Debt and Forgiveness

Last week, I wrote about what I see as a need to normalize sin without minimizing it. If we want to have better relationships with ourselves, creation, each other, and God, we need to be able to talk about the ways in which we harm those relationships, ‘in thought, word, and deed,’ ‘by what we have done and by what we have left undone,’ whether intentional or in ignorance. This involves both having the will and courage to do so, but also vocabulary and mental schematics that are up to the task. Fortunately for us, the Bible offers us a lot of different metaphors for sin, and each of these offers a unique perspective on not only what’s gone wrong with humanity, but also about what sort of solution is needed. In other words, any true talk of sin is going to by its nature also talk of salvation. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to explore some of these metaphors and how they’ve been taken up — or ignored — by Christian theology. Today I’ll focus on an image that falls into both of these categories, on the one hand, providing us us with one of our major ways Christians talk about salvation, but on the other hand, rarely given a lot of thought by Christians. This is the metaphor of debt and forgiveness.

This metaphor imagines sin as getting ourselves into a situation where we can not give back what we owe, restore what we’ve borrowed, or meet our promised obligations to others. Since the burden of what we owe is so great, the relationship can only be restored by the debt being forgiven, or cancelled. In Jesus’ time, falling into debt could mean loss of ancestral land, or even being sold into slavery, so the forgiveness of a debt was no small matter. Today, the metaphor is just as relevant — even just looking at student debt, many people in our society start off their adult lives tens of thousands of dollars in debt. This is of course to say nothing about mortgages, car loans, consumer debts, and national and international debts.

The metaphor of debt was one of Jesus’ favorites. He invoked it in no less central a text than the Lord’s Prayer, in which he told his disciples to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those indebted to us.” The fact that English-speakers have generally replaced ‘debt’ here with other words — language of ‘trespass’ and ‘sin’ — shows how we have marginalized this metaphor that was clearly top of mind for Jesus.

Another text in which Jesus uses this image is Luke 7, in which a woman, whom the text refers to as ‘a sinner’, interrupts a meal and falls at Jesus’ feet, washing them with her tears. When his indignant host criticizes Jesus for allowing a ‘sinner’ to do such a thing, Jesus responds with a parable:

A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii [about two years’ wages], and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’”

[The host] answered, “I suppose the one for whom he forgave the greater debt.”

And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” (vv41-43)

Jesus then contrasts the great love the woman has shown to him to Simon’s neglect, and concludes:

‘Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’

And so this woman, whose unspecified sin has essentially taken over her identity in her community, is compared to someone who has fallen into a great debt which she cannot hope to repay. The solution to this problem is forgiveness of those debts; the account is cleared, the losses written off by the creditor. The response to such grace — indeed the word used in this passage for the clearing of the debts is literally ‘showed grace to’ — is love and gratitude.

But this isn’t all that’s expected. As the the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18) shows, the proper response is also to pay forward that grace to others; here, 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.

The metaphor of sin as debt, then, means that salvation looks like forgiveness — both receiving forgiveness from others (including and especially God), but also offering forgiveness to others. This is the gift of a clean slate, and it is not easy. I’ve written elsewhere about the costliness of forgiveness and the need for genuine repentance, so I won’t rehash that here. Forgiveness is a great gift to receive and to be able to offer, but it’s a challenge and we can’t forget that. The difficulty of forgiveness of debts is certainly why, as far as we can tell, the Jubilee — that provision of the Law that would erase debts, free slaves, and restore property once a generation — was never enacted. Yet it still stands as a beautiful Biblical image of the possibilities for human relationships.

So what in the end can we make of this metaphor? I think it’s instructive in a number of ways. It shows that we are all in a web of connections with one another, all debtors and creditors to one another. Ideally we’d be able to live up to our obligations and ‘pay what we owe’, but our world is far from ideal. And so, receiving God’s abundant grace with thanksgiving, we offer grace to others, letting them off the hook — and ourselves off the hook of comparison and relational account-keeping in the process.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name …
Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those indebted to us


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