And Forgive Us Our . . . What?

I’m reading David Graber’s Debt and I just discovered a very curious thing. In the Lord’s Prayer, English-speakers say “. . . and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This is very shocking to me because Russian-speakers have a very different version of the prayer. We ask God to forgive us our sins. And so do Spanish-speakers, as far as I’m aware.

What about other languages? Does any other culture use this weird financial terminology to pray to God?

I don’t know why I’m so surprised if we are talking about people who came up with the brilliant idea to use the language of commerce to speak about sex.

Graeber, of course, commits the mistake of equating English-speaking Christian and all Christians. In his mind, if English-speakers do things a certain way, the rest of the world must certainly imitate them.

27 thoughts on “And Forgive Us Our . . . What?”

  1. The version I learned, which is in the King James Bible, if I recall correctly, said ‘debts’. Many other churches, however, said: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The Presbyterian church seemed to think that this was a misreading of the text. The KJB is the only one I have read, so I am not sure what the custom is now.


  2. The version I grew up with had “trespasses” not “debts.” i understand that Matthew has “debts” and Luke “sins,” so this is not merely or primarily a Russian vs. English question. Debts are also, metaphorically, sins, or vice-versa. Anyway, it’s not a simple question to answer.


      1. Latin versions have “debita” or “debts.” This was not the idea of “English-speakers,” since these versions in Greek and Latin existed long before there was such a thing as English.


      2. You could say the English-language tradition preserves the traditional identification between debt and sin that is present in the original. Sin as a debt owed to God, for example. Other traditions have repressed that identification. I have no theological bone to pick in this debate, but I’m finding it very interesting. I doubt Graber is a biblical scholar.


        1. No, Graeber seems to be an economist. He analyzes our relationship to God, the universe and each other exclusively in terms of debt. I have a feeling that he is exaggerating the importance of the concept of debt to every aspect of human endeavor.


  3. I grew up hearing it as “trespasses” as well. I started out being brought up Presbyterian and then we changed to a Methodist church.


  4. One branch of our family is high church – it was sins there, and the other branch, it was trespasses. I’m an atheist, so neither for me. I’m slightly boggled by the idea of constructing a financial argument around a non-monetary concept. I may have to borrow it from the library, just to see where he actually goes with it.


  5. In my experience, some lowland Scots still use debts as a dialect word to mean a far broader class of negative behaviour than owing money – I learnt ‘forgive us our trespasses’ in the Methodists and then ‘forgive us our debts’ in a former Presbyterian congregation (now part of the United Reformed Church in England), and both make good sense to me as an English English speaker.


    1. The German Schuld can mean different things in different contexts (debt, guilt, culpability), but at least to me (not a theologist) it is different from sin, which I would translate as Sünde. In Swedish the plural is used (skulder), which immediately rules out other interpretations in favour of debts.


      1. Hmm, yes you are right about the meaning of Schuld. The prayer however uses the singular, Schuld, whereas you usually refer to debts with the plural version of it, Schulden. As in “Ich habe Schulden bei der Bank”. Schuld as a singular more often than not means fault or guilt.


    1. The mainstream position is that the New Testament was written originally in (ancient) Koine Greek. BibleGateway has the Matthew and Luke versions from a 1550 translation in Koine, so, among easily-obtainable versions, that one is likely the closest to the original. FWIW, Google Translate uses “trespasses” and “sins” for Matthew and Luke, respectively.


  6. I was just told that in Old Slavic it was also “debts” and “debtors.”

    So it seems like the original “debts” is retained by some cultures but lost by others. Probably because they feel an understandable discomfort with the idea.


  7. Well, if you think about it, the idea of “debt” as “that which I owe another but have not paid” or “cannot pay”…it fits pretty well. Less about some “bad” deed than about a relationship out of balance…

    (FWIW, I grew up with “trespasses” too…”trespass” was the Catholic/Episcopalian way, “debt” was the Protestant way…)


    1. I don’t know, Jesus says, on the one hand, that debts to the government in the form of taxes should be paid. And then, on the other hands, suggests that debts should be forgiven? That is very inconsistent.

      I mean, I fully expect God to forgive my sins but I don’t expect or want the credit card company to forgive my debts or anything. 🙂 🙂


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