I had to smile when I read Lori’s post, “No Trespassing . . . Violators Will be Forgiven.” The community where I live is very Catholic. Whenever a group says the Lords Prayer, you sense some hesitation. “Forgive us. . .” and then the pause. Which will it be, debtors or trespasses? We Presbyterians say “debtors” while our Catholic neighbors go the trespasses route.

I’ve always wondered why my Catholic neighbors use one word and we Presbyterians use the other. I know it isn’t a Protestant Reformation issue because my Lutheran friends also say “trespasses.” So what’s the deal?

The Lord’s Prayer or, as Lori calls it, the Our Father is found in Matthew (6:9-13). Apparently in the original, and I say apparently because I have never read the original Greek, the word is opheiletes which is translated as debts. This doesn’t necessarily mean money but can also mean anyone who owes you because they have wronged you.

The word trespasses comes into play in verse 14 which includes the Greek paraptoma, which translates as trespasses. Those of us who read scripture and other early religious texts in English are always working from translations and that is something we cannot forget. As soon as we start to look at who translated what when, we see a volley back and forth between debtors and trespasses.

1395 Wycliff made the first English translation of the Bible. He used debtors.
1526 The Tyndale translation followed and he used trespasses.
1549 Book of Common Prayer still used trespasses.
1611 And with the King James Bible we are back to debtors.

Which word is better? On the surface, they mean slightly different things. Trespasses means, as Lori discussed, having crossed a line that may or not be clearly marked. Debtors implies that someone owes you and hasn’t settled the debt.

Initially, I would have said that last part of debtor’s meaning is vital. They haven’t settled the debt. Perhaps they haven’t acknowledged it. Perhaps they deny it. No matter. Christ himself told us to forgive them. Yes, we want them to come clean but there’s no point in waiting. We’ve got our marching orders.

But then I reread Lori’s post:

That’s what makes the surrounding part of the prayer so sweet: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Yes. It means that we are forgiven our trespasses, intentional and accidental. It also means that we forgive our trespassers — even those who don’t know they’ve trespassed, who didn’t see the line, who don’t realize they’ve stepped on metaphorical private land. You know, the ones who step on our hearts.

Not that different after all. And yet these word games can become all important in separating one set of believers from another. Why do we let that happen? Fortunately, God has already promised to forgive us our trespasses even as he commanded us to forgive our debtors.