Counting Out the Bills

Sometimes life offers us parables better than those we could invent ourselves, offering us pictures, stories, glimmers of grace, offering us a language to speak of the Gospel in fresh ways unsullied by dry repetition. Friends, we never move past this hope of the Gospel; we never graduate from it onto “bigger and better things.” It calls us deeper and deeper into its mystery; its riches are unending.

Scott and I recently watched a documentary about the work of his boss, Marian, in fighting slavery in Nepal. He sat with low caste Hindu slaves and their owners, listening to stories of how they and their families found themselves enslaved. For many, they sold themselves into slavery in order to pay for medical bills or because their circumstances were so dire that slavery was the only alternative to watching their children starve. Some were there as a result of debts that deceased fathers or grandfathers had accrued, which they had to work off in their stead. The price of these human lives, the sum of their debt, typically $100-300 U.S. dollars, was a price insurmountable to them. Tears came to my eyes as I watched Marian counting bills one by one, the exact amount they owed, into the slaves’ hands, and their extreme joy and disbelief as they handed the bills to their owner and shook hands with him, finally freed. Marian helped these families find homes and work, either in the form of land to farm or supplies to start a small business. His request in return: that they live in such a way as to never allow themselves and their families to become slaves again.

This picture evokes what is one of my favorite words—redeem—which quite literally means “to buy back.” Someone, like Marian, takes an interest in and has compassion on his fellow man, who is in great need, enslaved or indebted, powerless to do anything to free himself, and he takes out his own money and gives it to the slave master. It is not his debt to pay; it is of no consequence to his own life and freedom, but he makes it his business to pay the price required for the freedom of a man, a woman, a child who is enslaved.

This is the most powerful picture to me of what Jesus did on that tortuous Roman form of execution, the cross, 2,000 years ago, on a hill outside of Jerusalem. His death was the action of counting out the bills one by one, putting them into the hands of the slave master, buying back our freedom. Even more than that, it was him offering to take our place as a slave, exchanging his freedom for our bondage. The broken bits of our lives, our relationships, our world, the multitude of ways in which we are surrounded by things “not right”—you could say that in this way we are slaves, powerless on our own to come up with the payment to free ourselves from the brokenness in our world and in ourselves, powerless to stop the unrelenting cycle of mistakes, unrealized hopes, and pain in its various forms. We needed someone to come and act on our behalf, and that someone was Jesus. His death paid our debt in full.

But he did not stop there. With his resurrection, he put the slave master out of business, so to speak; he broke the control of our slave masters of physical death, natural decay, conflict, sin, separation from God—all of the facets of the broken pieces of our world that are “not right.”

We can experience a great measure of this bought freedom now, as we look to Jesus as our liberator, and allow him to set us up in a “new home,” with “new work” to do. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this bought freedom is not yet fully realized. We could say that our debts are fully paid, but our freedom not yet fully experienced in its perfection—or that while our freedom is completely sealed, our former slave masters are scrambling on borrowed time, coming closer and closer being permanently cast away to never enslave anyone again.

Amen, come Lord Jesus.

If you want to learn more about the documentary, "Captives," go to their website: or watch the trailer below.