Debts or Trespasses? And Other Riffs on the Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil. Amen.

Those are the words I learned as a child, and still most frequently use when I pray. But sometimes I riff on it.

At some point in young adulthood, I encountered a translation that used “debts” and “debtors” instead of “trespasses”, and a commentary asserting that when Jesus talked about forgiveness, he was typically preaching to the people at the top of the wealth/power hierarchy. It was the people in positions of wealth and privilege who were called to forgive the debts of those who owed them money: not the other way around. This made sense to me in a “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable” kind of way.

The economic metaphor also helped me understand more concretely what forgiveness meant. I knew what it meant to forgive a monetary debt: it meant tearing up the IOU, wiping out the debt entirely, declaring “you don’t owe me that money anymore.” And, at least if you’re not an asshole,

you also don’t bring up how generous you were in writing off that debt whenever there’s a conflict or negotiation between you and the person whose debt you forgave. A debt that’s forgiven is done, it’s over, it’s off the books.

In my first scripture course in grad school, I learned about the parallelism that permeates much Hebrew poetry, and I began to look for it everywhere.

Our Father in Heaven, / may your name be holy.
May your reign come / and your will be done
on earth / as in heaven.
Give us today / our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts / As we forgive our debtors.
Don’t lead us into temptation / But lead us out of evil.

I could even see some nested structure: “Our Father in heaven, holy is your name” has an ABBA structure (name/holy/holy/name).

Parallelism isn’t just aesthetic word games, though; like any other literary device, it accents the important concepts and brings out relationships between ideas. So I found this a fruitful reflection.

This form makes clear that “debts” beats “trespasses,” at least in English, by having a properly directional noun for the acting subject that makes sense with a possessive. “As we forgive our debtors” is perfectly clear. “As we forgive our trespassers”… not so much. Those might be our trespassers, that we sent out to trespass on other people’s lawns to go stir up trouble or hand out leaflets or sell Girl Scout cookies. And the connection with lawns (which is where I mostly saw “No Trespassing” signs as a kid) and the associated trivial level of infraction was also unhelpful.

Lately, though, I’ve been riffing on the Lord’s Prayer with a brain well soaked in mimetic theology.

Our Father in heaven / holy is your name.
May your reign emerge / and your will be enacted
On earth / as in heaven.
Give us today / what we need for today
And forgive us our trespasses / so we learn to forgive those who trespass against us
Do not put us to the test / but free us from evil

“Trespasses” is making sense again, in this theological framework in which defining my identity over against somebody else is sinful, and pacifically receiving my identity from God is holy; in which my righteous indignation is a surefire giveaway that I’ve been scandalized and hooked into mimetic rivalry with somebody who has done whatever it is they did to make me say “how dare they”: how dare they trespass against me or mine like that.

Forgive us our trespasses
So we can let go of that bristling defensive posture,
that tendency towards escalation, that mirror-imaging of sin.
Forgive us our trespasses
To remind us how it feels to be welcomed,
To remind us that we are no better no purer no holier
Than those who trespass against us.

Keep us out of that temptation
And free us from that evil

For yours, not ours, is the reign, and the power, and the glory:

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9 Responses to Debts or Trespasses? And Other Riffs on the Lord’s Prayer

  1. Steven says:

    Is trespass mimesis? Is mimesis trespass?

    • Mimesis is a fundamental human mode of relationship. Trespass is a particular category of human action. Mimesis is prior.

      Mimesis and trespass intersect when the mimetic impulse to “do as we have been done by” responds to having been trespassed against by trespassing right back, probably with heavier boots or across a fancier patch of lawn.

      Forgiveness breaks the cycle of mimetic escalation by breaking the mirroring, offering instead the blessing of welcome.

      • Steven says:

        To “do as we have been done by” is a mimetic impulse. But aside from the impulse to reciprocate, mimesis is an impulse to imitate. Does it become trespass when, by imitating the other, we impose, we invade her space, we appropriate some aspect of her person at her expense?

        • Ah, I see what you’re getting at now.

          I think this touches on the mimetic double bind, “be like me – but not too much like me.” I usually see this exemplified in terms of authority or status, but you’re right: it applies equally well to a situation of imitating so closely that one begins to occupy the other’s identity.

          Empathy, as explicated in mimetic terms by Ann Astell, would seem to be resistant to that dynamic. Mimesis guided by mature empathy comprehends and respects the distinction between self and other, and provides insight in how to imitate without trespass or appropriation.

          Thanks for the comment!

  2. Pingback: Debts or Trespasses? And Other Riffs on the Lord’s Prayer | BLT

  3. Andrew says:

    It might make sense to alternate between “debts” and “trespasses” just to keep both meanings in mind (and to avoid saying the words without thinking about them); but on the other hand, there’s a value in use of the same words every time, too.

    At my wedding, we had Methodists (who trespass) and Presbyterians (who debt), so when the Lord’s Prayer was recited, there was one moment when the difference in denomination became obvious.

    • Now that you mention it, I think one reason I’m so fluid with the text of this prayer is that I learned a variety of musical settings that varied debts/trespasses, your/thine, & so forth.

      Thanks for sharing the story from your wedding! Sounds like an awkwardly funny moment.

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