Sunday, March 20, 2022

Jubilee Plea

A family in Atlanta shivered in the cold as the mail came. It was December of 1932, the lowest pit of the Great Depression, and as a mother and her children took the mail, she began to cry. One was from her doctor, and it had to be a medical bill. She'd been long past due in paying. She just had nothing to pay with, pressed between a roof overhead, daily bread, and this looming debt. And here it was, the envelope from Dr. Brown's office with what surely was the final notice that they'd take everything. The doctor had been mighty patient, but even the famed George Thaddeus Brown – a prominent medical expert and former state legislator – had his limits. With tears and trepidation, the mother reluctantly opened the bill. Only... it wasn't a bill. It was a letter, signed at the bottom by Dr. Brown. And the mother couldn't believe what she was reading. In it, Dr. Brown said that he knew payment of his bills was an impossible hardship for many patients and their families. And so he'd been moved to do something drastic. On Saturday morning, he'd taken his account books – the record of all the bills he was due – and he'd hurled them into a bonfire. The records burnt to a crisp on the cold ground. And so, Dr. Brown wrote to all his patients, “Let's start all over.” Every debt was hereby forgiven. He asked them to forget he'd done them any service at all, but just to pass along “this message of good will, good hope, and good cheer.” Oh, can you imagine the transformation on a freezing family's countenance, to have their debt given over to flame? Many families in Atlanta that winter felt those tearful frowns flip to grins. Dr. George Thaddeus Brown had, in his drastic act, forgiven a total of $81,362 – the equivalent today of nearly $1.7 million – in medical debt he'd thus never collect on, converting years of past services into gifts for many.1

In the prayer Jesus taught us, we're accustomed to ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That's the conventional version, even though it's based on the words Jesus uses after the prayer more than those he uses in it. A 'trespass' here, in Greek, is more a 'defection' or a 'desertion' – it's a misstep that separates us from close companionship with God, something that leads us away from his side, all the way up to an abandonment or a betrayal. In the Gospel of Luke, we read the line starting as “Forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4). And the word Luke chooses there has the sense of misfires that veer off target, missing the mark, like an arrow that gets nowhere near the bullseye. But Matthew gets us closest to what Jesus must have said, speaking to the crowds in Aramaic, by giving us literally, “Forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12).

Where the main images of sin in most of the Old Testament were of a stain that had to be washed clean or of a weight that had to be lifted away, the last few centuries before the birth of Christ saw a shift in the direction of a new mental picture of sin as a debt that needed to be paid.2 Jesus frequently talks exactly that way, describing sin using stories around debtors and creditors to drive home his point. And as people reflected on that metaphor – sins as debts – they concluded that all humanity became debtors via Adam and Eve's original sin.3 That alone is devastating, because none of us has resources with which to pay off that debt and live. But as if that weren't enough, each of us builds upon the original debt of sin we've inherited by sinning further, getting deeper into the hole. It's as if we're employees whose boss has entrusted each of us with company resources and given us clear directions on what needs to be done. If you use everything you're given for legitimate business expenses and get all the tasks done by the deadline, great – you'll get a raise! But whenever you neglect certain tasks, failing to make the transactions he commissioned you to make, then that negligence puts you in debt to your boss for what was left undone. Likewise, whenever you dip into that trust for your own personal use, spending company money on what isn't company business, that's embezzlement, and embezzlement puts you in debt to your boss, too. Just so, God has entrusted each of us with company resources – the life you live, the breath you draw, the body you bear, the time that ticks down. To use them all legitimately for the purposes assigned to us would be to live a profitable life! But sin neglects tasks that we're commissioned to do – those are sins of omission – and embezzling our life, breath, body, and time for purposes contrary to his – those are sins of commission. And so, with each case of neglect or each act of embezzlement, we dig ourselves deeper into debt.4

The truth is that we today aren't sufficiently horrified by sin, most of us. It's obvious, of course, that the world around us has lost whatever basic grip on the very notion of sin we might have once assumed. But I'm talking, not of the world, but of the church. Do even we take sin truly seriously? Do we realize how much has been entrusted to us, and what a serious thing it is to embezzle from God and spend it on purposes hateful to him? If we had a true picture of the sins of our lifetimes, even our lifetimes where everybody around us calls us a good and decent person, the resultant picture would be scandalous, shocking – a portrait of criminality. In our hearts, each of us knows it's true. And so, already utterly in the red since Eden, and deepened by mismanagement of our own design, we stand before God with a deadly debt.

