Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4a (continued)
In the previous note, we discussed the petition in the Lord’s Prayer for the forgiveness (lit. release, sending away) of debt—o)fei/lhma, something which one owes and ought to pay back (vb. o)fei/lw). The Didache (8:2) version of the Prayer uses the singular, but Matthew’s version has the plural: “may you release for us our (deb)ts (that we) owe [o)feilh/mata]”. The corresponding Hebrew and Aramaic root would presumably be bwj, the noun boj referring to an obligation or debt. When used in a religious context, relating to sin, it would mean something like “guilt”. This religious usage is largely absent from the o)feil– word group in Greek, which may explain why the Lukan version of the Prayer reads “our sins [ta\$ a(marti/a$ h(mw=n]” instead of “our debts“.
Taking the Matthean version of this petition, on its own, the person to whom the debts are owed is not immediately clear. However, based the context in the Sermon on the Mount (especially vv. 14-15 which follow) it is apparent that these are things we owe to God, a point the Lukan version makes explicit by referring to sins. But what are these “debts” precisely?
In ancient Israel, sin was closely connected with the holiness expected of the people (Lev 19:2, etc), along with the various religious obligations which that entailed. These obligations are documented and described throughout the Old Testament Torah, the chief ones being related to the ritual purity required for contact with the sanctuary and sacred precincts of the Tabernacle/Temple. There were, of course, various sins and crimes (and other failings) which might be committed at the social level, but a carefully study of the Torah shows that even these are closely tied to the ritual holiness that defined the Israelite religious identity.
Jesus, following a line of teaching begun by the Prophets, turns this around—making the social-ethical aspect of religion take priority over the ritual dimenion. This is a thematic emphasis expressed, for example, throughout the Sermon on the Mount (see esp. the instruction in Matt 5:23-24), and it is certainly present here in this petition of the Prayer. Consider that Jesus might have said “may you release for us our debts we owe, even as we released the debts owed to us”; however, instead, the second half of the petition personalizes the matter, in terms of social relationships—not the debt owed (o)fei/lhma) but the person who owes the debt (o)feile/th$). The Lukan version makes the same point with a verbal participle: “…for (the one) owing [o)fei/lonti] to us”. Indeed, in Luke this is turned into a more inclusive, universal principle: “…for every [panti] (one) owing to us”.
As discussed in the prior note, a precise interpretation of this part of the Prayer depends on how one resolves the (text-)critical question, both in terms of the differences between the Matthean and Lukan versions, and the form of the verb a)fi/hmi (“send away, release”) in the second half of the petition. If the reading a)fh/kamen (“we [have] released”) is correct, then it implies that having our debts released by God requires that we (first) be willing to forgive the things owed to us by others. This condition is expressed a bit differently in the two versions:
- Matt: “…even as [w($ kai\] we (also have) released our (deb)tors owing (to us)” — i.e., this is something we have done.
- Luke: “…for we (our)selves also release every (one) owing to us” — i.e., this is something we regularly do (and are willing to do).
Clearly there is a principal of reciprocity involved, and it is conditional—only if we are willing to release (i.e. cancel) the things owed to us can we expect God to release the things we owe. Here, again, debt is understood, not in the sense of money or ordinary social obligations (though that can be involved), but in the ethical and moral sense. The “debts” owed to us (by other people) encompass any wrong or injustice toward us which might come about during the course of our life on earth, whether intentional or unintentional, in simple matters or major violations. We must be willing to “wipe away” and cancel the obligation such persons have to correct the wrong on our behalf. This also extends to any injustice or disruption which affects the relationship between two people. Jesus’ teaching in this regard is surprisingly practical, as we see in examples in the Sermon on the Mount such as 5:23-26. At the same time, the ethic required by Jesus of his followers cuts against the grain of the natural human desire for justice and retribution, especially in the command to love and pray for one’s enemies, refusing to strike back at one who mistreats us (5:38-47). Even if a person wrongs us many times, we must be willing to forgive (cf. below).
