Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Forgiving Debts

"And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matthew 6:7-17)

My last post was on a book far beyond my area of expertise - a reflection on Poor Economics. One memorable portion of that book is devoted to the topic of debt and what it does in the lives of the poor.If you are barely making it - and if what comes in each week is what goes out each week, you can survive even if you are cutting it extremely close. But if you have no safety-net for the surprises that life brings such as illness, or a period of unemployment, or a "natural" disaster, then sooner rather than later the bottom is likely to fall out from underneath you. The cycle that arises when one faces such catastrophes and then gets indebted is truly a vicious one. While the precariousness of the poor is the focus of Poor Economics, this challenge is nearly as stressful for people who find themselves burdened with college debt or an under-water mortgage or credit card debt as well.  As a person who has served in suburban middle-class contexts in my ministry, I have seen first-hand what financial debt does to families. As Dickens put it succinctly in David Copperfield: 
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.
Jesus talked a lot about money - way more than we ever do in church. He talked about real life, not just "spiritual" concerns. And money is a big part of our lives. He talked about abundance and generosity and he talked about how money can become an idol that seeks to take the place of God. But he also spoke a lot about debt. As a Jew, he surely had a deep awareness of Leviticus 25 - which is clearly referenced at the start of his ministry (along with the prophet Isaiah) in Luke 4:19.

In college I only took intro courses in macroeconomics and microeconomics. I was an English major who was blessed to have one teacher in particular who pushed us hard to read the text - and before coming up with wild metaphorical readings (as undergrads are wont to do!) to stay close to the text itself. That has stayed with me as a student of the Bible and as a preacher for these many years now. There are lots of metaphorical ways to talk about debt forgiveness, of Christ paying the "debt" for our sins and all the rest. But before it is a metaphor, it behooves us to linger on real, literal debt for a while. Otherwise the metaphor floats in mid-air.

What does crippling debt - real debt, financial debt, money problems - what does this do to people's lives day in and day out? If you are living on $1.00 a day and then your child gets sick, what happens to your hopes and dreams and aspirations over the course of a year as you struggle to find a way to pay for even the most basic medicines? And since the third-world feels far away to many of us - what happens when you graduate from college with $100,000 in debt and can't find a job, so you end up asking the grocery store that hired you in high school if you can bag groceries for a while? How long can that be sustained? What happens when your mortgage goes underwater, or your credit card debt is beyond the point of no return?

I confess that I don't live with any of these worries. My immediate family has been blessed - so far - to be able to live within our means and even save a little for our future and share a little in the present. Debt is not a consuming worry in my life. But I know people, not only halfway around the world but in my neighborhood and workplace for whom it is.

What would it look like for us to be a more debt-forgiving people? And then, after practicing a while with money, to move on to other kinds of forgiveness as well?

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