But not the prayer of a revolutionary seeking the violent overthrow of a government. Jesus, the revolutionary in question, was committed to non-violence even as he challenged the Roman Empire. His rebellion was expressed in symbolic acts, in sermons, and in prayer. His most famous resistance prayer is more commonly known as The Lord’s Prayer, which has come down to us in two versions, one in the Gospel of Luke, the other in Matthew.
Hence, the two most common English translations of The Lord’s Prayer are slightly different. One reads, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The other reads, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The first translation comes from Luke, who uses the Greek word harmatia, meaning “to miss the mark”— trespass or sin in English. The second translation comes from Matthew, who uses the word opheilemata--debts.
It’s easy to understand why we would want God to forgive our trespasses, but what does Matthew mean by asking God to forgive our debts? Well, whenever we seek money before we seek God, whenever we feel hatred or indifference instead of God’s Love, whenever we put anything ahead of God or Spirit, we are incurring a debt to God. We owe God time or treasure that we have foolishly wasted in worldly actions.
In a larger sense, our only real debt is the debt we owe God—the debt of worship and faithfulness. This is what Jesus meant in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer. Thus, Jesus believed that worship of the Roman emperor was idolatry. Jesus believed that taxes paid to Rome were stolen from what God’s people needed for life itself. When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s,” his unspoken assumption was that everything is God’s.
And when Jesus speaks of debt, there must have been in the back of his mind the Jewish concept of a Jubilee Year, during which slaves would be freed and debts forgiven. Think of what a Jubilee would have meant for Rome, built on the backs of slaves and the tribute from conquered peoples! Jubilee would be a revolution inconceivable in the hierarchical Roman Empire. It would be the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus—a kingdom in which all human beings are equal, nobody is indebted, and all are blessed by God’s presence.
And are not Friends a Jubilee people? Do Quakers not strive for a revolution in our own hierarchical, capitalist society? Do we not pray to God as Jesus did, that His will be done, on earth as in heaven?
~ Richard Russell
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