I was teasing a colleague who was about to turn fifty and wasn’t sure how he felt about it.
“Fifty is your jubilee year,” I encouraged, referring to a celebration commanded in the Hebrew Bible.
“Wasn’t that the year when debts were forgiven?” he asked. “Maybe I should try explaining it to the bank that holds my mortgage. I wonder how far that would go.”
That conversation got me thinking about the Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6:9–13. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” Jesus instructed his followers to pray. Many of us are familiar with older translations that use the word “transgressions.” When we use the word debts, we’re not talking about financial obligations here.
Forgive as we have been forgiven. In a parable in Matthew 18:21–35, Jesus uses a story to highlight the need to forgive others, knowing how much we ourselves have been forgiven. Peter asks if he needs to forgive a brother as many as seven times, and Jesus responds with hyperbole: seventy-seven, or seventy times seven, times.
Jesus then tells of a slave who owed his master the king more money than he could ever repay. In a time when a wage earner might amass a talent of money after fifteen years of labor, this man owed 10,000 talents. The king excused the debt, but the man left and demanded another slave pay a debt of 100 denarii, or 100 days’ wages. He has no pity on the man, and has him tossed into debtor’s prison. The story gets back to the king, who repents of his earlier generosity and has the first slave given over to be tortured.
I’ve been thinking about the need for forgiveness, the way we are to forgive not only others, but also ourselves. Many of us continue to torture ourselves with debts large and small from our past. We don’t feel forgiven, and we don’t feel we deserve forgiveness. We would never treat a friend the way we treat ourselves, never speak to a friend who’d asked forgiveness the way we talk to ourselves in our heads. We forget that God is merciful as well as righteous, that it is God’s gracious perogative to forgive huge debts (or transgressions) that we could never repay.
I had a counselor once tell me I was pulling a very heavy red wagon along behind me, with all the unforgiveness stacked up and weighing it down. Over several months of work together, she helped me unload that wagon and forgive, not only others, but myself.
Fifty is indeed the jubilee year, a time of forgiving debts. But any year in our faith lives can be a jubilee year as we set captives free and release heavy obligations. Even if we are our own jailers, as well as the captives.