Sunday, March 27, 2011

Debts versus Trespasses

Each morning in public school, from primary through junior high, we began the day with the Lord’s Prayer.   Jew and Gentile, churched and unchurched, we all -- we each -- recited it with folded hands.

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 trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

(It went on for a couple of lines more, which add nothing and are out of keeping with the terse efficiency of the rest of the prayer.   I regularly omit them when praying alone;  and was delighted to learn subsequently  that they are apparently not original, but a later addition.)

This healthy exercise was later abolished by the PC Police, as being damaging to non-Christians (though the content of the prayer, as distinguished from its provenience, is not specifically Christian).  
Well, was it?  I am in a position to testify to one case at any rate, since I came from a family of lapsed Unitarians and did not attend church.
It was not damaging in the least.  The recitation was a quiet, thoughtful time;  it was an experience in community with one’s classmates,  like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (has that been abolished too, as discriminating against illegal immigrants and  people clinging to dual citizenship?)  On most days, in those safe and pleasant but intellectually mediocre pre-Sputnik public schoolrooms, it was our sole contact with anything loftier than the ABC’s, or with any style of language antedating “Hound Dog” (1956).

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The first hint that there might be any rift within the lute, came at a family summer camp when I was around nine.   We all stood outdoors in a large circle, and the head of the camp, a proper white-haired woman, lead us in the prayer.  Before we began, she stipulated:  “Let’s say it with tresspasses, and not …. the other.”   I had no idea what she meant by this mysterious unspoken “other”, and would not for some years more, but her faint frown and pursed lips are with me yet.

Eventually I heard the version “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”.  It sounded strange (and now has an unwelcome resonance, in this subprime age of mass welshing, both at the individual and the national level).   I looked at the Latin, and sure enough:  debita nostra.   But then the Latin is simply one translation of the Gospel Greek.  And that in turn is a translation of whatever it was that Jesus said:  and Jesus spoke Aramaic.


For illumination, I turned to my learnèd friend and spiritual advisor, Dr. Massey.

The Greek opheilemata (and verb) means more literally "debts." But it can also mean "trespasses." There is a perfectly good word for sin -- hamartia -- which, along with the Hebew root OUA, etymologically meant "to miss the mark with an arrow".

Matthew has forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. But Luke has forgive us our sins as we forgive our debtors.

This shows us that Matthew is the original text and even Luke didn't understand it.

Jesus uses the example of forgiving debts as an example of how we should forgive one another (Matt 18).

But why does the prayer use debt instead of sin?

I'm not sure that any authoritative answer exists.

I'm tempted to say that this may all go back to an infelicitous translation into Greek from an original Aramaic statement. Perhaps the same is true of the equally puzzling "Lead us not into Temptation."

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