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Sin a History - Part 2: The Metaphor of Sin as Debt and the New Testament

When we see that the primary metaphor for sin in the second temple period was sin as a debt owed to God, our understanding of several New Testament passages is clarified. For example, we now understand more clearly why the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew has the line, ‘forgive us our debts.’ In Greek, ‘debts’ has no notion of sin attached to it. However that translation makes sense as a literal rendering of what Jesus said, especially considering that Matthew was probably written to a Jewish audience (and Luke’s translation of ‘forgive us our sins’ would be clearer to the non-Jewish that he wrote to). This also clarifies why Jesus chooses the theme of debt in his parable of the unmerciful servant.

An even more significant clarification comes related to Colossians 2:13-14, ‘13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.’ (TNIV). There has been much debate about the identity of the ‘charge of our legal indebtedness’ of verse 14. The NIV has ‘written code’ probably referring to the Mosaic Law and the NRSV has, simply, ‘record’ which probably has in view a list of sins kept by God. If sin is best understood as a debt before God, then the scale is tipped decisively in favor of ‘charge of our legal indebtedness.’ On the cross, Christ made satisfaction for our debt before God.

Given this understanding of sin as a debt, it’s not hard to imagine that almsgiving could be seen as a positive thing to counteract debt by amassing treasure in heaven. We find that this is precisely the case in the rabbis and early Christian literature. This is grounded in the assumption that almsgiving is an expression of one’s faith in God, that he will reward for the good done in this life. This impinges interestingly on the New Testament in a few spots, one of which Anderson examines at length (167-178); the story of the rich young man as found in Mark 10:17-30. Anderson tackles three major questions related to the story and we’ll look at one of them by citing Anderson at length:
The second question concerned why Jesus felt the need to add another commandment to the six he drew from the Ten Commandments in order to see whether the young man was worthy of the Kingdom of God. To answer this, recall the opening line of m. Peah, which I paraphrase: “These are the commandments that have no fixed level of observance.” If one of the distinctive features of almsgiving is the opportunity to distinguish oneself through generosity, then it is not surprising that Jesus would advise a prospective disciple to do just that. As the text recounts, the young man was able to keep the “second table” with seemingly little effort. After all, it is not that difficult to abstain from murder, adultery, theft, and fraud. But Jesus was looking for an additional command that would allow the man’s true love for God to surface. And almsgiving was just such a command (177).
How much one is willing to give to the poor, especially if you are wealthy was used as a gauge to see how much you love and trust God. This then clarifies why Paul is exhorted by the apostles not to forget the poor (Gal. 2:10) and why the collection for the poor Christians in Jerusalem was so important to Paul as shown by the amount of time and emotion spent in 2 Cor. 8-9 to try to get the Corinthians to participate (and also shows why, compared to Paul, they had such a blasé attitude about the collection, since almsgiving was of little importance in Greco-Roman society in comparison to Judaism and early Christianity).

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