The Call for Jubilee: A Confrontation with Debt

Jubilee: The good news, of release, of recovery, of rest, of liberation.

Jubilee is our theme for Lent. Jubilee is a way of understanding the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and teaching and saving power. We’ll explore different dimensions of what Jubilee can mean for us as we follow in this Way of Jesus.

Last week we looked at the spiritual practice of fasting for Lent, and how this is an invitation for us to practice being free from whatever it may be that draws our attention away from what is good and true and holy. This is the Jubilee of personal Sabbath – the practice of taking a break from the habits that keep us distracted from the holy reality of our souls and of Almighty God – a practice of release, recovery, rest, liberation.

For this week and next week we will look at Jubilee in terms of the nasty little four-letter word that’s behind it: DEBT. Jubilee is the release, recovery, rest, liberation from the burdens of having debts and holding debts.

So, let’s talk about debt.

Moses, the Prophets, Proverbs, Jesus, Paul, all talk about about debt. And it’s a big part of a lot of our lives. But somehow, we avoid talking about it in church.

This is how much we avoid talking about debt: the line in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew is literally, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In Luke it is literally, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive our debtors.” But most churches prefer the safely abstract word “trespasses.” Do you remember as a kid having to learn the Lord’s Prayer and wondering what on earth this word “trespasses” means? This willful mistranslation has given generations of ministers and Sunday school teachers a pass on having to talk about forgiving debt.

Next week we’ll look at forgiveness in the way we usually do as Christians: forgiveness for harm that’s done to us, and forgiveness of harm that we do to others. But we’ll understand forgiveness in terms of debt and release from it.

This week we’ll look at actual, literal debt – the lending and owing money.

Debt is something that profoundly impacts many of our lives. And not just impact our lives but come to dominate people’s lives, and lead to grinding stress and hardship, as well as resentment, anger, despair, shame, and so on.

Debt is a spiritual issue, and a spiritual issue that affects many, many people.

And as I mentioned earlier, literal debt and its forgiveness comes up a lot in the Bible. The special concern is with how debt affects the poor, and with how it is an issue when it comes to spiritual and social well-being.

So as a community of faith challenged to care for each other and each other’s souls, debt is something we should be talking about and reflecting on in terms of our values as Christians.

The Laws of Moses state that every seven years people should forgive each other’s debts. Full stop.

Now, in the Bible there’s also a strong ethic that everyone should do right by what we owe to each other. We should strive to pay our debts, yes. But sometimes it gets desperately hard. And sometimes it gets desperately hard because of injustice against the poor, how wealthy people take advantage of poor people.

There is a clear and abiding Biblical ethic of compassion toward folks in desperate circumstances. And there is a clear and abiding Biblical ethic against people using debt as a way to take advantage of the power they have. Lending on interest is forbidden. For a long time, Christians also took this seriously. You may have heard about the sin of usury. “Usury” now is taken to mean lending at exorbitant interest rates. But in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions “usury” is used to mean charging any interest at all, let alone compound interest.

The problem here is how the privilege of having money becomes a way to take advantage of people who do not have enough for what they need.

The viciousness of exploitation by debt happens in big ways and small ways.

An example of a big way:

In 1791 the people of Haiti, whom the French had enslaved or brought over as slaves, rose up against the slave owners. And they won. They kicked out the French and declared independence. The Haitian Revolution: An incredible, historic act of liberation.

The French then turned around and said that the Haitians were guilty of taking French property. What they had done was take possession of their own bodies. The French calculated the value of those enslaved bodies and declared that independent Haiti now owed them an astronomical amount. An insane claim, but that didn’t stop all the other global powers from taking it seriously. The Americans and the rest of Europe all heavily sanctioned Haiti. So, the independent and liberated nation of Haiti started its life economically isolated and deeply in the red. This is a big reason why Haiti is so impoverished to this day.

