“Forgive our debts”
At the end of a president’s term, it is customary that a series of presidential pardons be extended to folks found guilty under the law. We may find the system unfair, but this idea is based on a very ancient concept. In fact we know that some ancient societies had a built-in legal system that provided forgiveness and even release for prisoners (the Rosetta Stone is one famous example from Egypt).
Clean slate laws are very much in effect in biblical law. Several principles can be drawn from this idea of a “clean slate” in Deuteronomy 15:1-11 (see also Leviticus 25, aka the Year of Jubilee).
- Deuteronomy 15:7 says plainly “Don’t harden your heart to the plight of the poor.” Don’t stop lending money to them (at no interest, mind you, see Leviticus 25:36). The hardening here has to do with being ‘bone-hard’. Don’t ossify in your attitude toward the poor!
- The object lesson continues in Deuteronomy 15:8. We are told in no uncertain terms that we have a choice to make. Are we going to have wide open hands and be generous or tight-fisted like Scrooge?
- Underneath the surface is the reality of the human heart. “Take care lest there be unworthy thoughts in your heart” (Deuteronomy 15:9). Actually the word for ‘unworthy’ is a lot more direct, ‘evil.’ God knows that internally we all have this struggle when it comes to giving: self-preservation and an instinct to keep it for ourselves. To put it simply, if it’s in your power to act toward your brother, the afflicted and the poor, do it and give freely (Deuteronomy 15:9-10).
- With all this generosity displayed comes the promise: you take care of others and God will take care of you (Deuteronomy 15:11). God can’t be manipulated and He doesn’t engage in qui pro quo but He does promise us that as we are generous toward others, he will take care of our own needs.
Permanent debt cancellation in Jesus
It gets very interesting when Jesus picks up on the clean slate law in Luke 4:19 in the synagogue at Nazareth. He is here “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus says, we are under the law of Jubilee (see Leviticus 25) on a permanent basis. In Luke 6:35, it becomes clear that the new order now extends to everyone, not only the poor or the debtors in our midst, but also those who deserve it the least, our enemies, the ungrateful and the evil:
“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.”
This verse gets to the heart of it. Now we even extend the generosity to “enemies” by “doing good” and lending, expecting nothing in return. Jesus makes the debt-cancellation permanent. Of course, He is speaking of spiritual debt (“forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors” in Matthew 6:12; “forgive our sins” in Luke 11:4) but this generosity of spirit becomes also the basis of our generosity in general.
Why should I be generous to the ungrateful?
This new Jubilee law addresses head on our presumption of what is right and fair: The “Most High” is “kind” to the “ungrateful and the evil.” Part of the hard truth about the Gospel are the moments I come to the realization that the “enemy,” and the “ungrateful” (‘entitled’) is actually a selfie, a reflection of my own self. To grapple with the Gospel is the journey of a lifetime. It’s coming to terms with the kindness God continues to extend toward me. It is understanding that the same kindness I receive every day from God enables me to be kind and generous to others.
Once we realize that the assets that truly matter are in heaven and that these assets are protected and cannot be taken away from us (see discussion below*), this freedom from fear frees us to be generous with our earthly assets. God has promised He will take care of us. He already has by giving us an inheritance that cannot be taken away because “we are sons of the Living God” and “our reward will be great” (Luke 6:35).
Paul summarizes perfectly well in Galatians 6:1-5, when he says, “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the Law of Christ.” Because we carry one another’s burden of spiritual debt, this gives us the freedom also to help each other in very concrete terms (but without denying the idea of personal responsibility either, “for each will carry his/her own load” Paul will conclude his thought).
Questions for the week:
- Now that we are free in Christ to give, knowing that the inheritance that really matters in secure and protected (1 Peter 1:4), in what ways should we “fulfill the law of Christ” during this Thanksgiving and Christmas Seasons?
- In what ways are we tempted to harden our hearts to those around us in need?
- Do we really believe God’s promise that He will take care of our needs as we give freely with open hands?
*A word about the idea of inheritance in Deuteronomy (Old Testament) and by faith in Jesus (the New Testament)
As we near the end of the series on presumptions from the book of Deuteronomy, it’s good to remember that the inheritance of the promise land in Deuteronomy was a free gift. The people of Israel didn’t earn the right to enter the land; their liberation from Egypt was not something they earned and could get for themselves. It was God’s intervention and salvation. So the land is a gift but to keep it and stay in it would be very much based on the people’s obedience to God’s laws. Deuteronomy from beginning to end carries the same message: ‘If you love me, you’ll obey me and you’ll get to keep the land as you inheritance; If you don’t, you will lose your inheritance and be expelled.’ The rest of the history of the Old Testament is about this sad process of God warning the people that if they keep disobeying Him, they will lose their inheritance rights and be expelled (read Jeremiah 7). This will happen in 586 B.C. when the Babylonians took Jerusalem and carried the people into exile to Babylon. God’s patience with His wayward and stiff-necked people is measured in hundreds of years.
In the New Testament, the language is still about inheritance and a ‘land’ (now the new heaven and earth in the age to come) and it’s also very much a gift of God. We receive our inheritance by grace through faith in Jesus. How we get to keep it, however, very much relies on God Himself by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us. Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8). In fact, Peter says, our inheritance in “imperishable, kept in heaven [=the new promise land] for you (1 Peter 1:4). The presence of the Holy Spirit is the game changer in the New Testament. He is our guarantee until the day of redemption (Ephesians 1:14-16; Ephesians 4:30). We receive this free gift of eternal life by grace through faith and we keep it by grace through faith. It’s no longer dependent on our perfect obedience to the Law but it’s based on the perfect obedience of Jesus Himself. Jesus, who, by His righteousness has given us the right to belong to the Father. In fact, Paul uses the precise language of inheritance in Galatians 4:1-7. We are sons, and because we are the ‘first-born son’ (whether male or female) we receive the inheritance rights of the First-Born of God, Jesus Christ the Son of God. We become heirs to the inheritance. There is a lot more that could be said, but in a few words, this is the fundamental difference between the laws of the OT and how we read them as Christians. We obey God because we love Jesus. In our checkered and inconsistent obedience, we rely on the perfect obedience of Jesus, who took the consequences of our disobedience upon Himself on the Cross (Galatians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:21). To be sure we strive to obey Him but our obedience (or lack thereof) is no longer the contingency that it was in the Old Testament. We are His sons and daughters. We have secured and guaranteed assets in heaven which can never be taken away from us!