The Only Free Man
This series of posts began several months ago as a look at sin and causation. It started as one post and morphed into several, and I somehow don’t feel much closer to the end now than I did at the outset. This is that big of a topic.
I am pleased with where these writings have gone, though, and a number of connections have been made that I did not anticipate, but I also find myself willing the closure of this subject for the time being. To that end, in this post I will tackle a fourth metaphor for sin that we find in scripture, that of debt, and try to bring it all together in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the only free man, i.e. the only individual to whom none of this applied, which is not to say that he was unaffected by sin. It killed him. But then he changed everything.
The language of debt in scripture is not unfamiliar to most Westerners. Growing up, I remember numerous hymns centered on these notions, especially the idea of a ransom. Nevertheless, this language did not mean much to me until I began to study Syriac, a Semitic language like Hebrew and a dialect of Aramaic, i.e. very closely related to what Jesus spoke to just about everyone around him. During my graduate program, before each session of class in Syriac, we would recite the Lord’s Prayer in that language. And one day that recitation jumped out at me.
The Lord’s Prayer is one of those passages that even non-Christians probably recognize… Our Father who art in Heaven…, so on and so forth. As familiar as it is, however, there are a couple of places where warring versions might create a little confusion, like do you actually say the last verse? Another version difference is debts vs. trespasses. In Syriac, which as I just said is probably pretty much what Jesus said, there is really only one version, and the word used there, ܚܰܘܒ݁ܳܐ Hauva, we would translate as debt. Ok, that probably settles the debate right?
Not that simple. Trespasses is one of those words like forsaken in another post that has become antique in English. It is eloquent and at a stretch, it can fit the financial idea behind the Greek and Aramaic term. I mean in that sense we could translate it in a more modern fashion as offenses or even fines.
But as close as those might be to the idea, they are not quite the word Jesus used. Syriac and Aramaic, have another word for sin that would come closer to that, ܚܛܳܗܳܐ Hat-ha, meaning miss or fail, much like the Greek term, hamartia, that we brought up in the last post. Had Jesus intended to use that word to describe sin, he could have.
He deliberately chose the word debt in order to access a cultural financial motif that runs throughout the Old Testament and society of his day, one in which to go into debt is either terribly foolish or an act of severe desperation, an abandonment of all rights and privileges of person for oneself and one’s whole family. Further, in that milieu to charge interest on that debt, in other words, usury, is among the greatest evils possible, so evil in fact that to redeem a person from their debt no matter the redeemer’s intentions (they now have all rights to the other person, up to and including slavery) is considered honorable to the highest degree.
I was aware of some of this cultural background before I read the passage in Syriac, but to come up against Jesus’ deliberate use of this term opened my eyes. Why? Well, the idea of debt in our culture, in contrast to what we have just here described, is really quite anodyne. We live in a time and place where instead of evil, debt is commonplace. Tweenagers get credit cards and we enter adult life by getting loans that will take most of our lives to pay off. In fact, it is foolish to avoid loans because then we suffer one of the modern age’s greatest financial faux pas’, lack of credit.
Moreover, maybe because history and the powers that be have concluded that having a large and placid populace eager to endlessly pay off loans in the pursuit of pleasure is worth a few misfits, fools, and miscreants screwing up and going bankrupt, or maybe because economics is more about temperament and fear than tangible things like real estate and capital, the presence of debt is a fact of life for the operation of most Western governments. We could reasonably argue that the availability of credit and the principles of interest have in many ways created the modern nation state, from T-bills to venture capital to insurance to mortgages and small business loans.
But we see in the economic concept of credit one of the primary sources of modern economics. The word itself comes from the latin Credere meaning to believe or trust, the same place we get the word creed. We still use credit in this sense sometimes, “I would not give him credit for that idea,” i.e. “I don’t believe it is his idea.” In this sense something can be incredible, i.e. unbelievable.
