“Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us…” (Luke 11:4).
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
Many readers of the Gospels notice that in the accounts of the Lord’s Prayer given in Matthew and Luke there is a noticeable difference regarding the petition for forgiveness. While Luke tells us that Jesus taught we should pray for forgiveness of our sins, Matthew records that we are to pray for the forgiveness of our debts. Matthew doubtless refers to spiritual rather than financial debts, but the two Gospels use different words with very different meanings.
Luke’s account uses the Greek word hamartia which is the word most often used for sins in the New Testament. Matthew, however, uses the Greek words opheilēma and opheiletēs which are translated as “debts” and “debtors” and which convey the idea of a responsibility we have not paid off. To make matters seem even more complicated, Matthew records that directly after giving the Lord’s Prayer Jesus said:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14–15 ESV).
Here, the word “trespasses” is translated from yet another Greek word paraptōma, which we know means any sin that goes over the boundaries (like trespassing on someone’s property) of established laws.
But this seeming tangle of different Greek words is put in clear perspective when we realize that Jesus certainly would not have given the Lord’s Prayer in Greek, and that the language he would have used would have been Aramaic – the language spoken by the population of Judea in New Testament times. Unlike Greek, which has separate words for the ideas of sin and unpaid debts or responsibilities, Aramaic has a single word khoba signifying both sins and debts.
This means that the petition for forgiveness given by Jesus was interpreted as referring to “sins” by Luke and “debts” by Matthew. There is actually a clear hint of this double meaning in Luke’s Gospel where the Greek actually includes both ideas in stating: “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4, emphases added). Although this double meaning does not appear in the NIV, it is accurately recorded in the ESV, NKJV, Holman Bible, etc.
But we should not forget the significance of the double meaning of the Aramaic word doubtless used by Jesus. That word signifies both sins in the sense of things we do that we should not do and debts in the sense of responsibilities we should have fulfilled but did not – sins of “commission” and “omission.”
So the accounts of Matthew and Luke do not contradict each other. Matthew simply stresses the debt aspect of the word Jesus used, while Luke stresses the sin aspect – though he also manages to include the idea of indebtedness. And Matthew, the tax collector who perhaps naturally remembered and stressed the aspect of debts, also includes the additional word paraptōma which can refer to any transgression and which covers both types of failing to love – either by what we do or do not do.