Debts in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6.12)

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May 23, 2013 by jmar198013

Matt 6.11-12

give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us (Knox)Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (NIV)I have written previously that we should not separate the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors in our reading and interpretation. The former depends on the latter. It is because we are people who pray daily for God to meet our needs that we are also people who forgive others their debts to us. Stanley Hauerwas observes:A community of people capable of living daily is also a community that can forgive as well as be forgiven our debts. Jesus’ proclamation of the jubilee year is unmistakeably present in the prayer he is teaching us to pray . . .   The debts we have incurred as well as are owed to us come in many shapes and sizes. In our day we are tempted to think of debts in terms of psychological exchanges, but the debts we owe and are owed us, at least if we remember Lev. 25, are as real as the next meal we eat. So we should not be surprised that debts owed us, debts as real as money and property, are to be forgiven.  (In Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006], 78-79) That being said, from the renderings of the petition of Matt. 6.12 above, we see two distinct (though not necessarily exclusive) translation traditions. Do we forgive others their debts or their trespasses? Hauerwas assumes the tension involved with the translation when he writes, “In our day we are tempted to think of debts in terms of psychological exchanges, but . . . we should not be surprised that debts owed us, debts as real as money and property, are to be forgiven.” My own inclination is that what Jesus said was broad enough to embrace both real debts of money and property, and psychological exchanges occasioned by being sinned against, as in trespasses. In a section from my master’s thesis, Interpreting the Sermon on the Mount for Social Embodiment (Freed-Hardeman University, 2007), I explain why.

Matt. 6.12 reads: “and pardon [ἄφες] our debts [ὀφειλήματα] just as we pardon [ἀφήκαμεν] our debtors [ὀφειλέταις].”  Jesus’ use of ἀφίημι and ὀφείλημα is conditioned by the jubilary dimensions of his mission (Yoder, Politics 62-63; Ringe 77‑80). דְּרוֹרthe Hebrew word for the release of debt-slaves during the sabbatical year (HALOT 1: 230-31; cf. Lev. 25.10; Jer. 34.15-17; Isa. 61.1; cf. C. J. H. Wright, “Jubilee” 1028) is often behind ἄφες in the LXX (Yoder, Politics 62-63; Ringe 77), and Jubilee and Sabbath year texts were guiding metaphors for Jesus’ ministry (Isa. 61.1-7; cf. Luke 4.16-21; 7.18-23; Matt. 11.3-5). Fiensy’s objection [1], per the Lukan correlate (Luke 11.4) and the explanatory gloss of 6.14-15, that this passage refers only to the forgiveness of sins (232-39) is easily answered once we have established that Jesus’ jubilary language in the synoptic Gospels is an embodied metaphor: “the jubilee attracted an eschatological imagery while maintaining an ethical application in the present” (C. Wright, “Jubilee” 1028).

The case for a jubilary dimension to the Lord’s Prayer is significantly strengthened by two contextual factors. First, the prayer itself bears an obvious eschatological force (6.9b-10), so the jubilary metaphor would be appropriate. Second, the attachment of the forgiveness petition to the preceding allusion to the manna miracle (6.11) invites the disciple to think of the fallow year and debt-forgiveness elements of the Jubilee in tandem (Lev. 25).

The pericopae on hoarding possessions and seeking the kingdom (6.19-34) correspond to the petition for daily bread in 6.11, while the forgiveness petition of 6.12 corresponds to the triad on judging others (7.1-5). If we read these sections in terms of the organizing principal of the reign of God as embodied Jubilee, we find that the petitions for bread and forgiveness, as well as the triads on hoarding possessions, seeking the kingdom first, and not judging others are bound tightly by a coherent internal logic, as Ringe has articulated:

Those who would hear such a word [Matt. 6.12] as “good news” are clearly those for whom “debts,” whether before God or to other persons, result in a captivity that denies the fullness of life. . . The image of God’s reign as beginning precisely in the breaking of that dehumanizing pattern supports the theological affirmation that God is in fact claiming sovereignty over all of life . . . The petition concerning the forgiveness of debts portrays in a condensed and economical way the radical change in relationships and behavior that is both required and made possible in the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus the Christ. (79-80).

Our analysis of the petitions of Matt. 6.11-12 supplies us with another organizing principle for the Sermon on the Mount community. This community proclaims the reign of God by the embodied metaphor of Jubilee. By trusting in God’s concern for their daily necessities, and in his promise of forgiveness, they are enabled to seek his kingdom and restorative justice free from anxiety (Matt. 6.11; 24-34). They generously share with  those in need (6.19-23), and practice forgiveness in all facets of life, because they have been forgiven (6.12, 14‑14; 7.1-5).

For more on the Jubilee’s foundational role in Jesus’ ministry and preaching about the reign of God, see André Trocmé, Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution. Ed. Charles E. Moore. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004, 11-38.


[1] Fiensy’s primary objection is that the reading of “pardon our debts” as a reference to actual rampant debt in the Galilee of Jesus’ day rests on too much conjecture. The problem I have with his methodology is that he treats the multiple images debt and debt-slavery imagery in Jesus’ teachings and parables (i.e., Matt. 5.25-26, 40; 6.12; 18.23-35; 25.14-30; 7.41-43; 16.1-9), references to widespread debt in Jesus’ social context, and accounts of violent rebellions instantiated by rampant debt, in isolation, and yet concludes that “attempts to interpret Jesus’ words based on a supposed pervasive peasant indebtedness may be mistaken” (239). On this point, I am afraid that his study suffers from a lack of synthesis, because he has failed to take all of these factors into consideration holistically. For a more cohesive discussion of how Galilean indebtedness may have influenced Jesus’ articulation of the reign of God, see Freyne 86-113. My other difficulty with his interpretation of widespread indebtedness in relation to Matt. 6.12 is that I believe he presents us with a false dilemma, in that he wants us to believe that our only options for interpreting the petition are a reference to literal indebtedness or a metaphorical reference to sins (233). Since I would argue that the function of Jesus’ debt-metaphors within his broader embodied metaphor of the jubilee as the eschatological reign of God has ethical implications—as the reality of the inbreaking kingdom instantiates certain trajectories of behavior, which could include both the literal forgiveness of debts and the forgiveness of wrongs done—I find his attempt to force the reading into an “either/ or” scenario misguided and disingenuous.

Works cited:

David A. Fiensy.  “Jesus and Debts: Did He Pray about Them?” Restoration Quarterly 44 (2002): 233-39.

Sean Freyne. Galilee and Gospel. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

(HALOT) Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Trans. M. E. J. Richardson. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Sharon H. Ringe. Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee: Images for Ethics and Christology. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Ed. Walter Brueggemann and John R. Donahue. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.

Christopher J. H. Wright. “Jubilee, Year of.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 3. Ed. David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 1025-30.

John Howard Yoder. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.



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