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A Debt-Free World

On this July Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary gives us a passage that many Christians know by heart: The Lord’s Prayer.

I love that the disciples had to ask Jesus how to pray. In some ways, prayer is a near-universal human impulse. In other ways, it is confounding and confusing. Jesus responded to their request with a prayer that is both beautiful and theologically profound. And it is surprisingly radical in its understanding of gifts and gratitude.

Below is the entire passage from Luke (the prayer and the verses following) and a reflection. A few years ago, I wrote on The Lord’s Prayer in my book, GratefulI’ve adapted that section of the book as today’s Sunday Musing.


Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”


 

“A Debt-Free World” (adapted from Grateful, 169-173)

Jesus taught this clearly: “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:34–35). The free movement of gifts — in a non-hierarchical structure — is the very heart of Christianity . . . Although we often spiritualize it, gratitude is deeply and profoundly political and opens us to the revolutionary idea of a debt-free community that shares in the mutual benefit of creation’s gifts.

If that sounds too political — a discussion with little place in a book on gratitude — consider, for a moment, that this idea appears in one of the most significant of all of the New Testament’s teachings: the Lord’s Prayer.

I grew up in a Methodist church. Every Sunday, we recited the prayer that Jesus shared with his disciples:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

As a child, I liked those comforting words, especially that mysterious-sounding one, “trespasses.” I had no idea what a trespass was, but it seemed important that Jesus would insist that they be forgiven, whether we did them or if someone did them to us. It would not be until I was thirteen, in Confirmation class, that a Methodist pastor finally told me that a “trespass” was a poetic word for “sin.” The Lord’s Prayer asks that our sins be forgiven and that we might forgive anyone who sinned against us. Aha! That made sense!

A decade or so later, I visited a Presbyterian church for the first time. The Lord’s Prayer was included in the service. I mouthed the familiar words, “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our . . .” I almost said “trespasses,” but the bulletin said, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” What? Debts? The Lord’s Prayer is about money? This made absolutely no sense to me, and I missed those lyrical “trespasses.”

Trespasses or debts? What was going on here? The New Testament is written in Greek. Hamartia is the Greek word for “sin”; it means “to miss the mark,” “to err,” or “to be fatally flawed.” That is how we usually think about sin; it is about failing to make good choices or doing something naughty, perhaps because of some sort of deep character flaw. But Jesus didn’t speak Greek. Jesus spoke Aramaic, a local language in the ancient Middle East related to Hebrew.

The word I had learned as “trespasses” was most likely the Aramaic word choba. And it is the translation of that word that is the source of an important distinction. There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament, one in the Gospel of Luke (11:2–4), the other in the Gospel of Matthew (6:9–13). Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer uses hamartia to translate choba, but Matthew’s version does not.

Matthew chooses a different word, opheilemata, which means “debts.” He does so for a very particular reason. Most rabbis in Jesus’s time — and Jesus was a rabbi — understood sin as “debt,” with the connotation of weight, burdens, and obligations. Jewish theology taught that human beings “owe” only one debt (and it is not a “burden” but a joy): we owe God faithfulness and praise because God alone is the giver of all gifts (the “daily bread” of the prayer). False debts enslave us to idols, for there is no Giver but God.

In Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer immediately follows the Beatitudes. Jesus’s sermon proclaims blessing upon outcasts and the oppressed and then moves to freedom from debt. The prayer literally reads, “Forsake our debts, as we forsake our debtors.” These are cancelled debts. Real debts.

Although we don’t often think about it, the Lord’s Prayer is a takedown of Roman economics and politics. Jesus teaches his followers to leave behind the whole system of indebtedness that obligates people to Caesar.

Seen from this angle, the Lord’s prayer is deeply counter-cultural. It describes a circle of abundance that begins in heaven, where there is always enough and no want, where all are blessed. Heaven is a vision of what this world is to be, a community that trusts God’s provision and holds no one in debt. “Sin” is when the circle of abundance is abused — and when we see “gifts” as something we have earned, own, and can make others earn — and we set up a system of indebtedness whereby we enrich ourselves and control others.

In the Bible, sin is debt, and debt is sin.

The Lord’s Prayer is comforting. We can live free from the naughty things we do or the naughty things done to us. But it is not only about some spiritualized idea of sin, about our flaws and misdeeds. This radical prayer undermines imperial economics. The entire ancient Roman world was structured on debt, a political system in which debts were discharged by tributes, loyalty, and utter obedience to Caesar. The whole world was indebted to Caesar, and the whole earth was his by right. Everyone and everything owed him.

Jesus says no. He prays: “Free us from debt, from holding others in debt, and from our anger against those who hold us in debt. Release us from the entanglements of debt slavery. Free us from Caesar’s yoke. We long to live only in gratitude to God.” At the heart of Jesus’s prayer is politics.

In this prayer, Jesus restates one of the most ignored directives of the Hebrew Bible: “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. . . . Every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the LORD’s remission has been proclaimed” (Deut. 15:1–2). Every seven years, all debts were to be cancelled. All debts. And to really whoop it up, every forty-nine years, all land was to be returned to its original owners. No one was to work the land for an entire year; people were to simply live from the land’s natural abundance (Lev. 25: 8–13).

The Bible calls us to Sabbath and depicts a world without work, a world with no debt. The Lord’s Prayer is Jesus’s call for his followers to pray — whenever we pray — for jubilee.

And imagine how amazing that would be — to live in a debt-free world!

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