Debt and the Good News

In Luke 4, Jesus begins his public ministry by going to synagogue and reading from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (vs. 18-19 NIV)

There is one phrase in there that never seemed to fit to me—the part about releasing prisoners. Why is that good news? Why is unleashing convicted murderers, rapists, thieves, embezzlers, etc. back into society good news—literally “Gospel”—to anyone except the criminals themselves?

It seems out of place with the rest of the proclamation—criminals being included along with the poor, the oppressed, and the blind.

Why can’t we just visit them in prison like Jesus says in the parable of the sheep and the goats? Why do we have to let them go? Jesus’ ministry was about justice, but this is the failure to execute justice. This is the perpetrators of evil getting off. The only time the release of a prisoner is good news in is when that person has been imprisoned unjustly—and therein lies the answer.

The key phrase in Jesus’ statement is “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This phrase refers to the Jubilee year when debts were canceled, land taken as payment on defaulted loans was returned to the original owners, and those forced into slavery because they were unable to pay their debts were released back to their families.

The purpose of the Jubilee was not to deal with people who tried to live beyond their means and went into debt to do so. It was an issue of justice, a recognition in an agrarian society that not all land is equal—some is more fertile, some more rocky, some gets more rain, some is more arid. Following bad harvest years people would have to go into debt in order to have seed to plant in the spring. A string of bad years could result in losing the farm or even slavery.

If everyone acted justly, therefore, there would be inequalities that needed to be addressed, and the Jubilee year was the means to do so. People don’t always act justly, however, and the rich often exploited their leverage over the poor to exact more from them, charging exorbitant interest rates that the poor had no choice but to accept, all but guaranteeing the accumulation of massive debt and the eventually foreclosure of the farm and often the enslavement of the debtor and his family.

An example of the severity of this can be found in 2 Kings 4, where a widow is unable to pay a debt contracted by her deceased husband. The creditors plan to take her two children and sell them into slavery and she seeks relief from Elisha.

At some point debtors prisons were established, a particularly oppressive punishment in that the prisoner could not work to pay his debt, and if his extended family was poor there would be no one to come redeem him. Thus a small debt could result in a life sentence.

That should never happen. The Bible consistently condemns the practice of getting rich off the poor, exploiting their lack of options for personal gain, but this is a consistent problem throughout human history.

Predatory lending practices, particularly but not limited to the payday loan industry, essentially enslave people in poverty, keeping them on the hook perpetually even after the amount of interest they have paid far exceeds the original loan, driving them deeper and deeper in debt and deeper and deeper in poverty.

There are also increasing reports and articles about poor people being unable to pay small fines, then having fees and even interest piled on top of the fine until the debt is much greater than the original fine. Some are then sent to jail for failure to pay their fine, even though the amount they have paid over time has far exceeded the original fine. This in spite of the 14th Amendment protection against being imprisoned for debts.

It is to these prisoners and their families that Jesus proclaims good news, that the year of Jubilee, long ignored by the rich and powerful who wanted to remain so, was finally coming. He proclaimed that the kingdom of God would be a kingdom of justice, where the poor were recognized as family to be cared for and not strangers to be exploited, disparaged, and derided.

This is why so many of Jesus’ parables have an economic theme, and in at least three of them (Matthew 18:23-35, Luke 7:40-43, Luke 16:1-8) involve debt and debtors. Sometimes “debt” isn’t a metaphor for anything but is meant literally.

It’s why we should probably use “debts” rather than “trespasses” when saying the Lord’s prayer, beside the fact that it’s the accurate translation. The Gospel isn’t just about the forgiveness of sins, although it is about that; it’s as much about the elimination of injustice, about regarding all people as the children of God and taking care of the least of these.

The announcement that this kind of Kingdom has arrived is truly Good News.

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