What does “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” mean?
When we pray, Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us, we are reminded of both what we should ask, and what we should do in order to be worthy of receiving what we ask… If you would obtain mercy, be merciful. If you are not humane to men, though you are a man, God will deny you divinity… by which he makes us gods. For God needs nothing from you, but you need God.
from St. Augustine Answers 101 Questions on Prayer by Fr. Ermatinger
Dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimisimus debitoribus nostris (Matt 6:12). Dimitte nobis peccata nostra siquidem et ipsi dimittimus omni debenti nobis (Luke 11:4). The term trespasses in the English form of the Our Father has to be understood archaically as a legal infraction of social morals rather than the modern usage as an infraction against property rights. Even then, it does not fully capture the soteriology that is contained in the Latin of these verses. The Latin debita is more directly translated as debts and the Latin peccata as sins. The English trespasses traces to the Calvinist Tyndale’s translation, which would influence the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which would subsequently influence Catholic English liturgical prayer translation.
St. Augustine follows as what can be anachronistically described as the Ransom Theory of Atonement. Therein, violations of the natural order, of the moral order, of laws and commands, of persons result in the occurring of a debt of virtue/nature. This is not the same thing as the concept of weregild (and the like) amongst the Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, and Germanic peoples wherein violations resulted in monetary debt, though this concept shades St. Anslem’s Satisfaction Theory and Calvin’s/Luther’s Penal Atonement.
In St. Augustine, there is a three-fold debt that the individual person owes to God. 1.) Positively, for his underserved creation. 2.) Negatively, for Original Sin, wherein Adam, and all his descendants, became slaves of the devil. 3.) Negatively, for the individual’s personal violations and affronts to God. The debt that is occurred it not a monetary debt, nor a debt that can be “paid” by something imputed or substituted for the debt, though the underlying Latin and Greek words (debita/opheilēma) do reference the economics of monies exchanged for a thing. Luke’s peccata/hamartia is more directly “sin”. It is in this, that trespasses, as long as it is divorced from Calvin’s understanding of Attonment, can function as a middle ground between debts and sins in the English Liturgical Our Father.
Returning to St. Augustine, the prayer for forgiveness of debts is not a prayer for the ignoring of debts. It is often in modern vernacular financial parlance that forgiveness of debt is understood as the elimination of debt by striking it out, though this is a moderate misunderstanding of the actual mechanics of the act. Forgiveness and justice, including restorative justice, are not opposed to each other, but go hand in hand. A debt eliminated must restore the loss/damage that resulted from the action that incurred the debt. This is more clearly seen in the second part of this prayer as we forgive those who are indebted to us.
What does it precisely look like when we forgive our debtors? We are not talking about someone who owes us for our labor or someone who owes us for a product that we sold them; disputes of monies rather than disputes of morals, virtues, justice, and honor between persons. What is being discussed here is the concept of friendship. When such a debt is forgiven, it is not simply ignored, but the relationship between the two parties is restored. What is a restored relationship between two parties other than friendship? The Letter to the Romans 12:9-21 details what forgiving of debtors looks like, which is a friendship that stems from charity; charity is the very means by which debts are forgiven. When we forgive our debtors through charity, the diving walls between us are torn down, the chasms filled in, the enmities brought to an end. Truly, where there is forgiveness when justice and righteousness meet, there is no master nor slave, no prince nor subject, no man nor woman, no Jew nor Gentile; there are only friends.
When we are praying that God forgives us our debts, we are praying that He too might be friends with us. This is the great longing at the heart of man, not just since Adam was cast out of Eden and became a debtor and a slave unto death, but since Adam walked with God in the Garden, when there was no enmity but still debt between Creator and created. Though God was with Adam, there existed a certain imperfection in friendship due to this debt, underscored by God’s saying, It is not good for man to be alone (Gen 2:18), and the subsequent creation of Eve, Adam’s helpmate, Adam’s friend who had, prior to the fall, no debt of any kind to him nor he to her (cfr. Gen 2:21-23).
The idea of friendship with God as the resultant state of paid debts is something truly radical, but it is something offered to the followers of Christ, who paid not just the debt of sin but the positive debt between Creator and creature (cfr. Eph 2). As Jesus, the Incarnate Son, the Word of the Father, the true Icon of the Father, said, But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you (John 15:15). Through the Cross, through the great sacrifice, Jesus pays the debts of sin, corporate and personal; through the one and the same but now unbloody sacrifice of the altar, Christ triumphantly pays the debt of creation; through participation and receiving of this sacrifice, individual man shares in all the good things of the Father, shares in friendship with God. Christ is the true sacrifice, the true debt, He is the true priest that offers once and for all the true debt, and He is the truly accepted debt; the Prince of Peace, the friendship with the Father for those who should believe.