Bread – Debts

February 10, 2012

Readings for Monday, February 10, designated by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: Gen. 27:46-28:22; Rom. 13:1-14; John 8:33-47; Psalms 88, 91, 92


If I use the word “debt,” like in the sentence “You owe me a debt,” what is the natural thought by Americans about what is owed? Be honest. The most common response would be “money.” In America, if we owe someone a debt, we typically owe them money. People who come to collect our money are called “debt collectors.”

However, in the Bible there are many forms of debt. There is the debt of kindness. There is the debt of forgiveness. There is the debt of gratitude. There are a variety of debts.

In our reading from Romans today, Paul warns us to keep our ledger of debts clean. In other words, pay our debts promptly. “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another …” Rom. 13:7-8. In Paul’s mind, we owe each other a debt of love which can never be completely paid because it is ongoing. Not said, but we know to be true, is that we can never completely pay the debt of love because we are selfish; we always hold something back for ourselves.

There is an interesting thing about the concept of “debt,” and that is that we don’t like owing people, so we constantly try to make sure that someone owes us a debt. We pay for lunch, perhaps out of a motivation of love and respect, but often out of a sense of making sure the books are balanced in our favor – he owes us lunch. We think that people owe us a debt of honor and respect and get mad when we don’t get promptly paid. We demand that people forgive us because we set up their debt to us in our mind larger than it probably is. We take on the attitude that, if they are going to want their debt paid, when then they are going to pay their debt to me.

Rather than taking Paul’s attitude of making sure my books of debt are clean about what I owe you, I turn it around and make sure that my books are clean about what you owe me. If we are going to be forced to look at the balance sheet of life from the liabilities (what I owe) perspective, we are going to make sure that we also look at it from the assets side (what I am owed) as well.

In other words, Paul tells us to clean and clear our debt, in other words clean it off our books. Our approach is not to clean but to balance. That is why it is called a “balance sheet” and not a “clean sheet.”

This approach to life with our fellow humans follows us into our approach with God. We know we owe Him a great debt (although we think that it probably not as large as our preacher constantly tells us it is), but maybe we can get Him to owe us something, so that we have some debt owed to us which we can balance on our books and make them look better. Isn’t that what works is about? If I do good works, then God owes me something? If I can do enough good works, then God owes me more than I owe Him? Isn’t that what we turn prayer into? If I pray for something, then God owes me a debt of results? And then, if I don’t get those results, then God owes me double results next time?

This human art of turning a debt I owe you into a debt you owe me is demonstrated today in our reading from Genesis. In Genesis today, we have the story of the dream of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob has been selected by God to receive the first born blessing from Isaac (see Gen. 25:23), has actually received that blessing, and is on his way to his mother’s relatives for safety. God has revealed Himself to Jacob, and further reveals that He will give Jacob the land on which he is resting and that all peoples of the earth would be blessed through Jacob and his offspring. Now, at the minimum one would think that this would create in Jacob a debt of gratitude to God for unmerited and unearned grace. And it probably does to some extent, so Jacob now feels that he must balance the books by creating a debt from God to him. He does it in this way, saying: “If God will be with me and will watch over me … then the Lord will be my God …” Gen. 28:20. A non-literal translation: “God, if you pay me what you owe me, then I’ll pay you what I owe you.” Wait a minute! How is it that God owed Jacob anything? By what art does Jacob create a debt of God to him out of thin air? Well, the human art. And God laughs.

“I am not going to believe God unless he does so-and-so for me.” So what? If you believe God, it is not because He owes you a debt or a benefit, or that He has fulfilled His end of the bargain you created. If you believe God, it is because He has chosen you to believe Him. Jesus says clearly today in today’s readings that “He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” John 8:47.

God does not owe us anything; we owe Him everything. There is no balance sheet with God. There is either a clean sheet or an unclean one.

And the remarkable thing is that there is no way for us to achieve a clean sheet, free of debt, by our own actions, in our own strength. That is what Jesus did for us on the cross with God, to give those who believe in Him a clean sheet with God. Then, clothed with Jesus, we can in this life work on cleaning up our debt sheet with our neighbors.

So, let’s today as followers of Christ, as His disciples, work on having a clean sheet with others, work on paying our debts – giving love, giving honor, giving respect, giving truth, giving forgiveness. We can forget the debt of others to us, the receivables that we carry on our balance sheet, because compared against the asset God has given us – eternity with Him – the receivables are worthless. God has taken care of the assets, He has taken care of the debt to Him, and He has left it to us to take care of our debts to others. Let’s start!


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