And all we can do, then, is cry out to God: “Forgive us our debts!” Or, literally, 'Release our debts.' The word both Matthew and Luke use here is an image is of letting the debt go, dropping it from his hand, cutting the tie of obligation between creditor and debtor, and so canceling it out. And it's entirely possible that, for the first people hearing Jesus teach them this prayer, it was also a request for actual financial freedom. Remember, the people first hearing Jesus teach this prayer are farmers who sometimes have to borrow to afford seed to sow, counting on a good harvest to pay it back – one serious crop failure could be their ruin. So too, Jesus is talking to village women who borrow routinely from one another's pantries, with nothing but a promise to return the favor one day. He's speaking in a Galilee drowning in oppressive taxes imposed without mercy by Rome. Debt is a constant feature of their lives, and debt was more dangerous in their world than ours. There were debtors' prisons where debtors could be tortured, with expectation that their families would be incentivized to pay up. There was debt slavery, where the debtor himself or his family members could be sold as slaves to work off the amount of their indebtedness. With threats like that hanging over their heads, these people were desperately yearning for God to act by somehow canceling out those financial debts and saving their livelihoods.5

But Jesus urges them to channel that yearning also to the moral debts we owe to God because of sin. We ask God to cut the ties of debt, the ties that call for payback. We're asking that the debt of our misdeeds be canceled out, that we may find ourselves free from the lurking danger of demand, be it our debt-slavery to sin and death or the prospect of an eternal debtors' prison called hell. We're crying out for God to let it go, to find some way of recompense that will satisfy our debts and let us live and recover. We're pleading for mercy.

And so Jesus came, and he went to the cross. Paul described how, because of Christ's death and resurrection, we've been made alive with Christ, with God “having forgiven us all our trespasses by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands: this he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-15). And so “God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Any forgiveness that God offers us, any forgiveness that we receive from God, is all and always and only derived from one place: Christ on the cross, canceling the debt record, blanking out our bills with his blood. What comes next is how it gets applied to the life of the Church and to Christians who receive this gift of forgiveness into their life.

I remember, before I was a pastor, helping out with a Sunday School class at my old home church. And there was this one older lady who was utterly perplexed by the Lord's Prayer. She had the question, “Well, why should we be asking forgiveness now? Didn't Jesus already pay it all? If I'm saved, if I'm forgiven, why would I still need forgiveness? Isn't it once-and-for-all?” Those were the questions she was asking, and if we don't pause to question some of our assumptions, they're questions we might not be able to answer.

At baptism, all our debts are wiped away – the whole debt of Adam and Eve we've inherited, plus the debt of all our old life, is gone in its entirety. What does Peter say? “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). The early church heard this and knew that “forgiveness of sins is absolutely assured to those who will enter the water,”6 that “the bath of rebirth washes away whatever sins it finds.”7 In other words, born again in baptism, all those old debts are reckoned as proper to a life that's no longer being lived. They're buried at sea with the old self. The account book is burned in its entirety, and the moment you walked away from the water, you were sinless, perfectly free of moral debt!

And that ought to be it, really! Ideally, from that new birth, we ought to have “ceased from sin” (1 Peter 4:1). “No one born of God,” says John, “makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). But the fact of the matter is that even the holiest Christian on earth still commits at least some sins going forward. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). And just as Dr. Brown's patients could start over but had could accrue new medical debt, so we're given a fresh start but can incur new moral debts, what St. Augustine called “debts... contracted in all the years after the water of salvation.”8 He added: “By going on living, we have contracted debts that need to be forgiven every day.”9 Some are bigger, like the bill for the treatment you'll need after throwing your soul in the path of a speeding freight train. Some are smaller, like the bill you'll get after hitting your soul with a hammer. Not the same size, but both yield debts. So we ask for forgiveness.

