The Prayer Jesus Taught: “And forgive us for our debts as we forgive our debtors”   

On March 19, 2023, Rev. Dr. Tim Hart-Andersen, the Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered the fourth of his five sermons on different passages of the Lord’s Prayer. [1] This sermon was on the following portion of the third sentence (in bold) of that Prayer:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen. “


Leviticus 25:8-12, 35-41

“You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the Day of Atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee for you: you shall not sow or reap the aftergrowth or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a Jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.”

“If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.”

“If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the Jubilee. Then they and their children with them shall go out from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property.”

The Sermon[2]

 Along the way in this sermon series on the prayer Jesus taught I’ve heard from several of you eager to get to this particular petition. I have been eager, too. I’m glad we’re finally here. Of all the lines in the prayer Jesus taught, this one differs most in its wording among various Christian traditions, which can lead to a variety of interpretations. What was Jesus teaching here?

It’s complicated – and, lest we forget, the Apostle Paul reminds us that “All…have fallen short of the glory of God…. There is no one” – debtor, sinner, trespasser – “who is righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:23, 10)

On that basis we could conclude that it’s of no consequence which wording we use; in the end, we all miss the mark, whatever the mark might be. But there’s more to the story. The different words we use come from the gospels themselves and from church tradition. The language we use matters, as we have seen in this series

One of the points in this series on the prayer Jesus taught is that language evolves. In that sense it is living. We should guard against the calcification of the vocabulary of our faith. Our spiritual practices – no matter the particular wording – always want to reflect the dynamic interaction with God that Jesus longs for us to have. And the words do matter.

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

The prayer Jesus taught appears only in two gospels, each with its own version of this line. In Luke Jesus teaches, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” In Matthew, on the other hand, he makes no mention of sin: “ [(Luke 11:4} “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” – the version we pray at Westminster.  [Matthew 6:12)]

This is not a matter of a typo or confusion about someone’s handwriting. The Greek words here are quite distinct: “debt” is opheiléma, while “sin” is hamartia. The gospels writers chose their vocabulary with intention, leaving us to sort it out.

To add to the puzzle, the Greek word for trespass does not appear in either gospel version of the prayer Jesus taught, although it does show up later. Trespass makes its debut in the first full English translation of the Bible in 1526, done by William Tyndale, who got into trouble for doing it and eventually was deemed a heretic and executed in 1536. Tyndale’s Bible became widely popular and influenced the way English-speakers said the prayer Jesus taught. To this day, many Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, and others use “trespasses.”

The King James version, published almost a century after Tyndale, shifted back to the original Greek and used “debt” and “debtors,” and that’s where the Presbyterians landed and have been ever since. And forgive us our “debts” as we forgive our “debtors”. This is not random use of language. Jesus prays debts and debtors for a reason. In doing so, he intentionally introduces economic language into the prayer. When Jesus teaches about hunger in the prayer – give us this day our daily bread – he’s reminding us that people need to eat. Now when he speaks of economics, he’s reminding us another basic truth: that debt – not metaphorical or spiritualized indebtedness but simply not having enough money – can crush and impoverish people.

In our culture debt is a given for most of us. Capitalism is sustained by debt. Westminster gets this. We’re working hard right now in a campaign to pay off the congregation’s debt. As one Westminster member said, “Forgive us our debt, so we can pursue our mission.” If only the lenders were listening!

When we substitute “sins” for “debts” we miss the specific kind of forgiveness Jesus is aiming at here. Debt is unequivocally an economic term. Sin is a theological word. If we use sin, the wording seems directed to our private, individual behavior, as if Jesus were referring to my moral failings for which I need forgiveness, or my need to forgive wrongs done to me. That makes forgiveness a matter of letting go of personal offenses or owning up to my own immorality– which may be good to do, but it is not what Jesus is after here.

