FORGIVE our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
I’ve found some comments by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash helpful for understanding the petition “… as we forgive our debtors”.
It seems to be a matter of gratuitously wiping clean the secret account book that we keep of what we think other people owe us.
In his notes on Sunday Matins (PDF only), Fr Lash draws attention to the Troparion,
WHEN you were crucified with the nails, Master, you wiped the curse against us, while when pierced in the side by the lance you tore up Adam’s record of our debt (χειρόγραφον) and freed the world.
Of this, he says:
The word χειρόγραφον, which literally means ‘handwriting’, ‘a manuscript’, here refers to what Shylock calls ‘a bond’, that is a signed certificate of indebtedness.
It is the same image that is used in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our debts’, and in Matthew 18:21-35, the parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
St Romanos the Melodist’s Kontakion No. 16 for Palm Sunday invokes the same metaphor of debt, and Fr Lash compares the sentiments there to the Akathist Hymn, also ascribed to Romanos, which we sing throughout Lent.
The origin of this metaphor, which is very frequent in the liturgical texts, is Colossians 2,14, where St Paul speaks of Christ ‘wiping out the record against us, … nailing it to the Cross’.
The word cheirographon is a technical term from accountancy and means ‘a certificate of debt’, a ‘bond’, such as Shylock obtains in The Merchant of Venice. Such documents could be rubbed out and the materiel used again.
This is the image St Paul uses, but it is more common in the liturgical texts to speak of Christ ‘tearing up the bond’, as here and in the Akathist, X:
WISHING to give discharge
From ancient debts
The one who releases all mankind from their debts
Made his home of his own will
With those who had left the home of his grace,
And having torn up the record,
He hears from all,
Fr Lash’s “Lord’s Prayer”, as used across his website “Anastasis”, runs as follows:
OUR Father in heaven, may your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.