St. Augustine, one of the great teachers of the church who spent a lot of time reflecting on the nature of sin, saw why this prayer was so important. He knew that, for the bigger sins, Jesus had prescribed more intensive treatment – that's why Christ told his apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). But the more everyday sins could be handled in this prayer itself, Augustine said. “On account of certain daily matters..., he has given us a daily remedy,”10 that we receive “the daily purification of this holy prayer.”11 “As for the daily brief and unimportant sins without which it is impossible to lead this life, the daily prayer of the faithful makes satisfaction for them.... This prayer entirely cancels tiny daily sins. It also cancels those from which the faithful turn away in penance and reform.”12 “After a certain fashion, you are cleansed every day from daily light and minor sins through your prayers, if you say from the heart, if you say truthfully, if you say in faith, 'Forgive us our debts as we too forgive our debtors.'13 So said St. Augustine. And his picture dovetails with St. John's beautiful words of assurance: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

So far, so good! This prayer Jesus gave us is how we can petition God each day to show us mercy, to clear our debts away. Prayed daily, it's a daily remedy for our daily sins, bringing us daily back to the foot of the cross. But there is a catch here, a natural one. Jesus didn't just tell us to say, “Forgive us our debts.” He added a qualifier: “As we have also forgiven our debtors.” The condition of our daily forgiveness is our willingness to pass that forgiveness along, to imitate it, to mirror it. Forgiving others their debts to us is what makes us people capable of receiving God's forgiveness of our debts. And this idea isn't new to the Gospels. A couple centuries before, another Jewish teacher said: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong done to you; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Does anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? Can one refuse mercy to a sinner like oneself, yet seek pardon for his own sins?” (Sirach 28:2-4). What Jesus does is, he bakes that question into the prayer itself. And it's implied already by the plural in the petition. We ask for God to “forgive us our debts” – well, who are we praying for? Not each of us for him- or herself alone. You're praying just as much, in many cases, for the person in your debt – the person who owes you, who sinned against you. And if you're necessarily praying for his or her forgiveness, you can't refuse to be a vessel of forgiveness.

On the one hand, this has real financial applications. As an ancient preacher asked: “If you remit the material debt, the bonds of your soul will also be loosened.”14 If somebody owes you money, that's an area God might be calling you to forgive, just like Dr. Brown. But, of course, this prayer has moral application. When people hurt us, mistreat us, deny us our dignity, their actions sign an IOU – an IOU for reparation and restitution for the hurt, an IOU for the dignity we were denied. But we have the power to release them from debt to us.

So what does it really mean for us to forgive other people? We can't go too in-depth on this, or we'll be here all day. But first, here's what forgiveness isn't. Forgiveness is not denying that the sin against you happened. It is not denying that what was done to you was wrong. Forgiveness is not coming to the conclusion that it didn't matter or wasn't a big deal. Forgiveness is not incompatible with seeking justice. Forgiveness is not just getting over it. Forgiveness is not the same thing as healing, even though it can both come from and enable healing. Forgiveness is definitely not the same thing as an automatic change in your feelings. That's because forgiveness isn't a feeling at all; forgiveness is a choice – and it's a choice you might have to recommit to, day after day or week after week, as lingering feelings of hurt and resentment continue to tempt you otherwise.15

Forgiveness is an action of the will, giving expression to that choice. It's an action of relinquishing your grip on that moral IOU, on those ties of indebtedness that bind the offender to you (and you to the offender). It's saying before God: “So-and-So really did owe me restitution for this particular harm they did me, that's true, and I had a right to pursue it, but I'm renouncing that right and letting it go. This person owed me repair to my dignity, but I'm clearing that slate. I reject my desire to hurt them, to get back at them, to teach them a lesson. If they face any consequences for what they did to me, I hope it's only for their good and for the good of others. Faced with what this person did, I would rather heal them and myself than cling to my inner posture toward them, no matter how justifying or consoling this bitter grievance may feel. So I give up my grievance. I let go of this IOU they wrote me by what they did. I drop it into the flames of God's love. And if I find photocopies of that IOU in my heart later, then I aim to burn those in the same bonfire, so help me God.”