And trespassing has to do with crossing boundaries – a transgression that violates someone else’s property, which was a problem in 16th century England when Tyndale decided to employ that word. The language used by Jesus in the prayer as taught in Matthew, is concerned neither with property nor sin. It’s carefully intended to point toward economic realities. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. By using this terminology, Jesus is taking forgiveness into the realm of systemic economic justice, which concerns the collective, rather than the individual. The prayer Jesus taught draws on a long tradition in Judaism of the hope for a Year of Jubilee. “You shall count off…seven times seven years,” Leviticus says,

  • “So that the period of seven…years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud…And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you.” (Leviticus 25:8-11)

It’s an old dream, and the prophets of Israel never give up on it as a possibility, and neither should we. Isaiah speaks of Jubilee when he says,

  • “The spirit of…God is upon me, because…God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

In her book Church in the Round, Letty Russell says the prophet’s vision here announces, “that memory of God’s future is already happening as the oppressed are set at liberty and the jubilee year arrives.” (Letty Russell, Church in the Round [Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993], p. 81)

The memory of God’s future is already happening, as Jubilee arrives.

That Jubilee vision gives rise to the incarnation. Jesus quotes the same lines from Isaiah when he preaches in his home synagogue at the start of his ministry. It nearly gets him killed because Jubilee threatens the exiting economic order and promises to change the way we live by upending the existing economic order.

  • “For it is a Jubilee; it shall be holy to you…If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them…You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance or provide them food at a profit. I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 25:12, 35, 37-38)

The Year of Jubilee as understood by the ancient Hebrew people and carried forward by the prophets if Israel and then enfleshed in the person of Jesus Christ, is to be the season when God’s intentions for human community are realized.

  • “If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as enslaved people. They shall remain with you as hired…laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the Jubilee. Then they and their children with them shall…go back to their own family.” (Leviticus 25:39-41)

Jubilee repairs the world. It offers a way for justice to be done, for relationships to be restored, for the broken places in society to be healed, for economic inequities to be eased. The prayer Jesus taught is a Jubilee prayer. It is a prayer for our time, especially in America, one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, “that devotes far fewer resources” to the reduction of poverty “as a share of its gross national product than other rich democracies.” (Matthew Desmond, America Is in a Disgraced Class of its Own; N.Y. Times, March 16, 2023)

Princeton professor Matthew Desmond says,

  • “Poverty is chronic pain, on top of tooth rot, on top of debt collector harassment, on top of the nauseating fear of eviction. It is the suffocation of your talents and your dreams. It is death come early and often.”

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. The federal hourly minimum wage is $7.25, just over $15,000 a year, and that number has not changed since 2009. Minnesota’s minimum wage is $10.59 for large employers, which equates to slightly more than $22,000 a year. Today in our nation, 38 million people live below the poverty line, which is $26,500 a year. To pay rent and other bills, to purchase food, to support children, to pay for transportation – merely to survive, day after day, people go into debt, and that debt then holds them captive.

During the pandemic, in what became an unintentional experiment, the federal government expanded the Child Tax Credit and in six months child poverty was cut in half, to the lowest level in 50 years. In only six months. And with the monthly infusion of cash support for families during the pandemic, food insecurity was the lowest it has been in 20 years. Banks reported that their lowest income customers had a 50% increase in their account balances from before the pandemic. (

We know how to do this.

“The hard part isn’t designing effective antipoverty programs or figuring out how to pay for them,” Professor Desmond says. “The hard part is ending our addiction to poverty.”

In the prayer Jesus taught he’s inviting us to imagine the Jubilee, where a resetting of economic priorities and a realignment of relationships takes place, and encumbered people are freed, land taken returned, crushing debts forgiven, and equity within the community begins to be re-established.

The prayer, especially with its economic implications, confirms Isaiah’s hope long ago, that someday we might be called “repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.” (Isaiah 58:12b)

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

This line we pray so casually week after week is a summons to get serious, to get serious about undoing the harm inflicted by economic realities in our land on the most vulnerable among us. The prayer Jesus taught commits us, as we pray it, to the work of dismantling the very real, unjust disparities that exist in our world.

There is scant evidence that the Year of Jubilee as imagined in Leviticus was ever fully implemented, but that doesn’t mean we should stop praying for it.

In fact – and as far as I’m concerned this settles it – by using debts and debtors in the prayer Jesus taught, we are praying for the more just economic order that God envisions.

To God be the glory.



For a long time, I have thought that the correct version of this line was the one said by Lutherans and many other Christian churches that referenced “trespasses” and “trespassed” because those words, for me, connoted wrongs or sins. On the other hand, the words “debts” and “debtors” that we use at Westminster for me connoted legitimate economic transactions.

