My Greek Testament project is finally underway. The plan is to read the Apostolic Bible Polyglot using the through-the-Bible-in-a-year arrangement, which divvies up the Bible into a year’s worth of three daily readings from the Old and New Testaments.
This approach proved to be helpful when I read Luke 11:4 and Genesis 18:26 on the same day and noticed that the verb ἀφίημι appeared in both verses but with different translations. In Luke 11, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to be forgiven (ἄφες) by God and to be forgiving (ἀφίομεν) of others. In Genesis 18, God promises Abraham that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah will be halted (αφήσω) if 50 righteous people can be found in Sodom.
The Abraham-God negotiation continues, Abraham keeps whittling down the number until only ten righteous folks are required to stop the planned destruction. In this back-and-forth, the verb used is ἀπόλλυμι (origin of the term apocalypse). Abraham wants assurance that God won’t destroy (απολείς) the city if a certain number of righteous are in residence. With each decrease in the righteous requirement, God assures Abraham, “I will not destroy” (ου μη απολέσω).
This switch from αφήσω “I will leave off” to απολέσω “I will not destroy” combined with the contrast between ἀφίημι as forgiving and ἀφίημι as leaving alone, sparked my imagination.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to forgive those who trespass against us. In the Greek, the phrase is αὐτοὶ ἀφίομεν παντὶ ὀφείλοντι ἡμῖν, which can be translated “we ourselves release all indebted to us.” Who are we praying about here? Who is indebted to us and from what do they need us to release them?
Since the November election season is upon us and I keep hearing from politicians who promise that if elected they will cut government spending by eliminating public assistance, this seems like an opportune moment to meditate upon the poor as those who are indebted to us.
Food Stamps, Medicaid, disability, unemployment benefits, subsidized school lunches, housing, and child care-- these programs are the ones that typically raise the ire of certain politicians. These candidates hope that voters share their sense of disgust about the cost of providing a social safety net. The political aspirers prompt voters to remember how it felt to pay their tax bill earlier this year, the anger and indignation that filled them when they had to send so much of their income to the IRS.
The candidates are counting on using that anger as a motivation that will drive the outraged to the polls. Their campaign rhetoric makes it sound like there are not 50 righteous people living in poverty let alone ten. They are ready to rain down fire and brimstone on these social deadweights, as well as on government programs for the Taker class rather than the Maker class.
So, there’s one example of a group of people who are seen as indebted to another group. I encourage you to think of a personal example that hits close to home. Is there a social group that owes something to the group to which you belong? Try to think of a group that exasperates you.
Now pray the Lord’s Prayer with this group in mind when you get to the line-- “Release us from our sins, as we release all indebted to us.” This is a prayer to release, to let go of, to leave alone. To release resentment. To let go of seething. To leave alone rather than destroy. We are asking God to spare us even though little righteousness resides in us. In return, we will not take out our ire on others who are undeserving.
After reflecting on ἀφίημι in Luke 11 and Genesis 18, my reading of the Lord’s Prayer has shifted. I now read Luke 11:4 not so much as a prayer about forgiveness but as a prayer for a change in attitudes. An improvement in God’s attitude towards me would be very nice, and that switch is tied to a reversal in my attitude towards those I hold something over.
Instead of thinking of forgiveness as a return to a previous attitude (as in-- I used to like Pat, then Pat betrayed me, but I forgave Pat and like Pat again), I now conceive of forgiveness as a release of the desire to be vindictive or to retaliate.
Knowing myself as I do, I know this attitude adjustment will have to come from a divine source. Hence the need for prayer in order to make it happen. Given that Jesus taught us this prayer, I trust that it is a prayer that will be answered.
The implications of this reading of Luke 11:4 for the election season are--