A Living Economic Testimony: Jesus and Debt

October 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

I see five sources from which Friends can draw guidance for a living economic testimony:

  1. First, of course, is the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and
  2. the work of Friends who have already been called to a ministry of economic justice. Then there’s
  3. scripture,
  4. the writings of Friends,
  5. the other testimonies, and finally,
  6. the social sciences, especially, of course, economics.

In this entry, I want to look at one area in which Christian scripture has a lot to offer: Jesus and debt.

In my first American Spring entry, I said:

This is one of those areas where having your Quaker roots firmly planted in Christian scripture really pays off (though not, sadly, roots in traditional Christian theology). Economic justice was the very heart of Jesus’ mission. The synoptic gospels offer enough planks in the platform of the kingdom of God to build a movement on, or to base your testimony upon. This foundation for what I like to call the commonwealth of God is incredibly rich.

Here I want to explain what I mean by “Economic justice was the very heart of Jesus’ mission.”

In the gospel of Luke (chapter 4), in the very first words Jesus utters in his public ministry, Jesus defines what being the christ, the messiah, means to him: he—the christ—brings “good news to the poor”.

He has just come back home to Nazareth from his sojourn in the wilderness after his baptism. The local rabbi invites him to be the guest reader and expositor of Torah on the coming Sabbath. Jesus chooses the opening lines of Isaiah 61:

The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me,

because Yahweh has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the poor/oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor.

Then Jesus sits down and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

After some back and forth hubbub, the passage ends with a riot: some members of the congregation (people he knows intimately) seize him to throw him off a cliff, the first action in a stoning if there is a wall or cliff to use, apparently for blasphemy. Jesus escapes. His message has had an incendiary affect on at least some of his listeners in his own home town. What is this inflammatory message?

In line two of the passage from Isaiah, “anointed” is messiah in Hebrew, christos in Greek. Jesus is declaring himself the messiah. And what does the Christ do? He brings good news (evangelion) to the poor/oppressed (the Hebrew word ani means both things). And what is that good news? Release from their poverty and specifically, their debt.

“The poor” are people who have lost their family farms to foreclosure and can no longer support themselves. Usually, they are forced to become day laborers; sometimes they become debt slaves, working off their debt with labor according to the rules set forth in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, sometimes even working on their own farms as indentured sharecroppers. “Brokenhearted” is an idiom that means just this: the condition of someone who has lost his family’s ‘portion,’ his inheritance—his (sic) family farm. (This passage uses ‘parallelism,’ the poetic device in Hebrew poetry in which the second line of a doublet reiterates the idea in the first, often with a deeper or more specific nuance: spirit upon me => anointed; poor => brokenhearted; captives => prisoners.)

For Jesus as for Isaiah, “the captives” and “the prisoners” probably refers to Israel as a conquered and occupied nation, but it could also mean debt slaves.

The “year of Yahweh’s favor” is the Jubilee year set forth in Leviticus 25. A Jubilee could be declared by a king or by a prophet. Four things happened in the year that Yahweh favors:

  1. All debts were cancelled.
  2. All debt slaves were released from their service, their debt having been redeemed. (“Redeemer” is an economic term that specifically means either releasing someone from the debt they owe you or covering someone else’s debt for them.)
  3. All families that have been alienated from their inheritance by bankruptcy are returned to their family farms.
  4. The fields lie fallow for a year, requiring a radical reliance on God’s providence (take no thought for the morrow).

Jesus is saying: I am the messiah—I claim God’s authority to cancel your debts.

This of course is good news to the poor, but bad news to the rich, who are going to have to return land they’ve acquired because someone defaulted on their loan. “The last shall become first and the first shall become last.” No wonder a riot broke out.

Jesus declares the prophecy’s fulfillment, but this of course begs the question: how? How does Jesus plan to cancel the debts of the poor? He is a prophet but he is no king. Jesus anticipates this question as he argues with his neighbors: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, heal yourself!’” He is himself an unemployed carpenter. Luke poses this question in this fourth chapter of his gospel, but he doesn’t answer it until the second and fourth chapters of Acts: you will cancel each other’s debts and redeem each other from debt slavery by liquidating your surplus assets and distributing the money to the poor.

