DEBTS

Praying my way through the  Lord’s Prayer this morning, I came to a halt at “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” because of its relevance to the Greek crisis. This is of course only one translation of the original Greek in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 6: 9-13) but it’s a literal translation which preserves the connection with “something owed”, rather than reducing the petition to “wrongs done”, “transgressions” or “sins”. acrop

We remember that Jesus also told parables about the forgiveness of debts (Luke 7: 41-43; Matthew 18: 21-35), which show that the vocabulary of debt cancellation was congenial to him. It seems a reasonable guess that this language and the notions of justice it expresses were derived by Jesus from the Jubilee legislation in Leviticus chapter 25 which commanded that every 50th year in Israel, the land will lie fallow, debts will be cancelled, ancestral land returned to original owners, slaves (at least, Jewish slaves) set free. It’s a remarkable chapter, especially in its view that impoverishing fellow citizens is an offence against God which must be rectified in every Jubilee year.

There is no record that this legislation was ever obeyed, which is not surprising, given its impracticability. There is for example an airy promise by God that the year before a Jubilee year will always yield a bumper harvest. Letting injustice mount up for 49 years only to overturn it on the 50th, seems an odd way of running a country. Some say the Jubilee rules were more illustrations of what God desired than laws to be obeyed. My own view is that the authors of the Leviticus passage did intend a “Super-Sabbath” (7 x 7 =49 years and the 50th is Jubilee time) for Israel but did not succeed in establishing it.

Debts cacelled
Debts cacelled

Maybe Jesus saw his own ministry, with its announcement of God’s Rule on earth, as the definitive arrival of Jubilee time, in which God’s saving justice could be established, debts of all sorts could be cancelled, and the people could live without the extremes of wealth and poverty (Indeed the Book of The Acts tell us that the first Christians did precisely that).For Jesus, God’s Rule was not imposed from above but announced, trusted and gladly obeyed by human beings. But he added one vital extra to the Jubilee concept: God’s unilateral cancellation of the debts owed to Him: the unkept vows, the broken promises, the failed attempts to do right, the deliberate wrongs. God offers this advance of credit to all as the foundation of his Jubilee Rule; it is in effect, the Good News and can be published.

Those who receive it and trust it, are able to “change their lives” and treat their “debtors” with the same generosity. On the other hand those who despise God’s generosity and treat their debtors harshly, will get what they ask for: God’s strict justice will be waiting for them.

The petition of the Lord’s Prayer expresses the believers’ desire to receive God’s generosity and their commitment to showing it to others.

This weekend may see the deliberate impoverishment of a whole society by European capitalists who have forgotten that money is simply a measure of how much we trust a person or a nation. It’s a convenient and reasonably just way of dealing with each other and sharing the means of life. But that’s what it’s for. As soon as we re-ify it, turn it into a thing in itself, forgetting the social relationships it stands for, as soon as we make it “capital” by possession of which people or societies are judged worthy of life or death, we have become prisoners of our own inventions and are no better than if we believed we were characters from Game of Thrones and lived our daily lives accordingly.

a means of measuring trust?
a means of measuring trust?

I don’t know how the Greek people will vote on Sunday. I imagine there may still be many Greeks, as there are many British, who still think that keeping money that should be paid in taxes is preferable to having a decent society. They have to learn from what happened in the past. But it looks as if the present Greek Government is ready to insist on taxation and to build a more just society if it is allowed to do so. Even more important for Europe is the recognition by its leaders that their policies might destroy a functioning society and blight millions of lives.

The tradition of Jesus with its Jubilee generosity is obviously relevant to this context; a significant cancellation of Greek debt, coupled with a sensible generosity towards Greek recovery, would be a common sense policy to adopt. Those who want to see Greece suffer might do well to say the Lord’s prayer, and to remember the words Jesus added to it:

“For if you forgive others their debts, you heavenly father will also forgive yours; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly father forgive you.”

5 Comments

  1. A very fine post, thank you. Of course, we can’t expect any countries, least of all Europe (!), to draw inspiration from the Bible. But we can hope that people of faith will continue to exert pressure on their governments and pan-national associations like the eurozone to do the right thing and not deliberately impoverish an entire nation – though a large portion of its population is already impoverished. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case. I have followed hundreds of articles as well as videos and posts on social media, and I have seen not a single reference to biblical ideas of Jubilee and forgiveness in Jesus’ spirit. This is very disheartening. Are we – you and I – just voices crying out in the wilderness, after all? And is that wilderness the emptiness in people’s hearts and in the souls of nations?

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  2. It’s 2:00 PM on the east coast of the USA and I’m watching BBC World News. The vote is solidly NO so far, over 60%. This is a major achievement for the government. Of course most of the BBC coverage paints a bleak picture of what will follow, but I wouldn’t expect anything else from mainstream media, even the venerable BBC. I don’t even bother watching American cable news channels.

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    1. Thanks Kostas, I do hope that the result is as you predict. And if so, congratulate the Greek people for a fighting response to the capitalist bureaucracy of the EU. Such a result would be a beacon of opposition to a Europe of the rich and comfortable. I hope our Scottish SNP would make common cause with Syriza and other parties of the people, like Podemos in Spain. I believe it is right for people who follow Jesus to question the imperialism of capital.

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  3. Although the BBC is a mainstream news outlet, I’m thoroughly impressed by the extent of the coverage. While the American news channels are busy talking about Hillary and interviewing the Republican idiots, BBC World News has been covering the Greek results non-stop, for several hours. Such coverage is unprecedented on this side of the Atlantic. I thank God we have access to BBC World News and Al-Jazeera on our TV sets now. (Though Al-Jazeera has sold out and marketed itself as Al-Jazeera America on this side – but still, there’s enough genuine AJ coverage that sneaks through the American fluff.) Several good people have been interviewed by the BBC today, including someone from the Wall Street Journal. Sure enough, he painted the picture from the viewpoint of the capitalist imperium, but I was struck by how he ended his comments. He very honestly and very bluntly concluded by saying that there is a huge conflict between how the financial markets see the Greek situation and how the people living it, especially the poor, see things. I share your hope. This is an unprecedented action by a sovereign state, and could be the start of something new in the world. We can only hope at this early stage.

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    1. And yet our lunatic government, which has an aversion to facts, is wanting to cut back on funding for the BBC. I think nothing is more important politically than access to accurate information, a blessing which no-one who listens to Fox News will have experienced. Richard Rogers said it well: “the facts are sacred; God is in the facts.” Most definitely in the facts from Greece!

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