The conditional aspect of the petition—we are in a position to ask for forgiveness from God only when we forgive others—can make some Christians uncomfortable, as it suggests a requirement (something we must do) before we are forgiven by God. Yet, this is clearly a significant part of Jesus’ teaching; the saying which follows the Prayer in Matt 6:14-15 leaves no doubt of the condition required:
“For if you would release for (other) men their (moment)s of falling alongside, (so) also will your heavenly Father release (them) for you; but if you do not release (them) for (other) men, your heavenly Father will not release your (moment)s of falling alongside (either).”
The word para/ptwma, usually translated (somewhat inaccurately) as “trespass”, is here rendered more literally “(moment) of falling alongside”; in English idiom we might say “falling over the line”, i.e. any religious or moral failing, usually (but not always) unintentional. Mark 11:25 has a simpler saying which expresses much the same idea, and in language very much reminiscent of the traditions in the Sermon on the Mount:
“when you stand speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], you must release (it) [i.e. forgive] if you hold anything against anyone, (so) that also your Father the (One) in the heavens might release for you your (own moment)s of falling alongside”
Luke 6:37 has an even simpler and more concise saying (utilizing the verb a)polu/w):
“you must loose (others) from (their bond/debt), and you will be loosed from (yours)” [cp. Matt 7:1f].
This basic instruction occurs a number of times throughout the Gospel tradition, including several parables where Jesus employs the concrete metaphor of “debt” (using the verb o)fei/lw), as he does in the Lord’s Prayer:
1. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:21-35). This parable is introduced by the saying of Jesus in v. 22 (preceded by a question by Peter, v. 21):
“Lord, how many (times) shall my brother sin unto [i.e. against] me and I (still) release [i.e. forgive] it for him? until seven (times)?”
“I do not say to you ‘until seven (times)’, but ‘until seventy (times) seven'” [compare Lk 17:3-4]
In the parable itself, the reciprocal (and conditional) principle in Matt 6:12, 14-15 is illustrated most vividly, in terms of the monetary debt owed by a person. The much larger amount owed by the unforgiving servant to his master, of course, represents the “debt” a person owes to God.
2. The Parable of the “Dishonest Manager” (Luke 16:1-9). This is another parable involving a servant who collects money that is owed—this time it is done on behalf of his master. An interpretation of this parable has proven difficult for commentators, but the thrust of the illustration appears to be that the manager of an estate, who is being relieved of his position, decides, in the course of his final duties, to help his own future interests by deducting a certain amount from the bill owed by the servants (tenant farmers) on the estate. Most likely, the amount he deducts represents his own commission (he is presumably not stealing from what is owed to his master), and, as a result, lessens the burden for the other servants. This is practical advice, similar to the example given in Matt 5:25-26, but it underlies a spiritual principle: one’s relationship with God is based on, and should be reflected by, our wise efforts to make things right with our fellow human beings, acting fairly and mercifully, etc. The reciprocity of Matt 6:12, 14-15 is expressed again in the sayings which follow the parable (vv. 10-12).
3. The Parable on Forgiveness, part of the anointing scene in Luke 7:36-50 (vv. 41-47). Here a different sort of reciprocal principle is expressed, one which is doubtless more familiar (and appealing) to Christians today: our religious (and ethical) behavior should reflect our gratitude to God for his forgiving us our debt (i.e. sins).
All three of these parables use the verb o)fei/lw to illustrate the idea of sin and injustice, etc, as “debt”, something we owe both to God and to others, and the requirement that we “send it way”, by forgiving it (for others) and making things right again. It is important to keep this concept in mind as we consider the Prayer within the context of Jesus’ wider teaching. In the next note, we will turn to the subsequent petition(s) to see how Jesus further instructs his followers to respond to sin and evil in the world.
These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.