The ideal solution to our current economic crisis, according to Jesus’ teaching, would have the banks cancel the mortgage debt that started the crisis and return these families safely to their homes, or at least the state should act decisively to protect them from its worst effects. The state (the king) could also cancel or cover not just the debts of homeowners but the debts of the banks, as well. The state could declare a universal Jubilee. Instead, the state just covered the bankers’ debts. Pharaoh’s heart is ever hardened.

Alternatively, like the first followers of Jesus, we could cover each other’s debts. But it’s worth noting that the Jerusalem church went bankrupt itself. I suspect that one of the reasons the council of Jerusalem said yes to Paul’s plea for his Gentile mission was that he showed up with a lot of money. Throughout several of his epistles, he is fundraising for “the saints in Jerusalem.” Systemic poverty—especially urban poverty—is a very difficult problem to solve. Perhaps Jesus understood this: he told his followers to return to Galilee to wait for him. They stayed in Jerusalem instead.

Still, the message for our economic testimony is clear: do what you can to protect innocent debtors from the ravages, the brokenheartedness, of bankruptcy, poverty, and the loss of their homes.

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§ 2 Responses to A Living Economic Testimony: Jesus and Debt

  • forrest curo says:

    Yes, this is a major part of Jesus’ message, quite clearly expressed. Thank you!

    I would disagree with your statement that Jesus was “no king.” Anointing as king, by a suitable prophet, would be effectively equivalent to a coronation, making Jesus the de jure ruler of Israel-as-a-theocracy. But not, alas, the ruler de facto. Hence that unpleasantness in Jerusalem.

    I also doubt that Jesus would have written off the debts of the banks: 1) A bank is not a sentient being. 2) These debts represented, much of the time, good faith investments by human beings– and institutions such as pension funds, charged with the need for long-term support of human workers after retirement.

    Yes, the Jerusalem Church arrangement, as described to us, looks clearly unviable as an economic experiment. As a missionary endeavor demanding the total dedication of all participants and all their resources, it makes more sense.

    Where the Occupy movement and the powers of this country most resemble Jesus and the authorities of his day… “People were not created to fulfill the Sabbath; the Sabbath was created for the sake of human beings.” Jesus, as de jure ruler of the world, stands for laws and governments that serve the human needs of the least of us–

    while human corporations and governments treat human beings inflexibly, ignoring their needs, considering their wishes as subject to manipulation & suppression– and treat the laws as if they were created to help the powerful keep their victims down.

    I was just at a San Diego City Council Meeting, where our local occupiers wanted to address them in the ‘Public Comment’ period. The Council tried to restrict them to 3 minutes/topic– and told them what their topics were, totaling five or six. Unwilling to listen beyond the three minutes on the first one, not really wanting to hear from anyone except the rich developers and real estate hoarders who keep them in office, the Council walked out a half hour early…. a great way to save time, yes?

  • Steve, this column is an answered prayer. I’m one of a number of New York Friends who have been visiting and supporting Occupy Wall Street. I’ve been distributing a tract there, “Jesus Christ Offers an Alternative to Both Corporate Greed and Rage Against It,” but my heart tells me that Jesus Christ and His church have much more to say to the matter, and I feel like you’re helping us along the trail to finding it.

    The early church, I’ve heard, forbade usury, and long ago I read in _The Catholic Worker_ that the Roman Catholic Church never rescinded this categorical ban on lending at interest, but merely ignored it. I understand that Islam has been more dutiful than Christendom at respecting its own rules in this regard, but the problem is not the letter of the rules we inherit, nor even how well we observe the letter, but the selfishness of the fallen human heart.

    You’ve helped me name what I sense the Occupy movement is praying for: the very Jubilee that Jesus proclaimed.

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