Sins, Debts, and Trespasses

Matthew 6:9-15 & Luke 11:1-4
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

One of the most frequently asked questions by newcomers to Peace is, “Why do you say the Lord’s Prayer that way?” Quite a few of you actually appreciate the move away from the Old English language. We haven’t been reading the King James Version or praying with thee’s and thou’s for number of years. after all. My usual short answer is that the ecumenical version is a compromise between debts and trespasses. How many of you spent most of your life saying “debts” What about trespasses?

Well, I asked my personal resident theologian to do what he loves – Biblical, theological, ecclesiological research. Yes, two or three weeks ago when I decided to preach on this, I asked Richard, who had already begun his new medical practice in Arcadia, if he would pull together a little info on the different versions of the Lord’s Prayer. It was a Saturday morning. About eight hours later he emerged from the study with an answer to my question, “Sins, Debts, Trespasses: Why the Differences?”

So the first thing we learn is that Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer includes the Greek word translated “debts” in the prayer itself, but in the verses after the prayer, the word “trespasses” is used to further guide the followers of Christ as to the vital importance of forgiving others when you pray to be forgiven by God.

Hear the Gospel according to Matthew, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 6:9-15

9 "Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others,
neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.


So Jesus gives His disciples this model prayer, then immediately clarifies what He has just taught. It’s a Jewish way of teaching by paralleling or repeating, using different words for beauty and emphasis. After giving the prayer, Jesus elaborates that forgiveness of “debts” actually means forgiveness of “trespasses.” He shows that these two words are large enough to be used interchangeably. He does not really explain any other portion of the prayer in that way, which says something of the import of that charge to forgive others.

Now in Luke’s Gospel, the words in the prayer are different. Luke uses the Greek word for sin, and then the word for debts. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those indebted to us.” Luke also leaves off the “Your will be done on earth as it is heaven.”

Luke 11:1-4

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." 2 He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." (NRSV)


Now thanks to St Jerome of the 4th Century who translated the original Greek into Latin, and to William Tyndale, the English Reformer, who first translated the Bible into English, the debts and sins from the Greek all turned to trespasses, despite the use of different words in the original manuscripts. And twenty-three years later, when the printing press was revolutionizing the world, the first Book of Common Prayer was published and it followed Tyndale’s translation -- trespasses. But the Presbyterians, always trying to studiously do their academic homework in original languages, retained the strict meaning of the Greek word, “debts” while everyone else went on praying “trespasses” as a synonym for “sins” That’s a synopsis of the history. If you come to the worship reflection class, you’ll get the full hand-out on that history, which I have only summarized here.

Now, speaking personally, as one who grew up saying “debts” I always thought “debts” leaned toward financial obligations too far, and “trespasses” seemed like a property issue. That’s why I have appreciated the ecumenical version of the Lord’s Prayer, which follows more closely the most reputable modern translations of Matthew and Luke, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” and “Save us from the time of trial” in place of “Lead us not into temptation.” I valued the clarity of that language, and the breadth of meaning with the word “sins” I don’t know about you, but my offenses are not limited to issues of finances and property.

But having stubbornly held to this ecumenical version of the prayer while some of you groaned, I had a change of heart recently, and here’s why: Our youth were traveling with First Presbyterian to Montreat this summer, and had a brief worship service prior to leaving. When the First Presbyterian leaders said, “Let us now say the prayer Christ taught us” they assumed our kids would know the same prayer their kids say. But our kids stumbled a bit with the “traditional Presbyterian Lord’s Prayer.” At that moment, it became clear to me that, as hard as we try at Peace to be ecumenical, to appreciate what is good about Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, as well as every branch of Protestantism, we should be raising children and youth who can say every form of the Lord’s Prayer with relative ease.

So you will notice in the coming months that we will move from one version to another, always providing words on the slides in in the bulletin. I know that some of feel more confused than ever, but I think you’ll be able to adjust. It might help you to actually reflect a little more on what you are saying. In our noon day prayers every week day in the church ministry center, we alternate quite easily between versions.

Sins, debts, trespasses. What’s the difference? Oh, there’s a difference in those words. But they are all trying to speak of the distance we fall short of God’s glory. We sin against God. We are indebted to God for the free grace we are given.

