Are we in debt to God?

Ted Grimsrud—October 10, 2016

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the first in a series on salvation and human flourishing.]

My agenda here is to talk about Jubilee. I believe that Jubilee is a central theme throughout the entire Bible, even if the term itself isn’t used very often. A key text is Luke 4, which tells of when Jesus opens his public ministry with words that would have associated him with the Old Testament’s year of Jubilee—which is one of three levels of Sabbath regulations in the book of Leviticus.

Sabbath theology

There is the Sabbath day, the seventh day, a day of rest—which when first instituted was radical for the Hebrew people who had recently been liberated from slavery where there was no rest. Every seventh day should be a time to stop, to recuperate, and to remember how God, in God’s mercy, had given them freedom.

Then there is the Sabbath year, the seventh year. During the Sabbath year, the land was to be allowed to rest, to not be cultivated but to recuperate. The Sabbath year was also a time for the forgiveness of debts, including the release from service for indentured servants, temporary “slaves,” you could say, who worked for others to pay off their debts. Part of the idea here, too, was the reminder of God as a God of mercy and generosity; and part of the idea as well was to prevent a long term separation between various classes of people—no indefinite indebtedness, no separation of the wealthy from the poor, of debtors from debtees.

Then the third level was the year of Jubilee. Here, after 7 sets of 7 years, the 50th year, land was to be returned to those who had originally owned it. There was to be a redistribution—or, we could say, an end to the redistribution—of the land. Instead of being redistributed to the big landowners, it goes back to those who first owned it. It would be as if in the United States all the wealth that has been redistributed from the lower and middle classes to the 1% would be returned every 50 years.

The year of Jubilee was a profound statement about God’s intentions for the community and, more than that, even, a profound statement about the character of God. Prevent having a few push the many off the land; have a society that cares for the vulnerable.

Every 7th day, every 7th year, every 50th year, would come as a reminder that God is a God of mercy, a God of generosity, not a God locked into a debt dynamic. And that is how God intends the community of God’s people to be. They remember that at the very core of their communal identity is God’s generous love that liberated them from slavery.

Jesus and Jubilee

Jesus evokes this Jubilee dynamic when he begins his ministry with the words, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, I have come to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, and the giving of sight to the blind. This is the year of the Lord’s favor,” that is, the year of Jubilee. The people in his hometown get mad at him not because he proclaimed Jubilee. It wasn’t that they didn’t like his good news. They got mad when he made it clear that this good news is for everyone, including Israel’s enemies. The idea is, good news for me is great, but maybe not good news for those I don’t like.

Once upon a time, a shopkeeper is visited by an angel and told that he could have anything he wished. The only condition was that his neighboring shopkeeper, who he hated, would also get whatever he wished—would actually get two of whatever the wish was. So the guy thought a bit. I’ve got it, he said. Strike me blind in one eye. Meaning, of course that the man he hated would be blinded in both eyes.

But Jesus’s message is indeed a message that God wills to bless everyone, friends of ours and our enemies. And with such a God, debt is decentered. The dynamic that so binds so many of us in this world, debt leading to more debt, leading to the on-going redistribution of wealth and power towards the 1%, from the many to the few—this is not God’s will for humanity.

Debt as a way of life

There was an important book a generation ago by historian, William Appleman Williams, written about the U.S.A., called Empire as a Way of Life. That was one of those far-seeing books, because in the past 40 years, the imperial nature of America’s way of being in the world has only gotten more profound and is finally getting the attention of more people. But I think if we would write a book now about America’s way of being in the world we’d just as well call it “Debt as a way of life,” the dynamics of global capitalism that are crushing the life right out of the earth.

Tragically, in our allegedly most Christian of all the nations, we miss completely the centrality of Jubilee in the Bible. It’s really distressing, and we see it again, right before the watching world, during this presidential election, how “Christian America” (so-called) stands four-square behind the American empire and the way this empire, like all other empires, uses debt as a major tool for subjugation.

Missing the biblical message

I want to suggest two ways that the biblical message about debt gets misunderstood by Christians. If I was to summarize the actual message about debt, I could do it this way, evoking President Calvin Coolidge, known as a man of few words. One Sunday, after church, he was asked by a reporter what the sermon was about. It was about sin, Coolidge said. What did the preacher say about sin? That he was agin it. We ask, what does the Bible say about debt? That it’s agin it—at least agin it as the basis for shaping social relationships.

