Monday, November 12, 2012

Debt and Forgiveness

I'd like to look at debt and forgiveness. Facebook friends have already been warned this examination was coming; I hope it's worth the wait.

Let's begin with some Bible citations.

Job 1:20-22

Luke 12:16-21

Luke 7:40-50

Luke 11:1-4

Luke 20:20-26

Romans 13

Luke 18:18-30

And finally, Acts 2:42-47

And now, let's see what all this means.

I've noticed in online forum posts, in Facebook updates and comments, and in other places, a thread of sentiment common among conservatives who call themselves Christian. It goes something like this:  I make my own way in this world, my own money, and the government has no right to take that money and give it to people who don't deserve it. Charity is fine, but the government has no business doing it. Charity should be private and personal. This income redistribution is wrong.

I'm going to propose that we look at Scripture, which is supposed to be the final authority, as the inspired word of G-d, in seeing if this viewpoint is valid, or if it needs to be revised. I think you can tell already where I want to take this discussion.

First, let's look at the nature of wealth, in fact at the nature of everything we have in this world. The main thing to understand is that it's not permanent. It comes and goes, and we generally are fine with this transient nature of material goods. After all, there's always something new that's better than the old stuff that we're replacing. At least, that's the way it seems.

Job says, in the passage cited above, "Naked I came forth from my mother's womb, and naked shall I go back there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD." This language is similar to what we usually hear at funerals, that we can't take it with us. Wealth, in all its forms - goods, money, fame, power - is fleeting and temporary. Incidentally, all these passages come from the New American Bible, Revised Edition.

This impermanence of material wealth is amplified once again in the second citation, Luke 12:16 through 21, where we hear this parable, "There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, 'What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?' And he said, 'This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, "Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!"' But God said to him, 'You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?' Thus it will be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God."

And finally, once again from Luke, this time from chapter 18:18 through 30, this exchange between Jesus and a rich official: An official asked him this question, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you sha not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother.'" And he replied, "All these I have observed from my youth." When Jesus heard this he said to him, "There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." But when he heard this, he became quite sad, for he was very rich.

This last citation goes on to talk about how difficult it is for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God. Other passages in the Gospels talk about how it's impossible to have two masters, as in God and money. Does any of this sound familiar? This is the standard stuff that most of us hear in church all the time. Just how real is it for us?

As Americans, we've become embedded in a culture, that for good or ill, measures the quality of a life on the material affluence of the person living it. We celebrate the heroes of this wealth-focused society. We follow celebrities, we admire captains of industry, we idolize the rich and famous. We perhaps see ourselves in similar situations. We think that perhaps we could win the lottery, or that if we work hard enough, we can make it closer to this ideal.

In contrast to this, we have the example of saints, like Francis of Assisi, who literally gave away everything he had and lived as a pauper. In the process, he founded the Franciscan order, which exists to this day. We have Saint Benedict, who with his sister Scholastica, left a life of affluence to pursue a life focused on drawing closer to G-d. We have the example of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who took vows and lived her life in the slums of India, caring for lepers and those who were dying, unloved, uncared for, and shunned. Even though she spent much of her life doubting the value of what she did, doubting sometimes the very existence of the One she served, showed up day after day for decades until her own death.

These people had power. They had wealth. It was a different kind of power and wealth, though, than that which we esteem so highly in this country. One thing they did not do was cling to it. Instead they gave it away freely, just as did the One in whose name they lived the lives they did.

Is it wrong to be wealthy, or aspire to being wealthy? No, not really. The question is what do you do with this gift. And it is a gift. You may think you did it all by yourself, but let's get real. That's an illusion. You were schooled by others. You were perhaps hired by others. You lived in a home environment that challenged you in some way to aspire to something more than you had or were. Moreover, you didn't even do all the work by yourself. If you're in business, you probably have employees. If you're in politics, someone elected you to office. If you're in a non-profit, someone donates money to make your organization able to meet the challenges it addresses. Oh, no, you have not done all this on your own.

Wealth is seen in this country as something that belongs to persons. In the Bible, wealth is often seen as something held in common, in some sort of trust from which everyone may benefit. There's a communal aspect to wealth. Read Acts 2:42 through 47: They devoted themselves to the teachings of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions adn divide them among all according to each one's need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

There's enough evidence here, and in plenty of other places in the Bible, that we're only stewards of our wealth, and we're tasked with using it to advance G-d's kingdom. Moreover, there is a reckoning to be met with what we do with what's given to us - if much has been given, then much is expected. There are eternal conseqences to these things. This is important stuff.

Of course, all this is considered as true only if you believe in, and act on, the word of G-d in Christ. If you're not a Christian, then it's just so much bleeding heart feel-good nonsense. I know this to be true, for I've come across a subculture of political conservatism that sees Jesus and the life he advocated as opposed to everything this country stands for. In a certain way, I admire the adherents of this species of conservatism. They actually understand the reality of the differences between the American dream and the kingdom of G-d as preached by Jesus the Messiah.

This post is about forgiveness and debt. I wanted to look first at the nature of wealth, and show the differences between what we think constitutes real wealth, and what the Bible says about a truly wealthy life. Wealth in this narrative becomes a primary tool for bringing the kingdom to life.

Let's look at the issue of debt now. Depending on your translation, and the particular wording of the liturgy in your religious tradition, one part of the Lord's prayer (Luke 11:1-4) may read several different ways. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Or, perhaps this - "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us." Or, and this is the way I learned it, this version - "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. We have rebelled against G-d, in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone, as it is said, and we ask for G-d's forgiveness. This can't happen unless we forgive those who are in our debt. These debtors are easy enough to identify. They're those who have injured us, or offended us, or betrayed us, or assaulted us. They're those who have stolen from us, who have taken things from us which we feel they had no right to take.

They could be the government. They could be any government that wields power over us. And yet, this power, according to Scripture, is a direct instrument of G-d's presence in the world. Check out chapter 13 in the letter of Paul to the Romans. Check out Luke 20:20-26, where Jesus tells his questioners to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to G-d what is G-d's. It's pretty clear that government does have a legitimate power over us.

And this brings me to the conclusion that I've been shooting for. Our wealth is an instrument of our faith, our love for G-d and our fellow man, our obedience to Jesus' directives on how to live a life focused on him. If you're a Christian, then perhaps you see that your wealth is not your own. If you're first and last a conservative, perhaps you don't want to be known as a Christian. If you are conservative and Christian, maybe you see new ways to live a life that's both compassionate and conservative. The compassion comes from holding on lightly to your money and your other embodiments of affluence. The conservatism might come into play in helping to find ways where government can be more responsive to those who are governed, in helping to actually be fiscally responsible so that more wealth can be present in the hands of the governed so that they can act on generous impulses.

There's nothing wrong with being conservative. At its best, it seeks to work with what is demonstrable, and not get carried away by fanciful (and often wrong) ideas and fads. At its best, it tries to make sure that we're all responsible for good parts of our own lives (Paul the Apostle had plenty to say about those who wouldn't work not being eligible to eat). At its best, it faces the world as it is, full of fallible people who yet need help when forces beyond their power to resist lay them low. Sooner or later, this is just about every one of us.

Perhaps it's time to forgive our government for trying to aid those who have been blindsided by life's adversities. Perhaps it's time to forgive our fellow citizens for feeling the need to ask for assistance. Perhaps it's time to forgive the liberals who think that government has a vested interest in keeping its citizens from sinking into abject poverty. Perhaps it's time to forgive ourselves for being the people we are, sinful and greedy and full of false pride. Forgiveness is just another way of showing love. Read Luke 7:40 to 50, and see what Jesus says about forgiveness and love.

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