Our Debts

The Greatest Prayer – Our Debts

March 20, 2013 – Lenten Sermon 5 of 6
Pastor Monte Stevens – North Riverdale Lutheran Church – Dayton, Ohio

As we have been working through the Lord’s prayer, petition by petition, I have been sharing with you the vision that I believe Jesus was sharing.  This is a vision of how the world should work according to Jesus.  This is a vision of the world as if God were running the kingdom rather than other kings or rulers…a vision of what the world might look like if God’s will was being followed rather than our wills running the world.

Jesus was teaching his disciples to prayer for God’s will and God’s kingdom to be known on earth as it is in heaven.  In the first part of the prayer we concentrated on God – God’s name –and what God stands for – God’s will – and God’s kingdom.

As we look around we say, “boy the world is a mess … sure doesn’t look like heaven.  What do we do about this?

We have discovered that God has a deep concern for those that are economically vulnerable.  The widow, the orphan and the resident alien.  Today, because we live in a different economic culture than Jesus, we no longer assume that the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien are the most vulnerable.  I know some wealthy widows.

But we still have those in our society that are vulnerable in our economy, and it is clear that Jesus follows the tradition set by the prophets, which came from the heart and character of God.  Jesus calls us to care and watch out for the modern-day vulnerable and economically abused among us.

When we do this we hallow God’s name, we manifest God’s will, and God’s kingdom is more evident.  When we do this, earth begins to look a whole lot more like heaven.

This is all to say that we have discovered in our sacred scripture that we serve and worship a God of Justice – distributive justice – where everyone has enough to live on and has the resources to build a life upon.

Last week Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  What a concept that everyone should have enough to eat.  What a basic place to start to make sure that people can begin to build a life.  You begin by making sure everyone has food.  And Mark chapter 6 is a powerful parable for us to reflect upon and the command from Jesus is clear, “You give them something to eat.”  And this is just one place, among many where Jesus shares that God chooses to work collaboratively with us.

What a high and holy calling God has given us.  God chooses to work collaboratively with us to bring healing and wholeness and equality to the world.  Remember that quote, “God without us will not, we without God cannot.”

God has provided the bounty of creation.  There is enough bread to feed the 7 billion people around the globe.  We don’t have a food shortage problem. What we have is a distribution problem.

Jesus’ petition about bread is a call to action to solve the problem of hunger.  Jesus has laid this in our lap.  If the issue of hunger, and feeding those that are hungry, is not at the center of a congregation’s ministry, than I think they had better re-look at their priorities.  I am pleased with our increased attention on issues of hunger at NRLC these past several years.

So tonight Jesus has us reflect upon debt and forgiving debt.  Just like last week, I shared that I thought that bread should be taken more literally than metaphorically – so also with this petition on debt.

You know the saying, “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Well, just as we have debt today, there was debt in Jesus’ day, and in the centuries before Jesus.  And guess what?  God had something to day about debt and how debt should be treated.

If you read through a lot of the boring pages of the Old Testament you will find what are known as usury laws.  And Jesus makes reference to these laws in the New Testament.

Usury laws have to do with having high interest on loaning money and charging interest on loans.  The Israelites had very specific laws about interest on money loaned.

Let me read you some passages from our scripture.  And as I read these begin thinking about why God would want these laws in place.

Deuteronomy 23:19  You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.

Exodus 22:25-27  If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.

If I was teaching a course on Jewish laws that dealt with usury or interest we would spend considerable time looking at quite a detailed base of law that dealt with this everyday reality.

How many of you like high interest loans?  How many people do you know that have gotten in over their head with high interest loans?  Have you ever been so desperate that you had to take a high interest loan?

When we go back and study the economies before and during Jesus’ lifetime and the cultures that came before that of Israel, loaning money and charging high interest was a big problem – especially when one was poor and desperate.  What this often led to was high amounts of debt.

What happens when someone get into debt trouble?  Well, if you got your loan from the mob they send out someone to break a few parts.  If you get you loan from the bank they will repossess your car or house.

In Jesus’ day there was no bankruptcy court.  What happened most often is that you gave away part of your farm, or a measure of your grain, or let someone have something valuable to hold until you could repay them, or sold one of your family members into servitude for a number of years to pay the debt.

