Debts and Trespasses
Debts and Trespasses: May 2, 2015
Forgiveness is an interesting beast. It seems so simple. But have you ever noticed how hard it is to ask for forgiveness? I readily say ‘I’m sorry’ but hardly ever follow with ‘please forgive me.’ Lately I’ve been contemplating the forgiveness phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. I keep getting stuck on those trespasses and debts.
I’ll be sitting in the sanctuary on a Monday morning, pleasantly aware of the small noises of the building settling or a distant vacuum. Sunday’s flower arrangement glows faintly in the light filtered through the stained glass. I’m winding down, finishing with the Prayers of the People and un-tucking my ankles, slowing my breath with the give and take of the Lord’s Prayer and then—wham!—forgiveness. Up snap my eyelids.
Let me pause here for an aside: I would love to meditate in my house but I just can’t.
For one thing, I’m rarely alone in my house. But on the odd occasion that I have been, even with my eyes closed I can see all the stuff I should be doing. This is stupid because, really, what is more important than meditating? I am such a better mother, wife, friend and person when I meditate regularly. It doesn’t help with housekeeping skills; but honestly, I’ve tried to hoist that banner too long to care anymore. Much.
My current practice is to deliver Emma to preschool and then pray in the sanctuary. People sometimes come and go but I don’t mind seeing other people doing what they need to do. I just don’t want to be distracted by the stuff I need to do. It’s like hearing dogs barking at night or children crying in restaurants when I can revel in the thought: not my problem. Usually it is my dog or my child. Usually it is my problem. Not in the sanctuary.
I end with the Lord’s Prayer and enjoy the thought that, in all probability, somewhere in the world someone else is praying it at the same time. I love the idea of joining in the constant prayer that circles the globe. But then I come to the forgiveness phrases.
Sometimes when I think I’ve forgiven I find I’ve only repressed or denied the offense. But there is such vulnerability in forgiveness. Paradoxically, vulnerability is a prelude to power, and power can be just as scary as vulnerability. This is what keeps stopping me.
Forgiveness is power: giving or reclaiming power so that there is equality—or equilibrium—restored to the relationship. Equilibrium is a better word because there can be equilibrium—right relationship—between two (or more) unequal substances. The balance is unique to the relationship of the entities. Here’s a great (and easy to understand) discussion of every day equilibrium.
Back to the prayer. I prefer saying trespasses as in: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” in part because the cadence is more pleasing to my ear. Also habit from years of Episcopal schooling. But also, I generally think of those things to be forgiven as trespasses. An action that has harmed someone else. An unkindness.
Presbyterians say debts, as in: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This seems more like a sin of omission. A failure to do something or to do enough. I owe you or you owe me.
So which is it? Or is it both? It depends.
The Lord’s Prayer appears in the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke. In Matthew (6:9-13) the Greek words used are opheilēmata which is translated as ‘debt’ and opheiletais, ‘debtors’. Opheilēma is debt as in “a failure to pay what is due, a failure in duty.”
But just after the Lord’s Prayer, in verses 14-15, Matthew says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” In this case, the Greek word translated as trespasses is paraptOmata. It means an individual act of “slipping across” a line or boundary.
In Luke’s version (11:2-4) the word used is hamartia, or sin. Hamartia is sin in the way of “missing the mark, rebelling.”
Turns out, the Bible has at least five different Greek words that can be translated roughly as sin. The Anchor Bible Dictionary lists seven. They mean anything from dishonesty, impiety, wickedness, disobedience, or unrighteousness to the above-mentioned debt or trespass.
That’s a lot of sin. No wonder we need to forgive and to be forgiven. Forgiveness is the tool we use to restore a relationship.
If I say I have debtors then I am the one with the power. My debtors are those who have failed to do their duty toward me. They owe me. (Money? Respect? An apology?) If I forgive your debt then I restore your humanity; I give or return power back to you. I restore our equilibrium. Think of the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35).
Who hasn’t withheld forgiveness and enjoyed the power of the unequal relationship? Basked in that feeling of one-ups-man-ship?
My current foray comes with a friend: I’ve been giving a lot of support and receiving not much of anything back. But mostly I’ve learned to lend money and give time without any expectation of return. It’s not worth a friendship; it’s certainly not worth losing any more precious sleep. I tend to err on the side of “she’s doing the best she can right now. I’ve been there, too.” Equilibrium.
If I say someone has trespassed against me I mean that someone has acted against me—has wounded me. If I forgive your trespass then I return power to myself. I restore our equilibrium by retrieving the power I gave you when I allowed the trespass to continue to wound me.
I’ll admit that I have nursed a grievance and savored the bitterness of being wronged. And who suffered? The boy who broke my heart? The mean girl who excluded me? Hardly. Probably they never even noticed. I’m the one who suffered the re-lived wound.
Worse, I’ve withheld forgiveness from Mark over stupid, petty things. You said you’d be here 30 minutes ago. Why is there always one damn bowl left in the sink? I worked on meals all day and you let them eat WHAT? Stupid. We both suffer, the marriage suffers, the family suffers.
I’m sorry. I forgive you. So simple. So hard.
According to William Barclay’s commentary (p.223), the petition in the Lord’s Prayer means: forgive me in proportion to my forgiving others. So we can’t get right with God until we show the strength, and often the humility, to get right with others first.
So simple. So hard. Paradox and equilibrium.