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In my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, I cited Matthew 5:25-26 and then St. Francis de Sales’ excellent commentary on it, in my chapter on purgatory. Here is that portion (pp. 129-130 of the current Sophia Institute Press edition, but the footnote numbers are different):
Matthew 5:25-26 [RSV] Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.
(see also Luke 12:58-59)
St. Francis de Sales:
Origen, St. Cyprian, St. Hilary, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine say that the way which is meant in the whilst thou art in the way [while you are going with him to court] is no other than the passage of the present life: the adversary [accuser] will be our own conscience, . . . as St. Ambrose expounds, and Bede, St. Augustine, St. Gregory [the Great], and St. Bernard. Lastly, the judge is without doubt Our Lord . . . The prison, again, is . . . the place of punishment in the other world, in which, as in a large jail, there are many buildings; one for those who are damned, which is as it were for criminals, the other for those in Purgatory, which is as it were for debt. The farthing, [penny] . . . are little sins and infirmities, as the farthing is the smallest money one can owe.
Now let us consider a little where this repayment . . . is to be made. And we find from most ancient Fathers that it is in Purgatory: Tertullian,11 Cyprian,12 Origen,13 . . . St. Ambrose,14 St. Jerome15 . . . Who sees not that in St. Luke the comparison is drawn, not from a murderer or some criminal, who can have no hope of escape, but from a debtor who is thrown into prison till payment, and when this is made is at once let out? This then is the meaning of Our Lord, that whilst we are in this world we should try by penitence and its fruits to pay, according to the power which we have by the blood of the Redeemer, the penalty to which our sins have subjected us; since if we wait till death we shall not have such good terms in Purgatory, when we shall be treated with severity of justice.16
11 The Soul, 100,10.
12 Epistle 4,2.
13 Homily 35 on Luke 12.
14 Commentary on Luke 12.
15 Commentary on Matthew 5.
16 St. Francis de Sales, CON [The Catholic Controversy], 372-373.
Recently, a Lutheran pastor wrote to me. He had read material from two of my books on purgatory (and is increasingly convinced of the truthfulness of it), and was asking about this passage in particular. He asked me:
If we could nail down what the full range of experience was concerning debtor’s prison in Jesus’ day then perhaps I would find the clincher here. What I’m seeing from writings on other periods of history though is that there was little if any expectation of persons gaining freedom from debtor’s prison. Couple that with Jesus’ words in these passages which sounds like a warning to avoid debtor’s prison (because by implication it doesn’t sound like a comforting place given Jesus’ comments) I’m not sure that one can put a positive spin on “…you will not get out until you (the sinner) have paid the last penny.”
Here was my reply, in full:
My responses for now (without a great deal of additional study) would be the following:
1) First of all, there is an assumption by Jesus that it is possible to get out of this place: “you will never get out till . . . ” This motif of being able to get out of debtor’s prison is repeated by our Lord Jesus in Matt 18:30: “. . . put him in prison till he should pay the debt” (repeated in 18:34). This could not be said about hell at all, because no one can get out of hell. We wouldn’t say of, e.g., a corpse in a casket: “he will never get out of there till . . . ” To say such a thing presupposes the possibility of leaving the place. If one can’t leave, it wouldn’t be described in such a fashion. Therefore, if we apply the passage to the afterlife at all, it must refer to purgatory and not hell.
2) Secondly, purgatory is not all that “comforting.” It is a place of punishment for temporal sins, and purging. We have hope, of course, because everyone there is saved and not damned, and it may be even more pleasant than this life, for all we know, but that doesn’t make it all that “comforting” in an immediate sense, because we know from this life that purging ourselves of sins and sinful tendencies is not an easy process. We have plenty of analogies for purging in our earthly existence. So I don’t see how this is a disproof at all. If one was trying to apply the passage to heaven, I could see that, but not if it is said to be a description of purgatory.3) As for Jesus warning us to avoid this place (purgatory, as we believe), that makes perfect sense. No one has to go to purgatory, if they achieve sufficient sanctity by God’s grace in this life. It is a good thing to avoid purgatory if we can. That’s what Jesus is saying.
