“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew 6:12
Christmas was drawing near and as newcomers to our neighborhood, we thought it would be a nice gesture to take a gift of homemade Christmas cookies to each of our neighbors. We should have known better. Within hours of dispensing our holiday goodies, our doorbell started ringing. It was payback time. Through our unsolicited gifts, we had unintentionally obligated our neighbors to correspond in kind. Therefore, several of them responded to our meager gift by reciprocating with something of equal value. In Japan, no one wants to be put in the awkward position of indebtedness to someone else.
After many years of living in Japan, we were well aware of this value, but we didn’t think the rule would apply to a half dozen home made cookies that cost us almost nothing to produce. Instead, my wife’s cookies were received as works of art that were created through great personal sacrifice, so the principle of “kaesu” kicked in and each recipient felt indebted to match our gesture. Kaesu (返す) means literally “to return” or “give something back” to another person as there are other words that express the related concept of simply putting something back in place. In many cases, kaesu also has the underlying meaning of repaying a debt when you give something to return a favor.
Kaesu is a powerful force in Japan and accounts for much of the gift giving that is grounded more in the complex motives of obligation and duty, rather than uncomplicated generosity. The act of kaesu relieves one of lingering too long in the undesired position of being indebted to another person and serves to restores equilibrium in the relationship. This concept was vividly made real to me when I stopped one day to assist a woman who had been in a traffic accident and was desperately trying to retrieve her dog despite her own injuries. She profusely thanked me for my efforts and then I resumed my travel once the police and ambulance arrived. Less than 24 hours later, a package was delivered to our doorstep which contained some expensive cookies and a note of appreciation sent from the hospital. That was kaesu in action and a good reminder of the need for wisdom in walking the very fine line of genuinely helping people without unnecessarily placing the heavy burden of kaesu upon them. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but it is good to think through the possible repercussions of our well-intended actions.
Although the concept of indebtedness manifests itself differently from culture to culture, as a general principle, no one likes the idea of owing something to someone else for an extended period of time. Debts of both a financial nature and other forms can become a heavy burden that have the potential to harm relationships and restrict freedom. The most serious form of debt, though, is to sin against another person and God Himself. There is no simple kaesu in any culture for these kinds of deficits or transgressions. We may seek forgiveness of these debts through various means, but in the end, mercy plays a critical role in any such transaction. We certainly cannot easily erase our own personal debts and sins, but we have the power to offer forgiveness to others if we are so inclined. That is why Jesus taught His disciples to pray: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12) This act is a much higher form of kaesu, where something of much greater value is given without merit or any expectation of reciprocation. In any culture, that is called grace.