Gospel Matters: The debt of sin

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Home > Media > News > Gospel Matters: The debt of sin
Gospel Matters: The debt of sin

By Dr Christine Wood, Director of the Office of Evangelisation & Catechesis

Justice is a curious thing: we all want what is justly due to us, but we balk when we consider what it takes to repair the damage that our ‘mistakes’ inflict upon others, the world, or God.

Our sins or ‘moral mistakes’ are often considered to have ‘missed the mark’ of right acting, thinking, or loving. But the Bible reveals another way of considering sin.

Towards the end of the Babylonian Exile, Isaiah the prophet sends comforting words to exiled Israel that her liberation is imminent, that “her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa 40:2). Implicit here is the notion that sin incurs a debt that must be paid off. Physical punishments were a way to pay for one’s crimes.

The post-Exilic concept of sin as a debt rose to prominence because the Aramaic word for ‘sin’ implied this concept. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus speaks of sin in terms of debt. Arguably, this mercantile metaphor was the most common way of speaking of sin in first-century Palestine.

Jesus warns us that we should settle our debts before we face the judge who will throw us into prison “until we have paid the very last penny” (Lk 12:59). In the ancient world, if thrown into a debtor’s prison, you could work off the debt by punishment, or a friend or family member could repay it on your behalf. 

Drawing upon the idea of sin as incurring debt, Jesus warns us not only to reconcile with God and our neighbours, but also to repay the debt due to our sins before we face God, our Judge. In a certain sense, purgatory could be considered a sort of spiritual debtor’s prison.

Almsgiving and prayer are two traditional Christian means of wiping out one’s debt of sin. But it’s significant that in November, the month dedicated to praying for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, we focus on giving alms and praying on their behalf that they may be freed of their sins.

Effectively, we can show mercy towards the Holy Souls by reducing their spiritual debt. In return, these souls will be keen advocates for us in heaven. The parable of the dishonest steward (Lk 16:8) seems to indicate this sort of mercy shown towards debtors.

The souls in purgatory await their final transformation to holiness. They retain a debt of sin that must be paid. As their friends in Christ, let’s consider offering special Masses, prayers, or alms for them this November.