Forgive us our debts

University of Chicago theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite says that when Jesus told us to pray (in some translations) “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” he was calling for the forgiveness of economic debts.  She also says how Occupy Wall Street is “operationalizing” Jesus’s economic teachings:

The folks who brought you Occupy Wall Street have launched what they call “Rolling Jubilee.” By donating to Rolling Jubilee, individuals can give money to buy up distressed consumer debt that is normally sold to debt collectors for pennies on the dollar. But instead of acting like debt collectors, hounding folks for the full payment, you are giving to cancel the debt, that is, forgive it.

What Jesus taught as a prayer about forgiving debt (Matthew 6:12) has just been operationalized by Occupy.

Through prayer and deed, Jesus pursued an economic plan called the “Jubilee,” as I write in ‘#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power,’ my new book on how what Jesus really said about money, and what he did about economic issues in his own time that is just now launching as an e-book, and then in print.

It is critical that American Christians learn that Jesus really meant it when he asked us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Conservative Christians would like you to forget that Jesus really meant debt forgiveness. The Religious Right would like you to focus only on specific, individual “sins” like homosexuality (something that Jesus actually never mentions), and ignore that Jesus was really concerned about structured economic inequality in his own time. To Jesus, systemic economic inequality was the “Kingdom of Caesar,” not the “Kingdom of God.”

Jesus starts his ministry (Luke 4:16-19) by standing up in the synagogue and reading from one of the key texts of his Hebrew scriptures on the biblical “Jubilee.” The biblical “Jubilee” is a time of debt forgiveness.

Rolling Jubilee is exactly what Jesus was talking about and doing something about throughout his whole ministry.

According to the Jewish tradition in which Jesus stands, and from which he preached, the Jubilee is a special year of “liberty” where every 50 years there was a kind of “reboot” of Jewish economics and social relations. As described in Leviticus, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; you shall return every one of you to your property and every one of you to your family” (25:10). This 50th-year (or 49th-year) Jubilee followed seven “sabbatical cycles” where every seven years male slaves were released without debt, and land was allowed to lie fallow.

But that was millennia ago, some will say. How could the biblical Jubilee possibly be an economic plan in today’s economy, one that is far more complicated than in the first century CE?

It has never been more important to raise the issue of debt forgiveness and do something about it in concrete ways than it is in 21st century America.

via Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite: ‘Forgive Us Our Debts’: Occupy Operationalizes the Lord’s Prayer on Debt.

This reminds me of a preacher I heard, back in my pre-Lutheran days when I belonged to a liberal denomination, who taught that because Jesus proclaimed “release to the captives,” we need to empty our prisons by letting all of the inmates go free, a gesture of grace that would surely reform them all.

What do you think of Dr. Thistlewhite’s exegesis?  If you disagree, how would you answer her?   OR, does she have a valid point somewhere in her teaching?  What is the principle behind the Jubilee year?

The widow and the End Times

Pastor Douthwaite’s sermon last Sunday was based on the assigned text for that day, about the widow’s mite (Mark 12: 38-44).  He began with a useful survey of what the Church Year means and shows what it means to live in light of the End Times:

With the Festival of the Reformation and the Feast of All Saints now in the rear view mirror of the Church Year, our thoughts are turned these last three Sundays to the end times, the return of Christ, the last days, judgment day . . . or, to use the fancy theological word for it: eschatology. Our Church Year takes us from the expectation and promises of a Messiah in Advent, to the days of His birth at Christmas, to the revealing of His divinity in Epiphany, to His suffering and death in Lent, the joy of the resurrection in the Easter season, the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and that same Spirit working now in the life of the Church through the Pentecost season. But now we are at the end, and we look forward to the end, and the return of our Saviour to raise the dead and take us, all who believe and are baptized into in Christ Jesus (Mk 16:16), home. To the rest and pure joy of heaven.

And so (you may be thinking) that focus must start next week, because this week we didn’t hear end times or eschatology readings – we heard about a widow and her two mites in the Holy Gospel. . . .

And so, it seems to me, there is more to this reading than meets the eye. Something more than just about how much she – and we – put into the offering box or the offering plate. It’s about eschatology. It’s about how we live this life with a view toward the end. For, we believe, ever since Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we are living in the end times, the last days. Once Jesus ascended, He could return at any time, and we don’t know when. So how do we live in these days, these last days? It’s good to take stock of that and consider.

And there are two examples presented to us today: the scribes and the widow. Of the scribes, Jesus says, beware. Beware not (this time) of their teaching, but of how they are living. For their lives are all about the here and now. What honor they receive now, what glory is bestowed now, what advantages they get now. There seems to be no mercy or compassion in them, for they even devour widows’ houses. And their religion is a scam too, Jesus says. Their long prayers are a pretense – something they do to look holy, while going after the things of this world. . . .

