Sins or Debts?

Rev. Seth Patterson
October 17, 2021

Scripture: Matthew 6:9-14; Luke 11:2–4

As someone who believes in the necessity and power of storytelling, I get excited about things like subtle foreshadowing, sneaky clues, and clever callbacks. Those writers who can effectively do that bring us listeners something so compelling and rich. I confess, I am not one of those writers.

Still, I am going to give you some foreshadowing and I am not going to be subtle. By the end of our time together today I am going to tell you three things:

  1. I will do the hard work of loving you even if I disagree with you.
  2. I will do the hard work of loving you even if I don’t like your actions, words, or decisions.
  3. I will do the hard work of loving you even if you disagree with me or don’t like my words, actions, or decisions.

Now that we all know where we’re going to end, how do we begin? We begin with our friend Parker Trostel, who suggested these two short passages in Matthew and Luke for our “Command to Preach” series. In her submission she wrote: “I pray my version every night. I linger over the forgiveness piece, which I find the most important and helpful.” I am grateful for you, Parker, for suggesting this. While I am curious if there is anything novel or new to say on this topic, it can still be a good idea to reacquaint ourselves with something this foundational. We recite almost weekly these words that we now call “The Lord’s Prayer”—but like so many regularly done things, I would imagine that we don’t always give it our full attention. (I certainly don’t!)

The prayer that we recite today is not completely found in the Bible. Rather, it is a creation that is rooted in both the biblical versions of Matthew and Luke. The version in Matthew is closer to what we find ourselves saying today. So while we often invite us into this prayer by saying that this is the prayer that Jesus taught, it is simultaneously true and not fact. What we say today has roots, connections, and similarities to what Jesus likely taught his disciples, but it is not a direct English translation of the ancient Aramaic words that Jesus may have said. Nor is it even a direct translation of the Greek texts that were eventually written down. This of course doesn’t invalidate the words that we say together nor their intention, but it does help us know what we are dealing with. So, we are going to go through this step by step as quickly as possible to set the conversation. Okay, here we go!

Tender, Loving God: The beginning is also commonly started with “Our Father.” The word pater in Greek translates directly to our word “father,” but to use just “father” also loses some of its original depth. The word pater is often used to describe God, but it is also used to describe humans like Abraham. It is also a Greek word that is standing in for a Hebrew word that means begetter, originator, or parent. Because of this root and because God is neither masculine nor feminine, we at Plymouth changed it to Tender, loving God in an attempt to honor the original intent and to de-gender the divine.

Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name: Here we still hear the roots of the old King James translations into English, with words we no longer or rarely use like “art” and “hallowed.” Additionally, we often now think of heaven as being a separate, distant place from us, but that may not have been the original intention. The Greek word that we translate as heaven can mean the atmosphere or the air around us. So this could read like, “who is the very air around us, pure and holy is your name.”

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven: Here again is more of that King James Bible language. Also, the word “kingdom” means a lot less to us now than it did when the known world of the Bible writers was organized exclusively by kingdoms. The Greek word here can also mean authority, so this sentence can also sound something like, “(let) your authority arrive, your desire be made true, here with us as it is also in the atmosphere of God around us.”

Give us this day our daily bread: The word we say as “bread” means more broadly any food or any type of sustenance or nourishment. We are praying that God feeds us and keeps us well. Remember, this is from a time in which the belief was that the success or failure of crops was due to the pleasure or displeasure of God. If we were being nourished, if we were able to have bread, it was because God was blessing us.

And forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors: This is the place in which different interpretations of this prayer are most starkly seen. Our Catholic siblings traditionally use the word “trespasses.” We here tend to say “debts” and “debtors,” and that is a pretty direct translation from the Greek. Others will say “sin” and “sin against us,” which is not a literal translation but maybe gets closer to the intent. In fact, the passage from Luke combines these two and says “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” No matter whether the words used are sins, debts, or trespasses, the intention is the same: We must admit our mistakes and ask for forgiveness while also doing the hard work of forgiving those who have hurt us. Parker lifted this up in her submission. We are directly challenged to admit the ways that we may have hurt others and turned our backs on God while also—and importantly!—directing us to forgive others. To seek restoration with others and God, we must both ask for forgiveness while also forgiving others. This is an important place for our hearts to linger.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil: We are praying to not be led into temptation, but it doesn’t define what temptation we are trying to avoid. The Greek word for temptation is the same word for trial. So a possible interpretation of this is that we are asking to not be led into a moment in which we are asked to decide whether to follow the desire of God or not. Or put more starkly, we are asking to stay connected and not rebel against God by instead following that which is called evil (also not defined).

