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Forgive U$ Our Debt

First Published JCF Newsletter August 2011

By Gary Alley

Since the advent of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the world’s nations now more than ever are being confronted with the symbiotic relationships they share with one another in the international community.  Pressures with trade agreements, currency valuation, and debt deals are challenging the integrity of some governments as they struggle with the reality of too many bills and not enough income.  Iceland became the first byword of bankruptcy with its international default in the aftermath of the October 2008 market crash.  Other countries like Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain are also in hot water as the pot of bankruptcy threatens to boil over.  And now in the summer of 2011, the richest nation on earth—the United States—has become linked to rumors of potential sovereign default.

Making money, doing business, and trading goods have been a part of civilization for millennia.  For every successful entrepreneur or wealthy landowner in history, an unfortunate, ill-advised investor or impoverished serf has played the subjugated role of debtor.  Until the 1800’s, debtors’ prisons were common throughout Europe and the United States, where those who could not pay their debts were imprisoned until friends or families cleared their obligations.  In the ancient world of the Bible, debtors, including their children, could be enslaved for what they owed (2 Kgs 4:1).  While Scripture commanded the Israelites not to enslave each other, they could require a period of indentured servanthood till the Jubilee Year, when all debts were forgiven (Lev 25:39-40; See also Deu 15:1-2 with a similar command for the Year of Release).  Yet it is difficult to find the release of debtor-slaves truly practiced in the Bible (Jer 34:8-11).

The Hebrew that is used for announcing a debtor’s freedom in the Jubilee Year, “proclaim liberty (dror) throughout the land to all its inhabitants (Lev 25:10)” is also found in Isaiah’s encouragement to those returning from exile, “he has sent me...to proclaim freedom (dror) for the captives (61:1).”  When Jesus inaugurated his ministry by speaking at the Nazareth synagogue, he invoked Isa 61:1-2 as the essence of his vocation—to free “debtors”.  While forgiveness of financial obligations was at the core of the Old Testament’s Jubilee Year, the writers of the Gospels understood this Jubilee forgiveness with regard to the debt of sin.  Hence, Jesus proclaimed a Jubilee that offered forgiveness for those bankrupted by sin.  “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. (Acts 5:31)”