Debt forgiveness fascinates me. A friend of mine was able to pay off his student loans recently. His dear, beloved uncle passed away, a man who had done quite well for himself as a journalist and also lived by quite modestly. At his death, he was able to be incredibly generous with each of his seven nieces and nephews, and so my friend was able to pay off much of his debt, among other things. I’ve heard of this happening to other people too, jobs which come with debt forgiveness, or government programs which allow reduced payments and forgiveness after a certain period of time if you work in the social services (church doesn’t count, I’ve checked.) My ears always perk up a bit at these stories, and sometimes before the smile comes a twinge of envy. I’ve mostly gotten used to the third of my paycheck which I slice off to pay my student loan debt each month, it helps that it’s on auto pay, so I don’t have to write the number out by hand each time -and before you barrage me at the door with tips on loan consolidation and all that please know that I have indeed explored my options and I only have about seven years of this left, so don’t worry. But there are times when I think about what it would be like to not have that number hanging over my head. In the times I ever so briefly let myself imagine what it would feel like to be debt free, it feels… well, free. There’s a lightness to it, an unburdening. I’m really thankful that my debt is as manageable as it is. It’s been worse. In my twenties I got sucked into some pretty typical credit card debt, and before that my family went through bankruptcy when I was a kid. Debt has defined much of my life, but that just seems to be the American way, and I know that there are countless ways in which I’m one of the lucky ones.
All of which is to say that if Jesus were to come into this church this morning and proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor, he’d have my attention. In this morning’s Gospel Jesus is invited to preach at a synagogue. He finds the passage in Isaiah where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he sits down, looks around at the people looking at him, and says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Now the year of the Lord’s favor was also known as the year of God’s welcome, or the year of Jubilee. In the Holiness code of the Torah every seventh year was a sabbatical year, a year in which the land and it’s people were supposed to rest. Then, after seven sets of seven years there was a super-sabbath, the fiftieth year, the Jubilee. On the Jubilee, land was supposed to revert back to it’s original owners, slaves and prisoners were supposed to be set free, and debts were supposed to be settled. Can you imagine? There is no evidence to suggest that this Jubilee year was ever actually observed, and it’s easy to see why.
First of all, if the land had just rested from the Sabbath before it, the Jubilee year would mean two years in a row of no crops, all while non-observant Gentile neighbors went about their usual business. Imagine asking observant Christian farmers in our own country to take two years off of work. Then imagine all of our land returning to it’s original owners, a feat which would strike a blow to any notion of ownership at all. Then imagine our prisoners set free. Prisoners of war, prisoners who had broken laws and prisoners falsely accused, all set free without any promise that they would be as forgiving. Then there is the matter of debt. There’s some debate about whether this entailed debt forgiveness or debt settling, either one would take a significant amount of planning to accomplish and even the idea of settling all our debts at once runs against the grain of any economy which is designed to maximize profit off of extending debt repayment for as long as possible. In short, the Jubilee sounds like chaos, for all it’s freedom it sounds like it would be the cause of much more labor than rest, and so it makes sense that it was essentially ignored, just like plenty of other holy laws were ignored, like watching out for the alien in your land and leaving a portion of every harvest for the poor to reap. And yet, for all its seeming impossibility, the Jubilee remained there as a holy law. It remained, perhaps as a reminder that God’s intention for God’s people was ultimately one of freedom. A reminder that for as much indebtedness and imprisonment and enslavement as a person could accrue, God desired that person’s freedom more. It remained there as a holy law and a sign of hope for the Messiah, the anointed governor who was supposed to come from God and bring about God’s realm of freedom and justice starting with the slaves, prisoners, and indentured servants of the land. If Jesus came into this church today and said, “Ok my people, now is the time, the kingdom of God is here, so let’s go get everybody out of jail, reclaim our land and stop paying our bills,” I’d have a hard time trying to decide whether he was about to run for president or occupy a national wildlife refuge.
All of which is to say that if Jesus were to come in here this morning and proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor, I would be terrified. The moment of relief which would come at first at the thought of finally settling my student loan debt would soon be replaced by a growing concern about all the other places where I need to seek forgiveness more. It would soon begin to dawn on me that I owe far more than student loans. I owe native people the land my nation occupies. I owe the slaves who worked that land without pay to generate the wealth of which I’ve been a beneficiary. I owe a legal system that lets men who look like me off the hook much more often than men who have darker skin. I owe Flint Michigan tap water which has not been knowingly contaminated by lead for years. I owe the nations of middle America for being outsourced with rabid gang violence and political dissolution for the sake of feeding my own nation’s drug habit. I owe blood. Blood rendered on my behalf, blood at home and blood abroad, the blood of soldiers and the blood of children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Faced with the debts I have to settle, I would gladly keep my monthly payment to the bank. It is a small price to pay for the privilege of buying into a system which has so utterly segregated those who have managed to hoard something for themselves from those who have been left with nothing at all. I would gladly keep my loans, because settling the rest of my debt would mean reconciling my life to the countless lives upon which my comfort has been established.
But when God is faced with indebtedness or reconciliation, you know which path gets chosen. Jesus takes the scroll and finds the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He sits down. He looks around at the people looking at him, and he says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus does not come into our lives to keep them the way they are. Jesus comes to set us free. Jesus comes to reconcile accounts which would be impossible for us to settle on our own without God’s help. When that freedom comes, we can tighten our grip on the way things are, on our former ways of thinking about what we’re owed and what we’ve earned, or we can open our hands, confess the full extent of the debt we have accrued, and get to work with God on what it really takes to find forgiveness.