uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Political Punch Behind Christianity’s Favorite Prayer

I love the Lord’s Prayer.

The translation of it now universally recited in the English-speaking world holds a poetic, lilting quality that makes its recitation a cathartic ritual even if one holds sincere doubts about its specific words.

But what exactly are those words?

Many Christians, if not most, have experienced the embarrassment of rehearsing aloud – and it always feels super loud, right? – the wrong choice of “debts” or “trespasses” when the service at a new church turns to the Lord’s Prayer, as it so often does. It always feels as though – even if you managed to discreetly escape the Visitor’s Sticker they wanted to put on your lapel – you have just declared in no uncertain terms that you are an outsider.

Yet despite this common experience, few perhaps realize that this confusion between debts and trespasses reflects an inconsistency in the New Testament itself. It’s Luke – and Luke alone – who records that Jesus instructed us to pray to God to “forgive us our sins,” or ἁμαρτίαι (hamartiai), the word we translate as “trespasses.” Yet he does not use the same word for what we are to do for others. That word remains “debtors” (ὀφείλοντι, opheilonti) in much the same way Matthew records that we are to forgive the “debts” (ὀφειλέταις, opheiletais) owed to us.

So why do so many churches use “trespasses” in both cases? Clearly it’s more poetic for them to be in parallel, even if they never appear that way in the New Testament, and many have argued that the notion of “debt” among Jews at the time would have had a clear allusion to “sin.” Yet debt itself was a big issue among the ancients, and a highly political one at that.
Indeed, if one reads the Lord’s Prayer in the original Greek, and keeps in mind the reception it would have received among the Romans running things at the time, it becomes apparent just how politically charged the whole entreaty really is.

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