I spent most of this “Sabbath” morning reading Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. The chapter on the connection between debt and sin has me thinking.
On the one hand, she points out that Jesus Christ is the “cosmic sin eater” or the ultimate “substitute human sacrifice to end all human sacrifices”. Jesus took the debt for human sin on himself. On the other hand, a few pages later, Atwood asks the challenging question, “Which is more blameworthy—to be the debtor or to be the creditor?” If the scale is unbalanced either way, either toward the one who owes or the one who is owed, “resentment builds, each side becomes despicable in the eyes of the other.”
Our orthodox understanding of our relationship to God begins with the assumption that the scale is tipped in God’s favor. Humanity owes a debt for disobedience. But in the saving act of Jesus Christ, the scale tips, wildly and graciously the other way, lifting the weight of the debt away. We pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
One way to live life is with the image of God’s holy scales before us, balancing each life between unimaginable debt and unimaginable redemption from debt. We can imagine ourselves dropped on the scales. We might even believe that we can assist God in choosing who will have their debt redeemed, the Creditor paid, and who will not.
I choose another way. Debt is historically a human construct, stretching back through the centuries to the earliest of times, when those who accumulated wealth in any form, found ways to loan and keep records. When we describe God’s expectations and our disregard of those expectations, when we talk about the saving work of Jesus Christ, it is comfortable to use the language of debt and debtor. But any use of this image has at least two risks. First, that the debtor will need to pay someone back whether it is the ultimate lender (God the Creator) or the one who steps in the pick up the debt (Christ the Redeemer). We will be continually trying to figure out how to settle on what we owe. The second risk is that the debtor will ultimately resent the debt and resent the one who is owed. The debtor might walk away, choosing spiritual “bankruptcy”.
I prefer the image that Jesus used to explain our relationship with God, the loving father. (Luke 15) The son does not get a loan from the father, but what he is entitled to. There is no debt. When the son can’t make the life he has chosen work and he is suffering, he returns to the father. The father is out on the road waiting and watching. He celebrates his son’s return. He doesn’t ask for repayment; he simply embraces his son.
There is no scales here, no balance, no loan, no debt. It’s love. That’s the image I’m sticking with. God crazy in love, watching, waiting, welcoming, and embracing.