Twenty-Fourth Sunday: How to Think about Debt

St. Thomas thought justice was a good thing

Justice is not a popular virtue, at least not with my students.  Justice seems stingy, the opposite of mercy, which is generous.

So it’s hard to read traditional accounts that say worship is our “debt” to God, something we owe him in justice.  I have not heard much appreciation for the line in the Mass, “let us give thanks to the Lord – it is right and just.”  Justice seems like the opposite of mercy, something we despise.

Our Gospel reading for this Sunday, the end of the Sermon on Community, seems to confirm that Christians don’t care about justice.  Jesus tells us to forgive seventy seven times.  Forget about debts!


But then Jesus takes it in a different direction.  “That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.”  The king concludes, “You wicked servant!  I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me.  Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?”  “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless . . . .”

Accounts, debt, torturers, debt: he talks about all of it in terms of debts.  We should forgive not because debt doesn’t matter, but because we have a debt.

And notice that this passage follows one in which we were encouraged, not only to forgive, but also to correct: “If your brother sins against you.”


Please be patient for a little Greek:

When it says the servant, “Had no way of paying it back,” the root of the word is “giving”: he had no way


of giving back.

The master orders him to be sold “in payment of the debt”: same word, to give back.

The servant says, “be patient with me” – “have a great soul” – “and I will pay you back in full”: same word.

The Master was “moved with compassion” (his guts were moved, splagchna) “and forgave him the loan.”  The word for loan is based on the word for “giving”: a loan as a kind of “gift” that you “give” back.

But the servant finds someone else who “owed him” and said “Pay back what you owe.”  Here there is nothing of gift, only obligation.

The other servant says, “I will pay you back”: and again it’s the word for “giving.”

But “he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt”: gave back the obligation.

When the master hears, he speaks no longer of the “gift” but of the “obligation”: “I forgave you your entire debt.”  And so he “gave” him in a different, ironic way: “handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt”: obligation.


Perhaps I am stretching the linguistic point – perhaps not.  But there are two ways to look at debt and justice.  In one, it is pure obligation.  Our parable talks about that: this way of thinking involves choking people and handing them over to torturers.

(The selling of the family, I must say, is ambiguous: the Greek is less clear than the English about what is going on.  Leave that aside.)

On the other hand, there is the language of gift.  A loan is a gift I give you, expecting that you will give in return.  People ask each other not quite to “be patient,” as in our translation, but “to have a great soul” or perhaps it means, “have a soul that sees the long term.”  Friendship is a matter of give and give in return.


Let us give thanks

This economy of the gift, I think, is a helpful way to think about justice.  God isn’t going to strangle us if we don’t pay him back.  Rather, he gives gifts, and he expects us to live within the gift, to give gifts to one another, to return gifts to him, even to give the gift of thanksgiving, which is nothing but the recognition that things are a gift.

In Latin and its derivatives, like Spanish, the way you say thank you is with the word for “grace.”  Someone gives you something and you say, “gracias: free gift – that was a free gift, thank you, I appreciate that this is a gift.”  Let us give thanks, it is right and just.


In our first reading, from Sirach, mercy and forgiveness are a wisdom thing, wrath and anger are stupid.  You don’t want to live in the realm of wrath and anger, he says, live in the economy of gift.

In our reading from Romans, yet again marvelously paired with our Gospel reading, Christ died for us, and so we know that we belong to him and to one another, in life and even in death.  Christ’s death makes clear that we have not a God of choking and torture and obligation, but a God of gift and giving back and thanksgiving.

That’s why we forgive seventy seven times: because we live in light of the gift, because justice is rich and generous, like mercy.

Where in your life have you forgotten the economy of gift?


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