4) It can’t apply to hell, either, because the “debts” are metaphorical for remaining sins on our soul. We don’t get saved from hell by paying off our debts (in Catholic theology, by penance for temporal sins). We get out by means of the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross on our behalf. It is sheer mercy, not a mere debt-paying process (because none of us could ever pay off the debt in that case). This is good Catholic theology, too, I assure you. We don’t gain salvation by our good works. That is the heresy of Pelagianism.
Jesus often uses the metaphor of “debt” for sins and the necessity of forgiveness (e.g., Mt 6:12-15, 18:23-35, Lk 7:36-50, 11:4). Therefore, it makes much more sense (granting these theological premises) that the passage refers to purgatory, since the “debts” are sins that we are still being purged of. We’re not being punished eternally in this instance for the sins, but having them purged from us because we are already saved. That’s why Jesus says that we can get out of the place or state. Again, we don’t gain heaven and eternal life by paying off debts ourselves, because this would never be sufficient. But we can gain the entrance to heaven (having already been saved by the cross and God’s mercy and forgiveness and election) by purging our sins entirely in purgatory by this painful process.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [a Protestant work], in its article on “Debt, Debtor” (vol. II, 814-815) states:
Debt and debtor are used in a moral sense also as indicating the obligation of a righteous life which we owe to God. To fall short in righteous living is to become a debtor. For this reason we pray, ‘Forgive us our debts’ (Mt 6:12).
Now, again, in Catholic theology, this is sensibly spoken of penance and purgatory, not of hell or of salvation. The above description fits very nicely with the Catholic (and biblical) concept of purgatory. We “owe God a righteous life”; not in order to be saved (as both Protestants and Catholics agree that we can be saved while still possessing actual sinfulness and less than perfect sanctity), but in order to (already saved) enter heaven, where no sin is allowed (Rev 21:27; implied also by the tenor and content of Isaiah 6:1-8, where the prophet Isaiah comes in contact with God).
5) Jewish tradition held to the practice of forgiving debts every seven years (Deut 15:1 ff.; cf. Ex 23:10-11, Lev 25, Neh 10:31). This was not always heeded (Amos 2:6-8, 4:1), but nevertheless, it is an indication that the notion of a debtor’s prison was not always (or usually, it seems to me) a lifetime sentence. Otherwise, Jesus simply wouldn’t talk in this manner. We must assume that His thought here represents the common understanding of that time and culture. There was also the Jubilee Year, whereby all debts were forgiven every 50th year (Lev 25:9,13,28, Num 36:4). Even slaves (enslaved due to debt) were to be freed (Lev 25:10,39). Properties were also restored to their original owners (Lev 27:17-29, 48 ff., 27:19).
6) The fact that Israelites at various times became corrupt, or that the poor were excessively oppressed by the rich and powerful (condemnations throughout the prophets), or that the Jubilee Year was not always properly observed, does not eliminate the applicability of the metaphor. Every analogy to human existence will be flawed to some extent because of human sin, but that doesn’t wipe out the principle that our Lord was trying to put across by means of these metaphors. Men might oppress unduly (including debtor’s prisons) but we know that God is just, and He will let us out when we “pay” what we owe.
7) Tertullian wrote around 212 A.D., concerning this passage:
. . . it is most fitting that the soul, without waiting for the flesh, be punished for what it did without the partnership of the flesh . . . if we understand that prison of which the Gospel speaks to be Hades, and if we interpret the last farthing to be the light offense which is to be expiated there before the resurrection, no one will doubt that the soul undergoes some punishments in Hades, without prejudice to the fullness of the resurrection, after which recompense will be made through the flesh also.
(The Soul, 58,1)
Hope that is helpful to you! I found it a very interesting study, myself. I love delving deeper into the Bible. It is always a great blessing and a further education.
May God abundantly bless the fruitfulness of your pastoral ministry,