If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you… (Matthew 6:14)
Forgiveness is a gentle transaction, where the one offering forgiveness gives grace that is completely undeserved. It is not so much that asking for forgiveness makes us worthy of it – it doesn’t and it can’t. But in the realization that we are in need of it, that we truly are sorry, that we really want to repent – to turn our lives and minds and hearts – there is a necessary openness to the mercy offered. We cannot be worthy of forgiveness. But we also cannot receive it without asking.
So let’s talk about everyone’s favorite question on the Lord’s Prayer. Which is it? Is it debts? Is it trespasses? Is it sins? The honest answer is yes. They are all correct. However, there are reasons why we use all three in different contexts.
In the gospel of Matthew, the writer uses the word opheilo, which means two things. On the one hand, it literally means debts in the financial sense. On the other, it is a failure to meet moral expectations. So yes, Matthew’s word means both debts and trespasses. And in Luke’s gospel, the word he uses is amartias, which translates directly as sin. I’m really not kidding when I say that all three are accurate renderings of what it says in the Greek.
Now, here’s the rub. Which do we use? Let us first consider the forgiveness for which we are asking.
Most of us will remember that Jesus gave us but two commandments to follow: love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves. When we break these commandments, harm our relationships with God and others or cause ourselves pain or suffering – that is called sin. This definition is helpful because it does not give a laundry list of dos and don’ts and forces us to think carefully about every decision we make. There are things that will cause harm in some situations, but not in others. To say that such a thing is downright sinful is a lie because it is not always true. But to do anything to cause harm to our relationships with ourselves, with God, with our families, friends, neighbors, and all our brothers and sisters on the planet – yes, that is a sin. And ultimately, that is the thing for which we pray for forgiveness every week. Sin is the closest to being correct theologically.
So why debtors and trespasses? Why did Matthew upset the applecart? This is a different theological reason. Back, way back, when the Levitical laws were created, there was to be a very special year that occurred every seven years. It was to create an equitable circumstance for all people and mend relationships that may have been severed over time. It was called the year of Jubilee. And every seven years, during this year, all debts were to be forgiven. Lands and resources were to be restored. Life was meant to return to how it was meant to be – with everyone having what we need.
Not shockingly, being the wonderful humans we are, this practice flew out the window relatively early in the history of God’s people. But Jesus resurrected it. In the gospel of Luke, when Jesus quotes Isaiah, stating plainly that the Spirit of the Lord is upon me – he also says, in the original languages, that he came to proclaim the year of Jubilee. All was to be restored. All was to be forgiven. Some churches use the word trespasses to honor the relational aspect of this historical practice. Many of our Presbyterian churches use the word debts to do the same thing. Because that way, when we pray for God to forgive us, we are looking at a much bigger picture – to a future with hope for all people.
But there is also surely another question in your mind – we’ve talked about the tender way God offers forgiveness to us before we ask it. What about the second half of this line of the Lord’s Prayer? This is the part that makes us even more uncomfortable.
A while back I saw a meme on Facebook about forgiveness. In truth, the real hard part about this is not remembering how to multiply large sums in our heads, but those things for which we are asked by God to forgive.
We can start small: they broke my favorite vase. They accidentally ran into me and knocked me over. They unintentionally did not see me when they came in. Forgiveness is easy to give in these circumstances, right?
They pushed me. They let me down. They ignored me. They judged me. They called me names. They talked about me behind my back. They stole from me. They lied to me. Maybe these are more or less easy to forgive.
But what about… What about when someone shames you for mistakes? What about when people go beyond normal name calling to use words like abomination – which should never be in a Christian’s vocabulary, by the way. What about when someone shuns you, subdues you, or objectifies you? What about when someone denies your rights? What about when someone does the unthinkable?
Jesus clearly states that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. Oh, how I hope that God has more mercy than that. And I believe God does. But the lesson is an essential one, nevertheless.
Let us turn it on its head: if God can forgive us for all that we have ever done to break relationships, to cause harm, to crunch others into the ground; if God can forgive us for the nails that we ourselves hammered into Christ’s own body – how can we not seek to forgive others. There will be times when it seems impossible and beyond us. As well it should be in some circumstances. But we will hold onto the pain, the open wound forever if we do not let forgiveness come. Not forgetting, not automatically trusting, but forgiving the specific trespass in order that we might find a way to move forward – either together, or apart, as is necessary.
My encouragement for all of us is that God’s forgiveness is there before we ask – and I believe it is there regardless of what we do, because we can never deserve it. However, God invites us to treat one another with the same soft tenderness with which Christ welcomes us. God calls us to forgive even to the umpteenth degree – for then life will move forward. Then we will see a new dimension of the Kingdom in our midst.