But Christians tend to miss this. One way they miss the biblical teaching on debt is by missing the social dimensions of how debt works in the Bible. In the Bible, debt energizes the redistribution of wealth and power from the many to the elite few. But for many Christians, debt in the Bible is mainly about our personal relationship with God, about our own sinfulness and our need to find forgiveness for our sins. Christians miss the social critique. The second way of missing the biblical teaching is to take the next step. To make God a God who keeps track of debts and is bound to collect them, a “debt-ing” kind of God, we could say—then the dynamics of debt start at the very top.

Let me illustrate the first point, how we think of debt as personal sin. Some of you, I expect, grew up doing Bible memory. Now, I didn’t grow up going to church, I don’t have this memorizing thing in my bones—for better and worse, maybe. But I could always claim to have one verse memorized: John 11:35. Anybody know what John 11:35 says? “Jesus wept.” The shortest, easiest to memorize, verse in the Bible.

But there’s another slightly longer passage that many of us probably also have memorized, Bible Memory background or not. That’s Matthew 6:9-13. Imagine reciting this with a random group of Christians from various tradtions: “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our ….” Oops. I expect some would use different words here. Some may say “sins” (or “trespasses”), some may say “debts.” Matthew 9:12-13 actually says “debts”: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”

Switching “sins” (or “trespasses”) for “debts” here seems to change the meaning quite a bit. Now it is the case that Luke 11:4, the other version of this prayer, does have “sin” instead of “debt.” So the use of “sin” instead of “debt” might make some sense—except it seems for many Christians, saying “sin” here alludes to one’s personal sin that we want God to forgive.

In Luke as well as Matthew, though, the point is social more than just between the individual sinner and God. Luke also has Jesus say, “as we forgive our debtors.” Forgive us our sins as we forgive our debtors. Or, maybe a plausible paraphrase: As you, O God, show mercy toward us when we fail, empower us to show mercy toward those who are indebted to us. This is a call for Jubilee, a call to break from the cycle of shaping our social relationships by debt, by leverage, by a quest for advantage. It’s not so much about forgiving individual sins as it is about an entire mentality, an entire framework for thinking about all our relationships.

Is God a “debt-ing” God?

Part of why we don’t think about the forgiveness of debts is my 2nd point; we think of God as a “debting” God. Traditional Christianity’s very notion of salvation relies on the view that we are irrevocably in debt to God due to our sinfulness. Thus, we must rely on an extraordinarily powerful (and violent) sacrifice—Jesus’s death on the cross—to turn God’s anger toward us away. Only this can satisfy God’s need to have debts paid.

But the point of Jubilee theology, the point of Jesus’s announcement of Jubilee at the beginning of his ministry, the point of the dynamics of the prayer that Jesus instructs his followers to embody—is that God is not a debt-ing God. God is not a debt-ing God. Rather God is a merciful God, and a God who forgives debts, and a God who wants human beings to live in freedom, not in bondage to always owing somebody something—except, as Paul writes, the debt of love.

There is a famous story that almost for sure didn’t really happen. But it’s kind of funny and it provides a key metaphor for my theology. Some big time philosopher (or maybe it’s a scientist) lectures about the infinite cosmos and is challenged by an elderly woman in the audience. “What you are telling us about the universe is rubbish,” she says. “The earth rests on the back of a huge turtle.” “Oh yes,” the philosopher says, “and pray tell, madam, what holds up the turtle?” “Why, another turtle, of course.” “And what holds up that turtle?” “Ah, I get where you’re going. But sir, it is turtles, all the way down!” Turtles all the way down, we don’t need anything more.

Now, I’m not interested in the infinity or not of the physical universe here. I want to use this metaphor of “turtles all the way down” to think about the moral universe. In many understandings of the gospel—we have something like this: God can forgive only because God’s justice has been satisfied by Jesus’s sacrificial death. Or, maybe it’s God’s holiness or God’s honor. The thing is, our debt to God due to our sins is enormous. In this view, since God’s moral character requires the payments of debts, there has to be some other way for our debt to be paid—Jesus’s sacrificial death.

The point is that God can’t simply forgive—God’s moral nature requires some kind of payment to balance out the enormity of human indebtedness. Reciprocity. Retribution. Tit for tat. It can’t be love all the way down. The moral universe rests on something else—retributive justice or justice as fairness. Love and mercy are possible only in ways that account for this kind of justice—which means salvation is not truly based on mercy. Rather, salvation is based on an adequate payment of the universe’s moral price tag placed on human sin. Salvation is based on the payment of our debt.

