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Monday, June 17, 2013

Is It "Debts" or "Trespasses"?

Praying the Lord's prayer together often brings up the question of whether to use the word "debts" or "trespasses". In Reformed, Lutheran and Presbyterian circles, "debts" is standard, whereas with Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Methodists, "trespasses" is the norm.

Some modern translations simply use the word "sins", assuming that debts and trespasses have identical meanings.

But do they?

In some research I did for our house church Bible study yesterday, I learned that John Wycliffe, in his 1395 English translation of the Bible, rendered the Gospel of Matthew's Greek word opheilema as "debts", simply because that word consistently refers to actual monetary or other debt elsewhere in the gospels.

In William Tyndale's 1526 English Bible, however, that same Greek word is translated "trespasses", and the first Book of Common Prayer published in 1549 followed that usage.

In the Gospel of Luke's version of the Lord's prayer, the Greek word for "sins" (hamartia) is used, as in "Forgive us our sins," but that is then followed by "as we forgive our debtors," using a form of the Greek word opheilema.

It's no wonder we're confused, but in any case, trespasses and debts don't have exactly the same meaning.

To illustrate the difference, when I walk to the Harmony Square Shopping Center from our house, I take the liberty to "trespass" across parts of two of my good neighbors' back yards. They have no  signs posted, and happen to be just fine with my taking this little short cut, but technically I have still trespassed. But the only "debt" I owe is one of gratitude for having such great neighbors.

But should I drive my loaded pickup over that same area of their back yards and right after a heavy rain,  then my trespass might well incur an obligation, or debt. At the very least, I could owe them a major apology, if not some actual compensation for damages, along with a commitment never to do the same thing again.

My neighbors would then forgive me based on my confession and repentance of my trespass. In the same way, every sin is a wrongdoing, a transgression that normally involves a debt we owe in the form of some kind of repentance, restitution, or both. In other words, one's debt has to do with how a trespass has harmed a relationship, in that there is now something "owed", either to God or to another person.

This suggests that sin is not just about violating a rule in a code of law, but is about violating the Bible's first and foremost commandments to love God with a passion and our every neighbor with compassion. "Owe no one anything," writes the apostle Paul, "but to love one another, for love is the fulfillment of the law."

(Note: To "owe no one" doesn't mean never doing any borrowing, of course, but making our payments on time so we are never in arrears.)

One could argue that all of this is no big deal, since we need to be forgiven of all debts, trespasses, sins, faults, flaws and wrongdoing, no matter what we call them. But my prayer remains that God and other people will forgive me not only my trespasses (or sins--both of commission and omission), but all of the unpaid debts I have incurred as a result.
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