July 10, 2006


Caption: Seamus McGoogle is so industrious that he would never fall into debt.

This is the first in a series of posts about the issues of debt, national, international, and personal.

The words of the prayer taught by Jesus in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, popularly known as the Lord's Prayer, are familiar to millions of people. But most of us receive them from a translation of a translation across huge divides of time, class and culture. As a result, we may miss a lot of their original meaning.

The words were originally spoken to Galilean peasants living at the margins of survival. As is often the case in history, the peasants were an exploited class. Much of their surplus--and sometimes more--was taken from them by local and distant elites.

A bad harvest or other misfortune could mean falling into debt, which could lead to loss of land, the basis of economic security. Peasant families could be reduced to tenancy, slavery, or--what was often even worse in the ancient world--a descent into what sociologist Gerhard Lenski called "the expendable" classes of day laborers and beggars.

It could literally lead to a death spiral.

In that context, the words of the prayer which modern people often spiritualize had a concrete, even economic meaning.

"Thy kingdom come" meant the reign of compassion and justice for the poor, the sick and the outcast proclaimed and enacted by Jesus where the last would be first.

"Give us our daily bread" is a pretty concrete petition in a world where food security was not a given.

And while the phrase "Forgive us our debts" had and has a spiritual dimension, it also referred to an all too familiar and terrifying reality.

For too many people in the world today, that is still the case.

Next time: debt and forgiveness in the Hebrew Bible.


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