I’m 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.
Last Christmas I met a little girl named Anna in Cantal, Guatemala. At the time she was five years old. She lives in the Highlands in Guatemala. I built a wood-stove in her family’s house so that her mother would have something to cook over instead of an open fire.
Anna’s house is about half the size of my office at church. It’s made of mud. The floor is dirt and sand in a village routinely devastated by mudslides. We built the stove inside Anna’s house where the only other possessions were a dirty mattress on a make-shift box spring, a torn and faded soccer poster, a beat-up pine cabinet and a tiny little Christmas tree with jagged, broken colored lights.
At that mountain altitude it frosts every night, but there’s no heat. Not even a door just bright pink tapestry hanging from the ceiling- and you could hear that cold in Anna’s breathing. It sounded like she had pneumonia.
Anna’s eyes are red and bloodshot. That’s from the fire her mother has to cook over. So too is the black snot running from her nose. Anna’s mother is named Maria and she’s only a teenager though she looks three times her age.
Her father works a tiny field outside their house.
Last year, Anna’s parents borrowed money to send a family member to the States to find work. So now they’re poor and they’re in debt.
Perhaps you’d have to be there, to meet them and get a sense of all the forces working against them and all the obstacles weighing down on them, to understand but that kind of systemic poverty…it’s a kind of bondage.
Bono, the lead singer of U2, was a part of a Jubilee campaign designed to benefit the developing world as the millennium neared. The Roman Catholic Church too, under Pope John Paul, saw in the Jubilee tradition a Gospel for the world’s poor today.
Bono writes in the NY Times:
“…redemption is not just a spiritual term, it’s an economic concept. At the turn of the millennium, the debt cancellation campaign, inspired by the Jewish concept of Jubilee, aimed to give the poorest countries a fresh start. Thirty-four million more children in Africa are now in school in large part because their governments used money freed up by debt relief.
This redemption was not an end to economic slavery, but it was a more hopeful beginning for many. And to the many, not the lucky few, is surely where any soul-searching must lead us.”
According to the Gospels, the twelve disciples only ever asked Jesus to teach them one thing.
‘Lord, teach us how to pray.’
And Jesus responds: ‘When you pray, do it like this.’
The Lord’s Prayer, as we pray it in church every Sunday goes like this:
Our Father, which art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done,
in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
[For thine is the kingdom,
the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.]
I learned to pray this prayer as a teenager when I first started attending church. I was surprised when I went to a Calvinist seminary and learned in chapel that everyone else prayed a different version of Jesus’ prayer. Their version was about debts not trespasses:
‘And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…’
At the time I thought ‘debts’ sounded oddly pedestrian and strangely economic.
What I have since come to appreciate is how ‘trespasses’ doesn’t exactly resonate with what Jesus teaches his followers to pray in Matthew’s Gospel.
A third component to the Jubilee command was the requirement for the wealthy of Israel to forgive the debts of Israel’s poor. The prayer Jesus teaches them is a Jubilee prayer; Jesus’ prayer stubbornly avoids our attempts to spiritualize prayer. The word ‘debt’ used in Matthew is ‘opheilema’ in Greek, a precise term for an economic debt. Even the word most translate as ‘forgive’ is actually ‘aphiemi’ in Greek, which means ‘remit.’ Interestingly, it’s the most common verb used by Jesus.
So when Jesus teaches us to pray, he tells us to pray for the help to forgive our debtors. And Jesus won’t abide us manipulating ‘debt’ into a spiritual category, forgiving those who owe us in vague, relational terms. He’s talking concretely of economics. Forgiveness, for Jesus, isn’t simply a psychological term; it’s an economic one. Remittance.
The Lord’s Prayer, as John Howard Yoder translates it, means: ‘the time has come for the faithful people of Israel to abolish all debts which bind the poor ones of Israel, for your debts to God are also wiped away.’
By having us pray for our debts to be remitted, as we remit others’ debts, Jesus establishes a correlation between our practice of Jubilee and the grace of God.
It’s not surprising to think that forgiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ Gospel.
It is surprising to discover that, for Jesus, forgiveness is more than a relational term. Forgiveness is about more than Christ reconciling us of Sin. It’s about more than our reconciling personal relationships with others.
Forgiveness, for Jesus, is a material term too.
It’s about loosing those who are bound to systems of impoverishment.
It’s about recognizing (and thus being loosed ourselves) that many of us benefit from those very systems that impoverish others.
Consider how those indigenous Maya in Guatemala suffer economically in no small part because the global marketplace that guarantees advantage to American businesses makes it impossible for them to compete on an equitable basis.
Consider how the poverty which afflicts Native American societies is the result of generations of injustice perpetrated by the American government, a legacy that has harmed one society and benefited another.
Consider how the Banana Republic pants I’m wearing as I type this were made in a factory in Cambodia (not far from a garbage dump school our church supports)because that country’s only option is to provide the company with the absolute cheapest labor they can find anywhere in the world.
I don’t have easy answers for any of these issues. I’m not an economist nor am I convinced Christians should opt for easy answers. I think maybe we’re supposed to live amidst the uneasiness and wrestle with the conflicting values. We’re supposed face over and again the fact that our salvation is tied to the grace we show those who suffer at the expense of our comfort and lifestyle.
Harsh thoughts, maybe.
Words we’d rather shove aside so we can instead be ‘spiritual.’
Maybe that’s why Jesus tells us to pray this way whenever we pray:
‘And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…’