That's what it means for us to forgive. And it means that you can forgive a person who hasn't repented. You can forgive a person who isn't sorry. You can forgive a person who won't apologize, or even who isn't still living or available to apologize. You can forgive a person just with your heart, between yourself and God, without the other person's input at all. It takes two to reconcile, yes, but only one to forgive.16 Reconciliation is usually the ideal, but even before Jesus taught this prayer, Israel knew that forgiveness could be given where repentance or apology were lacking. A Jewish writer before Jesus put it like this, and these words are beautiful:

Love one another from the heart, therefore, and if anyone sins against you, speak to him in peace. … If anyone confesses and repents, forgive him. If anyone denies his guilt, don't be contentious with him – otherwise, he may start cursing, and you'd be sinning doubly. Even if he denies it and acts disgracefully out of a sense of guilt, be quiet and don't become upset, for he who denies will repent and avoid offending you again; indeed, he'll honor you, respect you, and be at peace. But even if he's devoid of shame and persists in his wickedness, forgive him from the heart and leave vengeance to God.17

Now, that may sound like a tall order, this forgiving business. But Jesus told a parable, and I've yet to see the commentary on the Lord's Prayer that doesn't call in this parable to flesh out this petition. Jesus told a story of a royal servant who, in the course of his duties, had managed to dig himself into debt, to the tune of ten thousand talents. Now, to us, that's just a number. But in today's money, 10,000 talents is about four billion dollars. Can you imagine a person, a private individual, with four billion dollars in debt to somebody? There's absolutely no way out! So in desperation, he begs the king for more time, and promises to pay up. But that's an impossible promise to keep. The only way for the king to even begin to recoup those losses is for the servant's household to be totally liquidated and for him and his family to be sold into debt-slavery for life, perhaps for generations to come, toiling to work off the debt. But to this impossible request for more time, the king makes an astounding announcement: he'll write off the $4,000,000,000 as just a gift. He tells the servant, “I'm not going to collect on this from you. Consider yourself released. The weight and dread are over your head no more. Be free!” That's the position we can be in again with respect to God, if only we ask for this mercy (Matthew 18:23-27)!

Jesus goes on, adding a new character: a second servant. The second servant owes the first servant something. How much could it be? Certainly no four billion dollars! A few thousand at most. Whatever exchanges have gone on between Servants 1 and 2, nothing could have put Servant 2 in as much debt to Servant 1 as Servant 1 has just been released from by the king (Matthew 18:28a). So it is with us. The harshest moral debts we can incur toward each other, horrifying as they can be, all pale next to the amount God has already forgiven us for in Christ. And that's why Jesus says what he says after the Lord's Prayer: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). We're told, plain as can be, that if we want the debts we incur by our day-to-day missteps, our lapses in companionship with God, to be discharged and resolved, then God expects us to forgive the lesser debts incurred to us by those around us, even those who abandon or betray us, even those who've offended the same way hundreds of times already (cf. Matthew 18:22). In Jesus' parable, Servant 1 – you know, the one forgiven a fortune the size of a small country's national debt – meets Servant 2 – who owes Servant 1 a modest and manageable debt – and responds the very opposite way the king did. Servant 1 offers no grace, no mercy, no patience – only violence. Refusing to pass along the blessing of forgiveness, he has Servant 2 handed over to torturers at a debtors' prison (Matthew 18:28-30). In doing so, he implicitly makes the king out to be a fool. Just so, if we Christians, baptized into the body of Christ the Great Forgiver, refuse to forgive others as God forgave us, then we make God out to be a fool. (God forbid!) Jesus ends the parable with the king re-instituting Servant 1's debt and sending him to prison. “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you,” Jesus adds, “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:31-35).

