Last week, I wrote about the best-known prayer of the Christian Church, The Lord’s Prayer. Taught by Jesus to his disciples, this has been seen as a model prayer for his followers of all generations since then. I noted some of the differences in the way The Lord’s Prayer is recited in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches and pointed out that these differences usually come from the fact that these two traditions use the version of the Prayer as recorded in either Matthew’s Gospel or Luke’s Gospel.

This difference is most noticeable in the Prayer’s ending. The profound affirmation that “Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever” is missing in Luke’s version (which Catholics use in their liturgy) but present in Matthew’s version (which Protestants usually cite in their worship services). Scholars tend to believe the shorter version is more likely to be authentic and that the great doxology was added later. Personally, I have no trouble believing that Jesus shared this model prayer more than once during his ministry, and that different disciples may have remembered different versions. This is actually supported by the contexts in the two Gospels: Matthew records the teaching on prayer as part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, quite early in his ministry, while Luke describes it as happening some time later, in response to a specific question about how to pray. I believe these may be the remembrances of two separate conversations.

But it’s a phrase in the middle of the Prayer that raises the most questions. In Matthew’s version, we are told to ask God to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” while in the Luke passage we read “forgive us our sins for we forgive all those who are indebted to us.” Not only are the words debts and sins interchanged in the two versions, but there is a subtle but significant difference between the use of the helping words as and for. To say “forgive as we forgive” is a comparative phrase: What does God’s forgiveness look like? A rough analogy can be seen in how we forgive each other. However, “forgive for we forgive” is a causative phrase: We seem to be asking God to forgive us because we forgive others. That feels like a kind of legalism; that we have to earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others.

When I step back from this, I can see Jesus’ wisdom in allowing this confusion in wording. Actually, there is no clear analogy between humans’ offenses against one another and our offenses against God: our offenses against each other are petty and minor in comparison to our profound sinfulness against God. Alternating between the words debts and sins may be Jesus’ way of describing the indescribable. And the words as and for are both instructive. As is the milder expression of the way in which God’s forgiveness is mirrored, on a tiny scale, in everyday life. But for is a reminder that we can never presume on God’s forgiveness, taking it for granted. His forgiveness is so surprising and undeserved that any person who fully understands and embraces it will respond with a radically changed life, characterized by a forgiving spirit. If the person doesn’t have a forgiving spirit, that’s a pretty good sign that they haven’t experienced God’s forgiveness.

“Lord, help me to never again say the words of The Lord’s Prayer in a casual and thoughtless way!”

— Pastor George Van Alstine