What we owe

img of hand reaching out

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those indebted to us.”

This is, of course, one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, though very few of us in the English speaking world have prayed it using this language. The traditional English version that most of us instinctively recite replaces the language of debt with the language of trespass. Contemporary translations generally just go with ‘sin,’ a term which lost its metaphorical connotations a long time ago. There’s nothing wrong of course with any of these translations — the more images we have to contemplate the things we need to forgive and for which we need to be forgiven the better; different approaches to understanding the problems at hand can allow for better, and more complete, answers — but I do wonder if we might be losing something in skipping over Jesus’ metaphor here.

The metaphor of debt seems to have been one of Jesus’ favorites. In the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18, Jesus compares a lack of forgiveness by someone who is forgiven by God to someone who refuses to forgive a small debt after having himself been forgiven a great debt. And when Jesus confronts Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7) about his attitude towards the woman who had washed Jesus’ feet, he again uses the metaphor of debt: one who has been forgiven a great amount of money will be more grateful than one who has been forgiven a small sum. Why might this image have been so salient for Jesus? Beyond the apparent universality of financial debt, I think this metaphor was so relevant for Jesus because it say something about the nature of human relationships.

If we look through history, most traditional cultures were rooted in strong webs of intentionally defined relationships: between children and parents, husbands and wives, within the extended family, between vassals and lords, and between lords and kings. These relationships, and what was owed by each person to the other within them, were understood to be inviolable and constant. While we might rightly chaff at the lack of personal freedom in such cultures and the way those fixed relationships promoted stasis over growth, I wonder if we do ourselves a disservice by forgetting a basic truth these systems understood, even if problematically: We owe something to each other. Other people don’t exist for our convenience and they aren’t means to an end. Neither do we exist for the convenience of others. Rather, our relationships involve dynamics of give and take and mutual responsibility to and for one another.

If we uphold the idea of human rights, as we in the twenty-first century West certainly claim to do, then we owe a basic amount of respect to everyone, and our political, social, and economic structures must reflect this. If we identify with a certain community, whether religious or ethnic, or based on gender or sexuality, then that identification demands that we recognize and uphold others within it because of our shared experiences and struggles. If, as a Christian, I believe that every person is created in the image and likeness of God, then I cannot dismiss anyone as unimportant or not worth my time. I owe this to them, and to myself: After all, if every person has the potential to manifest the divine life, then every encounter I have has the potential to be a theophany, a revelation of God.

This is of course easier to say than to live out. We are a busy, often overly busy, people. There are so many demands on our time and attention, it would be impossible even for the most generous among us to live up to this vision all the time. The last thing busy people need is one more thing to feel guilty about not fitting into their day. And so there must be room for grace, for all of us. But where might we find it? How might we balance this right and just sense that we owe something to each other with the equally right and just sense that we need grace?

First, while I believe we certainly owe something to everyone, we need to keep in mind that don’t owe everything to everyone. We owe more to our spouses than to our colleagues; more to a close friend than to an acquaintance; more to someone to whom we’ve said “I’ll see you at 7:00 on the 17th” than “Let’s get together some time.” This sense of perspective on the relative nature of our relationships can help us find grace when we’re let down. It isn’t saying “They didn’t owe me anything” but rather “They probably owed me more than what they gave, but not everything I wanted.” (And if you’re the kind of person who has a hard time finding grace for yourself, it works just as well with the pronouns reversed.)

We can also temper our expectations of ourselves and others. We should have high hopes for how we want to treat others and be treated by others, but we can also understand that these hopes will likely be disappointed. This preserves the sacred dignity of both parties, while also recognizing that we all fall short of our ideals.

And, as Jesus tells us, when we inevitably let others down or are let down by them, we can ask forgiveness of our debts, from God, ourselves, and others, and offer forgiveness too. Forgiveness is a controversial subject in our particular cultural moment. There’s a sense that forgiving those who have hurt us means saying ‘It’s okay,’ that it doesn’t matter. But that’s not what forgiveness means. That’s not what grace means. Just as in Jesus’ parable, the forgiveness of the large debt is more powerful than the forgiveness of the small debt, grace too finds its power when we recognize just how great the hurt was. It’s not about ignoring the pain or pretending it didn’t happen, but about overcoming it; not an act of weakness or passivity, but of strength and agency. It’s not about saying “It’s okay” but “I’m not going to let this define me, or you.”

So, what does all this mean? For me, as I reflect on this, it’s about being mindful of what I owe the people who cross my path every day — remembering the part of the baptismal covenant in which I promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” But it’s also about remembering that we all fall short, and that when this happens debts can be forgiven.

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