“The Lord’s Prayer”

Question: I grew up praying “The Lord’s Prayer” with the phrase “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But here we sing, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Why?

Answer: We probably do many things differently from the church of your childhood. But the difference in the Lord’s Prayer is simple to explain. First of all, that’s how the song is written (debts/debtors fit with the music/rhythm better than trespasses/those who trespass against us). Secondly, “debts” or some variation is actually a common translation. The prayer we use is from Matthew 6. In the King James Version, the words “debts” and debtors” are used. Additionally, the English Standard Version, the American Standard Version, the Inclusive Bible (Priests for Equality), the New American Bible, the Douay-Rheims Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, the New International Version, and the New Revised Standard Version all use debts/debtors as well. The Contemporary English Version says, “Forgive us for doing wrong as we forgive others.” The New Century Version says, “Forgive us for our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” The Lamsa Translation says, “Forgive us our offenses as we have forgiven our offenders.” J.B. Phillips phrases it as, “Forgive us what we owe to you, as we have also forgiven those who owe anything to us.” From comparing the translations, I’m guessing that “debt” is actually the intended meaning.

I don’t know when or how “trespasses” came into common usage since most translators do not use that verbiage. But one possibility of why some people started using “trespasses” instead of “debts” is offered by Bible scholar Miguel De La Torre of Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He says, “During the late 1970s, Latin America’s foreign debt was having devastating effects on the lives of most people there. According to the Latin American liberation theologian Franz Hinkelammert, it was during this time that some Catholic and Protestant ministers began to change the words of the Lord’s Prayer from ‘Forgive us our debts’ to ‘Forgive us our offenses’ or ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ Fear existed that Christians, pauperized by the policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, might take the Lord’s Prayer literally and demand that debts be forgiven so that they could have their daily bread” (The People’s Bible, NRSV, Fortress Press 2009). In any case, when we sing the Lord’s Prayer, we use the standard translation, “debts/debtors.”


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