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The Debts We Owe
Happy Sunday everyone! There’s a lot going on at The Cottage this week. Singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer will be a live ZOOM guest on Thursday (details below), there’s a fall subscriber special, a TEXAS announcement, a reminder about Southern Lights, and — OF COURSE — your weekly Sunday Musing! Wow! Read on….
Fall is upon us! The Cottage is celebrating turning leaves and sweater weather with an autumn equinox surprise subscription offer: THE PUMPKIN SPICE SPECIAL!
New subscribers (and those upgrading from free to paid) receive an extra 10% off a regular yearly subscription (which is already a really good deal). You can use the extra cash to put toward a Pumpkin Spice Latte (everybody’s favorite drink to hate). This offer is good for TWO WEEKS ONLY until OCTOBER 1.
And Happy Spring to our friends Down Under! It may not be pumpkin season there, but the special extends to your spring equinox, too.
Today is the third Sunday in the Season of Creation, a short liturgical season that runs from September 1 to October 4 attending to the spirituality of creation and a theology of the environment. During this time, Christians and those of other faiths are encouraged to read the Bible with our hearts attuned to the Earth and its inhabitants and our hands ready to participate with God in co-creating the future.
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“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 would 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 would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
A decade or more ago, I preached in a church next to a university on one line of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
After explaining how “debt” (an economic and legal term) and “sin” (a moral and theological term), are the exact same word in Matthew’s text, I became increasingly excited by my own sermon! I shared how Jesus was talking about both radical economics and radical relationships. I lifted both arms toward the heavens and practically shouted: “Jesus dreamt of a debt-free world!”
I looked out over the congregation. One group — clearly college students — looked both startled and shocked.
After the sermon, they came up to me at the door to the church. One young man asked, “About a ‘debt-free world’ business, did Jesus really say that?”
“Yes,” I assured the student, “He really said that.”
Another, while a quaking a little, said, “I can’t believe Jesus said that. Why haven’t we heard this before? No one ever explained this.” His voice dropped, “You know that’s what we are dreaming of, too.”
The students wanted to talk. More. It was a while before I left church that day.
Today’s passage is traditionally called the “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.” And it is a lot like the Lord’s Prayer — the word for “debt” is that same slippery term that means both economic debt and moral transgression. In Matthew’s gospel, it is difficult to separate the two. It is hard to untangle money from sin. It is almost as if Jesus means for us to be confused or upset by his little story.
If Jesus were to update his tale with those students in mind, he might call it “The Parable of Debt Abolition and the Wicked Hedge Fund Manager.” That packs a bit more punch, doesn’t it? Telling the story that way might get Jesus thrown out of a congregation or two.
That may sound radical to us, but Jesus wasn’t straying very far from his own scriptures and the Law in this parable. The central hope of Jewish tradition is a vision of a debt-free world, an economic system based solely on God’s provision and generosity, a moral response of gratitude and humility on the part of God’s people, and regular rituals of debt abolition and freedom from contractual obligations. This was to be the economic and moral rhythm of Israel, linked together in a single social fabric and practiced through weekly Sabbath, Sabbath years, and the Jubilee.
Although his Jewish listeners would have been well-aware of the story behind Jesus’s story, his words might have seemed somewhat harsh at the time. After all, the first guy was owed money. His “fellow slave” was obligated. The freed slave only sought what was rightfully his. Yet, the first slave, who seemed to be the hero of the piece, quickly turned out to be a villain.
Ancient Rome, much like our society, was an entire economic system based on debt. Everyone was burdened by it in some way. It was a hierarchy of debt and obligation, benefactors and clients, upper classes and lower ones, all bound together in a complex structure of patronage — where benefits (“gifts”) flowed from top to bottom and tributes of obligation (“gratitude”) were returned from bottom to top with interest.
The parable, of course, talks about sin-as-debt in the same way the Lord’s Prayer does, and it has multiple layers — it is also an explicit criticism of this economic system, a system to which the Jews were functionally and actually enslaved.
Look at the story again. The “lord” in this parable releases his slave from debt. That would make the formerly enslaved man a free citizen. The lord would become his patron, and the two men would have a different legal relationship based in mutuality and reciprocal duties. It seems clear that the lord in the story expected that the freed man would be grateful. And, the freedman would, as we say now, pay it forward to anyone he might hold in similar bondage. (It needs to be said that the lord never makes his expectations clear to the newly free man!)
However, the man — now free from both social and economic bondage — presses one of the lord’s other slaves for money he is owed. He doesn’t pay it forward. He demands repayment.
Why does he do this? Ultimately, I think the answer is fairly simple: the man couldn’t imagine anything different. Debt, slavery, obligation, payback. This was the way of the world. Bondage was all this man knew. His situation had been an exception, sure. A single kindness from one person toward him was a great and magnanimous thing. But everyone released from every debt? That wasn’t possible. That would cause chaos.
He acted as he had been formed to act by the system in which he lived. Someone owed him. Collect the debt.
It is hard to imagine a world without debt.
Indeed, debt is part of the deep structure of society. It is just the way it is.
