“Forgive us our debts,” and glimpses of Jubilee | 26 April 2015


Texts: Matthew 6:9-13; Acts 4:32-37

Maybe this has happened to you before: You’re in a group that’s praying the Lord’s Prayer without a script, everything is going smoothly until: “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our…”  At this point, unless a leader has prompted the group ahead of time, you have one of four options.  You can say “sins,” “forgive us our sins.” You can say, “debts,” “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  You can say “trespasses.”  Or, you can make a noncommittal mumble  or simply stay silent as a way of yielding to whichever choice the majority of others go with.  I think I’ve tried all four options at different times.

One can cite Scripture for using any one of those three words, but on closer examination, there is one that comes out as the leader for the original intent of the prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer appears twice in the New Testament, once in Luke’s gospel, and once in Matthew.  Jesus is giving his disciples words to use when they pray.  The prayer condenses Jesus’ theology into just a few statement. Luke’s is the shorter and more compact version and goes like this: “Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”  So Luke uses both “sins” and “debts.”

Sins 1, Debts 1

Matthew is the more commonly cited version of the prayer, the one Eve and Lily recited, which occurs in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.  Right after Jesus teaches this prayer in Matthew, he says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”  Trespasses doesn’t occur within the prayer itself, but it is one of the ways that Jesus immediately clarifies and interprets the prayer, so we should give it a point.

Sins 1, Debts 1, Trespasses 1.

It’s neck and neck.  All tied up.

Within Matthew’s version of the prayer, it says this: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

And we have a winner. “Debts” it is.

In some ways these three words communicate a similar idea and can be used interchangeably.  They speak to a wrong, or harm, or injustice committed.  In order for forgiveness to come to fruition, we are both givers and receivers of forgiveness.  And the way both prayers are worded, interestingly, we are the ones who forgive first, which clears the way for us to be forgiven.  “Forgive us (now)…as we also have forgiven others (past tense).”

But these three words are also quite different, and the one we use in our praying can affect how we practice and receive forgiveness.  “Sins” is the most general and could include internal thoughts or outward actions or speech of any kind.  “Trespasses” has its own unique references and perhaps feels the most archaic to say.  It has to do with crossing a line and boundaries that ought not be crossed – which could include things like sexual boundaries which Mark talked about last week.

But what about debts?  Forgive us our indebtedness, as we have forgiven those indebted to us.  This has a much more direct economic dimension to it.  Not limited to this, but certainly including it.  On the one occasion when Jesus gave his followers a set of words to use when they pray, he included a phrase about praying for and practicing the forgiveness of debts.

First century Roman controlled Palestine was a much different world than 21st century America, but one thing they have in common is the prevalence of crippling debt.  In first century rural Galilee where Jesus lived and taught, the primary basis and creator of wealth was land.  Sociologists classify that type of arrangement as an agrarian and peasant society.  Urban elites had control of nearly all the land, holding the power to issue rents and taxes to the villages and countrysides, paid not in the form of cash but in the form of grain and goods produced, making for what one scholar calls, “a relentless flow of wealth away from the rural producers to the storehouses of cities, private estates, and temples” (The Social World of Luke-Acts, Neyrey, ed., p. 156).  Farmers were actually laborers, or tenants, or maybe managers, working on land previously owned by their ancestors, still dependent on its output for their own sustenance, but having less control over what was grown and how much they could keep for their families and livestock.  Studies have estimated that about 2% of the population was a part of the ruling elite, 8% made up the service class such as the soldiers, merchants, craftmen, and priests, and the other 90% worked the land  (Neyrey, p. 155).  A poor year, combined with various other taxes and tolls owed to the Romans and Herod and the temple could lead to a cycle of indebtedness from which one might never escape.  The frequent reference to slaves in the New Testament often refers to debt slavery – perpetually working to pay off a debt that never goes away.

