The Lord’s Prayer was used often in my childhood: church, home, even in school at the start of each day. Everyone knew it. However we all knew to look out for one tricky spot, one place where you could get tripped up if you weren’t careful. That was when we would say, “forgive us our _______ as we forgive _________ .” The group could go one of two ways at that point: “debts” or “trespasses.” I had to listen to the leader and take my cue there. Usually I just got quiet at that part and when those rough waters were navigated I would jump back in with “and lead us not into temptation….” I never understood why there were two different words used there, nor why everyone couldn’t just agree to say the same thing. I chalked it up to one of those strange things in human behavior, like if Jesus descended into “hell” or “hades” in the Apostles’ Creed. I just assumed my side had it right, although I wasn’t always sure just what my side believed.
There is a simple explanation for the debts/trespasses conflict, though. Both Matthew and Luke record the Lord’s prayer, but each uses a different word. Which is correct, well both, and neither. When Jesus spoke these words He was using the spoken language of the day, Aramaic. The word He used was ‘choba.’ However when Matthew (6:12) and Luke (11:4) wrote they wrote in Greek so they used the Greek equivalent to ‘choba.’ But since Matthew was writing to Jews and Luke to Gentiles different Greek words conveyed Jesus’ meaning to each. For a Jew, the primary responsibility in life was to obey God. When you disobeyed God you owed Him a debt for your disobedience. You were indebted to Him. So Jews thought in terms of sin being a debt.
Luke knew his readers wouldn’t understand that concept. To them sin was transgression against God. It was a rebellious action, a breaking of a rule or principle. To Luke and his Gentile readers, sin was rebellion against God by breaking His rules, so he used the word “transgression” or sometimes translated simply “sins.” To Matthew’s Jewish readers and to Luke’s Gentile readers they each understood what Jesus was saying in Aramaic by using ‘choba’ for they each view it through their own very different cultural lens.
For us it doesn’t matter, either word speaks to our condition. We are in debt to God for our disobedience, and there is no way we can pay that debt (Ephesians 2:1-10). Only He can pay the debt for us, and that is what Jesus did on the cross. Also we are in sin for we break God’s laws and principles time after time after time. Again, we need His forgiveness for we cannot ‘undo’ an act of rebellion. There is a penalty to pay.
When you pray today, think of your sins as a debt against God you cannot pay and thank Him paying that debt for you. Then think of them as acts of rebellion against God’s rules and thank Him for forgiving you for that as well. ‘Debts’ or ‘transgressions’? It doesn’t matter which word, we aer all guilty before God and dependent on His mercy for forgiveness.