What We Owe

Luke 7:36-8:3 (Proper 6:Year C)

At one time I taught at a Christian high school where most kids were relatively well off and for the years I taught there I always worked in a discussion on privilege. The students would assure me that they were not privileged and that their parents weren’t either. “My dad built his business from scratch,” they’d say, or “my parents have worked hard for everything they’ve got.” The lines, rehearsed and repeated, were the same every time.

I’d lead them through a series of exercises and thought experiments that would help most, in the end, see their advantages—the head start, however hard the work, they had over many others from different backgrounds and races than their own. But I’d always leave a little sad, because since this was a Christian school it should have been one saturated in gratitude. These children had been firmly raised in the belief that salvation comes from Jesus, but they’d also been taught that everything else comes from hard work and the beneficence of the free market.

I thought of that time when I read the Gospel for this Sunday. It is a passage about gratitude and the hospitality that comes from it; about debt and the jubilee release of all debts. It is a profound study in vulnerability and knowing the truth about our selves.

Simon doesn’t know that he’s in debt. He enters the scene as someone confident that he is not a sinner, wondering in his mind how Jesus could not immediately know that this woman was someone who owes a debt to God and to society. Sin has always been close corollary of debt. As the anthropologist David Graeber has written: “In Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, ‘debt,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘sin’ are actually the same word. Much of the language of the great religious movements – reckoning, redemption, karmic accounting and the like – are drawn from the language of ancient finance.” Our various ways of translating the Lord’s Prayer, originally offered in Aramaic no doubt, give an indication of this. The word translated as “sin” in the Matthew 6 version is opheílō, literally “what is owed.” In the version of the prayer in Luke 11 the Greek terms for sin and debt are used as equivalents, rooted in the original double meaning of the Aramaic. Sin and debt are etymologically and hermeneutically linked.

In our reading Luke tells us that the woman’s hair was undone—this was a social symbol that could mean a number of things from mourning to petition, but all of them are tied to vulnerability. In her tears and in her undone hair this woman is showing her self to be fully aware that she owes and whom it is that she owes. The Pharisee Simon, on the other hand, sees no such debt for himself. He is confident that he’s done it all right; kept his religious savings accounts full and isn’t in need of any help. He’s not unlike the myth of the self-made man; having pulled himself up by his bootstraps (or perhaps in this case, his fringes). He is forgetful of hospitality because he doesn’t think he needs anything from Jesus.

So it is that Jesus offers his metaphor of debtors—a metaphor that places Simon on the side of sinners. Jesus is rhetorically kind enough to let Simon off with being the lesser debtor, but Jesus is telling him that he is a debtor all the same. It is the woman; vulnerable in her owing that is then offered an entrance into the Jubilee that Jesus has come to proclaim. Jesus has come to set the captive free and forgive those who are in debt so that they can be restored to the gift of life that has been coopted by the economy of debt. Now set free, she is filled with gratitude to the one who has freed her, the one to whom she owes her freedom. This is the life of gift.

The poet prophet Wendell Berry has written: “we must live the given life in the given world.” By this he means that our must fundamental understanding of the creation and ourselves is that all is gift. As gift the world is not our own and our lives are not our own, their goodness and value are not made by any economy we can create. Instead these gifts must be accepted with gratitude and used with the care that is born of our obligation as ones who owe everything to God.

To live into this truth we must be vulnerable, immersed in a truthful understanding of ourselves as ones who owe. Like the woman we must see that we are forgiven a great debt when we accept the gift of life. If we fail to do this then we will be like Simon or many of the families of my students. We will think that we did it on our own, that we don’t need forgiveness because we don’t owe anything.

When we imagine ourselves in this way we inevitably do violence to the world. It is by a false accounting of our obligations and gifts that we continue in the paths of privilege, racism, and ecological devastation.

I hate to bring up Donald Trump, but there was something he said late last year that illustrates so well the problem at the center of this Gospel passage. When asked if he prays for forgiveness he replied: “why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness if I’m not making mistakes.” It is an amazing statement of hubris and ignorance of what is owed.

In reflecting on the question of debts I think it is telling that though Trump has tremendous wealth he has filed several bankruptcies. These are legal means by which he has avoided paying what he owes, a sort of coercive jubilee. And that is what results from our refusal of gratitude and grace and forgiveness—a bankruptcy of life, a sloughing off of our debts not through their forgiveness but through our escape of their obligations. It seems to be a problem at the heart of American politics that goes for both sides—an inability to show neediness or vulnerabilities. And so America continues in the violence that is born from such a lack.

Let us instead be like the woman Jesus praises. Let us be clear about all we owe. Let us unbind our hair, be embarrassingly open about our neediness, and revel in gratitude for our forgiveness, our ever given lives.

One Response to “What We Owe”

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  1. Joel Shuman says:

    Thank you, Ragan, for a sharp close reading and a beautiful account of the ways this passage impinges on our lives. I often reflect on a line from A Place on Earth – “When we’ve lost all we’ve had, we’ve had what we’ve lost.”

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