Forgive Us Our Debts

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I’ll never forget the day a man who had been attending our church for 20 years finally decided to become a member.

What struck me most was his reason for waiting so long. 

“All these years I hesitated to become a Christian because of the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus tells us to forgive our debtors.  I figured that if I applied that to my business, tearing up the debt sheets of all the people who owe us money, we’d be out of business by the end of the month.  I finally understand he was talking about debts of a different kind!” 

Indeed, he was. 

It’s interesting that when people of different church traditions worship together, things can get kind of crazy midway through the Lord’s Prayer.  Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, among others, recite these words from memory:  And forgive us our trespasses.  Presbyterians, Baptists, and other groups will say:  And forgive us our debts.   Still other groups are likely to pray: And forgive us our sins. 

Is one option better than the others?  Does it really matter? 

It’s worth considering the five different Greek words that were available to the New Testament writers.  For those of you who are seriously exhausted from our recent forays into the Bible’s original languages, I promise that after today there will be no more Greek for a week!   

The first New Testament word for sin is anomia.  It literally means “lawlessness.”  Anomia is an exceedingly strong word, and connotes behavior that has seriously gone off the rails.  This is not the term Jesus uses in the Lord’s Prayer.

The next option is parabasis, which means to cross a line.  I commit a parabasis when I’ve been warned by people who love me very much not to bring up politics at the next family gathering.  But I plunge ahead anyways, and within a matter of minutes people are revising their wills.  This also is not the word Jesus uses.

Paraptoma is a bit different.  It doesn’t mean charging across a clear boundary, but slipping across – essentially fooling myself into thinking that I’m still a good person.  Perhaps I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that the cookies on that platter are reserved for the bridge club.  But maybe if I take just one, it will be all right.  I can rearrange the others so no one will notice.  Or maybe I should go ahead and sneak a second one.  Paraptoma is likewise not the word Jesus uses in the Lord’s Prayer.   

The fourth word for sin, hamartia, comes from the world of archery.  It means missing the mark. 

Perhaps I have resolved never to cheat on an exam.  But I really need an “A” on that final.  Therefore I miss the mark – not accidentally, but on purpose.  I decide to do what I know is wrong.  This is the word that earlier generations translated into English as “trespass.”  What is trespassing?  It is walking in a place where I know I’ve been forbidden to walk.  Most modern translations render hamartia as “sin.” 

Which brings us to opheilema, the word Jesus actually uses in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.  It comes from the world of commerce and connotes an unpaid debt.

I owe something.  I fail to pay it off.  That’s an opheilema

What the gentleman in our congregation discovered is that Jesus is not talking about unpaid business invoices, but our vast spiritual indebtedness to God.  Day in and day out, we have all wounded the heart of God at the level of our thoughts, motives, words, and actions.  We owe God the equivalent of the national debt.  And none of us has a checking account with that kind of balance.

But Jesus, on the cross, miraculously paid off the world’s cumulative debt of sin.

If that’s already accomplished – and the Bible clearly speaks of forgiveness as a past action that God has provided through his Son – why are we still asking him to forgive our debts?  Are they paid off or not? 

Here we need to embrace one of the most important principles of Bible study:  A single text doesn’t tell us everything there is know about a particular subject.

Good study takes us to dozens of other chapters and verses on the pages of Scripture.  What we ultimately learn about God’s forgiveness is that Jesus’ sacrificial death on Good Friday erased all our debt sheets – even of the sins that have brought us the deepest shame, and about which we have never breathed a word to another human being.  But as we abandon ourselves to Jesus, we enter a relationship that can never be broken.  He will never let us go.  It’s as if our worst soul-staining moments never happened.  This is why the Good News is such good news.

So what’s happening when we confess our sins to God, and when we pray this part of the Lord’s Prayer?   

We’re not establishing the fact of our relationship with Christ.  That’s already been settled.  Instead, we’re repairing and restoring our personal experience of God’s gracious presence.   

When I see a childlike drawing in bright red Magic Marker on my wall, and notice the red smudges on my little one’s fingers, I will ask, “Did you draw on the wall with those markers?”  “No, it wasn’t me!” says the child, looking away.  At this moment there is perfect clarity about reality.  I know what has happened.  The child also knows what has happened.  But there remains a barrier between us.

The barrier isn’t crossed by sharing new information, as if that were even necessary.  What brings us back together is a humble, maybe fearful, perhaps even tearful admission: “Yes, I did it!” 

And my heart melts.  Magic Marker drawings are annoying.  But such problems are easily addressed.  The far greater potential problem is a relationship that falls short of being fueled by the dynamics of heartfelt trust and heartfelt forgiveness – the very miracles of love that God wants us to experience with him every day. 

When you offer the Lord’s Prayer, it’s OK to use whatever vocabulary suits you best – the T-word, the D-word, or the S-word.

They all, in the end, take us to the same place:  “Lord, I’ve let you down.  You know it and I know it.  Please restore to me the deepest experience of your love and grace.”

Before those words are off your lips, he will already have you in his arms.