Debt and the Economy of Jesus

This morning’s readings raise some serious financial questions. I’m mindful that many preachers don’t like to talk about money. Apart from “Stewardship Season” in the church, when we HAVE to talk about money because we are asking the congregation to fund the ministry, we don’t like to talk much about money in church. I’ve been told that in polite company you don’t talk about politics, money, or religion. Well, if you don’t want to hear about religion, you’re totally in the wrong place, and today you’re going to get a little bit of economics too.

This morning, from the Scriptures I want to make three points about economics, and particularly about debt. The first is simple: Debt can be hazardous to your spiritual health. Then I want to talk about Jesus’ approach to creditors. I’ll argue that if borrowing money can be spiritually hazardous, lending money can be morally precarious. Finally I want to talk about the unnamed woman, the named women, and Jesus’ economy.

Debt can be hazardous to your spiritual health:

In the Bible debt is most often found between the lines. When we read the story of Moses and the Exodus for example, what we miss sometimes is that the people Israel are in slavery because they are in debt. God’s rescue of the people is partly a rescue from debt. Debt, in scripture is problematic. Debt literally enslaves people in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Today debt does not literally place people in bondage, but figuratively many people in our society feel caught by debt. Debt can cause anxiety, depression. There are studies that link debt to physical maladies like obesity and even diabetes. Debt can consume our money, our time, and our freedom. Debt can be hazardous.

It can be dangerous to talk in generalities when it comes to debt. Borrowing is a necessity for many of us in a capitalist economy. It makes more financial sense for many people to own a home than to rent, and home ownership often means taking on debt. But not all debt is created equal. For some, debt makes certain economic sense. Manageable payments on a low interest fixed-rate mortgage are less hazardous to your health than high interest credit cards. Student loans that come with payback schemes that pin the amount due each month to your current income are even more attentive to the well-being of the borrower.

It is a symptom of our brokenness as a society that healthy debt most often belongs to upper middle class white families, and unhealthy debt most often traps poor people of color. Not all debt is created equal.

Jesus often speaks in parables, like our parable today, about debts being forgiven. In his first moment of public ministry, he reads from these Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah saying: I have proclaimed “the year of the Lord’s favor.” That sabbath year meant forgiveness of debt. Much of Jesus’ message of salvation is about literal release from financial slavery.

Justin Welby began his career in business. He was an executive at an oil company when he received a call to ministry, and unlikely path to priesthood for sure. In 2013 he became Archbishop of Canterbury. Early in his ministry announced that he wanted to close payday lenders. We’ve heard a lot about payday lenders lately. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has created new regulations to try to curb the abuses of high-interest lending locking people in cycles of debt.

But the Archbishop has said he isn’t going to try to legislate lenders out of business. Payday loans plug a hole in the economy. Sometimes people with less than perfect credit need money fast. Even if the government finds a way to close the storefronts, predatory lenders would find legal loopholes. Instead of trying to use the law, the Archbishop announced that he wanted to “out-compete” the lenders.

Archbishop Justin Welby is working with churches and charities across the United Kingdom to expand access to credit unions and credit counseling. He’s trying to get churches to host discussion groups to break the taboo about talking about money. Only by making space for an honest accounting of personal finances can we improve the financial health of our communities. He’s also asking churches to help people access more reasonable loans. In England he’s getting the church into the banking business. You can read more on his website

I know many of you at Holy Communion have a healthy bank account balance. But I also know that others in our congregation and our community struggle to pay credit cards, rent, student loans, and grocery bills. Later this summer I’m going to explore putting together our own course on financial health, following the example of Archbishop Justin. I know some of our members have had great success in such courses, organizing finances and getting out of debt. If we are going to be a healthy congregation, I think we have to be able to talk about money, and help some of our members to work their way out of debt.

I can’t think of a better way to make a concrete improvement in the emotional well-being of many in our community than to help them have less to worry about financially. Alleviating financial worries can set human beings free from anxiety and depression, which are toxic to the spiritual life. That toxicity is what can make certain kinds of debt a spiritually hazardous proposition.

But If borrowing money can be spiritually hazardous…

Lending money can be morally precarious:

When you look at Jesus’ discussions of wealth, he never talks about being in debt as sinful. Jesus equates forgiving debt with forgiving sin, but he doesn’t turn the idea around. Do not let your take home from today be that debt is sinful. Being in debt isn’t sinful. Debt can be hard to bear. Debt can stress us out, limit our ability to make decisions, but having a debt doesn’t make us sinners.

For Jesus, the morality of debt is a question put to the creditors. Our parable this morning in Luke has a cousin in Matthew chapter 18. You probably know it. Jesus again mentions a ruler who is owed a debt. The servant in debt owes millions, more than he can repay. The king forgives the debt entirely, and the servant rejoices. But as he leaves the palace he stops by a fellow servant’s house. It turns out the debtor is also a creditor. This other servant owes him money. He demands immediate repayment. The King gets word and is furious. How we treat our debtors figures large in Jesus teaching. One of the translations of the Lord’s prayer includes this line: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The best response, in Jesus mind, to a debtor is forgiving the debt.

Did you hear about John Oliver’s show last week on HBO? He had the biggest giveaway of any television show in history. He even topped Oprah Winfrey’s famous giveaway where she told her audience “You get a car, and you get a car, and you get a car.” John Oliver gave away almost $15 million, and he did it by forgiving debts.

