Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors

As more and more people drown in debt ranging from school loans to mortgage debt and find it harder and harder to start, much less support families, the suggestion that debt be forgiven is reliably attacked by the Greatest Christians of All Time with reliably stupid arguments like “That is an insult to my generation, who paid off our loans!” (just as vaccines are an insult to my generation, who went ahead and died of polio to weed out the weak). Listening to Christians talking about never ever forgiving debt puts me in mind of this little witticism:

It also puts me even more in mind of this story by, you know, the Son of the Living God applicable to every MAGA antichrist worshipper who struts around declaring that he is forgiven all his sins while also telling desperate people in debt up to their eyeballs with student loans “I will not part with one damn penny in taxes to help parasites like you out and if you drown, too bad”:

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Mt 18:23–35)

Picky people will remark that Jesus is talking about the forgiveness of sins, not the forgiveness of economic debt, but I reply that this is a distinction without a difference. Forgive us our sins and forgive us our debts are ideas in Scripture which are, if not synonymous, then such close rhymes that there is no daylight between them, which is precisely why Jesus so habitually uses economic debt as a image of moral debt again and again.

Jesus’ only interest in money in the gospels is in how it can be used to help other people and advance the Kingdom of God. He urges us to be generous with it, telling us, not to get a fat return on loans, but to be sure that we give to people who can never ever repay us. Our material gifts, like our spiritual ones, belong not to us but to those who need them. As St. John Chrysostem puts it in a haunting formulation, “The rich exist for the sake of the poor. The poor exist for the salvation of the rich.”

So when face an opportunity to eliminate grotesque amounts of debt and set young people free to start families and become contributors to the community and not slaves to loan sharks, the response of every Christian should be, “What can we do to make this happen?” not “I’ve got mine. Screw you.” But that is, in fact, the response of the conservative Christian as a rule, even when that screams to non-believers that, as a matter of fact, we do serve Mammon, not God. To such wretched witnesses, demanding “Forgive me my debts, but screw my debtors”, Jesus says:

“He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Lk 16:10–13).

Our excess wealth is not our own. We should be striving to find ways to give it to those who need it, not hoarding it while looking down our noses at those drowning in debt.


6 Responses

  1. In at least two other Germanic languages, Dutch and German, the word ”schuld” means both guilt/sin, as well as debt. Guilt itself, in English, originally most likely also had a monetary meaning.

    Capitalism, having divorced rent and debt from any moral constraints, except the obligation to pay up, is, at least in this respect, a radical departure from earlier thought, both Christian and pagan.

  2. Mark, I think the issue here is a little more complex. One question is the issue of usury, which the church still condems. Second, we seem to have a system that encourages people to go into debt – to take on mortgages they can’t afford and get student loans for college which probably doesn’t benefit most people (unless say you are getting a skill such as engineering or need a four year degree to go to law school and medical school).

    Can you find a source for the St. John C. quote?

  3. If anybody is to forgive/ pay off the debt, shouldn’t it be mainly the colleges and universities? They contracted with the students – a large tuition in return for marketable skills and knowledge. If students can’t find jobs maybe they didn’t get what they paid for. Of course many have ridiculous majors like gender studies for which there is no market. Should we pay the debts for those who lose big in Vegas? Where does it end?

    1. I think it’s useful to view the problem from a different angle. If you’re not a Christian, or one not down with its social teachings, as many Americans are not, analyze the problem from a purely selfish and unsentimental standpoint. If you do, you will come to the same conclusion. Let’s say students and other people who are hard up have no entitlement whatsoever to debt relief. You might feel they brought it upon themselves, and you may be right.

      It’s still stupid and self-defeating to let them suffer under that burden. When we allow a 21 year old kid to be buried under six figure debt that they can’t possibly pay off until late middle age, we as a society are only hurting ourselves. That young person is not going to buy a home, or get married, or have kids, or have the money to spend in the economy that helps everyone else afford those things. They’re not going to be stepping up into the community leadership roles that keep everything running. They’re going to be living at home at 35, working one or more miserable retail or food service gigs to just service the interest on that debt with enough left over to maintain a crappy car and eat fast food. Nobody wins in that scenario, except the bankers and the colleges selling vastly overpriced degrees.

  4. My general approach is that I don’t loan money, because people who need personal loans from friends and acquaintances are rarely, if ever in a position to ever pay them back, and I’ve seen a lot of friendships destroyed over that because the lender gives more than they can afford and then is in a bad spot when it doesn’t come back. Instead if it’s someone in real need I’ll give them what I can and that’s the end of it. If they are bent on trying to repay it I tell them to instead pass the good fortune along to someone else in a bind.

    I’m pagan, and not Christian, so it’s not any kind of New Testament imperative, but fate, and a lot of people have been good to me in my life. I’m not fool enough to believe in the conceit that I got where I am only by my own hard work. It played a role, but I also had a lot of advantages. I was born white, male and middle class in a stable and one of the most prosperous countries on Earth. I had the benefit of good food (except those damn fish sticks at Lent), top medical care, an excellent education etc. Parents who were there to give me a hand up even well into adulthood. I was born into a demographic which was not systematically barred from accumulating a little bit of wherewithal to pass along to future generations.

    In comparison with most people in the world, I’ve lived like a king. A very, very small time king, but nonetheless. There is an obligation or a kind of stewardship that comes with that. If I don’t use what I’ve been given, money, social standing etc. to open that way for someone else or at least blunt the worst of poverty, then those benefits were wasted on me. As a former drill instructor at a gym used to say years ago “you could have built two perfectly good dogs with all that DNA!”

    I also find inspiration in the teachings of pre-Christian cultures on the topic of generosity. Odin was known to take form as an old wanderer – a homeless guy essentially. Hospitality was very important in Viking culture, and he would test whether people lived by it and invited him in to get warm and eat something. The Hávamál speaks to the point:

    “I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take advice; you would benefit, if you took it, good will come to you, if you accept it: do not scorn a guest
    nor drive him away from your gates; treat the homeless well.”

    1. I’m with you, Ken. I have helped a number in need – often my middle-aged children, but not always. It’s not a loan, and I tell them it’s not. So many have helped me; go and do likewise!

      Oh, except for fishsticks – they’re great 🙂

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