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Tuesday, July 16th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Dictionaries
Debt, Debtor (2)

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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DEBT, DEBTOR.—The Jews, being an inland people, and not directly interested in the world’s trade, were slow to gain touch with the credit-systems of more commercial communities. But by Christ’s day their business ideas, modified already in part by the Phœnicians, are seen overlaid and radically affected by Roman domination. The people, on the one hand, as they listened to the reading of the Law in public, had the OT ideal before them, which was one of notable mildness, backed by humanitarian ordinances. Debt in their old national life had been regarded as a passing misfortune, rather than a basal element in trading conditions. In the popular mind it was associated with poverty (Exodus 22:25), a thing that came upon the husbandman, for instance, in bad seasons (Nehemiah 5:3). Being thus exceptional, and a subject for pity, little or no interest was to be exacted (Exodus 22:25), and a strict tariff excluded many things from the list of articles to be taken in pledge (Deuteronomy 24:6; Deuteronomy 24:17, Job 24:3, Amos 2:8, etc.), while in the Seventh or Fallow year (Exodus 23:10-11 ff., Leviticus 25:1-7), and again amid the joys of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:30 ff.), the poor debtor had ample reason to rejoice. There was harshness in the tone, on the other hand, of the Roman methods, which were developed more on the lines of modern commerce. Often the more impoverished the debtor, the greater the exaction, as Horace expressly puts it (Sat. 1, 2, 14), 5 per cent. a month (60 per cent. per annum) being cited by him as a rate of interest not unknown.

In the Gospels we have suggestions of the money-customs of the day at Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-18, Luke 19:45-48, and John 2:13-17. There are pictures of indebtedness in the parables of the Two Debtors (Luke 7:41-42), the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), and the Pounds (Luke 19:11-27). Lending and repaying are seen in practice at Luke 6:34; also a credit system at Luke 16:6-7, if the reference there be to merchants, and not simply to those who paid rents in kind. Imprisonment for debt appears in Matthew 5:25-26; and in unmitigated form in the story of the Two Creditors (Matthew 18:21-35), with selling into slavery, accompanied by the horror of ‘tormentors’ (Matthew 18:34), although the whole passage is to be interpreted with caution, because Jesus in the fancied features of His tale may be reflecting, not the manners of His own land, but the doings of some distant and barbaric potentate. Enough that in the time of Christ there was seizure of the debtor’s person, and the general treatment of him was cruel.

But whatever the law and custom, it was not the manner of Jesus to attack it. The civil code was left to change to higher forms in days to come. The exhibition of a certain spirit in face of it was what His heart craved, a spirit which should do justice to the best instincts of a true humanity. We can transcend in loving ways the nether aims even of bad laws; and it was the evasion of clear duty in this respect, by those in the high places of the religious world, which moved Jesus most. He was the champion of the merciful essence of the old enactments (Matthew 5:17), while others around Him, prating of orthodoxy the while, were harsh to those unfortunately in their power (Matthew 23:14), all in the name of an ancient law whose real inwardness they missed. The Sadducees, whose love of money was whetted by enjoyment of the Temple dues, were not the men to show mercy to a debtor, nor were the Pharisees behind them, more Puritanic in zeal, and rigidly enforcing the letter of their writs. ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ (Matthew 5:38), as an old catchword, would infect the spirit in which, in the name of ‘righteousness,’ they complacently sued. Jesus lays down no outward rules such as might bear upon the modern business world. There fair and square dealing must be a first postulate; but, in the light of His gospel, men should be keener than they are to note hardships, and their hearts warmer towards cases of distress. In the spirit of the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31-36) merciful dealings will show themselves in undefined ways; and the love of brothermen should counteract the love of money which prompts to stem exactions in every case alike. The soul saved by Christian feeling from sordid views of life adds to its true treasure by making the circumstances of unfortunate ones an exercise-ground for tender, pitying grace. The metaphors of Jesus in Matthew 5:39-42 are exceeding bold, and the generous treatment there inculcated may sound almost incredible, not to say subversive of social order; but the enlightened heart will recognize at once the kindly and sacrificing spirit meant to be strongly emphasized. The dynamic in the whole matter, with Jesus, is the remembrance of the pitiful nature of our own plight before God, to whom on the strict requirements of law we are indebted in countless ways. The more this inward situation is brought home to us, the more we shall outwardly be compassionate in turn. Here comes in the moral grandeur of the Beatitude on mercy (Matthew 5:7), a principle which melts into prayer when we connect it with the tender breathing of the Petition on forgiveness (Matthew 6:12). The humble and the contrite heart holds the key to magnanimity. See, further, art. ‘Debt’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible.

