HOLY WEEK APRIL 2020
Do you ever wonder why Jesus, after healing so many people, says, “you’re forgiven!”? And then, have you ever wondered why the religious authorities would get really offended by that?
It’s important to understand that Jesus wasn’t talking about individualistic forgiveness like how you and I likely imagine receiving it.
Let’s back up.
What does it mean to forgive? If I forgive you for saying something really mean behind my back, am I just ‘letting it go’? Am I ‘getting over it’? Am I ‘tolerating’ you and ‘moving on’ but raising a flag in my mind against you and never fully trusting you again? Am I agreeing not to call the cops? Am I agreeing to just go back to the way things were before? Do you think Moses ever encouraged the enslaved Hebrews to forgive pharaoh? Can we forgive people who don’t repent/apologize?
For those of us living a comfortable life without any real enemies, is forgiveness really just forgiving the barista at Starbucks for getting my order wrong and forgiving bad drivers or forgiving my kids for making a mess? There must be more. Let’s look at the ancient context and understanding of ‘forgiveness’.
Forgiveness is related to the economy in the Greco-Roman world. It’s why when you try and follow along with the “Lord’s Prayer” at your grandma’s church, it’s a muffled mess when they get to the forgiveness part –
-forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass/those who sin—
Imagine if the bank called you tomorrow and said, “We’d just like to let you know we are forgiving your debts – your mortgage is forgiven and also your student loans and your line of credit. We forgive you.”
–ya — I felt that instant pit in the bottom of my stomach too. There are only two options for dealing with your debt (while you are alive) – either you PAY your debt off, or your debt is FORGIVEN by your lender.
Debt and sin and forgiveness are related. In the Ancient Near East, they dealt with crime with what’s called Lex Talionis – the Law of Retaliation. In Exodus 21:23-25 it says, “ But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” The purpose of this system was to prevent escalating vengeance. It was considered ‘just’ to pay back an eye for an eye. In a way, we still think of it in this way. When someone wrongs us, we still often call our revenge “pay back”.
-You lied about me! Therefore, I’m going to lie about you
– You cheated on me! Now I’m going to cheat on you
-Now you owe me and I’ll never lose track of this debt.
So now let’s consider sin in terms of a transaction and a debt. When we ask God to forgive us, we ask him to literally forgive what we owe him. As Christians, we believe God says yes – and you literally don’t owe God anything anymore. God says, “Jesus paid it all – you’re free – you owe me nothing – I expect nothing from you, I am entitled to nothing from you – you don’t owe me worship, adoration, obedience, nothing. You are forgiven, I’ve cleared the accounts and thrown away the red pen.” Being forgiven of your sin-debt is NOT the same as ‘paying it off’. We don’t believe in ‘paying it off’ – that would be a works-based salvation.
That sounds scandalous and even irreverent to say – but the cross IS scandalous. You are not in debt to God. What he has given you, he has given freely. God doesn’t ‘loan’ love to you. It’s a gift. Until Jesus showed up and started telling injured and sick people that they were forgiven, the social understanding of suffering was that a person was in debt to God, and God punished people until the debt was paid. In Isaiah 59:1 and in other texts it says, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” They believed they were still in Exile – that God had not yet forgiven them for the unfaithfulness of their ancestors. They believed the Romans were sent by God to punish them until their debts were paid, but suddenly this Jesus approaches a sick person and says, “You’re forgiven.”
It’s impossible! It’s like me walking to your house right now, opening your front door and saying, “Just wanted to let you know that your mortgage is forgiven!” You’d furrow your brow and say, “You don’t have the authority to forgive my mortgage Nikayla – only the bank can do that – and guess what, they’re not going to do that – I’ll be in debt to the bank until I’m dead.” That’s why people were uncomfortable when Jesus told people they were forgiven. They didn’t understand that Jesus was the Creator and Sustainer of life – come to take the injuries and say, “These are mine to bear, not yours – you do not owe me – everything you think you owe, charge it my account – and we’ll get it rid of it for good.” Oh, and he also says, “Your battle isn’t again flesh and blood – so your enemy isn’t the person that hurt you. It’s the debt that person has placed you in – I’m going to forgive that as well.”
But guess what?
God doesn’t owe you anything either. At some point in your journey towards fresh spirituality, you need to forgive God. I’m serious! God is a free agent – God does not owe you anything. Release God from the debt you’ve placed him in!
—but I fasted!—
— but I tithed! –
— I prayed every day for you to do something…. Now DO SOMETHING!!—
– I waited until marriage to have sex, now make my sex life better! —
– You owe me answers – you owe me control – you owe me an explanation for COVID19 – did you make COVID19 or is COVID19 your enemy – and you must make this make sense!!