But then there is the widow. How utterly different is she. For her the here and now is a hardship. Unlike the scribes, there is no honor for her now, no glory for her now, no advantages for her now. Maybe she still had her house because she was so poor and her house so humble that it wasn’t worth the scribes’ effort to devour it! And yet what little she had, those two small copper coins, she doesn’t keep, she doesn’t spend on food, she doesn’t hold on to for future needs – she drops them into the Temple treasury. They didn’t really make a difference. Her offering was like dumping a glass of water into the ocean. Or (to use my fiscal cliff example) like me sending in a dollar to the US Treasury – it’s not really going to make a difference in paying down the national debt!

But that’s not why she did it. She gave those two coins because she was living with a fundamentally different outlook than the scribes. Her “here and now” wasn’t even worth two small copper coins; but her future was. She did what she did because she was living her life with a view toward the end. Others may laugh at her for putting in so little, they might come and devour her house next, she might not have food the next day or the next week. But her life wasn’t in these things. These things were not her utmost concern. For, Jesus said, she put in everything she had, all her life. That’s what it really says: all her life. She put her life into the Temple that day; into the place where God dwells. [Read more...]

British agency is requiring open communion

A British commission is refusing to allow a Plymouth Brethren church to be registered as a charity because it practices closed communion:

A government agency that oversees charities in the United Kingdom has decided that a local Christian congregation cannot be registered because it does not open its communion services to just any outsider.

The decision by the U.K.’s Charity Commission is being reported by The Christian Institute, which has been working on the case of the Plymouth Brethren assembly in Devon for seven years.

Without registration, the group would be subject to a number of government restrictions that do not apply to charity organizations.

The decision “would have a huge impact on the group’s tax relief and would also have other implications,” said the institute in a report.

The report said the congregation’s elders testified to a select committee of Parliament last week.

The government has determined the group cannot be registered because it has decided that its communion services are for members only.

“During the evidence a letter from the commission’s head of legal services emerged claiming that churches cannot be assumed to be acting for the public good,” the report said.

The institute said it is working on the case because of the need to protect religious liberty for all church groups.

A statement released by the government agency said, “The application [from the church] was not accepted on the basis that we were unable to conclude that the organization is established for the advancement of religion for public benefit within the relevant law.”

The institute said Conservative Member of Parliament Charlie Elphicke speculated whether the government agency was “actively trying to suppress religion in the U.K., particularly the Christian religion.”

According to a report from the Telegraph of London, the faith group is planning to take the battle to the European Court of Human Rights if needed.

via Government regulates church communion.

I don’t pretend to understand church-state relations under British law, and I think I must be missing something.  Roman Catholic churches don’t practice open communion.  Are they registered as “charities”?  Also, there is a small but vibrant group of confessional Lutherans in England.  Are they in the same jeopardy?  And what does it mean to be a registered charity in England?  Is that the same as our “non-profit” status, with all of the tax deductions that makes possible?  If anyone knows anything about this, please comment.

Is this an example of the state control of churches in a country that does not have our separation of church and state?  Or is it a foretaste of what American Christians will face also if they are not sufficiently “inclusive” according to the canons of state-mandated toleration?

Why Lutherans can’t take Catholic Communion

Russell E. Saltzman, a pastor in the North American Lutheran Church (the relatively conservative off shoot of ELCA), wrote a post at the First Things blog plaintively asking, “Why Can’t Lutherans Take Catholic Communion?”  After all, he says, Lutherans and Catholics are agreed on justification–as of that Joint Declaration on the subject–and we are pretty much OK about other things, properly conceived.

Rev. Saltzman exhibits the annoying quality of speaking for “Lutherans” while ignoring those millions of us in that tradition who are conservative theologically and don’t go along with the Joint Declaration and other ecumenical overtures.   The mostly Catholic commenters tried to explain why he can’t commune at a Catholic altar, and in this case we conservative Lutherans do agree with conservative Catholics that this would be highly inappropriate.

You’ve got to read Anthony Sacramone’s discussion of this issue, which concludes with a vivid account of the differences between Rome and Lutherans, especially when it comes to the Gospel:

Let’s cut to the chase: would the Roman Catholic Church today accept as doctrinally true the Lutheran teaching of the alien righteousness of Christ, of the great exchange of His righteousness for our sin, of our sanctification as being in Him, even though we are called to good works — but for the sake of our neighbor and not in aid of increasing our justification? If not, again, who are these Lutherans Reverend Saltzman is talking about whose differences with Rome are now of little significance?

Do these Lutherans now accept the existence of a Treasury of Merits? Or has Rome admitted that this was a bankrupt medieval invention and is now, in the interest of ecumenicity, disposable? Have indulgences, the flashpoint of the Reformation, also become irrelevant?

I ask this honestly: what is the true nonnegotiable here?

Let’s discuss the papal office for a moment: Was Pope Urban II Infallible, “evangelically understood,” when he declared, in regard to the First Crusade:  “If anyone who sets out should lose his life either on the way, by land or by sea, or in battle against the infidels, his sins shall be pardoned from that moment. This I grant by right of the gift of God’s power to me.”

