One peril of visiting a new church comes when it is time to pray. At least if the congregation of a traditional flavor they will wrap up with something like “Now let join our voices in the prayer Christ himself has taught us, saying…”
It all goes fine for a while:
But then that awkward moment: what will we ask God to forgive?
If you are visiting your own brand you probably know what to expect:
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists?
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
If the church is trying to be up to date, they may have taken hold of the recent translation by the English Language Liturgical Consultation:
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
I teach at a Presbyterian seminary with a lot of Methodist students. That ecumenical version brings unity — everybody is equally uncomfortable.
The new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism of the RCA, the CRCNA, and the PC(USA) has “debts” and “debtors.” Were they just toeing the party line?
Actually they were sticking with the task of translation — though when the Catechism quotes Scripture they tended to use the NRSV. That is, they gave a scholarly English translation of the Greek, rather than giving an English translation of the German translation of the Greek.
After saying that we should pray for everything we need just as Christ taught us in the Lord’s prayer, the Catechism continues
119Q. What is this prayer?
A. Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For the kingdom
and the power
and the glory are yours forever.
Even if the English translators had tried to render the German’s meaning instead of the NRSV, they would have come up with “debts” and “debtors.” The original 1563 German had “Schuld”/“Schuldigern” which comes out nicely to “debts”/“debtors,” and the Latin translation of the same year went with “debita”/“debitoribus.”
So why the three versions of the prayer?
Though I’ve never looked too closely into the history of the versions of the Lord’s Prayer used in worship, here’s how I suspect we ended up with “debts,” “trespasses,” and “sins.”
There are two version of the Lord’s Prayer: Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. They differ on many points including this.
- In Matthew, Jesus asks God to forgive us our “ὀφειλήματα” as we forgive our “ὀφειλέταις”. That is most straightforwardly “debts” and “debtors” though I’ve seen it said that it can be taken as a reference to “sins”.
- In Luke, Jesus asks God to forgive our “ἁμαρτίας” as we forgive those “”ὀφείλοντι” to us. That is God forgives “sins” and we forgive those “indebted” to us. But this word, commonly translated “sin,” has a root meaning of “missing the mark.” Think “wandering from our target.” Think “trespassing.”
(It seems a little surprising that Catholic practice uses “trespasses” since the Vulgate of Matthew has “debita”/“debitoribus” and the Vulgate of Luke has “peccata”/“debenti”. I’d love it if a learned reader would enlighten me on this.)
So, correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears English liturgical use of the Lord’s Prayer works out like this:
- If your church prays about “debts” and “debtors” they simply follow Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.
- If your church prays about “trespasses” they follow Matthew’s framework for the prayer, with a term based on that used by Luke for our transgressions against God, apparently using the same term for symmetry regarding our transgressions against each other.
- If your church prays about “sins” they follow Matthew’s framework for the prayer, with Luke’s explicit term for our transgressions against God, apparently using the same term for symmetry regarding our transgressions against each other.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: Do you favor “debts” “trespasses” or “sins” — and why?