We’ve come to that part of the Lord’s Prayer that every longtime going church person visiting a new church dreads… “give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us/all sinners of the world...just forgive us.”
I’m here to tell you that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey or whether you say debt/debtors/trespasses/sins, you are welcome here. (We use “forgive us our debts,” by the way, which is why we print it in the bulletin when we say it.)
John Dominic Crossan, in the book The Greatest Prayer, uses “forgive us our debts,” as that is the Gospel of Matthew version. In Matthew 6, both the King James Version and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible use “forgive us our debts, as we [also] have forgiven our debtors.”
So, we are going to look at this word “debt” and the corresponding phrase literally, theologically, and metaphorically.
I think most people hear “forgive us our debts” as “forgive our sins.” Am I right? We think this is a line about forgiveness of wrongdoings, which isn’t a far-off thought. But what if Jesus literally was referring to a debt? A monetary debt? This is what Crossan suggests.
Our Old Testament selections today tell us the background on that culture’s dealing with debt.
In our first reading, we see a snippet of this idea of “Sabbath year”...an idea birthed from the Creation story. In Genesis, we hear about the 7th day being a Sabbath day (a day of rest as an act of worship). This idea also carries to a Sabbath month and a Sabbath year and a Sabbath Jubilee! Across Scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures, you will read about fields getting rest, debts being forgiven, and debt slaves being freed in the Sabbath year - in the 7th year.
Our two Scripture selections today speak to debt remission - a forgiveness or release of services or money owed.
Side note: Crossan pulls in records from the Code of Hammurabi, as well; it is a document dated back to 1700 BCE, in a similar time period as our Scriptures today. It sheds light on the culture and society of that time. And, actually, this record states that debts should be forgiven every 3 years. So, it makes it sound like the biblical records are less merciful, giving every 7 years for debt remission, but remember, too, the importance of “seven” in the Scriptures - harkening back to the 7 days of Creation and it being the Sabbath.
What do we learn from all this talk of literal debt remission? Especially as it connects to the Lord’s Prayer?
We learn that our spirituality, our faith, is intertwined with very practical things of this world. Sometimes we would like to think that we can keep our faith/spirituality and our world dealings separate, but that’s simply not the case. Not only do we see examples in Deuteronomy and Nehemiah of the Lord speaking to debts being paid, but also Jesus prays the literal words.
Our interactions in this world are an expression of our faith. When we are at work, when we are driving, when we are sitting around the table for a meal, when we are out in the community, we are still Christian. We are still God’s image-bearers.
Specifically with literal monetary debt, we learn that dealing with family and dealing in business are not the same (Deut 15). Many of you will strongly nod your head in agreement with this. Throughout Deuteronomy and Leviticus (two books in the Old Testament), the instructions to the Israelites are to care for family members who are in need - to not charge them interest in how they repay. For those who live outside the region, though, the Lord instructs that they can charge (reasonable) interest.
In many ways, we do not live in the same time and practice as the culture of Deut/Lev. That doesn’t mean we completely ignore the sentiment behind these verses we read today, saying “well, that doesn’t apply to us today.”
It does apply to us today. It tells us to not take advantage of others who are in a position of need. We aren’t going to release every person who owes us something with an animal from our flock as this Scripture states, but we absolutely can and should deal with one another graciously, not looking to take advantage of those in need.
And it teaches us to do our part in not being in a position to get taken advantage of….
We learn the importance of being smart consumers, smart with our trade and our money. Praying immediately beforehand in the Lord’s Prayer “give us this day our daily bread” sets us up for being mindful of what we need for today. As Crossan states, praying for “enough food for today is no debt for tomorrow.” (p140) Well-known speaker and author Dave Ramsey reminds people often that “you must gain control of your money or the lack of it will forever control you.”
Forgiving debts is a spiritual practice - the specifics are different from situation to situation - but the overall practice is to not take advantage of others, while also working to not let ourselves be put in that situation.
Theologically, what do we owe God? The prayer asks God to forgive us of our debts...implying that we owe a debt to God. So, what do we owe God?
Leviticus 25:23 reminds us that we, too, are resident aliens on this earth. In this verse, God says to the Israelites, “This land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” In our Deuteronomy verses today, we read “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you.”
God delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God delivered us from a system of sacrifices. We are heirs of Christ.
Furthermore, Genesis 1:26, the Creation story, tells us that we were ALL made in the image of God. We are image-bearers of God, the Divine Householder. What image of God are we bearing? How are we helping to bring honor to the Divine Household?
The question isn’t asked to make us beat ourselves over the head about every time we’ve cut someone off in traffic or have approached a situation with more of our own interest than our neighbor. The question is there to bring to our awareness to the fact that we are a part of God’s Household - we are heirs of Christ - we represent and contribute to God’s Household being in good working order.
So, for us being image-bearers of God and being redeemed by God, what do we owe the Divine?
Crossan states, “We owe it to God to run God’s world responsibly. We owe the divine Householder the conservation of the world house; we owe the divine Homemaker the consecration of the earth home. We owe God adequate care of all God’s creation. We owe God collaboration in hallowing God’s name, in establishing God’s kingdom, and in doing God’s will “as in heaven so also on earth.” We owe it to God to cease focusing on heaven, especially in order to avoid focusing on earth. We owe it to God to ensure that there is enough food and not too much debt in God’s well-run Household.” (p155, The Greatest Prayer)
Finally, metaphorically speaking, when we pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we are reminded of the need of forgiveness beyond financial debts. We are reminded of forgiving non-financial debts - forgiving the wrongs done against us. We are reminded that there is a time to let it go! (queue the theme song from Frozen)
Yes, there are consequences to our wrongdoings; there is time to work on repaying those wrongdoings in whatever appropriate form; we need to own the things we have done; AND there is a time to forgive. There is a time to not continue holding a wrongdoing over someone’s head. There is a time for others to not continue holding a wrongdoing over our head.
Again, our faith tradition teaches us that our lives are intertwined in this world. Forgiveness does not stop within the walls of the church. Forgiveness extends into work, school, home, community, nation, and the globe. It is a balance of acknowledging we are not perfect beings and asking God’s wisdom on not being taken advantage of (or letting others walk over us).
What did Jesus mean when he prayed “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?” Did he mean financial debts? Did he mean sins and wrongdoings? Did he mean both?
Certainly, there are lessons to be learned in either case.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors
Our Householder of all the earth, may our actions bring honor to your reputation.
May your ruling style be implemented, may your eternal vision of wise choices be fulfilled.
May all share equally in what You and Your creation provide.
And forgive the debts we owe you and the ways we have harmed your Household, as we forgive the debts others owe us and the harms they have caused us.
Scripture: Deuteronomy 15:1-3, 12-18; Nehemiah 5:1-13