A Lawyer Wrote me About "Trespass"

He had read my recent columns on the Lord’s Prayer and found it interesting that the translation is “trespass.” “In the common law,” he wrote, “the tort of trespass is the basis for almost every crime and civil offense against the person.” Trespass, in other words, is at the root of most crimes and offenses.

His return address, however, was scrambled and my reply failed to get through. But it may be of general interest also. So here it is.

The Greek word that is translated “trespass” comes from parapipto, which means literally to “slip aside.” One can see how that is used for an error or transgression.

But that is not the word in the Lord’s Prayer. We find “trespass” only in Matthew 6:14-15, when Jesus, after finishing the prayer, goes back to explain that line.

Look it up in the King James Version: At Matthew 6:12, we are instructed to ask God to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (This is the traditional translation maintained by Presbyterians.) The Greek words there (both instances) are from opheilo, which means to owe, to have a debt. (Yes, it is also related to “Ophelia.”)

There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament. The other one, in Luke, uses two different words in this line (again, the distinction is maintained in the King James Version). It’s at Luke 11:4. “Forgive us our sins; for we also forgive everyone that is indebted to us.” The word for “sins” comes from Greek hamartia, which means missing the mark—going off course (like a stray arrow, say; one might even say erring and straying). “Debtors” again comes from opheilo.

So: the “explanation word” that Jesus gives, “trespasses,” becomes the word we traditionally use in corporate prayer in English. Whatever the historical trajectory of that, it is interesting to learn that trespass can be understood as the root of all (or most) crime and offense. We are asking God to forgive something that is at the root.

(More on this line in a future post.)

Out & About. I am to preach on Sunday, August 11, at the traditional services of Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.

Looking Ahead. It’s not for more than a month, but for the next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar we’ll be reading The Master and Margarita (note: not “The Master and the Margarita”; it is not a book about alcoholism.) This novel, written during the Soviet period by Mikhail Bulgakov, is a satire and a romp with odd theological elements. I find it a fast read, but it is nonetheless 400 pages (but hey, that’s less than half of War and Peace). The devil appears in the first chapter. He says it’s easy for him to walk around in communist Russia, because no one believes he exists. He was also (of course) at the events in Jerusalem some two thousand years earlier. It’s worth the time—but not something to be read in the weekend before the seminar! (Which will be Sunday, September 15, at 6 p.m.)

What Theologians Read. Here’s an interesting essay from the latest Image magazine, on the moon landing and faith—reviewing two books and the film “First Man”.

I also recently read—in an hour—The Sunset Limited, a “novel in dramatic form” by Cormac McCarthy. It’s the first McCarthy I’ve been able to finish (and several of them have been recommended to me over the years). The two characters are “Black” and “White,” sitting in Black’s small city apartment, discussing suicide. It seems White recently attempted that, and was caught up in the arms of Black. The dialogue is sharp, surprising, deep—McCarthy is a genius—and sometimes I felt I was reading an updated version of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Yet, in the end, I was less than satisfied. That, however, may be my problem; if you have a soul for looking into the abyss, this is a better look than you will usually get. (May I again commend the Dallas Public Library for their collection?)

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."