Reading the Gospels with an eye toward these economic realities is a window into this world.  Jesus’ parables are populated with managers overseeing the land and wealth of their absent master; slaves whose manager goes away on a long trip, temporarily entrusting the operations of the estate to the slaves; tenants in vineyards; slaves thrown into debt prison for their inability to pay the massive sum they owe; day laborers looking for hire; taxes owed to Caesar and the temple.   The farmer in the parable who sewed seed among the stones and thorns and beaten path and good soil would likely need to surrender up to half of that abundant harvest to the landlord.  The anonymous man going up from Jericho to Jerusalem in the parable of the Good Samaritan falls victim to a class of people who had checked out entirely of the system of patronage and debt, instead living in the hills and surviving through robbery and banditry.

Jesus encounters tax and toll collectors, rich rulers who want to follow him but don’t want to surrender any of their wealth, beggars completely dependent on the goodwill of those only slightly better off than themselves, masses of hungry people.  I was reminded in some study this week that even those fisherman Jesus called to be his first followers weren’t the independent entrepreneurs we may see them as being.  They too were a part of the state run political economy, the Roman emperor collecting port and road taxes and tribute from Herod Antipas, who had local control over the waterways like the Sea of Galilee, harbors and fishing rights, selling licenses to brokers, tax collectors, who sold them at inflated cost to fishing families, who formed cooperatives to bid on fishing contracts, and hired workers to assist in the manual labor.  In both Matthew and Mark the first disciples are from fishing families – Simon, Andrew, James, and John – and the next disciple called – Levi, also called Matthew – is the broker manning the tax booth, probably overcharging for fishing rights in the same little fishing village of Capernaum where Peter and crew live and work.   It’s quite a strategy of Jesus for forming a group that is called to practice an ethic of forgiveness and mutual aid.  I wonder how they all got along in those early days.

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

The April issue of Sojourners magazine carried an article with the appropriate title: “Forgive us our debts,” specifically about student debt in the US.  The lead in line states: “The high cost of US education loans is causing a new form of indentured servitude.”  The article notes that US education debt now totals $1.2 trillion and that more than 7 million borrowers are in default.  Education loans now have unique rules in that they can’t be refinanced to a lower rate and are impossible to walk away from like a car or house loan, not eligible for bankruptcy.  Not only do they never go away, a missed payment or default gives a lender the ability to issue penalities up to 25% of the balance and legally increase the interest rate to several times the original rate.  If one falls behind in payments one can have their federal tax return withheld and up to 15% of their wages garnished.  Bloomberg Business Week reports that in 2013 the federal government withheld full or partial Social Security payments from 155,000 retirees to pay off student debt.  The article says: “For millennials, their whole life is caught up in this debt.”

Medical debt is also a major source of indebtedness in the US and one hopeful and creative response to this is a campaign called “Rolling Jubilee” which grew out of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.  Rolling Jubilee is operated by folks who have an inside track on the debt collection industry and use donated funds to buy up debt – mostly medical debt – that is in default just like a collection agency would.  Only rather than going after the debtor, they send them a letter that says that their debt has been abolished and that they owe nothing.  Because they can buy this debt for pennies on the dollar, Rolling Jubilee has currently used over $700,000 in donations to buy and forgive nearly $32 million in debt – a small slice of overall debt, but significant, especially for those random folks who had their debts forgiven.

Rolling Jubilee is not a religiously based group, but that concept of Jubilee is borrowed directly from the Hebrew Bible.  Leviticus 25 decrees that every 50 years the Israelites were to return all land holdings back to their original family owners, such that those who had fallen under misfortune and needed to sell their land to stay afloat, and those who had accumulated wealth over the 50 year period were balanced out in a system reboot.  Leviticus 25:10 says, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you.”  Although it is enshrined in Torah there’s no literary or archeological evidence that it was ever practiced.  Deuteronomy 15 details a similar type of program, perhaps a more manageable legal reworking of the Jubilee, in which debt slaves were released from their obligations every seven years, so that no Hebrew would be perpetually enslaved to another.  You were not only to let your fellow Hebrew/Israelite slave go, you were to send them out with provisions so they could have a fresh start.  You do this, the text says, because you remember that you were all once slaves in Egypt, and you are to create a society in which you no longer enslave one another.  There was to be institutionalized debt forgiveness.

And so, like many of Jesus’ teachings, rather than offering something brand new, when Jesus taught folks to pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” he was calling on his people to implement the ethical teachings already commanded in Torah – reigniting the memory and the vision of the people, and creating a community which, at least among themselves, put these commandments into practice.  We get a little glimpse of that in Acts chapter 4.  It doesn’t refer specifically to debt forgiveness, but it does note that this particular community of believers held everything in common such that there was not a needy person among them.  They were becoming the answer to their own prayers.

