For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? (Mark 8:36-37)
The Bible, especially the New Testament takes some of its imagery for the spiritual life from the business world – from bartering, selling, trading, profit making, an exchange of goods and services, commercial transactions. But, at least according to some biblical scholars, the use of financial transactions as a metaphor for the spiritual life is something that develops over time in Israel eventually becoming common place by the time of the New Testament.
One area where the difference between Biblical and Second Temple Hebrew is rather dramatic is that of sin. During the Second Temple period (516BCE to 70AD) it became common to refer to the sins of an individual or a nation as the accrual of a debt. This explains the diction of the Our Father, “forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12). The metaphor of sin as a debt is rarely attested in the bulk of the Hebrew Bible. But as soon as it became a commonplace to view a sin as a debt—and this took place early in the Second Temple period—it became natural to conceive of virtuous activity as a merit or credit. (Gary Anderson, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis, Kindle Loc 3901-3907)
Indeed, numerous Church Fathers explain the value of giving in charity in terms of debt – our gifts to the poor and needed are “regifted” as a loan to God, and God will repay us in His Kingdom for all the charity we gave during our lifetime. “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17). Giving in charity thus makes God indebted to us. God will make good on this loan. The imagery was used not rigidly to declare there is a Karma governing even God, but, rather to help us understand that our acts of charity, kindness, mercy, forgiveness are not our loss or to our detriment but ultimately benefit us in God’s Kingdom. We are in charity not giving up things or giving away thing or impoverishing ourselves – we are providing for our future with God. We are putting money in our retirement fund, saving up for that future. “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4).
Scholar Gary Anderson notes in St Ephrem’s hymns, this language is common. St Ephrem (d. 373AD) says:
He Who is Lord of all, gives us all, And He Who is Enricher of all, borrows from all. He is Giver of all as one without needs. Yet He borrows back again as one deprived. He gave cattle and sheep as Creator, But on the other hand, He sought sacrifices as one deprived. (Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis, Kindle Loc 4322-4327)
God gives us everything – the entire cosmos. We are stewards of His varied graces and as such we “owe” God all that we do in the world. We are indebted to God because God has given us everything. When we fail to recognize we are living on borrowed time, ‘renting” space on the planet, and using God’s resources, we become indebted to God because we are not giving God His due. God allows us to use what God has given us, but we are obligated to give back to God from our blessings since we really are the stewards of these borrowed things, not the owner. As St Basil the Great (d. 379AD) wrote, the Lord “’did not instruct us to throw away possessions as evil and flee them, but to administer them‘ (Sh. Rul. 92; 323)” (Stephen M. Hildebrand, Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc 3203-3205). God trusts us and entrusts to us God’s creation to use to His glory. To be fully human we have to see ourselves as thus being obligated to serving God. We should treat as precious life and creation because they are God’s prized possessions.
What do we owe God? Everything, though God in the Old Testament is willing to accept a tithe from what we produce. The Lord Jesus in speaking about love seems to lift the 10% payback limit and says that we are to give in love for God and neighbor. Love can’t be quantified. Anderson points out that St Ephrem uses the imagery of commercial exchange and praises it. As Ephrem says in one of his hymns:
Give thanks to him who brought the blessing and took from us the prayer.
For he made the one worthy of worship descend
And made our worship of him ascend.
For he gave us divinity
And we gave him humanity.
He brought us a promise
And we gave him the faith Of Abraham, his friend.
For we have given him our alms on loan
In turn, let us demand their repayment. (Hymns on Faith 5.17)
(Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis, Kindle Loc 4336-4344)
The good things we do are a spiritual exchange. We are constantly doing these spiritual commercial transactions with God. God gives us His blessings and we in turn offer God our prayer. God sends His Son to become incarnate and we give to Him our humanity. God gives us seed, sun and rain – we in turn grow wheat and grapes and offer to God bread and wine. God accepts our offering and transfigures it into the Body and Blood of Christ. We receive this Holy Communion as we offer thanksgiving to God.
We are constantly interacting with God and co-creating with God, turning the natural resources God has provided to us into means for our union with God, and for transfiguration by God into communion with God. And note the audacious boldness of St Ephrem’s hymn: “In turn, let us demand their repayment.” We don’t merely ask or beg God’s help, we can demand it! If we have done our part, we can demand from God that God upholds His part of the promise, the bargain, the transaction. “Lord have mercy!” is not a plaintive and helpless cry, but a command to God to do what you have promised because we have done what you asked of us. But, of course, we can only demand if we actually did what we were supposed to do.
And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:12-15)
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:37-38)
[See also my post: The Wages of Sin is Death. What are the Wages for Taking Up the Cross?}