It’s a twisted prosperity gospel to think that we could compel God to act in a certain way. If you believe that God is in debt to you – maybe consider forgiving God the debts you’ve placed God in. What God gives; God gives freely.
The night Jesus was arrested, Peter took his sword and began slicing off ears.
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”
Jesus goes with the men freely. He’s like, “Peter, put your sword away – this isn’t a transaction – what are you thinking? They’re taking my Rabbi, so I get to take one of their ears? No, child. Stop.”
In the Cain and Abel story, Cain was so upset that Abel got the blessing. Cain obviously felt entitled – likely because he was the first-born son of Adam and the first-born son is supposed to get the blessing. God apparently didn’t recognize the legitimacy of that system, because he chose Abel. Cain had been ‘robbed’ of dignity and honor and so he took what was owed him and killed his little brother.
You know that Good Friday song we sing a lot – ‘How Deep the Father’s Love’? I love that song, but I really don’t like that one line, “It was my sin that held him there.” No! Bad theology alert!!! Jesus wasn’t obligated to die by brutal execution because you pirate movies off the internet. God’s love held God there. God is a free agent, and, in his FREEDOM, he loves you. He doesn’t view you as a debtor – you’re free to walk away, and you’re free to run towards. Perfect love casts out all fear – which means perfect love is given without strings of debt attached.
So if we frame sin as debt and we acknowledge how scandalous it feels to say that you are not in debt to God – consider that debt that you’ve placed others in. I put people in debt to me all the time. I believe, deep down, that a lot of people owe me:
I believe that since I’m more educated than you, you owe me respect and since I’m bigger than you, you owe me respect.
A predator walks into a bar and sees a beautiful woman in a low-cut dress and believes that she owes him her body. He’s entitled to it. He places her in debt to him.
Imagine if at the heart of our Christian proclamation is a posture towards the world that says, “you do not owe me – I forgive you. You are free. I release you from your debt.” If we viewed it that way – our gospel wouldn’t be twisted into ‘you must forgive your rapist!’ Imagine a world in which the bodies of women and men were not viewed as commerce – payment for perceived debts.
In Matthew 10, Jesus says, “freely you have received, freely give.” I give love and respect because I am free to do so – others are free to give or not give the same to me.
It is exhausting work being a ‘sin accountant.’ It’s hard keeping track all the time. I could tell you right now how many times I unloaded the dishwasher this week and how many times David DIDN’T. I’m tired.
In the tiny book of Philemon, Paul says to Philemon in regards to his runaway slave that has come to Paul for help, “Listen Philemon, I know – he’s your slave, and you want him back because you paid good money for him. But listen, whatever he owes you, whatever he is worth to you, charge it to my account. I’ll pay his debt and he can be free.” Spoiler Alert: the freed slave goes back and lives with Philemon as an honored brother and equal.
God has forgiven me. God is free and God has set me free. I am not obligated to God. In Isaiah 43:25 it says, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” God’s like – “I’m not keeping score anymore – I’ve got better things to do. You are free to choose.”
On Palm Sunday, so long ago, Jesus marched softly into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey and immediately, the people placed Jesus into debt. They believed he owed it to them to come and take down the Romans, to make Jerusalem great, to vindicate them, to enact vengeance upon the governing authorities. But he marched through the indignant crowds into the temple and threw over the money-lender’s tables. He announced that forgiveness was coming – “My house is to be a house of prayer! Not a den of robbers!” From there he went to his friend Simon’s house, and a wealthy woman poured very expensive ointment on his head. The disciples were indignant and said, “this could have been sold, and we would have made money off it!” and Jesus says, “Do not bother this woman. She’s done a good thing.” Everyone is always looking to get paid – Jesus has no interest in that. The heart of his mission is to end the system of debts and debtors.
On the way to Golgotha, with a scourged back and a cross on his shoulders, he cries out to God, “Father, forgive them – they know not what they do.” Jesus releases the sinners from their debt – he exacts no revenge on his accusers or his betrayer – he simply stops counting and sets them free.
In John 20, at the same moment the disciples see the risen Jesus, he breathes his Spirit into them and says, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. What you forgive, will be forgiven and what you don’t forgive will not be forgiven….” The Father sent Jesus to FORGIVE and invites us, in response, to give freely – to RELEASE our debtors from their debt.
In this holy week, may you consider the debts owed to you. May you RELEASE your debtors and may your heart become a house of prayer.