It is a situation that has become all too familiar: overwhelming debt that cannot be repaid. It is an image that the Scriptures know full well. But it is a situation that is easily seen from two sides – and only one of them belongs to God. The two sides are simple: the one who owes the debt and the one to whom the debt must be paid. And the Scriptures have a clear bias in this matter – God intervenes on behalf of the debtor.
The Old Testament Law instituted the system of the Sabbath. One day in seven was set aside as belonging to God. This is well-known. But the same Law also declared every seventh year to be a Sabbath year.
Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove. (Exo 23:10-11)
Beyond that, there was a cycle of seven Sabbath years (49 years total) which were to be followed by the fiftieth – the Jubilee.
And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field. In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession. (Lev 25:8-13)
The Jubilee year was “liberty”: it represented the cancellation of debts. Ideally, the economy of ancient Israel was structured to preclude the accumulation of unpayable debt. The Jubilee represented a Biblical notion of justice – the return of things to their proper state – something that does not include debt.
Debt, particularly an accumulating debt, was considered an oppression. The people of Israel were forbidden to charge interest of one another (usury). Today, our laws describe usury as “unusually high interest.” And though Israel was permitted to charge interest of gentiles, they were specifically enjoined, in the very passage that describes the Sabbath year, from oppressing the “stranger in the land.”
…you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exo 23:9)
My point in this article is not economic – but theological. It has to do with the atonement. It has become popular (as I’ve written many times) to see Christ’s death on the Cross as a punishment – Christ suffers on the Cross in our place in order to satisfy the just demands of the Father. This is frequently described as well in terms of debt. Our sins are seen as creating a debt that must be paid. Indeed, they are seen as an “infinite” debt that could be paid by no human being – other than a perfect human being. Therefore God becomes a human being and pays our debt through His death on the Cross.
But this account badly misunderstands the place of debt in the Scriptures. Debt is a bad thing and an egregious enemy of the people of God. The good God who loves mankind gave extraordinary instructions to protect His people from the bondage of debt. To make of us debtors to God and to make of God the Keeper of Debts is a serious distortion of fundamental Biblical images.
Rather, Christ is the Destroyer of debts – specifically the debt of sin, death, disease and corruption (phthora), and the like. To whom is such a debt owed? Not to God, according to the Fathers. Indeed, the Scriptures and the Fathers are quite vague on the debt actually being owed to anyone. No doubt, the devil would like to say the debt is owed to him, but St. Gregory the Theologian says that such a thought is abhorrent. We experience all of these things as a debt that must be paid. Be we are nowhere told that God holds a debt over us.
Instead, we hear a cosmic Jubilee proclaimed by Christ in His hometown:
So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the good news to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luk 4:16-21)
The “Year of the Lord” undergirds the whole of Christ’s earthly ministry. The good news to the poor is the cancellation of their soul-crushing debts. The brokenhearted are healed and those held captive by all the false debt of the wicked one gain their liberty. Everywhere Christ goes these things take place – not as gimmicks to prove He is Divine – but because these are the very things that are the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God. Where the Kingdom of God is, there can be no debt. It is the Lord’s Jubilee, His Acceptable Year.
It is rather tragic that some have made God the keeper of debts, the One-Who-Must-Be-Paid. Were our debt to God, it would have been cancelled from the beginning. It is equally tragic that we have magnified debt in our culture, making the owners of debt into heroes: frugal, savvy, wise-investors. Those who are burdened by debt are thought of as lazy and foolish with only themselves to blame – and all of this as we live in a world whose debts are simply astronomical and ever increasing. Every hiccup in the economy is felt most by the poorest debtors – while the owners of debt are declared: “Too big to fail.”
It is worth noting that Christ has much to say on the topic of money, and He only speaks well of generosity and sharing, never of amassing fortunes (most of which represent someone else’s debt). Debt is something to be forgiven, though in the hands of the wicked it is used for power.
A recent article in The Guardian drew attention to this Orthodox view of debt and contrasted it with the Western view of God as the One who must be paid. It aptly applied it to the current relationship between Greece and Germany. It’s a rare thing to find such theology in the popular press.
Food for thought…