Debtors and Trespassers

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I owe a lot. When I was a penniless graduate student – a state of impoverishment, both financial and spiritual, that lasted far too many years – I depended often on the kindness of friends and professors. If I had to count the number of meals I mooched off those good people or had to gauge how much I took advantage of their generosity, the task would surpass my mathematical abilities. It would require an advanced algorithm or one of the summation formulas from analytic number theory. In short, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

I think it was in my third year of graduate school when one day, upon hearing the Scripture passage, “To whom much has been given, much will be expected,” I thought back on all the free meals I’d been given – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Sunday brunches; seriously the list goes on and on – and realized that when, some day, I had an actual job (that blessed event far, far in the future: too far, in fact, for me to see with anything but the eyes of faith and hope), I would owe a lot of meals to people.

I had been given a lot without giving much, if anything, back. I was one of those people who never used to “bring something” when I was invited over to other people’s houses – something only stupid bachelor guys do, and I was a very stupid bachelor guy – an error often not corrected fully until one has a wife who knows that you always “bring something.” (“Why?” I used to say. “They’ll have food there.” Yes, I was that stupid and only half kidding.)

I am often put in mind of this particular debt around this time of year, since “What am I going to do for Thanksgiving?” was for many years a very big question for me, much bigger than “What am I doing for Christmas?” (I’m going to Mass) or “What am I doing on Valentine’s Day?” (nothing in particular, because who really cares about Valentine’s Day? – a question the answer to which I would discover in later years). But on Thanksgiving, if I wasn’t “going somewhere,” then everyone else would be feasting, and I would be eating Kraft macaroni and cheese. The result of the many kindnesses I received during those years is this: God and I both know that I owe a lot of Thanksgiving meals to a whole lot of graduate students for pretty much as long as I live.

A friend recently asked: “Why are we ‘trespassers’ rather than ‘debtors’?” The Latin, after all, is: dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. (The original Greek has ὀφειλήματα (opheilēmata): “debtors.”) So by what odd translator’s device did we get to be “trespassers”? I suggested that “debtors” ruins the meter of the line; forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us with all those alliterative s’s just rolls off the tongue better, the way all those wonderful d’s, b’s, and s’s sing together so beautifully in the Latin.

Thanksgiving: November 24, 2011 (Zabul, Afghanistan)
Thanksgiving: November 24, 2011 (Zabul, Afghanistan) [©Stars and Stripes]

And yet, whatever the sound, we may have lost something in translation. A debitus in Latin is more than what we mean in English when we say a “debt,” which is almost always a financial matter. A debitus is something “owed” to another – something that ought to be rendered or given to them. It should put us in mind of the phrase: “Render unto others what you wish rendered unto you.” And similarly, “give to others as you have been given to.”

However we translate the passage, asking “Forgive my debts as I have forgiven my debtors,” could be calling down upon oneself the ultimate condemnation. Wouldn’t it make more sense to pray: “God, you know how well I forgive other people their faults? Would you please forgive me a whole lot better than that.”

I have come to understand that formulating the “Our Father” the way He did was a piece of rhetorical genius on Jesus’s part. We don’t just pray, “Forgive my sins.” When we ask God to forgive our debt – a debt He has paid fully on the cross – we are immediately asked to consider whether we have done the same for others. Recall the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant whose lord forgave him a great debt, but who, upon going out, throttled those who owed him much less.

“Forgive me my debts, O Lord,” comes out easily; “as I have forgiven. . .” Uh oh. If that phrase doesn’t give you pause, you’re just not paying attention.

But this isn’t just about forgiveness; it’s about giving what is owed. And recognizing that we owe a lot: a debt that cannot be fully repaid. Still, we begin by giving and, when necessary, forgiving.

When we’re truly thankful for what we’ve been given, we gratefully give to others. We do what we ought, and we do it freely, precisely because we’re thankful. We give what is “owed” to others because they, and we, are God’s freely-created creatures, upon whom He has bestowed His free gifts of forgiveness and grace. So too, when I remember the gifts others have given to me, their acts of kindness live in my heart. And that is the greatest gift of all.

This Thanksgiving, we would do well to consider not only what we are thankful for, but also who we are thankful to. Are we thankful to anyone? Who has given freely to us? And are we not now called upon to do the same?

I wish nothing more from people who eat at my table than that they should go forth and discover the wherewithal in themselves to do the same. They owe me nothing; I’m still trying to pay off a debt of gratitude that goes way back – long before I was even born. What they owe themselves is the gift of a life of thanksgiving, giving, and forgiving.

Thanksgiving: the gift that keeps on giving.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.