For the first in a several part series, it’s been suggested that I comment on debt forgiveness, especially in Matt. 18.21-35, and Elizabeth Warren/the CFPB. While I hope I’m an ‘expert’ on the biblical side, I am quite skeptical of the information I get regarding modern politics, making me much less of an ‘expert’ on the CFPB (need more original sources). Therefore, I will make an attempt at connecting biblical ideologies to a modern political one. A difficult jump indeed, but I make no apologies.
If you are interested in Debt, I recommend this book to you. I have not read it yet, but Graeber is fantastic, and I plan to read it when I get back stateside.
I can think of two places to start: the text or Greek semantics. I’ve pushed pretty hard on this blog, arguing that meaning is determined by context, so I should probably start with the text. But rather than starting with Matt. 18, I think the best place to start is a synoptic analysis of the Lord’s Prayer.
Matthew 6:12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Luke 11:4 and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
For those who know Luke’s focus on economic issues, it is interesting that Matthew references debts twice, while Luke parallels sin with debt. But a closer look at the language and Matt 18 shows that it is actually the opposite. In Matt 18, Jesus is exhorting the members of the faith communities to address conflicts in the community and forgive mistakes. This too is in Luke 17, but Matthew adds a parable about a master who forgives the debt of a servant. However, when that servant fails to forgive the debt of a fellow servant, the master becomes angry and puts him in jail until he pays all his debt.
Two things are clear from the Parable that appears only in Matthew. First, Matthew is clearly paralleling the forgiveness of debt with the forgiveness of sins, Jesus’ purpose according to Matthew (1.22). Second, debt forgiveness was a live issue in the ancient world. For us, it is hard to imagine getting a credit card statement that says, “all your debts have been paid and the balance is $0.00.” But in the ancient world, and particularly in ancient Judeanism, this was a possible, if not common, scenario. The fact that Matthew1 parallels sin and debt does not mean that Matthew thinks that debt forgiveness is bad, but on the contrary, it is a good Jewish practice, hence the year of Jubilee.
But the year of Jubilee is most prominent in Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel begins with 5 songs:
1.47-55 (Mary’s Song)
1.68-79 (Zechariah’s Song)
2.25-35 (Simeon’s Prophecy)
3.4-6 (John’s OT Announcement)
4.18-19 (Jesus’ programmatic statement)
Each of these has an economic element to it, but the final programmatic statement really is the thesis statement to Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus says:
Luke 4:18-19 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The year of the Lord’s favor is the year of Jubilee. Think of the Parable of the Dishonest Manager as well (Luke 16.1-9), where the manager cuts the debt of the debtors and wins their favor. Likewise, in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, Matthew’s Jesus leaves out the exhortation “And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you?… lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6.34-35). This is at least a reference to interest collection, which was discouraged by the Torah (Ex. 22.25, Lev. 25.37, Dt.15.6-8). The practice is also condemned by Ezekiel (18.8-17), while it is permitted in Proverbs 28.8, but only for using the profits to help the poor. The point of all these examples is to show again, that Luke has economic concerns about debt, especially for the poor and marginalized.
Back to the Lord’ Prayer. Matthew can talk about debt forgiveness, because Matthew relates debt forgiveness to the forgiveness of sins. Matthew uses the form “forgive us as we have forgiven,” asking God’s forgiveness to be parallel to our forgiveness. Since God is typically not in the business of forgiving financial debt, this is most likely a direct reference to the forgiveness of sins. Hence, some modern versions of the prayer use “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It is a realization that Matthew’s concern is for the forgiveness of sins.
On the other hand, Luke uses the form “Forgive us for we forgive,” a request predicated on previous behavior. The juxtaposition of “sins” and “debtors” suggest that neither one is a representation of the other, but each one is what is says. In other words, petition to God for the forgiveness of your own sins, based upon your previous and present debt-forgiving behavior. The practices of debt-forgiveness that make the parable in Matthew 18 so viable, are requirements in Luke for those who wish to follow Christ. Living in the Divine Dominion2 is nothing less than living with the economic concerns for the poor according to Luke.
The radical Judeanism of Jesus has been muted particularly because of its “spiritualized” use in Matthew. Moderns typically separate religion, economics, and politics in their mind because this is the Western way of analyzing different aspects of life. But this does not give us a full picture of reality, now or then, for the realms of religion, politics, and economics are intertwined in complex ways. Another problem is that there was no semantic separation with the Greek word for forgive. When one hears the word “forgive” today, one typically thinks of letting go of a wrong done to one’s self. But in Greek, the word is actually “release.” One is released from sins, debts, and contracts in all the same way. It is legal contract release language, used certainly in the economic sphere. Redemption too is an economic term used in the Christian dictionary. But using economic terms to describe ‘spiritual’ things does not necessarily mean their economic meanings do not apply. On the contrary, the so-called ‘spiritual’ meanings are predicated on necessity of understanding moral economic behavior.
I’ve probably been too hard on Matthew, as many biblical scholars note Matthew’s concern for the marginalized (as any story with Jesus ought to). But I’ve really tried to hit home Luke’s attack at the debt system. Next time more on the Roman debt system and the CFPB.
1No one knows the names of the authors of the Gospels, but we will use their given names out of convenience.
2“Kingdom of God”