Can we owe a debt of forgiveness?

We are a credit-driven society.  We know all about debts.  You see something you want to buy, you give the merchant your credit card (thereby acquiring a debt) and when, eventually, the bill comes, you pay it, thus discharging the debt.  That’s how it goes.  Being “forgiven” this debt is nearly inconceivable[1].  Even bankruptcy doesn’t do that.[2]

It is our individualism that makes this so clear.  If you didn’t buy it, then you don’t owe a debt for it.  But we weren’t always so individualistic and our notions of forgiveness come from a setting that was much more collectivist than we are.  The people of Israel were bound in a covenant with God.  You don’t get much more collectivist than that.

A part of this covenant with God was that there was a collectivity (a tribe, let’s say) that owed a debt.  It was an obligation.  Often it was clear how the debt was to be discharged, but it was not always clear just who was to do the discharging.  That’s where forgiveness comes in.

Let me give a simple example.  Redemption was a part of the Israelite covenant.[3]  Leviticus 25 offers a good example.  Every Israelite properly belonged to God, therefore there would have to be some limits put on the length of time anyone could be a slave, even if he sold himself into slavery.  Selling yourself into slavery is like hocking yourself at the pawnshop.  You probably shouldn’t have allowed things to get that bad, but you did.  You screwed up so badly, let’s say, that you really don’t deserve to be redeemed.  We can imagine that, can’t we?

The interesting thing about the Israelite covenant is that it really didn’t matter whether you deserved to be redeemed or not.  You belong to God.  You are not, to use an expression with New Testament overtones, your own.  God deserves for you to be redeemed, to be restored to Him.  You may not deserve it, but God deserves it.  And for that reason, someone has a debt.  It is not a debt to you.  It is a debt to God.  The debt is discharged when someone—probably a close kinsman—goes to the man who owns you and pays him the money he demands to release his claims on your labor.  You have now been redeemed.  You don’t belong to yourself now because you never belonged to yourself.  You belong to God again, and not to the slave owner to whom you had hocked yourself.

We are now in a position to reconsider the forgiveness of debts.  Raymond E. Brown, in a lecture on the beginnings of the church, says that he thinks that Matthew’s “debts” is historically richer than Luke’s “trespasses.”  Brown’s idea is that you “trespass against” someone by committing an act against him or her.  “Trespass” is a clear act.  But you can owe a “debt” to someone you don’t know.  Brown thinks that Matthew had the covenant obligations in mind.  I might “owe you” redemption, for instance.  If you are from my tribe and if you were sold into slavery and if I am your closest kinsman, then I owe you your freedom.  I may not know you.  If I know you, I may not like you.  But because we both belong to the covenant of God and because you should have no other owner than God, I have a debt to you.  I am to find you and make the transaction with your owner that will restore you to God.

I have a debt to God, but because of that debt, I owe an action to you.  If I did not take that action for whatever reason, I would need to be forgiven by you and by God, since I had transgressed against both.  It is for that reason, Brown argues, that “forgive us our debts” reaches so deeply into the community.

As Christians, we don’t have the covenant obligations our Israelite forbears had.  In fact, the apostle Paul struggled over and over with the question of just what we did owe each other.  Paul thought that living the life of the Spirit ought to make questions of what Christians owed each other practically obsolete.  But Paul was a pastor, so he knew these questions weren’t obsolete.  What do the strong in faith owe the overscrupulous?  What do husbands owe wives?  What do those with the charism of administration owe to their congregations?[4]

Whatever specific behavior we owe—or the attitudes that support the behavior—we owe to people who “belong with us” because they “belong to God.”  The debt we owe, using Matthew’s phrasing, is a debt of action and not taking the needed action is failing to discharge our debt.  Anyone who has been given the gift of encouragement and who withholds encouragement from a brother or sister has not paid the debt he owes[5].  Anyone who has been given the gift of administering the affairs of the church and who has not done so has not paid the debt he owes.

The conclusion here is that owing an action to a brother or sister is not quite as straightforward as owing a debt on your credit card.  When we pray “forgive us our debts,” we mean “forgive us the debts we have not paid.”  We mean, “forgive us the debts of which we have already defaulted.”

It’s a very pushy notion.  That is one of the many reasons I like Pay It Forward.  It isn’t about divine grace, but there is a divine sort of pushiness about it.  As the attorney says, “You accepted the gift.  You’re obligated.”


[1] The sources of our word forgive are difficult, but interesting.  The prefix, for-, probably means “away” in this word.  You give away the expectation of payment when you “forgive” a debt.  You give away the justification for the anger you are “holding”—and on a good day, you might even give away the anger itself—when you “forgive” an action that a neighbor has committed against you.

[2] If you are bankrupt, your bench (the Italian banca) is broken (the Latin rupta is probably clearer than the Italian rotta) and you can’t do business in the marketplace anymore.  Chapter 11 is an entirely new chapter in bench-breaking.

[3] Leviticus 25: 47—51 describes this

[4] A charism is a gift, of course.    All the gifts of the Spirit are charisms.  Or charismata, if you absolutely must.  I just love the idea that church administrators are charismatic by definition.

[5] There is a very relevant list in Romans 12:3—13.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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