Forgiveness for the Poor
If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount.But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you.
Our society loves punishment. We have all heard of Dante’s Inferno, the place where everyone is given a just punishment for their life of crime, but how many of us have even tried to read the Paradiso, let alone the Purgatorio? In popular theology, there are some juicy tidbits about hell, but heaven is either a mystery or it is wings and harps. I mean, wings are cool, but harps? Really? That’s a reward?
For every aspect of society, we have multiple “instruments of justice” for every possible reward.
We can be blocked, mocked, or defrocked; jailed, failed or nailed;
We could be arrested, condemned and then sentenced.
We could be tickled, spanked or fifty lashes with a wet noodle
We could be put under someone’s thumb, be given the finger or crushed under a heel.
We could be smitten with three years of famine, three years of war or three years of the plague
We could be given a ticket, given an exclusion or given the stink eye
Murphy could cause every empty parking spot have a motorcycle,
Every chocolate chip cookie have raisins
And every vibration we feel not actually be our cell phone, but just our imagination.
I’m just saying, we love punishments and punishing people. We talk about how much we want fairness or karma, but, as a society, we only want to dish out punishments for bad actions, not rewards for good actions. Oh, we reward-- we reward people with meaningless statements of gratitude and honor. We look at two people who have sacrificed their lives for the vulnerable and we curse them with plaques on both of their houses!
We want fairness for us and ours, but we demand unfair “justice” for people we are afraid of.
Jesus wants us to forgive.
We spoke before about Jesus’ statements of forgiveness. That Jesus didn’t talk about our favorite kind of forgiveness-- releasing bitterness from our hearts, which is a wonderful gift for ourselves. But he did talk about forgiveness for someone who harmed a community, which must be obtained through repentance. But what Jesus was really talking about, when he spoke of forgiveness is a release from punishment.
In other words someone harms us, let’s say that Becky came to my house, took my pitcher of tea and dumped it all over my bookcase. That… really hurt, Becky. But I’m not going to give her a just recompense for her horrendous crime. No, I won’t reprogram her map program so that it takes her ten miles out of the way wherever she is going. Rather, I am going to forgive her. She agrees to never dump my tea out again, and I won’t repaint her house in a Pepto-Bismol pink.
That doesn’t mean that I forget the fact that she wettened my precious volumes with my precious drink. After all, I’m not crazy. Forgive and forget just isn’t a thing. Perhaps I find out that she goes bezerk whenever she sees perfectly brewed iced tea and has to toss it. This means I want to remember her infraction. Not to blame or to punish, but to carefully remove my tea to a hidden place so that she isn’t triggered.
Jesus’ forgiveness means that we “judge with a right judgment” and not blame people for what they may not have done.
Jesus’ forgiveness means that we give people 2nd, 3rd, 4th, even seventy by seven chances in our lives.
Jesus’ forgiveness means that we help people be better, not harm them.
Jesus’ forgiveness means that we recognize that we are no better than others.
But all this is not the sermon I want to say today. Frankly, that’s about six sermons, so far.
Release from Debt
It is interesting that Jesus used a particular word for “forgive” in Greek. There’s a number of words he could have used, some of which are used in the New Testament elsewhere. But the one he used is specifically about money, about forgiving debt. Why did he use this term?
Jesus uses this word for “forgive” because like we talked about last week, much of Jesus’ message was specifically for the poor. And in the ancient world, the poor feared debt above all else.
One’s money in the ancient world was usually made through agriculture. A poor person is one who is a subsistence farmer who just ekes out a living, year by year. But if there is poor weather or a bug infestation one year, then to survive, one has to borrow from someone who has extra. In the ancient world, interest was immoral, so to loan money one had to demand payment harshly. Loan sharks today are criminal, but back in the day there was a legal system of harshly demanding loans. This is because those who did not pay their debt were treated like criminals, or, as Proverbs puts it, “The borrower is the slave of the lender.” They have to do whatever the lender says.
First, if the lender did not get paid at the time agreed, the person in debt would sell every possession they did not need and give the money to the lender. Then the borrower’s family land would be sold to the lender to make up some of the debt. Next, the lender would take a pledge, a precious possession, which he would “borrow” until the payment was made-- perhaps a person’s only coat, or perhaps a child as a servant. Next, a person in debt would be thrown in jail, so their friends and family would come up with the money. And finally, the person in debt would be sold, along with their spouse and their children, into slavery. And all of this was legal and proper under the laws of the ancient world, even the Hebrew Bible.