This shows us just how much our modern systems are built on belief and trust. Financially, what do we believe in? You could say others, hence individual credit scores and the like, but I would contend that this form of trust is largely vested in the system itself. We trust as debtors that things like credit scores mean something, that I will accrue benefit for having good credit, and that if I do not, i.e. my credit score falls for whatever reason, it will not cost me or my family our lives and livelihood.
Creditors, on the other hand, trust that in the preponderance of cases the system will inspire a positive balance on their investments. There is some risk inherent, but nothing ventured nothing gained. By diversifying and crediting the right institutions or individuals, a creditor has reasonable assurance that a substantial portion of his investments will not only return to him but will return in such volume that any losses are negligible. Thus we see that our system is based on the trust of both the creditor and the debtor.
Nevertheless, fears centered on this trust are prevalent. Those who lean left fear the 1% and on the right the fear is welfare state layabouts. In either case we fear those who would take advantage of our trust. This is a sober reminder of how fragile this trust is, in America perhaps currently at a low it has not seen for decades. All it takes is one side deciding the other has been too libertine in pursuing their agenda, and this trust is gone.
The casualty of this trust would be horrendously severe. I live in a society where the default is a lack of trust beyond the family unit. Were public trust to wholly collapse in the US, its casualty would be so much more than merely credit scores and finances. Such a uniform failure would result in nothing less than the end of the American experiment in democracy. I am not saying that America would necessarily cease, though it might, but what would remain would not be recognizable.
Enough contemporary politics. Back to the ancient near eastern disdain for indebtedness, disdain to the point of equating being in debt with being sinful. We have lost something in having pricetags in places like Walmart or on Amazon. We take at face value that the store is not cheating us (see trust above). If you want people who understand money and finance, walk through a bazaar in Cairo or Karachi, or a farmer’s market in Kalamazoo. The guy putting margin in mangoes as well as his buyer struggling to shave that margin away both display a degree of savvy absent most modern commercial interactions. We talk about sports as a current replacement for bloodshed, but I would contend that bloodless warfare is as old as the first merchant trying to fleece a wizened grandma in the market.
In the Middle East in particular, I would not be surprised to find the skills employed in the souks and bazaars are all but identical to those used in Jesus’ or even Abraham’s day. The goods being exchanged, the currency, and even the language have shifted, but the process is timeless. And watching such a process unfold is something to behold.
With such financial acumen being ingrained to the degree it is in that culture, it stands to reason that the ancestors of these modern artists were well acquainted not only with the process of buying and trading, but the ill outcomes of its excesses. Thus when they censured activities associated to those negative outcomes, there was a reason.
I would argue the reason, likely among others, is that they saw the fact that a man in debt is not his own master. Though the excesses of this fact are far removed from us by modern protections, we still recognize this, as anyone suffering under heavy credit card debt can attest.
The protections we have in place are the result of our history. They did not arise in a vacuum. Though the segment of the American population with roots in Africa, or the native component has a darker perspective on this, many people of European ancestry also came to the Americas against their will, especially in the early days, and often because of debt.
The Bible decries usury not because an investor should not be able to profit from his investment, but rather that it became a means, old and worn out by the time the first words of the Old Testament were drafted, of snaring other men, trapping them in an endless debt cycle. It deprived them of their livelihood, and ultimately their freedom.
But despite sacred prohibition, these problems persisted. Furthermore, they were pervasive enough that when Old Testament authors began to write of the process whereby God would correct the sin plaguing our world, the financial terminology they chose to represent the problem and its solution was readily apparent in society. Likewise, when Jesus was instructing men to pray, the urgency of the problem remained clear.
We have already seen the causal effect of Sin’s chains, but the financial picture shows us the depth of its hopelessness. We might perceivably throw off chains, but escaping from underneath a mountain of debt was all but impossible, and would haunt a man’s children and grandchildren.
One of the myriad motives for God in sending Christ and his atoning work on the cross is that God is a good father. What father who can do anything about it can accept that his children have become slaves?