That’s a big example of debt as an abuse of power. Smaller examples closer to home:

When I lived in New Mexico I used to volunteer as a mediator for the magistrate courts in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Messy divorces, landlords and tenants at each others throats, that sort of thing. They got thrown into this tiny hot little room with a younger, callower me tasked with working with them to sort it out.

What I quickly found was that most cases were collections agencies going after poor folks for medical debt. These are stories about cancer treatments, injuries after car accidents, lives turned upside-down by life-or-death struggles. After all the doctor visits and treatments, the torrent of bills began.

There was a lot of desperation in that tiny, hot little room. I could get the collections agencies to dial back their demands and accept payment plans, but I was basically powerless to intervene as I witnessed folks just getting hammered into submission. It was clear to me that most of the reps for the collection agencies hated their jobs and had the look of people who did a lot of drinking after hours. I can’t speak for how the people who are getting rich off the whole enterprise soothe their consciences.

Medical debt is an enormous problem. I’ll spare the stats – you know it’s bad. Some of you know it all in a quite personal way.

Now, I’m not fit to get into economics and policy. But my duty is to speak about the spiritual costs of having a severely indebted society: Shame, worry, fear, resentment. Injustice, profoundly unnecessary suffering. A yearning for Jubilee. A yearning for that trumpet to sound and the good news to come upon us all: release, recovery, rest, freedom.

There is another way, another way of doing business. A Jubilee Way.

Let me share two stories about the Jubilee Way:

A couple decades ago, around the turn of the millennium, there was a big push from the National Council of Churches to declare Jubilee on debt owed by poor countries to rich countries or powerful international financial institutions. My father got into this movement and took this as a personal call as well. He’s self-employed – was, he retired last week, God bless him (this a kind of tribute I guess). He was a mental health professional for decades in private practice, in a co-op he started with other psychologists.

He decided on that Jubilee year that, as a Christian, he would look at who had owed him money for seven years or more. He wrote to them and released them from their debt him. He’s continued that practice in the years since. And his business only flourished.

Another example of someone with a heart for Jubilee is Johnny Appleseed. Johnny Appleseed has the reputation for being a free spirit – and he was that – but he actually was also a savvy and successful businessman. He was going out into the frontier planting apple orchards which he then would sell to American settlers so they’d start out with an established crop. This also was a strategy to protect the small land-holders from wealthy speculators. Smart guy. And he made lots of money, which he then would squirrel away in all these secret caches under oak trees and stuff.

But anyhow, Johnny Appleseed was a deeply committed follower of Jesus. He was actually something of a mystic – he’d have these direct experiences of the Love of God and had this radical trust that God would provide. He treated everything in creation as a gift to be stewarded. He was deeply enmeshed in respectful gift economy relationships with the Native American tribes in the lands he tended to. And, when people owed Johnny Appleseed money, he wouldn’t hassle them for it. He just trusted that if God saw fit for him to get paid, God would tickle the conscience of the debtor. His business only flourished.

This is living by the grace of Jubilee.

This grace of Jubilee can soften our hardheartedness if we get angry about someone who owes us money and is jerking us around and not paying it.

This grace of Jubilee can also ease our shame if we are falling farther and farther behind on a debt that keeps compounding.

This grace of Jubilee can inspire our struggle for a more just and fair world, where the Jubilee Way is not just an individual call but collective and effective – calling on our hope in that day when the trumpet of Jubilee rings out clear and strong with the good news, of release, of recovery, of rest, of freedom.

That Jubilee call has already sounded – it’s just for us to hear and respond, together.

Thanks be to God.

Luke 4:14-24 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Holy One is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Deuteronomy 15:1-2 “Every seventh year you shall practice cancellation of debts. This shall be the nature of the cancellation: every creditor shall cancel the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not demand payment from his fellow or kinsman, for the cancellation proclaimed is of the Lord.”

Leviticus 25: 8-10 “You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month – on the day of atonement – you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you”

#Jubilee2000 #BiblicalSocialJustice #Forgiveness #Justice #MedicalDebt #HaitianRevolution #JohnnyAppleseed #Debt #Jubilee

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