How’d he do it?

Last week John Oliver’s news show focused on the practice of debt-buying in our economy. In a nutshell: many creditors today from Hospitals to Credit Card companies will sell past-due debts for pennies on the dollar. The companies who buy these debts then often employ loan sharks and collection agencies that threaten the safety and well-being of people who are in debt. Oliver played voicemail recordings from collection agents threatening to physically harm borrowers who were past due. Other creditors file lawsuits in court attempting to force payments through garnished wages.

One of the best definitions I know for sin is this: “Sin is that which diminishes the humanity of the other or my own humanity.” I can’t think of a more morally questionable job than “debt collector” for one of these agencies. Calling person after person each day to demand money, to threaten them with lawsuits and worse, that would be a tough job. It would wear on your soul.

So what did John Oliver do in response? He incorporated a new agency in the State of Mississippi. He didn’t even have to drive to Jackson to do it, he just filled out some forms online. Within a few days of forming his company, they were offered almost $15 million in hospital debt from Texas. They paid just $60 thousand for that debt. Legally Oliver could employ people to use the names, contact information, and social security numbers that came from his purchase to threaten the former patients. He could even file lawsuits demanding payment.

He didn’t. Instead he gave the debt to a charity. The medical debt was simply forgiven. That $15 million giveaway was the biggest in television history. And it only cost him $60 thousand.

We’ve created a financial system that can be morally bankrupt, and our practice of treating corporations as people has created an unhealthy distance between creditors and debtors. The abuses we see today are not unlike the abuses between Ahab, his wife Jezebel, and Naboth the vineyard owner. We take the humanity, we take the life, out of our financial dealings to our own peril. There’s a lot of “taking possession” in our economy, it’s not as direct as in first Kings, but the consequences are similar.

Jesus encourages creditors to see the humanity of their debtors. Jesus encourages us, whenever possible, to forgive debts, to alleviate suffering. We need to get a lot more humanity into our financial system. In our current system, lending money is morally precarious.

Finally, a word about the women.

I’ve focused on what may seem like a side issue in today’s Gospel. Jesus tells this story about debt to challenge Simon the pharisee’s about the unnamed woman who has crashed their dinner party. Simon, the wealthy and powerful teacher, believes that Jesus should see that an unclean and marginal woman should not be allowed to touch a rabbi’s feet. Jesus should know better. She is not worthy.

Jesus turns to Simon and says, “you didn’t give me water for my feet. You did not greet me with a kiss. You did not anoint my head with oil.” These were standard practices for welcoming a guest. Simon has disrespected Jesus. But the unclean woman has provided all of these standards, and more. Jesus seems to say, you’re focus is all wrong. You may have a fancy house, but how do you greet a visitor?

Jesus doesn’t rebuke the man for his wealth, but he doesn’t congratulate him either. It’s not about your address, or the kind of car you drive. With Jesus, money doesn’t buy you influence. And the kind of reputation that causes you to lose influence, well Jesus doesn’t respect society’s rules there either. This woman had Jesus’ attention.

The last line of our Gospel passage today is pretty radical. Luke reveals that Jesus has financial backers, very surprising financial supporters. A group of women are followers of Jesus. Mary Magdalene (note, she isn’t our sinful woman), Joanna, Susana, and many others. Women, who in Jesus’ day were not thought to have value, were providing for Jesus’ ministry.

This is the final bit I have to say about the economy in the eyes of Jesus this morning. In Jesus economy, everyone has value. The women, who society ignored, they funded his movement. Jesus didn’t count anyone out. Rich and poor. Woman and man. Roman or Jew. Gay or Straight. Clever, not so clever. Black, White, Latino, Asian. Able-bodied or physically disabled. Cisgendered or Trans. Everyone counts in Jesus’ economy. Everyone has value.

When I wrote this sermon, obviously we hadn’t had news about what happened in Orlando in the early hours of this morning. When I wrote this sermon the largest mass shooting in US history hadn’t yet occurred. I don’t have too much to say yet. We don’t have enough solid information. We don’t know too many details, but I couldn’t talk about Jesus’ economy where everyone has value without mentioning the way that the value of human life was disregard last night. The way it continues to be disregarded in discussions about gun laws that seem to go no where.

The one piece of hope I have to share is this: the shooting last night happened in a gay nightclub in Orlando. We’ve seen over the last years how quickly the LGBT community can mobilize for change. The gunman messed with the wrong community last night. If a coalition of black mothers and gay men and women rises up, we could change the tide on this discussion. We need the change the tide. We need to say that all life has value.

Our bank accounts are used too often today to count our value. It was true in the time of Ahab. It was true in the time of Jesus. Part of being followers of Jesus is to trying to re-evaluate, trying to see ourselves and to see others from a different point of view. You are not a failure just because you have debt. You can move toward a healthier financial and spiritual life. Don’t give up. You haven’t “arrived” just because you have accumulated wealth. You haven’t won. You don’t get to tell Jesus how the world works. Instead Jesus will ask you how your actions display your values. How can you invest in ways that make a difference in the lives of debtors, of those who suffer? Jesus’ economics challenge us all to demonstrate the values of justice, love, and yes even forgiveness.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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