(You may view Video of this sermon here)
It’s a nasty little four-letter word that doesn’t get uttered from pulpits much, but here I go:
The Bible has a lot to say about debt. Debt shapes our lives. Debt shapes our society. Debt has moral weight – There are lots of shoulds and oughts stuck to it. Debt can have shame around it, resentment, anxiety. Debt raises big questions about right and wrong, fairness and justice, power, human needs, our obligations to each other. Debt is an issue that our faith has something to say about. How do we approach debt as people of faith?
“Debt” is literally what Jesus said in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” But somehow the Lord’s prayer we memorized in Sunday school says “trespasses,” which is an awkward, abstract word that we rarely use in regular life. It’s not even the word in the Bible. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against,” doesn’t capture what Jesus was saying and it doesn’t hit home for most of us.
But “debt” does. “You owe me” or “you’ll never be able to pay back what you took from me” or “the collection agency is knocking on my door” or “I don’t deserve the blessings I enjoy”– this is the kind of stuff that comes up when talk about debt and forgiving debt.
I posed the question this week to you all on our email list and social media: When we talk about forgiveness, like we have been the past few weeks, what’s debt got to do with it? What do you make of Jesus using the word “debt”? Would it be legit to have this include literal debt – money lent, money owed? What would it mean for you if it did?
One of you responded very clearly: Jesus meant it literally and we should too
But others of you weren’t having it:
I never thought of “debts and debtors” to literally mean what immediately leaps into our modern minds. I was taught a very long time ago that people back when the Bible was being written didn’t do loans like we do.
The wisdom imparted on me was that “debt and debtors” referred to thoughts or outright statements we made, or were made against us, that were not pleasing to God.
This person went on to say,
That thought was the thing that made forgiving my neighbor so easy for me to do after his bigoted comments directed at me. How could I have ever said that prayer again if I couldn’t live by what it means? Being a hypocrite has never been in my skill set.
Someone else shared this:
Jesus often used money as a metaphor: talents, widow’s mite, etc. “Forgive us our debts…” must refer to more than financial debts. We so often in our daily lives hurt others or are forgiven by others. In English we have the idioms “I owe you,” or “I am in your debt,” not usually referring to financial debts. Which is why I prefer the wider term “trespasses” which expresses the greater meaning of debt. That said I do favor “Jubilee” which includes forgiving financial debts. This is especially critical for wealthy exploiters who prey on the exploited: student debt, credit cards, unfair low wages, etc. and most of the countries in the Southern Hemisphere.
So, let’s talk about this split between literal debt and moral debt.
First, it’s always just worth noticing which things about Jesus’ teachings we’re quick to say are not meant to be taken literally. It’s easy to see with so-called biblical literalists. But it cuts differently for all of us. Often, it’s the things that really call into question how we do business as usual that we want to interpret away. My argument here is that there isn’t a clear split between monetary debts and the broader moral realm where debt is a kind of metaphor. How we deal with money is a deeply moral question.
Yes, the ancient Hebrew people did do loans differently than we do. For one, Laws of Moses forbid lending at interest, let alone at compound interest like in our society. The Laws of Moses also called for Jubilee every 50 years, where debts were wiped clean – people who lost their land because of debt had their land restored to them, people enslaved because of debt, were set free.
Now, the Laws of Moses called for Jubilee, but the people of the book didn’t always bother with it and found work arounds. So, the Hebrew Prophets called for Jubilee. And Jesus called for Jubilee – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, 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.”
“The year of the Lord’s favor” is Jubilee.
Now, through Jesus Jubilee expanded to the cosmic level – Jubilee for all humanity before God.
As one of you put it:
jubilee understood as the absolute, structural assurance that redemption and freedom are possible.
But that does not mean that having a heart of mercy and walking in the way of grace somehow does not apply to our economic relationships.
Debt is an ethical issue.
Now, Biblical ethics are clear we do have an ethical obligation to do our best to pay back what we owe someone.
As one of you said as you were thinking through this question about forgiveness of debts: when I loan someone money, I like to be paid back. If I lend someone something like a cake pan or my car, I like to have it returned in 1 piece. I feel that this is a debt that’s owed to me.