That makes forgiveness a must. It's a choice, but there's only one safe choice, one sane choice, one right choice. Jesus describes a world where nothing but forgiveness makes sense. The debtor who owes you? Forgive. The parent who was cruel? Forgive. The spouse who cheated and divorced? Forgive. The child who ran away? Forgive. The boss who fired you? Forgive. The worker who swindled you? Forgive. The friend who scorned you? Forgive. The relative who cut ties? Forgive. The politician who lied? Forgive. The mugger in the alley? Forgive. The world gone mad? Forgive. Again, that doesn't mean condone, that doesn't mean excuse, that doesn't mean restore to intimacy, that doesn't mean forswear justice, that doesn't mean the hurt is gone, that doesn't mean go back to the way things were. It means the account books ultimately get burnt.

And a world where the account books burn up looks like the world of the jubilee. In God's ancient Law, once or twice in a lifetime, there came a jubilee year – a holy time when debts got canceled, slaves went free, all things once lost were restored (Leviticus 25:8-18). And already, by the time of Jesus, the jubilee was seen as covering not just financial realities but moral ones – the hope of freedom from the debt and slavery of sin. People were looking for a Savior to “proclaim to them the jubilee, thereby releasing them from the debt of all their sins.”18 That's who Jesus came to be (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2), and the world he came to bring – in part, through us. What are we asking, then, when we pray the Lord's Prayer here? We pray for the perfect jubilee to begin in our lives and in the lives of everyone around us. We pray to step into Jesus' jubilee world, and to bring mercy back here from eternity's door. Taking sin seriously, we should desperately crave forgiveness. So we pray for the jubilee's forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And in the interest of our jubilee plea, we ask the grace to keep these forgiveness wheels in motion, that every debt might be canceled in Jesus' name. Let it be so! Amen.

1  “Doctor Burns Bills; Invites New Start,” Baltimore Evening Sun (3 December 1932): 9; “Dr. Geo. Brown Burns $81,362 Patients' Bills,” The Atlanta Constitution (4 December 1932): 11A; etc.

2  Gary A. Anderson, Sin: A History (Yale University Press, 2009), 7-8.

3  E.g., Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 5.17.1 (late second century)

4  Adam of Exeter, Exposition on Pater Noster, in Tony Hunt, ed., “Cher alme”: Texts of Anglo-Norman Piety (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2010), 115.

5  Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 222; Jerome H. Neyrey, Give God the Glory: Ancient Prayer and Worship in Cultural Perspective (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), 79; Douglas E. Oakman, Jesus, Debt, and the Lord's Prayer: First-Century Debt and Jesus' Intentions (Cascade Books, 2014), 18, 32-33.

6  Tertullian of Carthage, On Penitence 6 (early third century)

7  Augustine of Hippo, Unfinished Work in Answer to Julian 3.51.A1 (early fifth century)

8  Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 9.13 (late fourth century)

9  Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 56.11 (early fifth century)

10  Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 110A.8 (late fourth century)

11  Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 56.12 (early fifth century)

12  Augustine of Hippo, Enchiridion 71 (early fifth century)

13  Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 179A.6 (early fifth century)

14  Gregory of Nyssa, On the Lord's Prayer 5 (late fourth century)

15  Thomas Berg and Timothy Lock, Choosing Forgiveness: Unleash the Power of God's Grace (Our Sunday Visitor, 2022), 24-26, 52, 82.

16  Thomas Berg and Timothy Lock, Choosing Forgiveness: Unleash the Power of God's Grace (Our Sunday Visitor, 2022), 35, 136-137.

17  Testament of Gad 6.3-7 (second century BC). But some think The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs a Christian composition, or heavily interpolated by later Christian copyists.

18  Dead Sea Scrolls, The Coming of Melchizedek = 11QMelchizedek = 11Q13 2.6 (second/first century BC), translated in Michael Wise, et al., The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 456. See discussion of this passage in John S. Bergsma, The Jubilee from Leviticus to Qumran: A History of Interpretation (Brill, 2007), 284-285, and in Gary A. Anderson, Sin: A History (Yale University Press, 2009), 35-36.

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