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”.
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.
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.
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.”