A few weeks ago I presided over a wedding ceremony out at Chateau Morissette. During the rehearsal, as I walked the bride and groom and the wedding party through the various parts of the ceremony I said, “And now this is the part where we all say the Lord’s Prayer.”
The maid of honor asked without missing a beat, “Are we debtors or trespassers?”
Now, what might be funnier than her question is the fact that most of us know exactly what she meant with no further explanation. Indeed, what we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer” are some of the most familiar words in all of scripture, second perhaps only to the 23rd Psalm. Some theologians and scholars quibble with the title we have given it, for truly Jesus is not praying this from the depths of his being, unlike the prayer he prays for his disciples in John’s account of the Last Supper or his anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. No, this prayer comes from Jesus not borne of passion but of instruction. It is a gift to his disciples at a particularly teachable moment. The disciples simply say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” At this moment, the disciples are truly that, learners. They are not yet apostles, meaning those who are sent. Here they are still learners.
The account in Luke’s gospel implies that they had been watching John the Baptist and his disciples closely, and they want what John’s disciples have – a model for prayer, something which many rabbis would teach their followers. And so this prayer does not come from Jesus the intercessor or Jesus the redeemer; this prayer comes from Jesus the teacher.
This is a model prayer. It is a way to pray. It is a structure that provides us a framework on which to build our own prayers. But like good students we recite Jesus’ words over and over, verbatim, something I’m not sure Jesus intended. Regardless these words are deeply engraved on our hearts.
In the Anglican and other liturgical traditions, we believe something about how our worship affects us, we say, “praying shapes believing.” What we pray, whether it be collects, the confession, the Prayers of the People, or the various Eucharistic Prayers we use, these prayers form us and shape us as a sculptor might shape clay, or a baker might knead bread. These prayers orient us. They provide much of the language we use to describe who God is and what our relationship to God is like. And it is the Lord’s Prayer more than any other has shaped the spirituality of Christians throughout our history.
The account of Jesus teaching his disciples to pray is found only twice in the Gospels, and these two readings occur only twice in the three year lectionary cycle – today we hear Luke’s account. On Ash Wednesday in Year A we hear Matthew’s version. They are not identical and what has come down to us liturgically is a prayer that has been crafted out of these two readings, mostly Matthew’s, with the appropriate doxology tacked on the end, “For thine is the kingdom…”
Reading through Luke’s version this morning, the words are quite familiar, “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”
Wait! What? What happened to trespasses? Suddenly I’m standing back in the wedding rehearsal with the woman’s question, “Are we debtors or trespassers?”
“Trespasses” is a term that has come down to us from the King James translation of Matthew’s version of the prayer, but it is hardly the best translation of the Greek. Trespasses make me think of a warning sign, “No trespassing.” It implies violating a boundary, going where we are not allowed or permitted. Certainly this is an aspect of what we call sin.
But sin is often trivialized in our culture. We are constantly confronted with the affairs of celebrities. People’s mug shots are mocked on websites. A friend of mine is a convenient store clerk and he told me of a time recently when an individual was caught shoplifting. This person, when confronted with their crime, simply said, “Oh, my bad!” “Oh, my bad”…? Is that a confession that will stand up in court?
The Greek word used in both Matthew and Luke is ophelemata. It does not imply merely crossing a boundary or breaking a rule, it means to be in debt. I dare say debt speaks to us much more loudly and clearly than mere trespassing or not following the rules. The essence of this word tells us that sin is as real as money. It’s not as amorphous or nebulous as we might tend to think these days. Sure, you can lie to a friend or a family member and you might get away with it.
Trespasses imply something like what I call “Leave it to Beaver” sins. Wally fibbed. But try cheating your bank or the IRS. Suddenly your crime becomes very real. The need for forgiveness comes quickly into focus. It’s as real as money. The debt can’t be canceled with a simple, “Oh, my bad.” There’s a bottom line.
Isn’t it interesting that in both versions of the prayer, the forgiveness of our debts is tied to our willingness to forgive the debts of others. The language is much stronger in Matthew’s version, “If you do not forgive others their sins, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.”
In Jesus’ model prayer, sin is less about keeping an artificial standard or list of rules. Sin is, in essence, the actions we take that affect those around us. If I do something against you, it’s as real as if I owed you money. Sin impacts our community, our relationships, and it is only in the restoration of these relationship, the canceling of our debts to each other that the effects of sin are relieved. It is in our language, when we say, “I owe you an apology.”
The theme of sin and forgiveness is shot through the other lessons we heard this morning. First there is this ominous reading from Hosea. Remember that Hosea is a prophet and is therefore filled with heavy pronouncements. Here God is fed up with the infidelity of Israel. The names of the children of Hosea spell doom, unless God relents. By the end of the passage we hear of the forgiveness that is coming to Israel, in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”
And in both the Psalm and the Epistle lesson, forgiveness is treated with the same kind of stark reality as the idea of indebtedness – the language in the Psalm of blotting out sins brings to mine a financial ledger, and in Colossians it is said that God has “erased the record that stood against us.”
Yes, our sins are as real as a financial debt, and yet God’s forgiveness is just as real and as final as a canceled debt. And yes, thanks be to God, we believe as we say in one of our confessional prayers, God forgives our sins, both known and unknown, things done and left undone. You can’t get more complete than that.
May God grant us the grace by the Holy Spirit to be that extravagant with our forgivness to each other!
Returning the Gospel lesson, here in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, after giving this model prayer to his disciples, Jesus launches into this discussion of asking and giving. I love the parable Jesus tells of the persistent friend who bothers his friend for bread at midnight because he has unexpected company. Jesus says it is not because he’s a friend that you will get up and help him, but because of his persistence. Ask and it will be given you. Knock and the door will be opened. And then come these hyperboles, “If your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Would you give a scorpion instead of an egg?” Even evil people know the difference between good gifts and bad ones. Ask God what you will, and, just as a Father treats his children with compassion and love, so God will give us what we need. Again this orients us, telling us what God is like, but also how we should treat each other.
And there is this foreshadowing of the gift of the Holy Spirit that God would give at the day of Pentecost. God continues to supply our daily bread, giving good gifts as a parent to a child. We remind you of this everytime we present the elements of the Eucharist before they are given, “The gifts of God for the people of God.”
When his disciples asked him, Jesus told them how they should pray. The teacher has given us our assignment – let us learn what it truly means to forgive, so that you in turn can receive forgiveness. And let us learn to give good gifts to one another because we truly are in the words of Hosea, children of the living God. Amen.