And despite that grace, and despite our best intentions, we trespass again and again by our stepping outside the helpful boundaries of God’s commands. God has shown us what is good, and what does the Lord require of us but to do justice and love kindness, and walk humbly with God. But we don’t. We go our own way. Looking back at last week’s sermon on the commandments, we do not keep God first. We worship other gods – idols of power, prestige, and personal pleasures. We are not careful to honor God with our words. We do not keep the Sabbath holy. We have not always honored Father and Mother or respected life, marriage promises, the property of others, truth, and been simply grateful for what we have. We fail to love God fully and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

But God forgives us. For –gives. God offers prior generosity. Calvinists like to talk of irresistible grace while Wesleyans speak of prevenient grace, but let’s not divide into theological word camps again. Before we ask for mercy, God has given it. Before the prodigal (wasteful son) returned home, the father rushed out to welcome him. God forgives us. The notion of forgiveness is sometimes difficult to translate into foreign languages, but here are some of the ways. "Forget the wrong," "no longer see the wrong," "put the wrong behind one's back," "lift the wrong from between us"

God’s forgiveness is always there for us and we are to ask for it and be thankful for it. When we do, then forgiveness toward others should also increase. Remember, we do not pray each week, “Forgive us our sins as we continue to hold a grudge against those who are mean to us.” “Forgive me my sin while I we justify my bitterness toward the one who has hurt me.” “Forgive us our sins as we continue to nurse old wounds and allow hate to creep into our lives like a thief in the night, stealing all our joy.” No, we pray “Forgive us our sins AS/LIKE/WHILE/IN THE SAME WAY AS we forgive those who have sinned against us. Or "Forgive us our guilt as we also pardon each one who has done us wrong."

Some of you have heard the saying, “If you really forgive, then you have to forget.” There are plenty of hurts that I cannot completely erase from my mind. But I can place them in a file labeled forgiven, finished with them. The drama is over. I don’t think we have to develop amnesia to be forgiving. No, you don’t need to forget, but you need to stop dwelling on the offense. Put it away in the back of your mind. Stop rehearsing it. Stop holding it against the person. Stop counting it. God is not counting your offenses, which are many each day.

Work out your hurt in constructive ways, if you’ve been seriously offended. You need professional help to work out deeply broken relationships. See a pastor, mental health counselor, psychologist, Stephen Minister or Spiritual Director. Pray for a changed heart, but most of all, do not allow yourself to live in bitterness. It will kill you – body, heart, and soul. You don’t need to be a doormat for someone who is mistreating you. You do not need to accommodate to the irrational desires of the addicted or mentally ill. You do not need to be manipulated by the immaturity of your children. But you do need to learn to speak your truth clearly and kindly to those who have hurt you and then move on to forgiveness. Hanging on to your hurt will only hurt you.

How can we move on? We can only forgive others well, if we are constantly aware of and grateful for the forgiveness we have in Christ. That’s why the church must continually focus on our need for Christ’s forgiveness. We need to confess our sin every day to God. Sometimes we need to confess to someone else. If we have penitent hearts, ready always to acknowledge our own sin, it is hard to cling the errors of others. If you can remember every time you see the speck in someone else eye, that you have a LOG in your own eye, then you cannot remain in a spirit of unforgiveness.

One way to move toward forgiveness is to imagine all the things in the other person’s life that might be difficult for him or her. Then think about how much better you will feel when you set down the heavy load of anger that you are carrying around. Start treating the person in your thoughts and actions with a calm, respectful dignity. Feelings follow actions.

Acknowledge to yourself that there will be moments when your trigger points are triggered, but you are not pulling out the guns of hatred, you are finding with God’s help, the tender mercies of love. That’s what it means to forgive. It means to decide in advance that you will give mercy when mercy is not deserved.

Talk to Wes and Gertie about the mourners in the village of Nickel Mines, PA and how the Amish Christians forgave the man who killed their innocent little school girls five years ago in early October. The wife of the killer was in a prayer group or Bible study for young mothers in Gertie and Wes’ Presbyterian Church. Many of the first responders were members of their church. Just hours after the attack, an Amish neighbor went to the wife to comfort her with the forgiveness of the Amish families. Did they feel forgiving at that point? I doubt it, but they knew what the right response was, so they mustered it humbly, until the feelings began to follow.

George MacDonald, a Scottish minister whose sermons and novels influenced CS Lewis, once wrote, “It may be infinitely worse to refuse to forgive, than to murder, because the latter may be an impulse of a moment of heat; whereas the former is a cold and deliberate choice of the heart.”

Martin Luther King, Jr, said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” It is an attitude which we cultivate by humbly remembering how indebted, we are to Christ for our own forgiveness.

“Forgiveness unleashes joy. It brings peace. It washes the slate clean. It sets all the highest values of love in motion. In a sense, forgiveness is Christianity at its highest level.” (John MacArthur)

Let us pray, using Petersen’s modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, freely translated: Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what's best -- As above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. You're in charge! You can do anything you want! You're ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.