The textbook I used during my 20 years at EMU, The Upside-Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill, has a really helpful discussion of the dynamics of reciprocity. The “norm of reciprocity” governs so much of our social life—if you do me a favor, I owe you one back. Like, if we invite friends for dinner, we never do it twice in a row—we wait for our friends to feed us before a 2nd invitation. Or, if you hurt me, I pay you back by hurting you. Debt is simply part of the air we breathe. Kraybill argues that Jesus’s message of love, though, broke free from the dynamics of reciprocity. Give without expecting a return. Instead of retaliating, forgive. The problems with our American way of life and our Christian salvation theology, are that they actually do not reflect the deepest human wisdom that life is about love all the way down, not love resting on “justice.”

A Jubilee-oriented view of God’s love

As a thought experiment, I tried to remember how I have experienced Jubilee. What are experiences I have had of people giving to me without expecting a return? This is an exercise I’d recommend for all of us. As I thought about, I realized how common that kind of thing has been in my life.

A couple of memories popped right up. Of when Kathleen and I went to Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary 35 years ago with hardly any money. The guy in charge of finances learned of this and immediately called us in. We thought that since we weren’t Mennonites at that time we couldn’t apply for financial aid. He told that was not the case. He gave us some aid from what remained of their funds and gave us some work study to help as well. We received this a extraordinary generosity.

Or of the time when I was 22 years old and the engine in my old Volkswagen bug blew up near the North Dakota, Montana border. A cop stopped to give me a ride to the next town. The car dealer there went back to get my car and towed it for free, gave me a place to stay for a few days, and bought my worthless car for enough to cover my bus ticket back home. There have been many kindnesses from friends and from strangers.

However, the memories that came most easily to mind were generous acts by my mother and father going back to before I could remember. There is a foundation there, ways they acted toward me that helped me experience life as beautiful and meaningful, a sense that has also helped me manage when things haven’t gone well. They helped me see the truth in something that Lou Reed sang—there is magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out—and that’s okay.

As I pondered these memories, I realized something with a start. It hit me. It is impossible for me to imagine repaying the debt I owe my parents—even as probably every day of my life I think about how much whatever is good about the life I’ve lived comes from all that they gave me. And it is impossible to imagine them thinking that I should repay the debt I owe them.

And I would never imagine wanting our son Johan to pay me back. Sure, we gave him life, we nurtured his life, we still do, but it’s never been about reciprocity, it’s never been about a tit for tat. He’s a gift. Our relationship with him has always been based, you could say, on a gift economy, not a debt economy. And my parents always treated me as a gift. I almost died when I was born, and they never let me forget that my name, Theodore, means “gift of God.”

So, what I realized, what startled me, is that this is what God is like. This is what the economy of our relationship with God is like—a gift economy, not a debt economy. God is like a parent who receives one’s child as a gift, beyond price, debt-free.

I want to suggest that there is a lot of theology here—the theology of Jubilee. The theology that sees as central to God’s character the love and generosity of the creator in Genesis 1. The theology that sees as central to God’s character the love and generosity of the liberator who frees people from slavery and bondage and indebtedness throughout the Bible. With God, it is love all the way down. God forgives us our debts and empowers us to forgive our debtors. Amen.

6 thoughts on “Are we in debt to God?

  1. I’m totally with you on God not being a debt-ing God, all the way down, but I think this can be consistent with God forgiving our sins or debts through Jesus. I am aware of the message of your book, Instead of Atonement, and its practical implications. But for me, just thinking in terms of the doctrine itself, I think of another well-memorized verse, John 3:16. It starts with God’s love, that He gave (gift-economy!) Jesus (incarnation, death), resulting in being saved/rescued from everlasting death to life. The way I see it, the violence is not a reflection of a necessary first principle, but is a reflection of the depth of evil and our need for rescue. And the fact that it was God’s only begotten Son, means that the payment/forgiveness/rescue was completely finished. Therefore, full circle, we are in error when we live in a debt economy.

    1. I should add that not only do I not see violence as a first principle, but I also do not see debt, or payment of debt, or even salvation or rescue, as a first principle in a similar manner. They are a result of our need that arose from evil, sin, separation from God, and God’s love for us no matter how deep that need goes.

