A Debt We Can Never Repay

This sermon was preached on November 4th, 2018, at the Wolcott Congregational Church. The Scriptures are Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35

Today, we’re going to talk about debts we can never repay… And no, I’m not talking about my current student loan bill.

Debts are a funny thing.

We all know that biblical proverb, “neither a borrower nor lender be.” 

Oh wait, I’m getting word; that’s not actually from the Bible.  It’s from Act 3 Scene 1 of Hamlet.

Well, that’s the rest of my sermon down the drain.

Just kidding.

But seriously, the Bible has a lot to say about debt.

Debts feature prominently in the most famous Christian prayer- The Lord’s Prayer- Although we use the word sin at this church when praying it every week, the word in the original Greek- opheiló- O-fy-lo- is really much closer to debt.  We’re asking God to forgive our debts, just as much as we are called to forgive those debts that people owe us.

This is a big deal.

It seems weird to us now- after all, many of us have credit card debt, auto debt, a mortgage, not to mention student loans.

We live in a world of debts.

It’s not all bad- it’s allowed for a great deal of material prosperity, at the cost of even more tangled and complex webs of relationships between creditors and debtors. Here’s a statistic that astounds me.

The value of all the goods and services produced on earth is about $80 trillion dollars.  It’s an absolutely phenomenal and mind boggling figure.  I literally have trouble comprehending it. 

Global debt- the amount of money that humans, governments, and corporations owe each other, is $240 trillion dollars- three times that number.

So this notion of a duty to forgive debts that are owed to us is an extremely counter cultural one. It requires us to remember the depth of the goodness of God in forgiving our own debts to him.

It echoes Jesus’s commandment in the Gospel of John, to love each other just as God loves us. So as we have been forgiven of debts we can never repay, so too should we forgive those debts that can never be repaid.

This is an extension of the Golden Rule, something that is passed down to us from Jewish wisdom in an unbroken line.

Indeed, in commenting so vociferously on the need for canceling debts, both in this story and in other places, Jesus is expanding on a strain of thought that runs through the Bible, and is a cornerstone of the Bible’s economic philosophy.

Yes, the Bible has an economic philosophy.

Many of the laws that were handed down to the Hebrew people at Mount Sinai were actually about debt, yes, even private debts between two parties. In Deuteronomy, we can read about the practice of canceling debts every seven years.

And no, this isn’t because of an ancient Communist plot. But because God cares about the equality and fully realized humanity of his people.

And being in debt in the ancient world, was, even more so then today, a dehumanizing thing. Back then, if you got into debt, and you couldn’t pay, you, or your child, or your spouse, might be forced to work as a servant for your creditor to pay it off.

This, as you can guess, wrecked families, communities, and social network.

Farming then, even more so then now, was labor intensive work.

That’s why, in the ten commandments, it places coveting “your neighbors wife” alongside “your neighbors donkey”.  Coveting thy neighbor’s wife is not about adultery, as that’s covered in an earlier commandment. It’s about labor, and specifically, getting your neighbor into debt so that his wife would have to work for you.

So losing a wife or child was not only emotionally and spiritually devastating, but also meant the possibility of falling into an economic spiral which could be hard or even impossible to break out of.

They became debtors, bound to debts they could never repay. Landowners become reduced to hired hands, and wealth becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of a few, who eventually start to see themselves as more human than those that work for them.

Family structures begin to break down as people don’t have the wealth or resources to marry and feed children. This is not the vision of what God wants for us.

We see this in our reading today, the parable that Jesus tells us.  We should note that in the story Jesus tells, the first servant is most likely a official of the kingdom, some sort of treasurer.

And through whatever means, he has managed to misplace or misuse a level of funds that’s the equivalent of millions, probably billions of dollars. So when the King forgives him of his debts, which he would never have been able to repay, this is not a private matter. This is a kingdom shaking event.

This official-servant though, as he’s of higher social status than the other servant that comes up to him, who asks for a release on his debt, thinks that its in his power to refuse to forgiveness.

After all, this money was probably the official’s own money, and a sizable sum in its own right. But the official made a tragic error. He forgot that the treasure he had was not entirely his own. 

He forgot that the benefice of his King was the source of his wealth, his comfort, and his status.  The debt, it turns out, was not really his to forgive. This is the same attitude that Joseph has toward his brothers.

Our scene in Genesis happens at the end of the saga of Joseph, who was now in a position of power and prestige in the wealthiest kingdom in the world, after having been a slave and prisoner due to the actions of his brothers.

Remember that Joseph’s brothers were absolutely awful, abusive, and even murderous toward him. Joseph notes that the forgiveness they need to seek is not from him, but from God.

I think it’s quite important that this forgiveness only happens only when they no longer can fall back into old patterns. At that point, in the story, the brothers do not have power over Joseph.

Forgiveness does not excuse their behavior, nor, more importantly, is this license for them to abuse him again. Once again, forgiveness does not mean a return to abusive conditions.

I believe that this was one of the reasons that Joseph cried.  They could no longer hurt him. He could let go of the anger, the pain, the sadness that they had caused him so many years ago.

The good that the brothers did was to acknowledge that the debt that they owed him was not one that could be bought off, but him is one that they could never repay.

They offer to become his slaves. Their only hope was the goodness and mercy of the God they shared. And maybe it’s our only hope too.

After all, how many of us have complicated family relationships? Ones that are maybe closer to Joseph and his brothers than we like to think? In our divided and angry world, how many debts are we holding on to like burning coals?

Not debts that set us up in the position to be hurt again, but debts where the hurt is a burning coal that we alone cling tightly to, that we refuse to throw away.

How many of these debts can we lay at the feet of our living God and say, this debt is between them and you, oh Lord?

We are allowed, as people of God, to feel anger and feel pain, to protect ourselves and our families. We are allowed to collect debts owed to us when terms are reasonable and for mutual benefit.

But we are also allowed to let them go.  To forgive them.  To forgive ourselves. To allow for God’s forgiveness to dwell in us. And that, people of God, is a gift that we can never repay.