This summer, my wife and I taught a Sunday school series on the Jewishness of Jesus. It was not the first time we taught this topic. This delightfully progressive and thoughtful group was quick to acknowledge his Jewish heritage. However, they had never been exposed to our brand of teaching. We only had forty minutes a session for four weeks, so we tried to hit the high points.
Some of the most profound discoveries came when we taught on The Lord’s Prayer. For those who are unfamiliar with this prayer, there are three versions in common use. Each one is differentiated by the endings. There are no hard rules about who owns what version, but here is the typical breakdown. Presbyterians prefer Matthew’s emphasis on forgiving debts. Roman Catholics and many liturgical churches prefer Luke’s inclusion of the term “sins.” In former days, United Methodists practically canonized the third version with the term “trespass.” But that preference has gone the way of the eight-track tape.
The United Methodist Discipleship Ministries online commentary on The Lord’s Prayer suggests that the term “trespass” is less meaningful than “sins.” Further, the online author diminishes the term “trespass” by likening it to cutting across someone’s front yard without permission. Unfortunately, abandoning “trespass” excises it from its rich Hebraic context. Note the parenthetical explanation that follows immediately after The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew.
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14,15, KJV).
This usage of the term “trespasses” is an echo from the Prophet Ezra. Considering that he had to deal with a people who had forgotten much of the Law during the Babylonian Exile, he must have had a lot to say about this subject.
O Lord God of Israel, thou art righteous: for we remain yet escaped, as it is this day: behold, we are before thee in our trespasses: for we cannot stand before thee because of this (Ezra 9:15, KJV).
Put plainly, a trespass is a misstep. If you have ever hiked a trail you will know that stepping in the wrong place can cause you to lose your balance and possibly fall. Habakkuk and the Psalmist both use the analogy of the graceful doe walking on high places to illustrate the effects of God’s sustaining power (Habakkuk 3:19; Psalm 18:33). Their point is that as God directs us across challenging paths, God also provides the strength for us to keep walking. Walking is another way of describing the halakha or way of keeping the Law.
Considering how often we pray The Lord’s Prayer in Sunday worship, our class was amazed to learn of the similarity with the “Eighteen Benedictions,” though in much-abbreviated form. The “Eighteen” is also known as the “standing prayer” or Amidah in Hebrew. According to at least one rabbinic tradition, the Amidah may be shortened for use in a time of crisis. If this is what Jesus had in mind, then praying The Lord’s Prayer is intended to be a proclamation that we are living in the midst of a crisis. This correlates with his messianic message that “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” In other words, elements of the promised restoration of Israel and the World to God’s order were in motion.
You don’t need a preacher to tell you that our world is in crisis mode. Like most trespasses, we can see this in our communities. For example, consider the recent massacre of worshipers of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. As a former pastor of a small membership church, I know the intimacy a pastor often shares with their congregation. We are literally with them from cradle to grave. A serious illness or unexpected death of a member can be traumatic for the entire community. I cannot imagine how this tragedy has impacted their pastor, the survivors and the first responders or how they will deal with it in the future. In a news conference, Pastor Frank Pomeroy who also lost a daughter confessed publicly, “I don’t understand, but I know God does.” What a tremendous proclamation of faith!
In contemplating this horrific event, my mind rushed back to another community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into the West Nickel Mines Amish School and fatally shot ten young girls before turning a gun on himself. The troubling memory of that news story haunts me not only because of the unbelievably malevolent act but because of the manner in which the Amish community responded afterwards. They openly forgave the shooter and embraced the surviving Roberts family with compassion. To this very day, I am astonished at this community’s capacity to forgive a person we would easily judge as the worst kind of trespasser.
One of Paul’s most enigmatic sayings about prayer always puzzled me. When giving expert advice on spiritual warfare he slipped in a redundant phrase, “when you have done all you can to stand, stand therefore” (Ephesians 6:13,14. KJV). I have heard many curious attempts to interpret this puzzle, but none have satisfied my uneasiness with the text. Lately, I have been wondering whether Paul was still relying on his Pharisaic tradition. There can be no doubt that he was proud of his Jewish heritage and that he took the Torah seriously. “Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5, KJV). It is important to note that the Pharisaic tradition was the forerunner of Rabbinic Judaism. Does “stand therefore” refer to the Amidah? If so, I think this contributes to our understanding of the text. The “standing prayer” starts the chain reaction that can dismantle the power of the negative forces in our lives.
Both Ezra and Jesus suggest that forgiveness and prayer go together. But sometimes it is hard to forgive. In the case of repeat offenders, Jesus used the hyperbolic language of “seventy-times-seven” to demonstrate that there should be no limit in our capacity to forgive (Matthew 18:22-24). However, some injuries are so damaging that they embed themselves in us the way shrapnel digs into a wound. If we don’t deal with these injuries, we risk carrying painful memories with us all our lives. While it may not be possible to forget every memory, prayer can mitigate our pain. Forgiveness enables us to rise above painful memories and more perfectly restore our walk with God. Therefore, for the sake of our well-being, when we stand praying … we forgive.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view(s) of The United Methodist Church, Tarrant County College, The Texas State Guard or any other employer or institution.