“debt” = “guilt”

“debt” = “guilt” July 10, 2015

I’ve read two articles on Germany’s hard line against bailing out Greece that blame in part the German language.  Says Michael Birnbaum, “This tough stance comes from a rules-oriented nation where even the language is conspiring against Greece’s struggles: Germans use the same word for “debt” and for “guilt.”  (Harold Meyerson makes the same point.)

Well, I’ve got news for the journalists.  “Debt” and “guilt” also use the same word in Greek.  At least in New Testament Greek.  This is why the Lord’s Prayer is variously translated “forgive us our trespasses” and “forgive us our debts.”  The Old English version says forgive us our “gyltas,” i.e., “guilts.”  Let me explain the connection. . . .

First of all, the German word in question is Schuld, which does indeed mean both guilt (or shame) and debt.

As for the Lord’s Prayer, here is the original Greek in Matthew 6:12:  καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν.  That plural noun is derived from the word transliterated opheilo, meaning, “something owed, i.e. (figuratively) a due; morally, a fault — debt.”  (Modern Greek has the similar οφειλή, which means “debt,” with οφείλω meaning”should” or “ought.”  So there is a trace of the connection still.)

The phrase in the Lord’s Prayer literally means “forgive us what we owe.”

But that the same word can be used in these different senses–and I believe it works in some other languages as well (please inform us if you know of some)–is very revealing.

Not so much that debt should make us feel guilty, but that guilt is, in fact, a debt.  When we transgress God’s moral law, we owe something.  As we say even in English, we need to pay for what we did.  Guilt even feels like an obligation, so that we often try to make up for the wrong we did by doing something good, as if we were balancing our account.

The good news, though, is that Jesus has “paid” for our sins.  He has paid the price that we can never pay ourselves.  He has “redeemed” us–bought us back, paid our ransom–with His blood.  He has forgiven our debts.  Which, in turn, should inspire us to forgive our debtors, those who trespassed against us.


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