Part 6: Forgiving Debts

Forgiveness lies at the heart of Jesus’ prayer and his teaching. In the two versions of the Our Father in the gospels, the gospel writers make a parallel between forgiving sins and forgiving debts. They connect a spiritual act and an economic act.

Matthew’s version of the Our Father stresses forgiving economic debts. We pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (6.12). The word for debts in Greek is opheilemn, which means what one is owed, one’s economic due. However, in the verse immediately following the Our Father, Matthew adds a parallel saying about forgiving sins (in Greek, hamartias). “If you forgive people their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you” (6.14).

Luke’s gospel deliberately mixes the spiritual and economic senses of forgiveness within its version of the Our Father. The first half of the forgiveness petition talks about forgiving sins (hamartias); the second half about forgiving debtors (opheilonti). “Forgive us our sins as we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11.4).

Imagine a monthly bill arriving that lists charges for our sins and credits us for debts we have forgiven others. The Our Father wants us to live our faith in our everyday world, to do the work in our lives of bringing heaven to earth. The Our Father calls us to live the values Jesus heralds as his mission in Luke’s gospel: to bring sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, good news to the poor. In the economy of God’s kin*dom, the bottom line is forgiveness, mending and extending the bonds among us who are God’s kin and kind. Jesus’ prayer calls us to restore our human community to wholeness both through restoring relationships and restoring economic capacity for life.

The forgiveness the Christian community is to practice seems illogical compared with getting even and settling the score. When a tragic murder is in the news, common logic asks, “Isn’t this the sort of person who ought to be put to death to keep our families safe?” Common wisdom assumes execution will free the victim’s family from their loss.

In her work with death-row prisoners and the families of their murder victims, Sister Helen Prejean reports that only forgiveness eases a family’s grief. When family members seek revenge or payback, they themselves become victims of the murder, just like the family member they have lost. Getting even puts a person in the service of a hurt, rather than in the service of human thriving. Only forgiveness allows us to start over anew. This is the uncommon wisdom of Jesus. In forgiving one another, we participate in God’s own life-giving, healing power.

Family, the primary cell of society and Church, is the first school of Christen forgiveness. We learn to forgive by being forgiven. We learn to apologize when we are wrong from watching our parents acknowledge their mistakes. We learn reconciliation from parents who let their children know they have worked though a disagreement. We learn to ask forgiveness from those who ask ours, from brothers and sisters who regret destroying our favorite possession or getting us in trouble.

The Our Father calls us to remember all those in whose debt we stand, especially those who have invested their very selves in us. It also calls us to remember who has forgiven us and to do the same for people in our lives. Forgiving reclaims energy we waste fueling hurts and obvious injustices and frees us for investing ourselves in the people and work we love.


Who has invested in you? How have they invested? In money? In mentoring? In love? What difference has the investment made? How can you thank these people? What hurts do you need to forgive and let go? What unpaid economic debts do you need to forgive and let go? Who has forgiven debts you owed? What relationships do you need to mend and revive? What person that you devalue should you give a chance?


The churches in the United States and Canada have led the way in the work to overcome hunger and poverty in our country and in the world. Visit the websites of any of the following. Consider putting some of your discretionary funds to work with them, to even out the debt we all owe each other.