We’re finishing up our week here in Guatemala, working on the first phase of building a sanitation system in the community of Chuicutama in the Highlands of Guatemala. If you’d like to learn more and/or support our work, as it’s a multiyear project, you can do so by clicking here:
As part of our week, we’re reflecting on the bible’s commandments about Jubilee. You can think of Jubilee as scripture’s economic policy. Jesus unveiled his own Gospel in terms of Jubilee in Luke 4, his first sermon.
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not remit your brother or sister’s debts.’
NT Wright, an Anglican Bishop and theologian, quips that the Christian world can be divided into ‘gospels people’ and ‘epistles people.’
By that, he refers to the way Christians tend to frame the faith in an either/or dichotomoy: Christianity is about following the example of Jesus’ life (gospels people) or its about Jesus’ death and resurrection rescuing us from our sin (epistles people). Despite the frequency with which Christians so divide the faith, the problems with such a dichotomy should be obvious. Focusing only on Jesus’ life or only on the forgiveness of sins renders the other unintelligible.
And it couldn’t be further from what Jesus himself taught.
Again, the Lord’s Prayer.
When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, he teaches them to pray for the forgiveness of their debts just as they forgive their debtors. Woven into Jesus’ prayer is the correlation between how God regards us and how we in turn regard others. We extend grace and forgiveness just as- indeed because- we have been shown grace and forgiveness by God in Christ. Likewise, our ‘debt’ of sin is reconciled by God through Christ not as an end in itself but so that we can extend God’s reconciliation to others.
Salvation can never be something God does just for me; it must always also be what God does through me and with me for the world.
Our ‘personal’ salvation is but the basis from which Christ brings his Kingdom to all of creation.
In the first century, Roman taxation very often reduced Jewish peasants to a slavery of indebtedness. Jewish peasants frequently had to borrow money at debilitating interest to pay their taxes. As a result, many peasants wound up losing their property and found themselves sharecroppers on land formerly owned by them. In addition, the Roman tax system created a hierarchy of intermediaries, most often Jewish, whom Rome contracted to collect the tax.
In Jesus’ Parable of the Merciless Servant, the Jubilee year has been proclaimed, the ‘remittance’ of debts is offered by the king to a servant.
Now, if salvation were purely personal or spiritual- what God has done for me so that I can go to heaven when I die- then Jesus’ parable could end right there, a comforting echo of how God has forgiven us.
But Jesus continues.
Having been forgiven his debts, the servant later encounters a peer who owes him a sum of money.
Having just been forgiven his debts, the servant nonetheless demands his peer pay him the debt that is owed. The servant to whom the Jubilee was extended refuses to offer the Jubilee to another.
The merciless servant will now no longer receive mercy. His Jubilee is void. Handed over by his peers, the king orders his torture.
Jesus continues: ‘So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not remit your brother or sister’s debts.’
Protestants often point out how Jesus was not a legalist regarding the Jewish covenant and often sparred with those who were legalists. Didn’t Jesus say the Sabbath was made for people not people for the Sabbath?
However, on one key matter of the Jewish Law and Jubilee Jesus was absolutely rigid: only those who practiced grace towards others would receive grace themselves.
Our personal salvation, the remittance of our debts, is null and void if we do not return the King’s mercy with works of mercy of our own.
For Christians, the challenge of the poor is never just an economic or political challenge. It’s a theological and spiritual challenge. It’s a challenge to our sense of gratitude for the forgiveness shown to us in Jesus Christ, for those who truly know they’ve been granted unwarranted, Jubilee-like mercy for their ‘debt’ should be eager to extend gratuitous costly grace to others. Those who know that the mercy shown to us is great know too that now much is expected of us.
Just as Jesus challenged his first listeners to free those enslaved by debt incurred through injustice, Jesus challenges us today to free those who are bound by a systemic cycle of poverty and hopelessness.