    2. Thanks, Tom, for the thoughts. I do imagine our views are quite close. I think one of the issues is whether Jesus’s death (or incarnation, for that matter, I suppose—though obviously the death is central for satisfaction atonement) is necessary for forgiveness.

      Clearly the NT teaches (and I believe) that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection find their most fundamental meaning in terms of God’s work in the world to bring about healing, forgiveness, liberation, eternal life, et al. And the violence that accompanies so much of Jesus’s ministry does indeed reflect “the depth of evil and our need for rescue.”

      But it also seems clear to me that the Bible teaches that God is merciful and forgiving from the very beginning, and that Jesus illumines that when he is forgiving from the very beginning of his ministry (long before he died). Whatever meaning his death might have, I don’t think the Bible intends for us to think that this death is the necessary condition for forgiveness.

      So then the question is: What does it mean to say, “God forgives our sins or debts through Jesus”? I think the main meaning is that God uses Jesus to reveal to us more profoundly than ever before that God is a forgiving God (and always has been), not that God needs Jesus to do something in order to start forgiving (which is what I think satisfaction atonement teaches, in effect).

  2. I see that you continue to presume your Socinian either/ or between forgiveness and justice as debt satisfaction, and that without reference to Bible texts which might suggest alternatives. My question for you–have you read John Barclay’s book on Paul and the Gift?

    Barclay — “The Reformation did not “rediscover” grace (which was near the center of practically every form of medieval theology), nor did it simply reinvigorate the Augustinian tradition. As an isolated slogan, grace alone tells us far too little about its precise configuration. What is Reformed is not only the relentlessly Christological reference of grace, but also its permanent state of incongruity. On these grounds, believers live perpetually from a reality outside of themselves, a status of divine favor enjoyed only in and from Christ. Their agency does not need to be re-attributed to the agency of grace, because their works are non-instrumental, and are performed in faith, that is, FROM THE SECURITY OF A SALVATION ALREADY GRANTED On the same grounds, gift-giving is stripped of the instrumental reciprocity that had been basic to its rationale since time immemorial. In this sense, the reformation offered a new theological definition of gift . “

    John Barclay—-“Luther was incredibly anxious about any notion of circularity—that we give back to God so that God can give further again to us. Luther was anxious about any language of obligation or obedience if it implied trying to win favor with God. As a result, some Protestants believe it’s inappropriate for God to expect something in return, because it would somehow work against grace. They believe a gift should be given without any expectation of return. However, that can lead to notions that God doesn’t care about what we do. … the Methodist–Wesleyan traditions have rightly understood that the gift of God in Christ is based on conditions, in a sense. While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift, God indeed expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit. As he puts it, we are under grace, which can legitimately lead to obedience, even obligation.”

    John Barclay—”Gifts, like trade or pay, involve reciprocity— in all these spheres, there is a common structure of quid pro quo. What distinguishes the sphere of gift is not that it is “unilateral,” but that it expresses a social bond, a mutual recognition of the value of the person. The gift invites a personal, enduring, and reciprocal relationship—an ethos very often signaled by the use of the term charis ”

    Fesko on Barclay’s book—Barclay argues that incongruity shouldn’t eliminate reciprocity. “Paul makes it clear that faith also involves action ([Galatians 5:6), arising from and made possible by the Christ-gift (2:20), and that in such action eternal life remains at stake (5:21; 6:8)” (406 n. 40). Barclay argues that a person can also lose the Christ-gift: “Since the warnings [Gal. 5:21; 6:8] are directed to the believing community, it is clearly possible to lose all the benefits of the Christ-gift.” The incongruous gift of Christ is supposed to elicit congruity in the lives of its recipients (440).

  3. Well, reciprocity did not so bad for our civilization.That’s why Cultural Anthropologists (like Marcel Mauss) have been rather positive about it.

    And you can’t only outbid reciprocity but undercut it as well.For everyone who gets used to grant everything for free you’ll get someone else who gets used to take everything for free. That’s basically why welfare states don’t work. (And thereafter you need a huge apparatus of propaganda in order to enforce people with pschological tricks to NOT take everything for free. In the end you start where you have begun, with reciprocity).

    Notwithstanding we have a reasonable and pragmatic tradition of “Throw your bread upon water”; but that’s a bit different,

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