Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Can I Borrow 20 Bucks?

23"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents[a] was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' 27The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. 28He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. 29"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' 30"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
Matthew 18:23-35

The obvious meaning of this parable is that God wants us to forgive each other as He forgives our sins. There is even an admonition, which has been highly debated, that if we do not forgive our transgressors, God may show us no mercy at the judgment seat, despite how secure we might “feel” in our salvation here and now. And of even greater controversy is the hint that perhaps the consequences of the sins of a head of household can also fall on those under his or her spiritual umbrella. There is no dearth of commentaries on these meanings (except maybe that last one), but I wonder, does this parable also say something to us about how to manage our debtors?

In the Old Testament, once every 49 or 50 (debated) years there was a year of Jubilee in which debts were to be forgiven (Leviticus 25:13-17). Oh how I wish this weren’t an old Jewish custom! Wouldn’t it be great if Citibank and Discover would declare a year of Jubilee? I’m sure that would be problematic, as even otherwise highly scrupulous persons would max out their credit cards on Jubilee Year’s Eve! So it’s not happening at a corporate level, but what about at a Christian level? It was commanded by God – does this not mean anything to us today?

Have you loaned anyone $20 that you’re still waiting to see returned? If you’re like me, it was a lot more than $20, and when I loaned it, I half-way didn’t expect to see it back. Doesn’t it seem like the folks asking for loans are the always the very ones who aren’t likely to pay it back? That’s no coincidence – it speaks to their ability to manage money.

If a person is so desperate that she doesn’t have $20 worth of good credit with Citibank, she is either at the end of a long series of financial devastations, or she can’t manage her money.

But here’s a thought: Who has the harder time managing money? The person living hand to mouth whose financial problems are solved for a time (albeit brief) by a $20 bill, or the person who is floating $5,000 of debt with Citicard? It may be more socially acceptable to be thousands of dollars in debt while having a functioning car, a nice house and cool clothes, but in a hard financial analysis, we’d be better off needing $20 to finish paying the electric bill, owning no other financial institution. That gal really doesn’t have as many problems as it seems.

Yet the sad reality for many of those folks who need to borrow $20 is that they have already used up all their credit and are so far behind in trying to pay back the debt that they don’t even try anymore. They don’t care that the wheels of justice are slowly churning to eventually garnish their wages or tax returns – they just need $20 to solve a problem today. Tomorrow will hold its own $20-problem.

Perhaps in this parable we should focus on how the master had pity on the servant who couldn’t pay. I’m not waiting for an evil corporation to have pity on me, but I am suggesting that as a follower of Christ, it might be appropriate for me to have pity on the person so humbled in life that they needed to ask me for a loan.

Wouldn’t I just be giddy beyond belief if God saw fit to enact a year of Jubilee in my life and granted me miraculous debt relief? What’s it to God, anyway? He owns the cattle on a… on every hill and there’s more where that came from!

Relatively speaking, what’s that $20 worth to me? If I had some inkling I might not get it back when I loaned it out, I must have been able to live without it. And if I can live without it, why not forgive it entirely?

I can hear the reply from those “bootstrap theory” subscribers: It will create a pattern of borrowing and never paying back – you give an inch and they’ll take a mile.

Yes, well, what if God applied this rationale to the forgiveness of our sins?

Contemplate this: Maybe I should forgive the debt of the people who have borrowed from me.

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