In the parable, the lord gets spitting mad when he hears that his former slave responded to his charity by treating another slave badly. And so, the original slaveholder takes the man he freed back into custody and has him tortured. Despite his initial compassion, the machinations of the debt-system seize even the lord as he reverts to being a bondsman — by participating in and perpetuating a violent structure of oppression and injustice that he tried to soften by his original act of mercy. Perhaps he was frustrated that even he was ultimately powerless to change even a single life in the face of dehumanizing debt.
What is the POINT of the parable? Debt hurts EVERYBODY. Those who hold debts and those held in debt. But God’s kingdom holds another possibility: debt can be forgiven — and you can go and do likewise. Seventy-seven times. Even seventy times seven times. You, me, the people treated unjustly, and the people on the top — we can all be set free from the immorality of brutal, predatory obligations that make every person less than fully human. And Jesus wants us to struggle with those two words — debt and sin — and live in the messiness of its dual meaning in this world.
Ultimately, this parable reminds us that we are all debtors. In the same way that there are no clear lines between financial debt and sin, there are no final roles assigned to benefactor and beneficiaries, “lord” and “slave,” or bondsman and free person. Who is enslaved in this story? Every character is subject to an unjust system of indebtedness. Everyone seems more acted upon than acting. The whole thing twists us into people we don’t really want to be, and creates fundamental injustices that are nearly impossible to overcome.
What has this to do with the Season of Creation?
Debt and sin don’t just corrupt individuals. Economic indebtedness and moral malfeasance are primary drivers of environmental destruction and the climate crisis. Debt and sin hurt us in every possible way. They undergird abusive social structures, exacerbate violence between groups, and strengthen extractive economic systems. And all of that damages creation, slowly and surely moving this beautiful planet toward a future that is so frightening we deny it is even happening.
Debt and sin are not God’s intention for humankind. They do not enable us to flourish. They are not the divine design for living with one another justly or cultivating a land so that it flows with milk and honey. God created us for freedom and forgiveness — to embrace Sabbath and practice Jubilee. That is the pathway to peace. To genuine liberation. To true mutuality, gratitude, and abundance. And that is exactly what Jesus was talking about. This radical little story calls us to true repentance, renewed commitment to mercy and justice, and new life for all of community and creation.
Consider that prayer, the one Jesus directed that we pray every day:
Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. Free us from bondage as we forgive those who bind us. Let us make a debt-free world together. We don’t really know if this is possible. But Jesus insisted we follow him and try. And keep at it. Over and over and over again, never giving up on freedom and forgiveness.
May we practice Sabbath and Jubilee in this age and prepare for their fullness in the Age that is to Come.
And never forget: Jesus dreamt of a debt-free world.
On September 21, THIRD THURSDAY at THE COTTAGE hosts poet and singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer to our live paid-subscriber ZOOM gathering. Carrie, once dubbed a “prairie mystic” by the Boston Globe, and I will talk about how our spiritual journeys have been shaped — or reshaped — by engaging the natural world. She will be sharing some of her poems and a song or two from her new album, A Great Wild Mercy. You can view the album’s preview video below. And we’ll have time for Q&A.
Please check out her newsletter: A Gathering of Spirits (I love it!).
THIRD THURSDAY is the monthly gathering with paid subscribers featuring authors, activists, and artists who invite us to think more deeply about our spiritual lives, challenge us with issues of concern in the world, and grow our appreciation for diverse voices of faith.
This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.
Pay it I will to the end —
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release —
Gives me the clasp of peace.
Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best —
God! but the interest!
— Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “The Debt.” Dunbar was the first Black poet who achieved success after American enslavement ended. This poem on debt is best understood in the context of Reconstruction — and the economic injustice that continued to limit the freedoms of formerly enslaved persons. Please read about his life and legacy HERE.
who believe in the senses,
I was an accountant,
Permitted to touch
the leaf of a thistle,
work of a spider.
To ponder the Hubble’s recordings.
It did not matter
if I believed in
the party of particle or of wave,
as I carried no weapon.
It did not matter if I believed.
I weighed ashes,
cities that glittered like rubies,
on the scales I was given,
in units of fear and amazement.
I wrote the word it, the word is.
I entered the debt that is owed to the real.
spine-covered leaf, soft-bodied spider,
one curious tentacle back toward the hand of the diver
that in such black ink
I set down your flammable colors.
— Jane Hirshfield, “My Debt.” Learn more about this poem from the author in this interview.
NEXT WEEKEND: AUSTIN, TEXAS!
Honestly, friends. It seems like half of my events this autumn are in BLUE corners of RED states! This week, Florida. Next weekend, Texas! Join me on Saturday, September 23 at University Methodist Church in Austin for an evening lecture and on Sunday, September 24 in Sunday worship. Click the church’s link for details.
SOUTHERN LIGHTS IS BACK!
January 12 -14, 2024
And our theme is Reimagining Faith Beyond Patriarchy and Hierarchy
Last January, almost 700 people gathered at St. Simon’s Island in Georgia for a packed weekend of poetry, theology, and music.
WE’RE GATHERING AGAIN!
YOU ARE INVITED to join me and Brian McLaren as we reimagine our faith beyond patriarchy and hierarchy in our interior lives, in our communities of faith, and in the Scriptures. We’ve asked three remarkable speakers to take us through this journey: Cole Arthur Riley, Simran Jeet Singh, and Elizabeth “Libbie” Schrader Polczer.
Please come and be with us in Georgia. Or, if you’d rather be with us online, you can choose that option as well.