Debtor.—There remains the question of debt as the emblem of moral short-coming (ὁφείλημα, Matthew 6:12. See Lord’s Prayer), and the Supreme Creditor’s way with men in this regard, especially as depicted in certain well-known parables. The image is natural which pictures the Deity sitting like a civil judge, to try men for defaults; and while some think more of the majesty of the law, and what must be exacted to satisfy the interests of order, others love to dwell on the prerogative of mercy, and favour judgments which are ameliorative as well as punitive. No reader of the Gospels can fail to see the latter characteristic strong in the teaching of the Master. Pardon befits the royal clemency, and God is known in the kingdom for sovereign displays of grace. Yet due weight is given to the other aspect of the image also—the satisfaction of the law; for Jesus teaches that it is only the pure in heart who see God (Matthew 5:8); the holiness that avails must be inward, not that of the legalist (Matthew 5:20), and only they who are merciful obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7). But what is characteristic in the Gospel treatment of the subject is not any dwelling upon absolute judgments—these are left to the Searcher of Hearts; rather we are taken by Jesus to the sphere of proximate evidence, and shown that in the individual life the presence or absence of the forgiving spirit is sure token of the presence or absence of the Divine condescension as regards the person himself. In other words, principles discovered in the relations of men with each other are a fortiori valid for their relationship to God (Matthew 6:14-15).

The elder brother of the Prodigal (Luke 15:25-32) illustrates the point; representing as he does the Pharisaic type of mind—common in all ages and pronouncedly so in the time of Jesus—which complacently fancies itself well within the Kingdom, but shows by its harsh attitude to fellow-mortals that it is inwardly not right with God. The elder brother is pictured, not without point, as remaining outside the banquet-hall, so long as he continued in his implacable mood.

The story of the Two Debtors (Luke 7:36-50) shows the vital contrast of the matter in the persons of the Woman who was a Sinner—truly gracious in her doings, because full now of penitence and faith and love—and Simon, hide-bound and censorious like his class, with no disciplined sense of having been humbled like her before God. The latter, like the debtor of the trivial fifty pence, had little reaction of wholesome feeling in his mind; the former had manifestly much, like the man over-joyed to find himself relieved from a financial peril ten times greater. This is a concrete instance of the method of the Master. Certain visible acts of the woman at the banquet bespoke the inward action of God’s Spirit, and argued a state of reconciliation with Him. From the scanty graciousness of Simon, on the other hand, one inferred just as truly a heart imperfectly attuned to goodness, and knowing little of the joy of pardon. ‘To whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little’ (Luke 7:47). As to which is the root and which the fruit, rival systems of theology may battle; but the fact is, the two graces are eternal co-relatives, and either may be first in the order of thought when neither is entitled to absolute precedence in fact. See Forgiveness.

The parable of the Two Creditors (Matthew 18:23-35) shows the other side of the shield from the Woman’s case, in a person of downright inhumanity concerning whom it is equally clear that he had no saving experience of God’s mercy himself. The story, as a story, is remarkable for simple force; we feel the horror of the implacable attitude of the servant forgiven for a great indebtedness, who failed to show goodwill in turn to a subordinate for a default infinitely less. Nemesis descends (Matthew 18:34) when he finds he is not forgiven after all—he loses that which he had seemed to have (Matthew 18:27). ‘So likewise shall my Heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses’ (Matthew 18:35).

Jesus saw many around Him glorying in fancied privilege and very zealous for the Law, yet omitting its essential matters—justice, mercy, faith. To such especially this Gospel message was addressed; broadening out in what for Him was the supreme truth, that love to God is seen and tested in love to man. To be sympathetic, sacrificing, generous, is not only the pier from which the heavenward arch springs, but the pier to which it returns. The forgiving God cannot possibly be seen in those who hide themselves from their own flesh (Luke 6:36).

Literature.—Besides art. ‘Debt’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, the Comm. on the passages referred to, and the standard works on the Parables, the following may be consulted:—Edersheim, Life and Times, ii. p. 268 ff.; Schurer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. 1. 362f.; Expositor, i. vi. (1877) p. 214 ff.; Ker, Serm. 1st ser. p. 16 ff.

George Murray.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Debt, Debtor (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​d/debt-debtor-2.html. 1906-1918.
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