“...forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” (Luke 11:4)
Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer is slightly different in many ways from Matthew’s version. Some critics of the Bible see that as reason to doubt the reliability of the scriptures, but truth is it is more likely Jesus taught on this more than once. This was more of a Sunday School lesson with his disciples whereas Matthew’s version was his Sunday morning sermon.
But even in Luke’s version there is an interesting difference in the petition to forgive sins that sheds some light on the severity of debts. The word used here for sin is the standard Greek word meaning, wrong-doing, guilt, evil actions. But when referencing the sins of others against us he changes words. The word there refers to what is owed to someone. Matthew only uses this word in his version of the prayer.
In our day, most of us have debts of many kinds. We have student loan debts, credit card debts, mortgage debts and so forth. If we do not pay them, it could result in bad credit, foreclosure, repossession, lawsuits and such. But the repercussions are never life-threatening nor a threat to your family. But in Jesus’ day and age, to be indebted to someone was to risk losing so much more.
In the parable of the unforgiving servant recorded in Matthew 18, Jesus tells of a king wanted to settle his accounts with his servants. One in particular was in well-over his head in debt: 10,000 talents. One talent was equivalent to 20 years of wages for an average laborer. Today the average day laborer makes about 30,000 per year, so that would be 300 million dollars today. Because the man could not pay it (who could pay back such an absurd amount of debt?) the king ordered that he and his family be sold into slavery.
As the story goes on, the man begs for mercy, promising to pay him everything back in time. And the king is moved with compassion and instead forgives the debt. But what does this man do with his freedom? He goes and imprisons a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii which was little more than three months worth of wages. The point I am making is debts in Jesus’ day were more severe than we think of today. There was no bankruptcy court or refinance options. It could actually have landed the debtor AND his family in a permanent state of slavery.
In the parable, we are like the servant who owed 300 million - we can never pay back the debt we owe. And when he taught us to pray “forgive us our sins” (or debts) we are reminded anew that we cannot pay him back but are entirely dependent on his mercy. I think of an old song I learned in church growing up: He paid a debt he did not owe; I owe a debt I could not pay. I needed someone to wash my sins away. But God has done more than show mercy, he has actually paid the debt entirely!
But that doesn’t mean we are not indebted to him anymore. We are now debtors to mercy. We owe God a debt of gratitude and one of the ways we pay this debt is by forgiving those indebted to us; those who sin against us. That is a major point in the parable and in this petition in the Lord’s prayer.
But I think one reason Luke uses a different word is to highlight the fact that all sin is ultimately against God, and all sins against God deserve the wrath and curse of God. We usually take our sins so lightly, and frequently excuse ourselves for our actions without any qualms, but deal with the sins of others with severity. But that shows the gospel has not penetrated the depths of our hearts, just as it had not penetrated the depths of the unforgiving servant. And praying this petition is meant to help the gospel get down in there deep so that we can live out of the gratitude of the mercy and forgiveness we have received!