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever: You may have noticed that this last part of the prayer we commonly recite was not in either the versions from Matthew or Luke. This is because it is not actually found in the oldest Greek versions of either Gospel. This seems to be a later addition that found its way into the prayer spoken aloud but not kept in the translations of the scriptures as we now receive them.

Amen: We conclude this prayer, much like most of our prayers, with the word “amen.” This is an ancient Hebrew word that would most closely translate to “truth” or “certainty.” This word is used across all the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Whew. We made it! The quiz will be posted online and we’ll grade on a curve.

Now what do we do with all of this? Because it is so complicated and can be said in so many ways, do we just throw it out? Do we double our efforts and try to rewrite a more perfect version and we all recite this in confident unison? How do we make meaning out of this?

If you ever watch my mouth when we recite this prayer together, and I’m not the one leading it, you will notice that I don’t typically say “debts” and “debtors.” Instead, I say “sins” and “those who sin against us.” I make this choice because I personally don’t make much meaning out of debts/debtors. To me it feels too transactional somehow in our capitalistic society, whereas sins and sinners implies mistakes made and mistakes forgiven. I can find restoration in this wording. So is our collective prayer any less valid because I do this?

I know of people who skip or alter certain parts of the prayer. My godmother would always say “Our Mother” at the beginning and “A-women” at the end. I know someone else who refuses to say “heaven” because it doesn’t match their beliefs. Same thing for “kingdom.” And “power” and “glory.” Certain words in this prayer may be difficult to speak aloud and we may choose to skip them. Does this make the prayer any less worthwhile?

Some years ago I read something that stuck with me . . . well, the concept stuck with me, but not the source! I think it was the Lutheran public theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber, but I haven’t been able to substantiate it. What I remember is that this person explained that with communal prayers like this, we don’t all have to say every word of it the same way at the same time for it to be our prayer. I can say “sins” and you can say “debts” and another can say “trespasses”; I can say “loving God” while she says “Father” and he says “Mother”; I can say “kingdom” and “power” while you skip them. In the end the entire prayer has been said by us all, even if we each have only spoken the parts that we find meaningful. The prayer is not less valid if we do this. We don’t need to agree on every word for the prayer to be powerful. In fact, doing this gives the prayer more depth and breadth and sincerity. We are not just blindly reciting. The prayer has been said in its wholeness even if we haven’t each said the exact same words.

We do not need to agree with each other to stand in prayer together. We do not need to say the same thing to stand in community together. We do not need to like each other’s choices of what to say (or not say) to stand together in love and prayer. We can disagree with one another and even dislike one another and still work to love each other. We can pray together in unison even when it is done in many ways and by many voices.

This is called covenant. And, friends, we are a covenanted community. And when we are in covenant with one another, we do not need to agree on everything. We don’t need to like every decision. And we still do the work of loving each other. And we still do the work of seeking and giving forgiveness.

So, my covenant to you is this:

  1. I will do the hard work of loving you even if I disagree with you.
  2. I will do the hard work of loving you even if I don’t like your actions, words, or decisions.
  3. I will do the hard work of loving you even if you disagree with me or don’t like my words, actions, or decisions.

What is your covenant in this community? When we speak the Lord’s Prayer together, over what parts do you linger? How do you seek forgiveness? How do you forgive? How do you do the work of love?

May we stand together in covenant with one another, praying our single prayer to the source of love each in our own voice and in our own way. May we be in covenant together even when we disagree, even when things may not make sense, even when we dislike something. Amen. Certainty. Truth.

Beth Hoffman Faeth and Seth Patterson discuss the sermon: