Forgive Us Our Debts (What Debts?)

As we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray “forgive us our debts.” Do we really need to pray that? With so many Canadians in debt, many would say yes, it would be great to experience loan forgiveness, to be released from the obligation to pay all that money back. Jesus is not talking about that kind of debt. So what does “forgive us our debts” even mean? Do we owe God something?

Where we find the Greek word “debt” in the Lord’s Prayer as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, we find the Greek word for “sin” in the Gospel of Luke. The term used by Luke has the the idea of missing the mark, like an archer missing the target. With Matthew and Luke each recording different words here, which word did Jesus actually use when he taught his disciples to pray?

According to Bible scholars, Jesus likely taught in Aramaic, so it is possible Jesus used neither of the Greek terms! There is an Aramaic term for debt which includes the idea of sin. Jesus possibly used that word, with both Matthew and Luke translating in ways that bring out the full meaning of the term. The full idea is that just as one who cannot pay back a debt needs to be released from the consequence of not paying back that debt, we need to be released from the consequence of sin, of missing the mark.

When we hear that word sin, however, we might think “I am not a sinner. I have never murdered anyone, or stolen from anyone, I am a good and decent person.” After all, I’m sorry to have to say it, but we Canadians are typically very nice decent people, eh?!

We may hear of people coming to faith in Jesus who made a real mess of their lives and the lives of everyone around them through drugs, theft, and sinful living. We might think they really needed Jesus, they really needed forgiveness because they really were sinners. Thankfully they found religion and now they are well behaved, more like us!

My own story is nothing like that, of addictions or loose living then a big change when Jesus stepped in. For me, Jesus seems to have always been around. But there was a big adjustment. Driving to university one day I needed to take a detour due to a car accident. On seeing the wreck at the end of the detour the thought struck me that the driver must surely have been killed. When I got home from school, my best friend’s mom came flying out of our house to greet me. Indeed the driver of the car had been killed. It was my best friend.

That was a very hard day for all of us. I am not sure why, but that evening I read 1st Corinthians 13 which includes these words:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (NIV)

This passage is often described as a beautiful hymn about love. For me that night, however, it wasn’t about love, it was about me. I could have been a better best friend. I had missed the mark in what friendship looks like. There was a burden of guilt that I needed to be released from. Before that day I knew in my head that I was a sinner who needed God’s grace. But I was a decent, well behaved young man, so it was a theological thought without much heartfelt conviction. With the death of my friend, however, my faith dropped from my head to my heart. I knew I needed forgiveness. I had missed the mark. I had fallen short of the glory of God. If I needed forgiveness, everyone else did too, because out of all the kids in high school, I was one of the few friends my friend had. Kids can be cruel.

We all need grace, even those of us who are so self-controlled that we minimise our sins by keeping the rules well, even those of us who have had a brilliant start in life with great teaching along the way so that we become the epitome of decent folk: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NIV)

Through the death of my friend, I saw that my sin was not really in the usual list of rules we think of, it was love that missed the mark of God’s love.

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Galatians 5:14 NRSV

God is love

1 John 4:8 NRSV

We miss the mark when we fail in love. In fact the greatest commandments are all about love. Therefore the greatest sin is to lack love. God is love. Being created in the image of God we are to be characterised by love. When we are not, we show how far we have fallen from the glory of God.

There is good news; Jesus taught us to pray “forgive us our debts,” then he went on to pay off our debts!

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.

2 Corinthians 5:21 (NLT)

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

1 John 4:7-11 (NRSV)

When we pray “forgive us our debts,” the idea is of needing to be released from the consequence of our sin. There is a recognition that we are stuck. Stuck in patterns of living that alienate us from God. Stuck in patterns of living that alienate us from others. Stuck in patterns of living that make a mess in our own lives. Stuck in patterns of living that make a mess in the lives of others. Stuck in sin. Through sin we have all become unglued. Jesus came to get us unstuck.

When we pray “forgive us our debts,” we also learn to pray “thank you for answering that prayer through Jesus.”

(This reflection comes from an “online worship expression” which has replaced our regular church service due to COVID-19 precautions. You can also watch the reflection alone here.)

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