So there are practical things we can do.  We can vote for public officials who are going to push to make better rules about issues like student debt – allowing for refinancing of student debt, capping penalties and interest rates and all those good things.  We can give to Rolling Jubilee and help a random stranger become freed from a debt.

I would also like us to try something among ourselves, just within this congregation.  If we pray together, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” might there be a small creative way to start to become the answer to our own prayer?  We are practicing resurrection this Easter season.  Debt is a complex, messy, and sometimes overwhelming problem, but one of the aspects of practicing resurrection is that none of those things gets the final word.  So today, and over the next two weeks, we are going to have a window of practicing resurrection by practicing a modified form of jubilee.  I’ve been in conversation with our Finance folks and the Shepherding Team and Worship Commission, and got a thumbs up on this, so here’s what we’re going to do.

I want everyone to take out a piece of paper in pew.  Adults, kids, everyone.

Write your name.

Everyone is going to write one more thing on it, but let me explain first what we’re doing.

You will be writing “Debt” under your name if you have any education debt, or if you have any other kind of debt such as medical or credit card, or other debt, that you consider overly burdensome, overwhelming.  If you have a mortgage and are doing fine with monthly payments, this wouldn’t be included.

If you do not have any student debt or other forms of burdensome debt, you will be writing “Jubilee” under you name.  You can fold that paper in half, and when we pass the offering baskets around, put it in.  Only me and a couple of our financial folks are going to see these slips of paper.

And for all you who write Jubilee, you are invited, this Sunday and the next two, to give to a Columbus Mennonite Jubilee Fund.  We’re going to take that Fund, divide it by however many people wrote Debt under their name, and mail out checks to each person which are to go toward paying down the principle of the loan.

This is not going to wipe out anyone’s debt.  So let’s say, for example, we raise $10,000.  That would pretty easy for us to do.  And let’s say there’s 50 people who write Debt under their name.  We will be mailing out checks of $200 to 50 different people.  I think we can raise $10,000.  This is not money for an outside project.  Every dollar that you give will be going directly to debt relief for someone here, someone you worship with, someone you know.

Here’s one way to think about how much to give: If you have paid off a student loan, you can go back and see what your monthly payment was, and give that amount to this fund.  So Abbie and I were fortunate a few years back to pay off our last student loans.  One of the payments was $60 a month and one was $90, so that’s $150 into this Jubilee Fund.  That’s maybe too much of a stretch for some, others of you can give lots more than that.  For kids, elementary school, high school, if you have not yet borrowed money, you can give into this fund.  Use your share fund from your allowance and give a couple dollars or a couple quarters and you’ll join the Jubilee party.

So here’s a few technical things:

All gifts are tax deductible, which helps.  Those who wrote “Debt” are not expected to give.  This is a time for you to receive.  If you have some but not a lot of debt, or if you have debt from your kids’ education and don’t know whether to write debt or jubilee, then please choose whichever you need most.  If you need to give, choose that.  If you need to receive, choose that.

Checks are made out to “Columbus Mennonite Church,” but have to be designated in the Memo Line as “Jubilee Fund.”  If you don’t make that designation, they’ll go toward our general budget, and this giving is above and beyond general budget and pledging.  Or if you give cash, you’ll need to give in an envelope designated “Jubilee Fund.”  And I realize most people won’t have their checkbooks ready right away here, so we’ll be collecting this the next two Sundays and there will be plenty of reminders.

OK, so one more thing.  I’ve also been in conversation with Everence, the Mennonite Stewardship agency, and they are able to match up to $2,250 of this Jubilee Fund, so that’s going to help as well.  The only technicality here is that they don’t match giving toward student loans, so if your debt is only student loans, please write ‘sl’ in front of it.  We’ll work the math to make sure everyone still gets the same Jubilee check, but I want to honor their policy of what they match.

So go ahead and write you name on the paper, and under that write either Jubilee, or debt, or sl debt, and fold the paper in half, and put it in the offering plates when they come around.