This sermon, therefore, surprised and shocked me. It really is a radical call for upsetting the existing order of things. As Rev. Hart-Andersen said, “ Jesus is taking forgiveness into the realm of systemic economic justice, which concerns the collective, rather than the individual. The prayer Jesus taught draws on a long tradition in Judaism of the hope for a year of Jubilee. [After 49 years of normal or regular economic transactions, on the fiftieth year, as Leviticus says] you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you.”

This passage of the Prayer made me wonder whether  in Jesus’ days most people lived in small villages or towns where people knew one another and had limited financial dealings with one another and, therefore, would find it easier to forgive debts.

When, however, Jesus preaches this message at the start of his ministry, it “nearly gets him killed because Jubilee threatens the existing economic order and promises to change the way we live by upending the existing economic order.”

Moreover, given the contemporary size and complexity of financial transactions among different governments, international banks, other corporations and individuals, it is impossible for any individual or collection of individuals to forgive such debts and indebtedness. Moreover, today the U.S. is in the midst of a challenging threat to that international economic system with whether or not the U.S. federal government will increase the limit on its indebtedness.

Therefore, this line of the prayer for today’s world calls for the adoption and implementation of antipoverty programs all over the world or, as this sermon says, this Jesus prayer “commits us, as we pray it, to the work of dismantling the very real, unjust disparities that exist in our world” and creating “the more just economic order that God envisions.”


[1] Earlier posts about this series of sermons: The Lord’s Prayer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (May 2, 2023); The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name”  (May 4, 2023);The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (May 6, 2023); The Prayer Jesus Taught: ”Give us this day, our daily bread” (May 8, 2023).

[2] Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen. Sermon: The Prayer Jesus Taught: “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mar. 19, 2023); Bulletin, Westminster Presbyterian Church (Minneapolis) (Mar. 19, 2023).

What Does the Way of the Cross Ask of Us? Mercy

The third theme of Lent at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is mercy. We will review the Scripture passages and the sermon on this theme and then conclude with some personal reflections.

 Scripture Passages

The Old Testament scripture for mercy was the Prayer of David in Psalm 86: 1-15 (New Revised Standard Version):

  • ‘Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.
    Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you.
    You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.
    Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
    For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
  • Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.
    In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.
  • There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours. All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.
  • For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.
    Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
  • I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
  • O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them. But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

The New Testament scripture was Matthew 18: 21-35 (New Revised Standard Version):

  • “Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
  • For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
  • But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
  • Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
  • And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The Sermon

The sermon by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen emphasized that “at the heart of Christianity is the discipline of forgiveness.”

“From birth to death,” the sermon continued, “the life of Jesus is framed in forgiveness. Remember John the Baptizer preaching forgiveness to prepare for the coming Messiah? Remember the prayer Jesus taught [us]: ‘Forgive us, as we forgive them.’ Remember how Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery and challenged others to do the same? Remember the words of Jesus on the cross: ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do?’”

“Ours is a religion born in that astounding cry from the cross for mercy for those who had hung him there. If the question this Lent is what does the way of the cross ask of us, the response surely includes forgiveness.”

“If anyone ever asks you what Christian faith is all about, a good place to start would be forgiveness. If someone ever asks you what you think God is like, quote Psalm 86: ‘The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’”

In Matthew 18, “‘Peter asks how many times he should forgive someone who wrongs him – and we sense this is not a hypothetical question – and then Peter wonders aloud, ‘Seven times?’ No doubt he thinks he’s really stretching it to go that far.”

In response, Jesus says, “’Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,’ indicating that forgiveness should not be reckoned a scarce commodity. God’s mercy is abundant; ours can be, as well.”

“This is hard work, like climbing a mountain that seems to get taller and taller the higher you get. Temptations abound along the way. It would be easier to give up. The culture teaches us to want revenge, not mercy. It’s much more satisfying on the face of it to refuse forgiveness to someone who has wronged you, and instead get back at them. If forgiveness feels like an impossibility for us, then we’re thinking about it in precisely the right way; it should feel like that. It’s not easy.”

Rev. Hart-Andersen added, “Every one of us has had a ‘Peter moment’ in a relationship with a friend or life partner or co-worker, a time when we knew we should forgive, but we wondered how hard to try. Seven times? Jesus will have none of it. Genuine forgiveness is much more extravagant; it takes us beyond anything we might consider reasonable. The truly merciful give up any desire for vengeance; let go of any need to come out on top; release any longing to satisfy old grudges; and, relinquish any secret hope for the thrill of nursing anger.”