In this series of posts, we have already seen that sin is darkness, that it constrains and chains us down, that in sin is consistent self-seeking failure, and that it is a form of debt which needs redemption. Tying these together we can sketch a sort of succession:
- We live in a world of darkness, surrounded by darkness and filled with darkness, darkness caused by humanity.
- At some point we choose to subject ourselves to something that is of that darkness, a desire, maybe even masquerading as something wholesome, but it cheats, charging an interest that is too high, and from which we cannot escape.
- We are ensnared and chained into courses of action dictated by these dark desires that come to inhabit our minds and souls. We are subject and bound to the ramifications of the enaction of those desires.
- And all of this is a grossly consistent failure to live up to the standard we were created to uphold.
We can see this repeated in the lives of everyone we know. It doesn’t matter how good they look, “no one is good, no not one.” Everyone is stuck, indebted to darkness and operating in a predictable pattern of destruction that poisons everything around them despite their best efforts.
This is not to say that they do not seek good. It is a mark of the goodness still present in the lives of Adam and Eve that they tried to cover their nakedness. Shamelessness is either an unqualified good or evil. To their credit and dismay, they were neither.
They sought to shroud their shame but could not hide it. Darkness had inhabited their souls, and its tendrils had sought out the innermost elements of their being.
The Old Testament often gives darkness a sort of tangibility, whereby it can be conceived that it might quench some forms of light, like pouring dirt over a fire. The light with which Adam and Eve recognized their need for clothing did not come from them. Indeed, it was an original reflection of Divine energy, imprinted on them when they drew their first breaths. Whether even a reflection of God’s light can be fully quenched is another discussion, but reflections are contingent on a source of light beyond themselves. When the light is withdrawn, the reflection fades. When the light is shut away, the reflection blinks out.
In our current existence, the tangibly tenebrous darkness can and will pry away every last obstruction to its complete control, every hiding place of that original light, and squelch it, following the process above. Every goodness chained. Every thought enslaved. Every action hindered. We are trapped in a spiral of deepening darkness from which, left to our devices, there is no light. As we have seen, sin is simply darkness, chains, failure, or debt. It is a horrifying amalgam of the lot of these. Any one of these analogies alone can conceivably be overcome, but the combination is truly terrifying.
I believe that God made our world in such a way as it could run on its own, though by this I do not imply distance on his part. Our corruption of the management of that world has turned the whole thing in an irrevocably dark direction from which there is no egress. Apart from Christ, there is no one born of Adam capable of standing against this darkness. Time is in many ways a blessing for us, but in this way it would be a curse. At best it would delay the inevitable dying of the light, but it could not hold it off forever.
Which brings me to the only free man, and thankfully for us, the one who redeems our debt.
I mentioned redemption as a financial term above, but it also needs some clarification. The word itself is pretty straightforward. It is the buying back of a debt. We redeem our debts every time we pay off our credit card or any other loan.
America has a taboo about money; we don’t talk about it. We bump into this all the time in China, where no such restrictions exist. Learning Chinese opened up a world of cabbies, acquaintances, and random people on the street asking deep questions about my financial history and profile.
In our culture, due to taboo, debt is a personal thing. I can let others know of my financial pressure and how I feel about it, but I cannot pry into someone else’s debt portfolio. Add to that our bootstraps-pulling distrust of charity and we are in a quite independent place when it comes to debt and its redemption.
This taboo itself and our distrust of charity might hide fragments of this ancient distrust of debt and loans. I can remember my mother saying stuff like “when you take their money, they own you.” Being in debt to the government, banks, and credit card companies is ok, but not to churches or NGO’s.
In ancient anti-debt cultures one generally only took on debt either as a severe risk-taker (possibly at the chagrin of one’s family) or out of necessity, i.e. because of a horrible emergency. As such, redemption from another source was not unusual. If the relationship was ok, it might be a kinsman, like Boaz, or another attached figure with a degree of nobility behind it.
