The Lord's Prayer
I was recently asked at our VBS program a question about the Lord's Prayer that I was unsure how to answer. We were using a curriculum that taught the Lord's Prayer as it is in the King James Version of the Bible. One of the parents, however, said that the verse found in Matthew 6:12 should read trespasses and trespassers instead of debts and debtors. I have a King James Bible also that says debts and debtors but I can also recall hearing the Lord's Prayer with the trespasses and trespassers. I know that it boils down to forgiveness; however, what would explain the difference of terms used?
The historical answer seems to be derived from translations preferred by the Scots or the English. Apparently, John Wycliffe, in 1395, translated the Greek word dettis, or debts. In 1526, William Tyndale translated the same Greek word treaspases, or trespasses. The first Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549, had the word "trespasses." That became the official Anglican version. [Several scholars attributed the difference back to the rivalry between the Scots and the English. Being that the Scots were more concerned about debts, they preferred to be forgiven a "debt." On the other hand the English were more concerned about property and used the word "trespass" in the sense of not breaking the law. Put another way, the Scots would rather have been forgiven a debt than a trespass! But these tales are legendary and perhaps only of anecdotal value.] The Presbyterian and other reformed churches tend to use "debts." The Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists are more likely to say "trespasses."
The Greek word in question is opheilema. It means a literal "debt" in the LXX and the New Testament in every instance except here in Matthew (6:12). Scholars, therefore, have concluded that all sin is a "debt" owed to God. This is given added weight in knowing that in rabbinical writings the Aramaic word hobo was used in the sense of sin as a moral debt. (Jesus spoke Aramaic.) It should also be pointed out that Luke, in his version of the Lord's Prayer, used the word hamartia, meaning sins. "Sin" is "missing the mark" so "going astray" or "trespassing" captures the meaning quite well.
But even though the ancient words are virtually interchangeable, there might be a shade of difference in the English meaning of them. These words are spoken in the context of the phrase, "Forgive us our debts/trespasses, as we forgive…" Or "Forgive us our debts/trespasses as we have forgiven…" If we are asking to be forgiven for our trespasses, we are asking for forgiveness for something we have already done. Scholars refer to these as "faults of commission." We are correct in asking to be pardoned for these. But, if we are asking for forgiveness for our debts, we are asking for forgiveness for something we have yet to do. These would be "faults of omission." Imagine standing before a creditor and asking for forgiveness of all our debt. Yet, that is exactly what Jesus is saying here. We are asking God to forgive us for what we have failed to do; we have not paid him and we are asking the slate to be wiped clean. But these omissions do not have to be limited to the wrongs we have already done; they could also include all the good that we have failed to do. These would be all the missed opportunities, the moments we failed to be kind in word or deed – the myriad of times we could have made a difference, but didn't. We are asking forgiveness for these too. It puts a whole new light on the second half of the petition, "…as we forgive our debtors/trespassers" or "…as we have forgiven our debtors/trespassers."
In the long run, people will probably prefer to use whichever word they've been accustomed to using. Both words highlight just how unfathomable God's mercy really is.