Forgive Us Our Debts

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One way of getting at what is objectionable in certain forms of individualism is to think about our lives in relation to debts.

A debt is something definite owed to another.  When someone owes us something, and is able to repay, but does not repay, then the question forces itself upon us: should we press somehow a case against this person (perhaps seeking to extract the repayment ourselves, and maybe only the grim repayment of revenge), or should we simply “write off” the debt, forgiving it?

Forgiving a debt is not a magical cancellation or contradiction.  We are free, of course, to give whatever is ours to another, as we wish.  Suppose someone owes me $5, and, instead of extracting the sum, I simply give him $5, which he then pays to me “in fulfillment of the debt.”  In substance, to forgive a debt is to give to the debtor a gift equivalent to the debt, just like that.

Curiously it is the notion of debt that is most central to the Lord’s Prayer.  St. Matthew has: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  St. Luke has: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive our debtors” – combining elegantly notions from criminal and civil law, so to speak.

But our English version removes any mention of debt altogether – much to our detriment, I think.  It seems another instance of the  “Protestantization” of our Catholic culture: according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, our version of the Lord’s Prayer is derived from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which in turn took its words from the Tyndale New Testament.  Maybe it’s best to say it in Latin.

St. Augustine took this notion of forgiving debts very seriously: the extended sense does not obliterate the direct sense. Commenting on the text in Matthew, he first says that, although “debt” refers in the first instance to the non-payment of money owed, in the prayer it means more broadly any kind of unjust deprivation.

But then he goes on to insist that the prayer does not fail to cover debts involving money.  We cannot pray the prayer sincerely, he says, unless we actively write off the monetary debts of others when they genuinely do not have the means to repay.

Suppose upon waking one morning that I am grumpy, encounter my brother at the breakfast table, and, instead of smiling, I scowl at and insult him.  I owed him a smile, but did not render him a smile. (Why I owe him a smile I will return to later.)  Therefore, I am now in debt to him. Objectively I have become a debtor, and he is my creditor.


He can press a claim, if he wishes, or even seek to “pay me back.” (And yet what sense would there be in his now incurring a liability, in an effort to collect on my liability?). Or he can make allowances, interiorly offering it up, and simply write off the obligation.

As we have seen, this would be to respond to my churlishness with a gift – and even better if characteristically he gives gifts, as the Father sends his rain on the just and unjust.  He might even bestow gifts to me in superabundance, by treating me with extra kindness.

I submit that such an analysis and description, in terms of debts and gifts, matches better what Christian conduct is about than, say, talk of laws of conduct that are observed or infringed.

Sometimes the question is raised, how can one human being forgive the trespasses of another, because only God forgives sins?  Isn’t it a conceit of modernity, that we place ourselves in this false position and make such claims about ourselves?  But if to forgive is to give a gift to another equal to the debt written off, there is nothing strange about forgiveness whatsoever.

The beauty about the gift present in forgiveness is that it does not require new capital as means for the gift; the wrong done by the other has already provided the capital; nothing further remains to be done, except to remit the debt – which reveals too the goodness of the giver – and thus forgiveness brings good out of evil in a divine fashion.

Now as for individualism: the question is whether simply by existing we are already in debt, which we should repay insofar as we can.  Do we come into existence encumbered in debt, or rather not in debt until we contract to pay someone back for some good or service?

Now, if anything that begins to receive its being from another (Aquinas’s Via Prima) then for anyone other than God simply to exist, is to be in debt.  And we cannot contract with another, to repay from goods that are our own, unless we indeed have such goods, and yet if we received these goods from another without creating or earning them, we are in debt.   Traditionally pietas is this virtue that aims to repay this debt insofar as one is able.

But this original indebtedness to God implies a debt also to anyone else made in the image of God. I owe my brother a smile because I owe God my love, and my brother is in the image of God.   We cannot recognize debts we owe to others simply because we and they exist, unless we first recognize a debt to God which we owe to him simply because we exist.  That is, the language of debts makes patent the dependence of the Second Tablet of the Commandments on the First.

Sometimes it is said that the language of “rights” can be affirmed so long as we recognize that “duties” are correlative with rights.  Maybe so, as a matter of law, but in the matter of personal relationships, the language of debts and gifts stands on its own and seems even better.


*Image: The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau by Peter Paul Rubens, 1624 [Staatsgalerie Schleissheim, Oberschleißheim, Germany]

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Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky’s The God of Justice and of Mercy

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Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI. You can follow him on X, @michael_pakaluk