Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
April 5, 1999
Excluding the poor from the banquet
In the Judeo-Christian story which is believed to have shaped the Western world, the word "debt" and indebtedness refers to a human relationship, and a responsibility towards each other.
Debt, in the biblical tradition of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus himself, means the breaking of this responsible relationship, a breakdown of meaningful communication and a refusal of solidarity.
Debt, understood this way, is more than economics and statistics to be sorted out by bankers and bean counters. It is a profound ethical question that concerns people, individuals, families, whole sectors of a society and entire nations. It is therefore a moral imperative both at the personal and political level to examine this relationship in the light of justice.
To forgive debt is at the core of our Christian belief, important enough for Jesus to include it in the prayer he taught us.
In some languages, debt, or guilt is the same word. In the early Christian communities the concept of sin was equated with an indebtedness to the community. It was therefore customary to have public confessions and public penitence.
When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, the custom of public admission of trespasses against the common good was abolished.
When Christianity moved out of the catacombs and into the palaces and courts of the empire, it became economically advantageous for ambitious and career-oriented individuals to belong to the politically right organization.
These people of power and privilege were not about to launder their linen in public. They could afford to hire their own casuist priests.
Over time, public confession was replaced by private Confession and the private examination of conscience. The communal context was lost.
The horizontal relationship with an imminent God residing in his people was replaced by a vertical relationship between a transcendent God and the individual. The notion of debt or sin became small and personal and mostly concerned with saving your own soul.
During the synods of the Latin American bishops at Puebla, Mexico, and Medellin, Colombia, the concept of social and structural sin was again brought forward. Unfortunately, the theology which gave birth to our shared responsibility for each other, specifically the most neglected members of our society, has been virtually dismissed as irrelevant in some circles.
Still, our relationship to God is to a God who chose to be on the side of the poor and oppressed. His mission in Jesus and through us is to liberate both the oppressor and the oppressed.
And that gives our admission of wrongdoing, or failure, a social context. Religion is about the loving relationship between the Creator, the creature and all of creation.
As stewards we are responsible for the well-being of each other and the earth. We have seriously neglected that responsibility by worrying about our own small peccadilos and turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the groaning of the earth and the clamour for justice of the outcasts.
Our choice is to be part of the liberation or to contribute to the ongoing injustice.
That is what the Old Testament prophets were ranting and raving about. They don't denounce worship as such, but they are critical of pious practices which serve as a cover to veil the gross societal malpractices.
The call for jubilee, forgiveness of debt, return of the land and the observance of a Sabbath should be seen in this light. This call is an opportunity for healing, a chance to take stock, come to our senses and correct oppressive structures which have denied people what is rightfully theirs: a just share in the bounty of God's creation.
This exclusion of the poor from the banquet table is not just a private sin but a public, collective and social sin. It involves each and every one of us.
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