Word Study #188 — Debt, and Debtors

Here is another subject, much celebrated in song and sermon, that has absolutely no basis in any New Testament writings. Neither Jesus, nor any of his disciples, nor the apostles who took up his cause after the Resurrection, ever made any reference to his life or his death as accomplishing the “payment” of any sort of “debt”. We have seen, in the study of the cross (#34), the extensive and wonderful list of its achievements – but none of these include any reference to “debt.” All the “paid my debt and set me free” rhetoric is totally without New Testament precedent. Jesus’ single statement of giving his life as a “ransom”, noted in Mt.20:28 and Mk.10:45, and quoted in I Tim.2:6, is treated in the study of “redemption” (#61). It was a release from slavery or captivity. No “debt” is ever mentioned.
Debt is a legal and financial concept, and has nothing to do with “naughty” behavior. The penalty for failure to pay a debt could be prison (Lk.12:51) or slavery (Mt.18:25-34), but was never execution.
Nevertheless, there are important teachings regarding debt in both the gospels and the epistles, and these are usually overlooked, in favor of the more dramatic, made-up proclamation of payment that we hear more often.

We are here concerned with a single “family” of words: the verb opheilo, (L/S: financial debt, duty, or obligation), and the nouns opheiletes (debtor), opheile, and opheilema (indebtedness, or that which is owed). There does not appear to be any obvious lexical distinction between legal liability (as for tax) and less formal financing. Neither is there any lexical distinction between finance and other sorts of obligations or duties. These must be discerned from the context. Bauer suggests that the implied connection to “sin” (see #7) is of Aramaic, rabbinical origin, where it may have developed as a corollary to the acquisition of obligation by oath, as in Mt.23:16, the “picky details” of which Jesus rejected as utterly irrelevant. The incident recorded in Lk.7:41 is an illustration, not an equation.

Already under the old covenant (LXX), there had been careful instructions for the protection of a poor borrower. Dt.24:12 stipulates that he may not be abused nor intruded upon, and if he pledges a garment as collateral, it must be returned to him at nightfall. Dt.15:2 places a seven-year limit, after which a debt must be forgiven, and the exacting of interest is prohibited in Ex.22:25.
Most manuscripts refer to forgiveness of indebtedness in the Lord’s prayer (Mt.6 and Lk.11), although some substitute hamartia or paraptoma. Even when Peter specifically inquired about dealing with an offending brother (using hamartia), Jesus’ reply changes the focus of the conversation with a parable about debt (Mt.18:21). He did the same thing with Simon the Pharisee, when he criticized a “sinful woman” (Lk.7:39-43), and made a strong point in another parable that generosity received needs to be “passed on” by the recipient (Mt.18:23-35). Paul must have understood this message, and observed it in his very practical offer to Philemon on Onesimus’ behalf (Phm.18).

The epistles, however, seem primarily to turn from the sense of financial debt to that of obligation. There is no hint of having had all of one’s responsibilities “forgiven” or “taken away”! And these are represented by exactly the same vocabulary.
Paul speaks of himself as “indebted” to both Jew and Gentile in Rom.1:14, and clearly connects it to his preaching of the gospel message.
In Rom.8:12, he uses the same word to “declare independence” from slavery to the disciple’s former self-focused way of life,
and in Rom.15:27 of the obligation of brethren to provide for the practical needs of their poor compatriots in Jerusalem.
In his Corinthian letter, (I Cor.7:3,36) he applies the same word to marital responsibilities,
in Rom.13:7 to the payment of taxes, and
in Gal.5:3, as a warning that if one clings to any part of the Law, he incurs obligation to the whole thing.
Far better to heed his advice in Rom.13:8, to owe no one anything but brotherly love, which “fulfills the Law” by doing no wrong (v.10) to anyone. Laws are about prohibitions. Kingdom living is positive, not negative.

The most frequent New Testament translation of opheilo is “ought” (15x) – not phrased as the commandments of a new or revised Law, but simply identifying some of the characteristics of a changed life. It is to be expected that:
Jn.13:14 – disciples will offer one another the service of washing feet (see ch.11 of Citizens)
Ac.17:29 – they will not attribute human characteristics or failings to God
Rom.15:1 – they will bear the infirmities of the weak
I Cor.11:7,10 – they will observe the right and duty of participation for all, symbolized by the use of head coverings (Citizens, ch.13)
II Cor.12:11 – parents will care and provide for children
Eph.5:28 – husbands will love and care for their wives, as Christ does for the church
Heb.5:12 – They will “grow up”, and be teachers of others
I Jn.2:6 – they will “walk” [live] as Jesus did
I Jn.3:16 – they will lay down their lives for one another
III Jn.8 – they will welcome itinerant brethren.
This is not law: it is simply the culture of the Kingdom.

The primary principle to be derived from this survey is quite simple: ITS NOT ABOUT KEEPING SCORE!!! That was the obsession of people who were in bondage to the minutiae of the Law.
Faithful disciples of Jesus rather take their cues from the servant described in his parable recorded in Lk.17:7-10. The most meticulous obedience is “only what we ought to have done”.

“The one who keeps saying he’s living in relationship with him ought (opheile) to walk [live, behave] as he did!” (I Jn.2:6) – not as a “debtor”, under the threat of prison or slavery, but in gratitude for being included in the Kingdom – in the very family of the King!

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