Did the bishop of Rome have this authority? Urban II is addressing men who are off, he hopes, to kill the enemies of the Faith and to retrieve stolen property. Is this the true nature of the power of the keys as described in the Gospel of Matthew? Does this notion of dying in a holy war and going straight to Paradise sound familiar?

Here’s another question: Does the pope have this same authority today—to proactively forgive the temporal punishment for sins that would otherwise send someone to Purgatory (or to a purgative state), thus promising them a straight ticket to heaven in the event they died trying to kill someone else? I’m not interested in whether or not it is likely to be exercised in this day and age, nor whether the Muslims in the 12th century invited this response for overrunning the “Holy Land.” I’m only interested in whether Benedict XVI, by virtue of his office, has this authority, given him from Christ.

Whether the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals is inextricably tied to how justification is construed. The same can be said for the nature of the Eucharist, and the priesthood.

What is the wedding garment without which no one enters the wedding feast of the King? Is it something of our own, dry-cleaned, purified, and bleached? Or is it the gift of Someone else? Is it something we do to ourselves, by aid of grace? Something we endure, in the sense of suffer? Or is it something we receive, like the Eucharist, from Another?

For some, the alien, imputed righteousness of Christ is a legal fiction, and Luther’s image of the dunghill covered with snow is usually cited as evidence. And yet these same Christians have no problem with the transfer of the supererogatory merits of the saints to the accounts of the properly disposed.

The merits of Christ’s sacrifice transferred to the sinner, as a sinner, is a fiction, but the merits of Josemaria Escriva transferred by dint of papal proclamation — that’s real.

Really?

The issue remains the same today as on October 31, 1517.

via Reformation Day: Lutherans vs. Alien Righteousness « Strange Herring.

Is the purpose of work leisure?

The New York Times published an online column arguing that the purpose of work is leisure.  (We work for the sake of the weekend; we have a career so we can retire; we try to amass wealth so we can stop working.)  That is also the view of Aristotle (we need to leisure to fully exercise our intellects) and of medieval Catholicism (the contemplative life is more spiritual than the active life).  Luther’s doctrine of vocation, by contrast, challenged this view, teaching that the purpose of work in all vocations is to love and serve one’s neighbor.

The folks at the Gospel Coalition blog asked me to pen an answer to the New York Times piece, which was by Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting.  I did.  Go here to read my response, which includes a link to Prof. Gutting’s essay:

The Purpose of Work – The Gospel Coalition Blog.

 

Legalism is worse than liberalism

More on how Christians from all traditions are discovering Luther’s distinction between Law and Gospel.  This is evident in this post from Southern Baptist pastor Micah Fries at Project TGM, who goes on to make a further point that we conservative Lutherans might sometimes overlook:

When I grew up, the great enemy of the gospel was almost always known as “liberalism”, or possibly, “moderate theology”. Today, however, it seems that we must equally be on guard against a different enemy. This new enemy is just as old as the first, but it is often more difficult to spot. Of course, it would be the enemy of legalism.

These two polar opposites of liberalism and legalism both stand apart from each other, in a sense, but in a very real way, they both accomplish the same goal; that of undermining God’s word. Liberalism, of course, reduces God’s word, and in doing so attempts to make a mockery of those who would dare take that word at face value. It assumes a position of great authority, in fact it could be argued that it assumes a position of greater authority than scripture itself as it attempts to “rectify” the “errors” found in the bible. Legalism, however, is also guilty of reducing the power and authority of God’s word, albeit in a much more insidious manner. While liberalism takes away from God’s word, legalism adds to it, and although it is different in practice from liberalism, it is essentially accomplishing the same goal, that of assuming authority over God’s word. While liberalism claims that scripture says too much, legalism claims that scripture does not say enough.

In all of this, however, I often find myself wondering if legalism might not be a greater danger to the Gospel, than the danger that liberalism itself poses. . . .

First, legalism is a difficult to diagnose cancer. All too often legalism is a subtle, creeping cancer that masquerades as holiness. In Matthew 23, Jesus points out that the Pharisees were guilty of adding “heavy loads” to the backs of their disciples. In Philippians 3 Paul points out that the Judaizers were “dogs” who “mutilated the flesh” in their pursuit of holiness. Both of these groups were guilty of affirming Scripture and yet adding to it in a further attempt to clarify their brand of “holiness”. When we take our personal convictions and apply them unilaterally, regardless of their clarity in Scripture, we may be guilty of this same creeping legalism. . . .

Second, legalism leads to a diminished recognition of sin. . . .A certain mark of legalism is a capacity to recognize others’ sins while failing to see our own. In his article on a topic similar to this, J.D. Greear cautions us concerning this danger. Good legalists get so busy playing watchdog for the sins of others, that they fail to see their own gross failure. As a result, personal sin is diminished, all in the name of “protecting holiness”. . . . [Read more...]


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