Exactly. And we all know how it feels when someone who owes us money or something else just jerks us around instead of giving it back. That can damage our relationship, damage trust. And we can get angry and resentful about getting taken advantage of. So, forgiveness can mean releasing that resentment and how it blocks the relationship, even if the level of trust may never be the same again.
But if we only focus on the obligations of the person who is in debt, we miss half the equation. What are the ethical obligations of the lender, who has a lot more power in the situation? … Especially if someone is needing to borrow because of a desperate situation, where their basic needs are at stake.
This is what the Prophets are concerned about, this is what Jesus is concerned about: How debt becomes a tool for the rich and the powerful to exploit the poor and the powerless. decry the severe and vicious abuses of power that use debt as a weapon.
As several of you pointed out, especially with the economic crisis were in, a lot of people are getting ground down by medical debt, student loan debt, housing debt. How does some Jubilee sound about now?
We are not meant to be merciless with each other. That is not how God treats us.
The extent that we can receive mercy and forgiveness from God is deeply connected to how free we feel to offer mercy and forgiveness for others. It flows both ways. If we can’t be merciful towards others, we’re blocking ourselves from receiving mercy from God.
You all really explored this in a deep way. So let me share some more folks’ words:
One you of you shared about a church movement in Philadelphia where folks helped each other get free of debt.
And several of you shared about the efforts that started with Occupy Wall Street and have been gaining some momentum among American Christians, including in our denomination, to buy up medical debt for pennies on the dollar and instead of profiting off it, you just forgive it.
But then you all offered some great reflections on the much wider scope of forgiveness and the nature of God and of people:
Robert Cialdini’s book, “Influence,” explored the principle of reciprocity deeply embedded in many cultures, especially ours. The act of receiving something, even of little value, puts an obligation on us to reciprocate, often in dramatically unequal ways. The blessings God has poured upon us generate an obligation to return the favor, but how? We can’t. We can only ask to be forgiven our debt to God. In like manner, to the extent we are agents of God’s blessings flowing into the lives of others, a sense of obligation is generated that we must forgive because it cannot be repaid to us. We are not the origin of the blessing, God is. What then becomes of the obligation? It can be satisfied only in part by paying the blessings forward.
If Jesus just gives his life for us and does not free us from the obligation of reciprocity he is no better than a Mafia Don doing a favor to control us with the obligation of reciprocity.
The word “debt” in this context is much broader than a mere monetary one. We ask to be forgiven our debts as we forgive our debtors because God has loved us with such magnitude, we can never “pay that back”. And yet, we can try by the way we live our lives in accordance with Jesus’ example. But we will fall short, as others will, when we think they owe us something, be it respect, love, material things, etc.
So focusing on what we think is “owed” us, yet dismissing what we owe others is a miserable way to live, leading us to resentment and an attitude of entitlement. No joy there.
Forgiving our debtors is the way to peace.
Forgiving debt and our debtors opens us up to the concept of the free gift… Giving freely without expectation of reciprocation and receiving openly without obligation. Pure giving and receiving. Love given freely without the need to be loved back. Love received without expectations. Giving and receiving is so different than give and take. Receiving requires grace.
That’s right. The grace of God and the grace it can inspire people to, just fills me with gratitude. Thanks be to God.
[From Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”]:
“And when you pray, don’t act like phonies. They love to stand up and pray in houses of worship and on street corners, so they can show off in public. I swear to you, their prayers have been answered! When you pray, go into a room by yourself and shut the door behind you. Then pray to your Abba, the hidden one. And your Abba, with their eye for the hidden, will applaud you. And when you pray, you should not babble on like the gentiles do. They imagine that the length of their prayers will command attention. So don’t imitate them. After all, your Abba knows what you need before you ask. Instead, you should pray like this,
“Our Abba in the heavens,
May your Name be revered
May your Realm come
May your will be done,
On earth as in heaven.
Provide us with the bread we need for the day.
Forgive our debts
To the extent that we have forgiven those in debt to us.
And please don’t subject us to test after test,
But rescue us from the evil one.”
For if you forgive others their failures and offenses, your heavenly Abba will also forgive yours. And if you don’t forgive the failures and mistakes of others, your Abba won’t forgive yours.”