How Should We Manage Our Debts?
- Thursday, September 25, 2008
British economist John Maynard Keynes suggested that if you owe the bank a dollar you have a problem; but if you owe the bank a million dollars, then the bank has a problem. Brazil’s finance minister a few years back added, “And if you’re Brazil, then you own the bank!” U.S. banks had sunk so much money into Latin American economies that the reality was they were beholden to the finance ministers. They had to work out a deal to solve the debt crisis.
Individuals also borrow money against their assets, usually their home. And when you deposit your paycheck into the bank, you have created a debt, because the bank now owes you what you deposited. Your asset becomes the bank’s liability. Your credit card debts, on the other hand, become the assets of your bank or card issuer. Our financial situation is tied to our reputation for keeping up with these payments because our borrowing power is based on our previous record of repaying loans or bills.
The fragility of debt is a big picture and small picture thing. The big picture is that we may be living in an economic bubble, and history teaches us that all economic bubbles burst. If this happens, many of us will be in deep trouble. The small picture is that people also experience their own personal bubble. The bubble bursts when they lose their job, get a divorce, and so on. Meanwhile everyone is carrying on business as usual. Debt, essentially, is a relational issue. If you run into trouble, your best recourse is to talk to your creditors. They can help you plan a way out of the problem.
If we ignore our debt we can get drawn into its centrifugal force, swallowed up by higher interest payments. We can get manipulated by loan sharks, becoming hopelessly mired in debt and in need of rescue. The problem is not interest per se, but the abuse of the charges. If you act responsibly, you can manage your debt. If you get drawn in too deep, however, then you will be open to abuse.
The question of interest was no different when Jesus told this parable. He used an example of someone in a lot of debt—definitely up to his eyeballs! The sum Jesus uses is vast on purpose. Ten thousand talents, millions of dollars, was clearly too much for the servant to repay the king. He has little to fall back on, and even selling himself and his wife and children into slavery will not fix the problem. All the man can do is beg to be released from the debt, which the king does with compassion. What does the forgiven servant do in response? Unrepentant for his own indebtedness, he demands one hundred denarii owed by a fellow servant. This is such a trivial amount compared to his own debt, yet he has the other servant thrown into jail until he could repay the debt. Such ingratitude!
We learn the real value of forgiveness in this parable. We can look around us and see all the wonderful things we have. We can wonder at the world created to sustain us. We can stand in awe at the marvelous things God has given us. We can turn to ourselves and see how little we have to give in return. Yet God does not demand much from us, only that we give ourselves to him in faith. This is the set of spiritual accounts God keeps with us, and we are up to our eyeballs in debt!
Why does Jesus tell us this story to explain forgiveness? Because, as 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “The love of money [the love of money, not money itself—as some folks misquote Paul] is a root of all kinds of evil.” If we love money or possessions too much, then we will never be generous with them. We will try to hold on to our money and possessions more than we hold on to Christ. Jesus knows this. He knows what hold our money and possessions have on us.
If we have enough money and possessions, then we are more able to be generous. We see how wealthy people can be generous by running charity events and setting up foundations. It is good they do this work. However—and with Jesus there is always a however—such generosity will not buy the wealthy a place at the Lord’s table. Only faith can do that. Faith will also make us generous, no matter how little we may have. Remember the widow’s mite? How little she had, yet how generous she was with so little.
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