“The Prayer Wheel: Forgive Us our Debts”

June 3, 2018


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
June 3, 2018

The Prayer Wheel: Forgive Us our Debts
Psalm 32:1

We are all familiar with the awkward moment in the Lord’s Prayer when no one knows exactly what to say. You could call it the ‘Lord’s Prayer pause’. It’s the time right after the line about bread when people hesitate for just a moment, because they aren’t sure what the worship leader is going to say after the words ‘forgive us our …’ What? Forgive us our what? Our debts? Our trespasses? And maybe they’ll even throw in the word ‘sin’. Of course, UCC has to make it even more difficult by using the word ‘wrong”. And that prayer that started out so confidently, so boldly, melts into a moment of mass confusion: forgive us our tre-deb-sin …

So, why is that? Why do we have these conflicting versions of the Lord’s Prayer that throw a brief moment of chaos and panic into almost every English-speaking worship service around the world?

Which is it? Debts or trespasses; sins or wrongs? Is one right, and the others kind of right? Does it matter? Does it really make any difference to the prayer and its meaning if we say debts and debtors or trespasses? It’s pretty much just tradition, isn’t it?

So, which word did Jesus use? Neither – Jesus did not speak English! Likely, Jesus was speaking in Aramaic when he taught this prayer. Later, in Matthew’s gospel, the prayer was written in Greek. Then the Bible was translated into Latin and only in the Middle Ages did someone take a first stab at translating the Latin version into English.

The Lord’s Prayer is found in both Matthew and Luke. As luck would have it, they use different verbs:
• Matthew says “forgive us our debts”
• Luke says “forgive us our sins.”
So where does trespasses comes from a synonym for sins, in the very next verse after the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel, where it says, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive your trespasses.”

I actually prefer avoiding all of the confusion with a simpler phrase: “forgive us as we forgive others.”

I read about one mom who taught her young twin daughters the Lord’s Prayer at bedtime, but as she listened outside their door, she heard them say, “Give us this steak and daily bread, and forgive us our mattresses.”

And another misunderstood translation of this passage was from a middle schooler: “Forgive us our trash passes, as we forgive those who passed trash against us”.

We are continuing the series on The Prayer Wheel, an ancient prayer tool that was rediscovered in 2015. If you follow along in your bulletin, you will note the highlighted wedge for this week. It is a combination of the Lord’s Prayer, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the events in Jesus’ life, and the Beatitudes.

Forgive debts… knowledge… resurrection… mourn… be comforted. This week’s prayer wheel is a balance…
• of sorrow and joy;
• death and life;
• mourning and comfort;
• debts and forgiveness

To fully understand the phrase “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”, it is critical to understand the ancient Hebrew understanding of debt forgiveness. The law of Shmita, which literally means to let something drop – was developed in an agricultural society. Farmers frequently needed to borrow money to buy seeds for the spring planting or to buy food when there was drought. As Kansans, we know that farming is always a gamble – a gamble dependant on weather conditions and many other factors. Farmers often have to borrow money to plant and harvest another season.
In the ancient Middle East, farming debt led to inequalities in wealth, the concentration of wealth, indentured servitude and even prostitution. If a farmer accumulated too much debt, he might have to sell land to pay it off or give the land to his creditor in lieu of payment. But that led to a reduction in his ability to make money because he couldn’t plant or harvest as much. The other option was to sell himself or a member of his family to the debtor in payment.

This was the case for a large part of the world’s population for thousands of years – and in fact still exists in parts of the world today.

The law of Shmita – that Hebrew slaves had to be freed after they served for seven years – was used to prevent great inequalities of wealth, social dislocation and poverty. Shmita proclaimed that debt had to be dropped periodically to give the poor a chance. The purpose of debt cancellation was social stability. Debtors and landless farmers created social and political unrest.

According to Jewish researcher and author Amy Hannes, recent archeological evidence in Mesopotamia shows that these proclamations that canceled debts, freed debt-servants and restored land to its previous owner were not just ideas – but actually implemented.

Imagine a modern Shmita law… and what it might mean for:
• payday loan companies
• rent-to-own companies
• high interest charges on credit card debt
• the costs of medical care
• red-line loans that are meant to keep people of color at higher mortgage rates
The system of debt and interest payments is at the root of wealth inequality.

So Jesus’ prayer about forgiving debts in the Jewish context had a direct societal message: do not create or participate in systems that separate people economically. Of course, we have taken the prayer to be about sin and forgiveness. The prayer is pretty blunt however, when the word “as” is considered. We will be treated as we treat others. Whether it is economic oppression or another “sin”, our actions toward others determine how we are measured.
• Forgive me as I forgive others
• Treat me as I have treated others
• Oppress me as I have oppressed others
• Speak of me as I have spoken about others
• Let my actions or inactions determine the way others act toward me

We need to be at peace with others before we are at peace with God. As I was considering the prayer wheel this week, I realized that the connection between the words. When we truly know this, we participate in the resurrection.

Wednesday was my sister, Marlee’s birthday; she would have been 43. She has been gone from us for 26 years. My mom and my brother and I had a conversation about how our lives might be different today if she had lived. I have always thought about how her life would be if she lived – but I had not really considered how my life would be different. My brother said that he wouldn’t be so sensitized to people who have a devastating crisis in their lives if Marlee had lived. My mom said that she would have a deeper sense of completeness about her own life if Marlee had lived. And I said that in many ways our lives are richer and deeper because of her death. It stretched our souls beyond what we thought we could handle and it changed us forever.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attitude of the strong.” That brings us to this week’s prayer wheel combination: Forgive debts… knowledge… resurrection… mourn… be comforted. If you are praying and meditating with this old tool – think about the balance in your life.
• What do you need to forgive that you may be forgiven?
• Do you have a balance of mourning and being comforted in your life?
• Is there balance between what you have and what others have?
• Are you indebted – financially or spiritually – to another?
• Do you have a grasp on death while you are still living?

When we live out of balance, we are not spiritually attuned. When we hold onto forgiveness, or other’s debt to us, or our mourning, or death itself, we are living out of balance. Psalm 32:1 reminds us that we are blessed when our transgressions are forgiven. It says:
Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered. Psalm 32:1
You could substitute the words transgressions and sins for all these other words we have discussed today.

Blessed is the one who mourns, whose grief is comforted.
Blessed is the one who forgives, for their sin is covered.
Blessed is the one who has balance, whose life is covered.
Blessed is the one who in debt, whose debt is covered.
Blessed is the one who is generous…

Forgive us as we forgive.

Resources Used:

“The Prayer Wheel” by Patton Dodd, Jana Riess, and David Van Biema. Convergent Books. 2018.

“The Confusion of the Lord’s Prayer” Knox (Harrington) Presbyterian Church. Aug. 14, 2016. Pccweb.ca/knox-harrington/sermons

“Debt Forgiveness as a Foundation for Society” by Amy Hannes. June 10, 2013. Hazon.org/debt-forgiveness-as-a-foundation-for-society.