Forgive us our…
Some of us might finish that sentence in this way: …debts as we forgive our debtors.
That’s how it reads in many modern and traditional translations, in both versions of the Our Father that appear in Matthew and Luke. (The main exception is the first part of the petition in Luke, which reads as sins.) It is most certainly a correct rendering of not only the original Greek but also the Vulgate. Yet at Mass we say something different. We say trespasses.
Obviously, either way, a metaphor is being employed for sin. But, of the two, we might find that debt is certainly much more relatable to our present concerns. Debt is everywhere in our society. It’s how many of us pay for our education and how nearly all of us pay for our homes. Our national debt always seems to be spiraling out of control and so is the debt of people who gamble or shop too much.
The notion of debt as a constantly oppressive, insurmountable burden seems a most apt metaphor for the sins we commit against an infinitely good God—a burden ultimately atoned for in the perfect, one-time sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
But trespassing? I checked in my home state of Rhode Island and it seems to barely make the cut as a criminal offense, eliciting a fine—and, in theory, maybe some jail time—but no more.
I went on a bit of a hermeneutical hunt, so to speak, to get at the origins of this translation. One source uncovered in the process pinpoints it to one of the very earliest English translations, the Tyndale Bible, which was published 1526 with trespasses. After that there seems to have been a split: the King James Bible, which came out about a century later, changed it to debts while the Book of Common Prayer kept trespasses.
For Catholics, it seems there was no division until the introduction of the Novus Ordo. Beforehand, the traditional Catholic translation, known as the Douay-Rheims Bible (links here and here), and the Tridentine Mass alike had debts. (Although note that even in the English translation of the Tridentine Mass they go with trespasses, even though the Latin is debita … debitoribus.)
Is there any real theological justification for trespasses?
I suspect so. First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: trespass is a perfectly acceptable synonym for sin. Trespassing, that is the unauthorized crossing of a boundary, is, in a sense, what happens when we sin. Sin crosses the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the eyes of God.
Second, let’s look at the time frame of translations above. The Tyndale version appeared in the very late Middle Ages, at a time when debts and trespasses were the most common forms of civil suits. Back then, trespassing covered a multitude of offenses. It entailed much more than stepping over a bunch of boundary stones into someone else’s land. In English common law, there was also trespassing against someone’s belongings and their persons. One can see how the Tyndale translators might have seen this as a natural word to use instead of debt. (Some sources on the original meaning of trespass are here, here, and here.)
In terms of culture and custom, trespass might have once been warranted, but what about theologically—especially today, when the metaphor seems to have lost much of its original potency?
I believe so and here’s why: take a look at the version of the Our Father in Matthew 6, the gospel from which the Church says it takes its wording for the liturgy. The prayer ends at verse 13, but then Jesus follows it with a sort of instant interpretation of its meaning in verses 14 to 15:
If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.
Now here the Greek word for transgression is paraptóma (pronounced: par-ap’-to-mah). This is different than the Greek word used in the text of the prayer itself (opheiléma, of-i’-lay-mah). Opheiléma means debt, whereas paraptóma actually really means trespass. Here it seems we have solid theological justification for substituting trespasses for debts in the Our Father, if we were so inclined to do so.
Besides English custom, there is one giant advantage to going with trespasses. Debts appears just one other time in the New Testament. But trespasses is used all the time, serving as a go-to word for sin, in both the gospels and the epistles. Hence the benefit is to better integrate the Our Father with the broader New Testament theology on sin. That’s certainly worth considering.
At the very least though, if saying ‘trespasses’ trips you up that might not be such a bad thing if it forces you to think more critically about the reality of sin and what Scripture teaches on the matter.