But often redemption served as a means to acquire more land and peasants to work on it. This still happens. I could talk about the plots of a half dozen feel good “save the X” movies from the 80’s (looking at you Goonies). But in keeping with our slavery motif, consider the purchase of indentures in the colonial period in Europe. We mentioned Europeans coming to America against their will. Many of those who were indentured were in debtor’s prison for not paying a debt. An investor could redeem that debt, and chalk up the cost of shipping, etc., and force an individual to sign a contract granting de facto ownership for a set period, for all practical purposes a mortgage on one’s life. Rich plantationists, shipping companies, and even the British Military often filled personnel quotas in this manner, dispatching agents to facilitate the process. In many ways, the British and American participation in the African Slave Trade found its conceptual justification in a combination of this indenturing process with a very skewed theology of man.
Fortunately for us, the one redeeming our debt, though he has an agenda and purpose and jealously guards his ownership of those he acquires in this manner, is the embodiment of holiness himself, Jesus Christ. Let’s examine what his redemption of our debts means in relation to the various metaphors of sin we have highlighted.
- Regarding darkness: He is the light, shining into the darkness which cannot stand against Him.
- Regarding indebtedness: Jesus freely chose to submit to the will of the Father, “humbling Himself and taking the form of a man,” and even submitting to death. Though tempted, no desire moved Him to sinfulness. Though compelled, no force could break His resolve, and though God, He was a man like us throughout this process. Darkness, sin, and destruction bore no claim on His life, yet stole it from Him, and in doing so subjected themselves to His authority.
- Regarding subjectivity to causal chains: Free of unholy desires and their outcomes in His life, though at times subjected to the results of the unholy desire of others, His actions and responses operated in complete freedom.
- Regarding failure: Jesus succeeded perfectly in His purpose for coming into this world and continues to succeed serving in his role as not merely chief steward but rather king and master.
So what does this mean for us?
- Regarding Darkness: Designed to reflect God’s light, in proximity to Him, light pours through us. Though darkness has many places to hide in us and may even be renewed by our environment, His light will eventually reveal every corner of us so that we can once again be naked and unashamed in true holiness. Furthermore, as reflections of His light constantly renewed by His presence in our hearts, those around us cannot help but see the evidence of this light in our lives.
- Regarding debt: Whatever originally indebted us to darkness has been exposed, its interest cancelled, its power destroyed. What claims it may lay to us are residual and will whither in the ongoing presence of His light. In fact, that original desire will meet its holy fulfillment through Christ. If debt remains, He holds claim to it, and His burden is easy and yoke light.
- Regarding chains: Where darkness retains a hold on us, we might experience something akin to the helplessness of our earlier sinful state, the chains of causation, but those chains have no substance in His light. Darkness cannot stand on its own, and without our sheltering compliance, it will vanish. This does not mean we are not affected by events around us, we are at times swept up in them maybe even to the point of death, like Christ, but our response to those events is free in a way that we at best only have fleeting memories of from a distant childhood.
- Regarding failure: As we approach the roles that God has crafted for us, roles that often even now seem daunting, we know that such fears are residue of the “knowledge” that originally lured and drove our earliest ancestors to abandon their posts. By abandoning our attempts to fully know and resting in the presence of perfect love which casts out fear, we can press forward and beyond understanding fulfill the tasks arranged for us. With each success, we grow in confidence that no matter the eventual destiny of this world, due to the solid and ever-growing proximity to our Lord, the next world will not need saving.
The darkness is strong. Its thin tendrils into our lives are myriad and much of what we do is still dictated by that darkness operating within us, even as the redemption of Christ has cancelled its power. But His light is stronger and no amount of dirt can put it out. Let us all push on to reflect that light to a world that desperately needs it, knowing that in doing so we fulfill the hope He has given us, Hope that tomorrow will be better than today.