The idea here is not so much one of rights and ownership but of indebtedness. The idea that we owe God a righteous life, and when we sin it creates a debt. A debt that we cannot pay, because any amount of righteous living is only fulfilment of our obligation; it doesn’t count as a credit.

In the same way, other people can owe us other stuff than money. As human beings made in the image of God, we have a certain intrinsic dignity and worth. And because of this intrinsic worth, we have a right to expect a basic level of kindness and good treatment from others. “As we forgive our debtors” is about our forgiving those who owe us in this regard at least as much as it’s about those who owe us financially. “God, forgive us for what we owe You and other people; we also forgive those who owe us decent treatment.”

Now, the Divine attribute of justice may mean that sometimes we need to stand up for what is right and say to someone “pay what you owe”. The Bible is clear that we are to let no debt remain outstanding; if we owe taxes, we are to pay what we owe. If we owe honour, we are to honour the one we owe the honour to. And similarly, the Bible is very strong on the subject of paying a worker a fair wage for their labour. Forgiving our debtors doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought to let underpayment or non-payment of wages continue, for example, any more that forgiving one who has trespassed against us means we need to let the trespass continue. Sometimes it may. We owe God the righteousness we cannot in and of ourselves produce, and because of Jesus He is willing not to count that against us. But equally, Jesus paid our debt. If we reject that payment, preferring to do it ourselves, guess what? God isn’t going to force us to accept what He’s done for us. The debt remains.

So which is right?

This isn’t a case of one wording being right and the other wrong. They are both coming from slightly different places and communicating slightly different ideas, but they’re both right.

I prefer the traditional wording, but that’s mostly because when I’m doing something traditional, like reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I tend to want to go really traditional. “Debts” and “Debtors” says something useful, and so does the traditional “trespasses” vocabulary. Both are a little abstruse at times, but realistically, how many of us that have been praying it all our lives really think about the third possible wording, “forgive us our sins”?

Saying the Lord’s Prayer shouldn’t be merely a comforting ritual. It is, after all, a prayer; we’re talking to God, or supposed to be. It is a ritual, but if it’s only that we’re missing the point.

But if by looking at the wording we pay a little more attention to what we’re praying, that’s a good thing.