When I was in Seminary, I would preach at any church that needed a guest preacher. Sometimes we would go to churches that had over 1,000 in attendance, and the Senior Pastor would graciously allow a seminary student to come and preach. Sometimes we would go to these tiny little churches that had no pastor, and they were so desperate that anyone would do – even a seminary student.
Without a doubt the most memorable one for my wife and me was the Bethia Presbyterian Church! It was somewhere in the countryside of Upper South Carolina, stuck way off the beaten path. It only met for worship once each month. Presbytery had been trying to close it for years, but the members held on. I think their reason for being was the fact that grandma, Uncle Joe and Aunt Edna and a lot of other kinfolk were all buried in the cemetery. The members were afraid if they closed the church, no one would take care of the cemetery.
So they held on, having worship every month and using inexperienced seminary students to preach and lead worship. I remember the first time I preached there.
My wife and I drove up to the church and there was no one there.
Ten minutes before the service, there was still no one there.
At 11:00, no one was there! I was beginning to panic because by now I was beginning to realize I was at the wrong church.
At about five minutes after the service was to begin, the entire congregation drove up the dirt road – all seven of them huddled together in the confines of a single station wagon. Someone got out of the car and went to a rock on the ground, picked it up and found the key to the door and we all went inside.
I introduced myself as the preacher for the day, but they were more interested in my wife. Looking at Ginny someone asked, “Do you play the piano?”
My wife said she did.
The elder said, “Good – we’ll have music this week.”
My wife and I never knew what we were getting into as we went from church to church, and fortunately by this time she knew to pack some emergency music to play.
While Ginny went to the piano and began to play a prelude on an ancient piano that hadn’t been tuned in years, I stepped up to the pulpit. Everyone else was gathered around a pot-bellied stove trying to get a fire started – this was, by the way, the middle of December and it was pretty cold. While no one was looking, I looked at the giant pulpit Bible and took a deep breath and blew – and a great cloud of dust billowed forth from that rarely used Bible.
At the end of the day, one of the elders came up to me and shook my hand and gave me a folded check. I thanked him and put the check in my pocket, but my wife and I couldn’t wait to see how much this seven-member church had paid us. We were struggling during those seminary years and every dime counted. Once in the car, I took the check out of my pocket and unfolded it.
Much to my surprise, it was my own check! They gave me back my offering! I later found out that they always gave the visiting student preacher the ENTIRE offering – apparently I was the only one who gave anything that week.
The most interesting thing that happened to me that Sunday happened during the Lord’s Prayer. I introduced the prayer as I do today, “and now, as our Lord Jesus Christ taught us to pray, Our Father, which art in heaven…”
In that vast crowd of seven people, only two others were joining with me in that prayer. One was my wife, and she had no choice. She was the preacher’s wife and there are certain expectations.
The other was a little girl – the only child in the congregation.
Now that normally would not have been a problem, but she was saying the prayer louder and faster than I was able to say it.
I did fairly well with the prayer and stayed focused on what I was supposed to be saying until I was halfway through the prayer. I noticed that as I reached the halfway point, the little girl finished the Lord’s Prayer.
Since I was still praying, she must have felt obligated to continue to pray. Using the words of what was probably the only other prayer she knew, she began with, “Now I lay me down to sleep.”
At that point, I had no idea where I was in the Lord’s Prayer. Which is, by the way, the reason I always have a laminated, large print version of the Lord’s Prayer with me in the pulpit.
Unfortunately, that was not the only time I have seen the Lord’s Prayer confuse people. The Lord’s Prayer ought to be the one prayer that all people memorize and that we can all say together. But gather any group of English speaking Christians together and what will happen? They will do just fine until they come to the phrase, “Forgive us our…” and then let the chaos begins. Part of the group will say “debts,” part will say “trespasses” and part will say “sins.”
I am occasionally tempted to change the wording of the Lord’s Prayer in our worship services. I’ve thought of trying to please everyone by making the congregation say, “Forgive us our DEBTS, as we forgive those who TRESPASS against us.”
So, what is it that Jesus wanted us to say here?
This is an interesting phrase in that the word Jesus used here is an uncommon word. The word for “sin” or “debts” or “trespasses” is a word that is used only one other time in the New Testament, and only once in all of the Old Testament.
There are actually five different Greek words that are used in our New Testament for the concept of “sin.” The most common is a hunting phrase – it means “missing the target.”
I had a professor in Seminary who went hunting for rabbits one day. He talked about seeing a rabbit, taking aim with his rifle, and pulling the trigger. He missed, but the rabbit was frightened and began to run.
Being a bit of a dumb bunny, the rabbit was disoriented and began running toward the hunter.
My professor took aim again and pulled the trigger.
He missed again, and the rabbit kept running. It ran right between my professor’s legs. My professor turned took aim, pulled the trigger.
If that had happened to me, I would never have admitted it. I would have claimed that it happened to someone else – like maybe a seminary professor.
Missing the target – the failure to be what God wants us to be. The failure to meet His divine expectations. That is sin.
When Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s Gospel, the word that is used is this very common word for sin – “missing the mark.” But in Matthew’s Gospel, the word Jesus used is a different, far less common word.
It has been suggested that the fact that Matthew and Luke differ on the wording of the Lord’s Prayer is an indication that Jesus taught his disciples about prayer many times, and that he used slightly different versions of this prayer because for him the Lord’s Prayer was an example for prayer. It was not meant to be a static document like a poem or a song. Jesus meant for the prayer to be somewhat fluid and to have some flexibility.
It is not only in the English language that there are some variations of words – debts, trespasses, sins. It was also in the Greek language, the language of the New Testament, that we see a variety of words. Luke uses a common word for sin, and Matthew selects an uncommon word.
The word that Matthew uses is a financial word that means debt, or a failure to pay that which is due. It is used in only two other places in the Bible, and in both instances, it is a financial term. However, it was used in some of the non-religious literature as a word referring to sin.
The philosopher Plato used this word as a child’s obligation to pay the debt he or she owed to the parents. God is described in the Lord’s Prayer as our Heavenly Father, and we owe him a debt. He has done much for him, we therefore ought to give Him honor, praise, obedience, and yet we fall short of paying that debt. We always will.
That explains two versions of the Lord’s Prayer – “forgive us our sins/forgive us our debts” -- but where does the word “trespasses” come from? It comes from the words Jesus says after the prayer. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
The word that is used there for sin is neither one of the other two words we have discussed – missing the mark or owing a debt of obedience. The word here refers to stepping into some place you have no business being – and the English word for that is “trespassing.”
You’ve seen those signs in the woods and in the countryside.
“Violators will be shot.”
“Survivors will be shot again!”
But it is more than simply walking willingly into a place where you don’t belong. The word conveys the idea of slipping into a place.
I remember when I was a teenager and I was driving my car down a country road. It had been raining and it was a bit slippery, but I knew I had control of the car. And I did have control -- until the pavement vanished and I found myself on a dirt road. Perhaps I should say, “Mud road.”
I suddenly went into a skid.
Fortunately, I had take Driver’s Education in high school a year before this happened. Driver’s Ed had taught me to turn in the direction of the skid, which seemed reasonable when I was in a classroom taking Driver’s Ed. But now I was on the road and this was real life. Turning in the direction of the skid seemed dumb. I realized I probably had not been paying attention in class and I must have misunderstood. So I did the reasonable thing. I turned in the direction in which I wanted to car to turn.
So there I was, driving 60 miles per hour down a mud road – sideways.
Eventually I came to rest in ditch.
“Forgive us when we slip off the path!”
“Sin/debts/trespasses and slipping off the path” are words that imply the destructiveness that sin can have on our lives.
· Missing the mark – we aim for the target of living a godly life, and we miss.
· Debts – we owe an obedience to God, and we don’t even try to pay it.
· Trespasses – our lives skid out of control and we end up in a place we don’t want to be in life.
Life is complicated, and so is sin. No one simple concept captures it all. We need healing that is complete in all of the facets of sinfulness. That is why this phrase is in the Lord’s Prayer. It is helpful for there to be such variety in the wording.
But this petition is not that simple. It does not just address our sins. It says, “Forgive us – as we forgive others.”
The theologically shortsighted person would say, “If we expect to be forgiven, we have to also forgive others.” Now that is a horrible thought – that God would wait to see how forgiving we are, and then match us. Is God’s mercy like some sort of dollar for dollar matching in one’s retirement program? You put a dollar in the fund and the company puts in a dollar. You forgive someone’s sin, and God forgives one of yours?
No – that is not how the mercy of God works.
Remember the context of this prayer. The people praying this prayer are Christians. They are citizens of heaven. And much of the prayer concerns the Kingdom of God. In other words, these people have already been forgiven. They have received God’s free grace. And now they are being expected to live in that forgiveness.
Tom Long in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel says, “Being a citizen of God’s kingdom, like being a citizen of a nation, is not just an idea; it is an identity, a way of life. To be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven is to see the world in kingdom ways and to practice the customs of that kingdom, such as forgiveness.”
Placed in the context of his larger message, Dr. Long says that the word Jesus is giving on forgiveness is this: “You who follow me are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. In the kingdom all that is harmful is absent, all that is evil is destroyed, all that is sick is healed, and all that is sinful is forgiven. You are called to be faithful citizens of that kingdom, serving others and forgiving them over and over again, so that the whole world will know that God is a forgiving God. If you do not practice forgiveness, you are rejecting your own identity and saying, ‘I no longer want to be a citizen of the kingdom.’”
Long concludes that forgiveness is not a matter of bookkeeping. You forgive X number of sins, God forgives you X number of sins. No – it is more like breathing. Breath in. Breath out. Be forgiven. Be forgiving. In and out. Breath in. Breath out. Be forgiven. Be forgiving.
Forgive us, dear Lord… as we forgive others.
Copyright 2005, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
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