Hebrew Society had a loophole, however, a systematic forgiveness. Every seven years, all debts are forgiven and all punishments for not paying a debt are forgiven. Those in prison are set free, all pledges are released, all slaves are freed. And every 49 years, every land that was sold is returned to the original family that owned it. Isaiah called these the “year of God’s favor”. It is this that Jesus proclaimed in his first sermon, that the year of forgiveness was upon them.
Why was this important? Because the year of forgiveness hadn’t been fulfilled in many eras. Forgiveness was a forgotten art that Jesus wanted to bring back into vogue.
This was truly good news to the poor.
This is interesting. Because the way we think about forgiveness is remarkably different from how Jesus thought about it. We think of forgiveness as something we do in our hearts, but Jesus thought about forgiveness as something we do with our pocketbooks, and in our communities.
We think of forgiveness as something people do as peers, that two people who are of the same level of authority or power can do for each other. Jesus thought of forgiveness as something done from the one who can punish to the one who is punished. The rich can forgive the poor, but the poor person can’t really forgive the rich. The judge forgives the prisoner, the prisoner cannot forgive the judge. The priest forgives the sinner, the sinner doesn’t forgive the priest. Jesus keeps an eye on the power dynamics and insists that the one with power forgive the one without power, except in the case where the sinner can continue to do harm.
We think of forgiveness as something between two people. Jesus, and the entire Bible, spoke of forgiveness that a whole society can establish and make law, for the sake of the poor.
When we talk about forgiveness, is Jesus really talking about money? Jesus had this to say in Luke 6, “And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
Today there is debt that could not even be imagined in the first century. In Oregon, the average debt carried by every person is 8619 dollars. In Wyoming, the average debt is 11, 546. In Alaska the average debt is more than 13,000 dollars a person. The country of Venezuela, however, owes 132 billion dollars. Most third world countries owe hundreds of millions of dollars.
And I understand that this is how we do business nowadays. This is how the economy runs. And on a normal, everyday basis, I get it. People borrow with interest so they can get ahead in life.
But economic failure, common among many people, is disaster and death. People can’t afford health insurance and so thousands of people die every year, because of debt or avoidance of debt. Many people is that people lose their housing. Families often end up living in cars or in shelters. People are shamed and fined and have their possessions stolen from them because they cannot pay fines or meet the obligations of a wealthy society. Children go hungry. On a worldwide basis, nations go to war, famine ravages whole nations, and resources are taken from the south and given to the north. Is this punishment of being poor really much better than what the ancient world had.
This world need forgiveness more than ever.
We need a system where the wealthy must forgive the poor so that the poor can live The powerful need to forgive the weak, so that people can survive. Criminals who did no harm to another need to be forgiven so that this nation is no longer a nation of slave labor.
What we are doing
Jesus wants us to build a world of forgiveness. He wants us to help people who are suffering greatly for a small crime. This is why we are beginning the Peer 2 Peer Loan program. So people can be forgiven a small debt and not have to lose their housing. This is why other churches are providing housing to those on the street, so that they might experience forgiveness, a release from their status as economic refugees.
This is why masses of people are trying to help asylum seekers, people in debt who desperately need forgiveness. The powerful are imprisoning them, enslaving them, separating them from their children. Jesus demands that they be forgiven. That they not be punished harshly for asking for a bowl of gruel. That children never be imprisoned for doing no crime. We must insist on a world of forgiveness. Not for those who do harm to the poor, but for those who just want to live.
If there is anyone who demands a person suffer greatly for a small crime, they do not know Jesus, and must not name themselves by Jesus’ name. If there is anyone who harms children for the sake of society, they are the cruelest of all people and must be taken out of authority and out of society if they can’t help but be cruel.
General William Booth once had a vision of people sitting on an island, drinking tea, at ease. All around them were people drowning in water, dying. They looked at those drowning and did nothing, just continued at their ease. Proverbs says, “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those who stagger to slaughter.” I am so glad I am part of a congregation that is actively participating in rescuing people from dying from drowning in economic suffering.