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The year of the Lord's favour

Drawn graphics of men and women in windows passing a hot drink, box of food and comforting another.
Paul Williams

Bible Society CEO, with a desire to see Church’s mission reimagined for a post-Christian world.

Having collaborated on multiple projects, we’ve built a great friendship with the Bible Society. We’re delighted to welcome their CEO, Paul Williams, as our guest writer this issue. 

(Average read time: 5 minutes)

Perhaps you might find the following version of the Lord’s Prayer on forgiveness both familiar and also strange: Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors’. Most of us are used to asking for our sins to be forgiven, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. In fact, debt’ is a good translation of the underlying Greek word opheílēma – a debt or obligation.

Luke’s version of this line in the Lord’s Prayer includes two different words; the one used twice in Matthew and another – hamartía – which is the New Testament’s primary word for sin. In the English Standard Version, Luke 11:4 reads: Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us’. The existence of these two versions of the Lord’s Prayer underlines what a close connection is being made between sin and debt.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. 

Luke 4:18

This is not to say that debt is sinful or that debtors are therefore sinners. It means that when we sin, we owe God something, and it encourages generosity with material debts just as we have received God’s generosity concerning our spiritual indebtedness.

Think about the famous words that Jesus uses to launch his public ministry in Nazareth, recorded in Luke 4:18–19 (NIV): The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. Jesus is bringing good news to the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. He has also come for the rich, free and powerful – but often the relatively wealthy and powerful are depicted as struggling to accept his message. 

The same is true of those original hearers of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth. They are outraged when Jesus reminds them that God went to the foreign widow and a foreigner with leprosy because the prophets were not received in Israel. These texts speak about our awareness of our need of God, and how that awareness makes it easier for us to receive from God. Those who know their material needs may be more aware of their spiritual needs. The challenge of Jesus’ teaching to those who are materially rich, free, healthy and powerful is whether they are aware of their indebtedness – the massive obligation to God and the constant need of grace and forgiveness common to all of us. 

Those who know their material needs may be more aware of their spiritual needs. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m keen to avoid receiving the rebuke that the Christians in Laodicea received (Revelation 3:17 NIV): You say, I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing”. But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked’.

The abundant life that Jesus came to bring also includes abundance and fruitfulness in our work, family, relationships and finances. It’s not a prosperity gospel in which wealth somehow proves our right standing with God or that God owes us something, but a gospel of freedom, dignity, health and sufficiency. We’re meant to think of Eden, where relationships with God and one another were whole, work involved cultivating the earth in the service of God, and there was no debt or poverty. The Fall came about because of our unwillingness to trust God. 

The gospel is the offer of a fresh start for humanity, with all our debts to God cancelled. 

Alienation from God, each other, and oppression and exploitation in and out of the workplace followed. Suddenly indebtedness, poverty and enslavement became all too possible. The core of Israel’s story begins in this state of slavery: oppressive work, never leading to growth or fruitfulness, and a growing sense of desperation and powerlessness. This feeling isn’t dissimilar to the experience of millions of people in the UK today. Like the Israelites, they groan and cry out in their misery – and their cry goes up to God (see Exodus 2:23).

When God led the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, the Israelites were given detailed instructions on how to organise their work and finances to preserve relationships and community and minimise inequality, poverty and indebtedness. At the centre of these was the Jubilee’ – a set of institutions designed to prevent a return to the economic slavery of Egypt’. Even if things went horribly wrong, because of difficult circumstances or bad choices, there was a reset mechanism. It reminded everyone of their original mighty deliverance by God from slavery in Egypt. It culminated in the Year of the Lord’s Favour.’ This is what Jesus is referring to in Luke 4. The gospel is the offer of a fresh start for humanity, with all our massive debts to God cancelled and with an incredible inheritance given to us to enter into.

When those in debt in our society today encounter a genuinely unconditional intervention to help them become debt free and to restore their dignity and relationships, they experience a small sign of this divine generosity. 

We shouldn’t be surprised if sometimes they recognise its source. But in the acknowledgement of their need, and their relief, joy and gratitude at receiving help, we might see a reminder of our own standing before God – a sign of the presence of the humble Saviour in the midst of those our society too often rejects.

Read more about CAP’s vision and values

Our vision
Ruth holding a sign that reads 'There is so much need. I'm at my limit.'
Ruth, Co-Debt Centre Manager

We urgently need your support to reach every person in poverty.

Ruth holding a sign that reads 'There is so much need. I'm at my limit.'