It would be very strange if a child ever whipped out his checkbook to reimburse his parents for bringing him to life. One could try to put a dollar amount on the medical bills, the nursery expenses, the food consumed, the diapers ruined, the hourly rate of the parent. But this is all an obvious absurdity.
The same thing is true for all gifts. A present does not fit the category of a usual monetary exchange—a gift is a sign of love, almost sacramental insofar as it signifies what it effects. You cannot reimburse someone for a gift. But you can enter into a relationship of self-giving with that person. A husband would never pay his wife for making dinner or his wife pay the husband for fixing the sink. Their lives are intertwined as they mutually and endlessly give and receive from one another. Similarly with the child and the parent. The child can never make up the debt to the parent. But what the child can give in return is honor. And he can give dignity to his parents in their last years by caring for them when they can no longer care for themselves. There is a reciprocity that may be appropriate but never a perfect payback for what was given.
Money vs. Sacrifice
Against the larger cultural consensus, I would like to suggest that this is true for absolutely everything in life—most importantly demonstrated by Christ’s sacrificial crucifixion for our salvation. One of the great axioms of our age is that debts need to be repaid. Because we think about debt in terms of money, we think that there is the ability to pay back something that is owed. Money—the perfect commodity insofar as a single dollar will always equal another dollar—allows for debts to be paid back perfectly for the amount that was lent (here I am ignoring all notions of interest, etc). But money merely represents, or symbolizes, real life—and in real life, all actions and gifts are inherently irreplaceable.
Now, I am not saying that money is evil and debts ought never to be repaid—don’t push this argument to a silly conclusion! Money only emerges out of human creativity to get around certain predicaments. But it is not perfectly natural; it does not accurately represent what is going on in the world. When we give the barista a fiver for our latte, we are equating two unlike things: a paper bill and a foamy, caffeinated delight. We have constructed this convention for the sake of justice.
But what is actually happening in real life is that we are receiving a real good and in place of that we give an artificial good, money. While commutative justice has been fulfilled, the natural debt has not been. Receiving the latte is similar to receiving the gift of life from our parents. Even as a commodity, the latte is a one of a kind, never to be perfectly repeated. But we have wisely created a monetary system so as to immediately offer some good to a stranger we may very well never see again. In reality, all purchases are better understood as relationships of giving and receiving even if our intentions have been reformed by the monetary construct we have created.
The Law of the Jubilee
Demonstrating the impossibility of paying back debts is a key component of the Levitical Jubilee years. Every fifty years, all debts would be forgiven and everyone who sold his property or himself into another’s service, “shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family” (Lev. 25:10). This is not an ideal form of charity that God called the Israelites to practice (and us in the New Testament to fulfill) but a call for us to remember that everything in life begins as Gift. God gifted creation to all of us equally. That is why He divided the land equally among all clans (cf Joshua 13–21).
Inevitably people fall on hard times or are bad with their resources and need to sell their belongings, get a loan, or even sell themselves into the service of another (the ancient equivalent of us shutting down our small business and working for a corporation). The Year of Jubilee brought with it a freedom from all debts and all services. “‘Freedom,’ in the Bible, as in Mesopotamia, came to refer above all to release from the effects of debt.” If an Ancient Israelite came to America today, he would think that almost everyone was a slave because almost everyone lived under the effects of school, housing, car, and credit card debt. And while people could buy their way out of debt, God’s Levitical design was that debt-slaves would be freely released by their masters.
When most of us think about Jesus’ sacrifice, we think about God “buying us back” or “paying off” our debt—but this misses the point. Christ releases us from our sin and guilt and offers us a life with him, forever without the burden of sin we have built for ourselves.
Jesus himself alludes to the spirit of jubilee redemption when telling the following parable:
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him.
“Be patient with me, ” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”
But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you ?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all his debt. (Matthew 18:23–34).
An Impossible Debt
The financial debt of the first servant equates to approximately $12 billion today. So in a very real sense, this is a debt that cannot possibly be repaid. When Christ says that the king “cancelled (ἀφίημι) the debt and let him go” he uses the same Greek word found in the Septuagint’s Levitical command on the Jubilee to “release” one’s brother from the debt. Jesus’ parable is about the endless mercy of God whose stores of goodness can never be depleted by us squandering His gifts. Far from the, say, Quranic, understanding of salvation where good deeds are weighed against bad deeds (cf, Surah Hud 11:114), the Catholic understanding of salvation begins with a debt forgiveness and finishes with the person becoming like unto the King so that we may begin to forgive debts as He has first forgiven us.
That aforementioned Greek word, pronounced as “aphiemi”, is the same word that Christ brings into the Lord’s prayer itself—“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect requires a disposition of redemption to extend Christ’s work on the cross. We are to “make up for what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions,” as St. Paul says in Colossians. In a certain sense, nothing at all is lacking in Christ’s perfect sacrifice to the Father. But the redemption must be readily accepted and the disposition of suffering to forgive, to redeem, must be assumed. In other words, what is lacking is our own conversion—the first servant must truly forgive debts as he has been forgiven.
Payments vs. Personal Relationships
Luther did not believe this, thinking that Christ was a substitution that paid for our faults. “But now, if God’s wrath is to be taken away from me and I am to obtain grace and forgiveness, some one must merit this; for God cannot be a friend of sin nor gracious to it, nor can he remit the punishment and wrath, unless payment and satisfaction be made.” But this remains the logic of money and debt—a logic that man (helpfully) invented (for our own exchange), not God. Far from the Protestant notion of Christ buying us back or paying a debt only he could afford, the sacrifice of Christ is a perfect sacrificial offering to the Father that we are to join.
Speaking of the Protestant notion of substitution, Pope Benedict says that the reality, “is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation.” This is why we must consume the Eucharist that Christ’s sacrifice might live in us and through us. The perfect sacrifice made to God, the very sacrifice we should have made, was perfectly offered by Christ; we must enter Christ becoming one in life with Him. St. Peter makes sure we do not miss the significance of Christ’s redemption: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pe 1:18–19).
Our relationship with God is not based on money-like exchange relations. Money is man’s invention, not God’s. Money is an artificial way of relating to one another, an impersonal transactionary way. God’s way is totally personal. It requires blood that we consume to make our very own blood. “For our sake,” St. Paul teaches, “[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is no transaction: Christ did not give his life as a mere exchange for our own. He gave His life that we may unite with Him once our debt has been forgiven.
This is the glory of Easter, not only that a slate has been wiped clean but that a life of pure intimacy with God can be lived. Redemption is freedom from our past accounts of spiritual adultery that distanced us from God and rendered us slaves to sin. Jesus is the great redeemer who has freed us from our past accounts and has given us a way forward through his cross and resurrection. This Easter season, we celebrate that.
Jacob Imam is the president of New Polity (newpolity.com), a DPhil candidate and prize scholar at the University of Oxford writing on theology and economics.