The Israelites realized that there was an unholy sequence from interest, to debt, to debt servitude.  This could lead to injustice, to people taking advantage of people, to the “haves” taking advantage of the “have-nots.”  This could lead to farms having been put up as collateral being taken away, or the crops of your field being taken away at harvest and leaving you hungry, or having to sell someone you love into servitude to survive.

The rich were often guilt of treating the poor very badly and taking advantage of the poor and the vulnerable, and so laws were made to make sure that from time to time the playing field was leveled in the direction of God’s justice – that all would have enough.  This was the beginning of many of the Jubilee laws.

Listen to a few passages.

Deuteronomy 15:1-3  Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it from a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed.

Jeremiah 34:13-14  Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I myself made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, ‘Every seventh year each of you must set free any Hebrews who have been sold to you and have served you for six years; you must set them free from your service.’

What you discover as you read through all these usury laws and Jubilee laws is that they are given by God and meant to protect – protect the most vulnerable that have suffered misfortune.

They are designed to level the playing field every three years or seven years to give those that have gone into crippling debt a new start.  They are designed so that no one can get too economically powerful and use their wealth to take advantage of the less fortunate.

There is a very practical tie with between debts and daily bread.  If the poor keep getting poorer because their debt keeps growing and pulling them down, then they will lack the ability to have daily bread.  Debt is tied to hunger, and God says, all should have enough to eat.  If all are going to have enough to eat then we must look at the problem of debt and how people get pulled into poverty.

If you’re a rich person, this sounds pretty bad.  If you’re a poor person, this sounds pretty good.  To our American capitalistic ears, this can sound pretty radical.  But nowhere in the Bible does anyone claim God to be a capitalist.

I am not a professional economist, but God does not fit into any of our current economic models.  God is not a communist, or a socialist, or a capitalist.  God does not call for a particular type of economy.  What God does is put forth a vision of distributive justice where all have enough.

I believe that distributive justice could be practiced in almost any economy.  Jesus has us pray and begin to work for a world where there is enough bread for today and no crippling debt for tomorrow.

So, how might the ancient usury and Jubilee laws work today?  That’s a much larger discussion that we don’t have time for tonight.  But what I would like to quickly highlight is how, in principle, these laws are alive today – to help the most vulnerable in our world.

In some of the most improvised places there are programs called micro-loans.  These are loans given, mostly to women, to start a small business.  The loans are given with very low interest rates.  [You can Google micro-loans.]

The ELCA has a Developmental Loan Program that helps combat the root causes of poverty – the social injustice of people living in poverty.  These are people who would not otherwise be served by normal credit markets, or would be offered very high interest rate loans.  The program provides very low-interest loans to underserved communities seeking self-sufficiency as they work to develop affordable housing.  These micro-loan funds are provided, in part, by your contributions to the ELCA World Hunger Fund.

Let me end with just one more example to show how these biblical principles are still at work in the world.  Do you remember over a decade ago there was a push to eliminate the debts of some of the world’s poorest countries.  The push was known as Jubilee 2000.

Jubilee 2000 was an international coalition movement in over 40 countries that called for cancellation of third world debt.  In the Jubilee Year as quoted in the holiness code of Leviticus those enslaved because of debts are freed, lands lost because of debt are returned, and communities torn by inequality are restored.  Jubilee 2000 aimed to wipe out $90billion of debt owed by the world’s poorest nations, reducing the total to about $37 billion.

“Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”  I believe that Jesus meant this petition to be taken literally.  But for God to forgive us our literal debts, we must owe God something.  What do we owe God?

When we go back to Genesis we remember that we are created in God’s image and are made stewards of the world – God’s vineyard.  We are created to run God’s world.

As divine heirs, we are responsible, according to St. Paul to alleviate the “groaning of creation”  (Romans 8:17-22).  As stewards and tenants and framers of this world … we own debts to the owner of this Creation.  That debt is to do, and produce, whatever the owner expects.

We owe it to God to run God’s world responsibly.  We owe God adequate care of all God’s creation.   “As in heaven so also on earth.”

We owe it to God to ensure that there is enough food and no crippling  debt in God’s glorious vineyard.  May our work in the vineyard bring about the grandest of all Jubilee’s until earth reflects heaven.