“We tend to think of forgiveness as something we offer others in order to free them from the guilt of what they’ve done. That’s the short-sighted view of mercy. In the long run, it’s not done for the one who wronged us; it’s for our own sake. Our future is held hostage until we forgive. In offering mercy we free ourselves of the millstone hung around our neck by anger or desire for vengeance or the need to win.”

“Forgiveness in the eyes of Jesus is not about counting up the wrongs or keeping track of damage down and being properly compensated; on the contrary, it’s a matter of setting ourselves free of the need to do that. At stake is the possibility of recovering our own life by letting go of the anger or hurt that has a hammerlock on us.”

“Nothing is more corrosive to a relationship, and to our hearts, than unwillingness to forgive, and nothing brings more grace into a relationship, and into our hearts, than when people freely show mercy to one another.”

“It’s the way of the cross, the path we follow this Lenten season, and it leads, in the end, to life.”


Peter’s comments in Matthew 18: 21 could be read narrowly as saying if one person (another member of the church) commits one sin against Peter, then how often should Peter forgive that one person for that one sin.

Peter’s own answer to that question (seven times) may have been seen by him as overly generous and unnecessary since at that time rabbis commonly said that forgiving someone three times was an acceptable maximum.[1]

Jesus’ response in Matthew 18: 22, in my opinion, was not just upping the ante in a numbers game. Rather Jesus was saying that counting the number of acts of forgiveness is the wrong approach. In so doing, I believe, Jesus revealed a profound understanding of human psychology. Peter’s saying there is only one sin against him by another person is probably wrong, and in fact Peter probably believes there are other sins as well. Moreover, because we are all weak, the sense of anger Peter must feel over a wrong done to him may erupt again and again, often when he least expects it. Therefore, forgiveness of the other is always unfinished business, and repeated acts of forgiveness may be necessary.

The parable of the king and his slave starts out with the slave’s debt of 10,000 talents, which at the time could be seen as the largest amount imaginable. Indeed, it exceeded the annual taxes for all of Syria, Phonecia, Judea and Samaria. It would be impossible for any individual to repay. The amount of debt owed to the slave, on the other hand, represented 100 days of the wages of an ordinary laborer, still an impossible debt for the other slave to repay.[2]

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, according to one source, ended with verse 33 and was intended by Jesus to be about a Gentile tyrant, not about God. Verses 33 and 34, says this source, were added by Matthew to have the parable be about God.[3] But I find it impossible to accept the message of Matthew 18: 34 that God would send anyone to be tortured until he paid the debt.

This passage from Matthew about forgiveness of debts prompts the following comments and questions:

  • As a retired lawyer the “debt” language makes me think of normal commercial transactions where one party incurs an obligation or indebtedness to another person, and absent coercion or unfair advantage or subsequent bankruptcy, this is an obligation that should be honored. It should not be forgiven.
  • I vaguely recall some economists saying that U.S. bankruptcy law more liberally allowed for state-enforced forgiveness of debts than many other countries and thereby promoted U.S. economic growth by allowing people to start over economically. Do I recall this correctly? Is it a valid comment?
  • The notion of forgiving debts brings to mind the Jewish practice of the Jubilee Year, which I believe called for forgiveness of debts over land, slaves and indentured servants every 49 or 50 years. Is this a fair simplification of the practice? Is it still a practice today? Is it related to the Matthew passage in some way?
  • I struggle with the Presbyterian Church’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which says “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The alternative language for the Lord’s Prayer that many others use— “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—seems more appropriate to me because “trespass” is a wrong under the law and hence closer to the concept of sin. What am I missing?

Psalms 86: 1-15 for me is irrelevant to forgiveness or mercy other than the assertion in verse 5 that God is “good and forgiving.” Instead it is David’s prayer for protection and assistance when he was being pursued by his enemies (verses 7 and 14). The central verse, according to one commentary, is verse 11, where David asks God to teach him God’s way and to give him an “undivided” heart. The latter I see as an implicit confession that David’s heart is divided between God and something else.

I invite readers to help me answer these questions.


[1] W. F. Albright & C. S. Mann, The Anchor Bible—Matthew at 223 (Garden City, NY; Doubleday & Co. 1871).

[2] VIII New Interpreter’s Bible at 380-83 (Nashville, TN; Abingdon Press 1995).

[3] Id.