The Beatitudes and bankruptcy — part 4

July 16, 2009

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

For Jesus and his listeners, these words were more than mere metaphor. Families that were about to lose their farm to foreclosure literally faced starvation. To avoid hunger, your options were limited. You could hope that day labor would provide enough income to buy food for your family. You could put a member of the family into debt slavery under the holder of the note. This family member would then work the debt off under the terms defined in Deuteronomy 15. If the claim on your land was unjust–if you were the victim of predatory lending intended to seize your property, which was the specific focus of the ninth and tenth commandments against ‘coveting’ (a terrible translation of the word)–you could hope that your creditor did the righteous thing and canceled the note. Or, if the debt was legitimate, you could pray that he would be merciful and cancel the note.

With these Beatitudes, Jesus was once again promising justice to the bankrupt and those facing bankruptcy. He was saying that, in the kingdom of God–that is, in his community of the new covenant–predatory lending was not allowed and all debts were to be canceled. He was saying that no one would lose their farm to foreclosure, because the righteous would redeem the debts owed them.

And he was not just promising blessings to the poor and oppressed, that is, to debtors; he also was promising blessings to creditors who embraced the new covenant of the kingdom. Show mercy (a technical term for withdrawing a legal complaint), and you will receive mercy. Or, in its more familiar phrasing: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

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