Sunday 11 September 2011

Debt forgiveness

When I first read today’s NT reading (Matt 18:21-35), I thought to myself ‘How topical’!
Jesus tells us a story about debt forgiveness, as an analogy for how the kingdom of heaven works. And debt forgiveness is the big political issue being debated in Ireland just now. The question is, should distressed mortgage borrowers have part or all of their debts cancelled, or not?

I think it’s worth reflecting on what Jesus is teaching Peter and the disciples through the story, before asking what relevance it might have for the debt forgiveness debate.

The story Jesus tells is about a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.
The king has lent 10,000 talents to a slave - an unimaginably large sum, in today’s money well over €1billion. The slave cannot repay it, so the king threatens to make him bankrupt – to sell him, his family and all his possessions to recover what he can. But when the slave appeals for mercy, the king out of mercy forgives him the debt and lets him go free.

But slave #1 has lent 100 denarii to another slave - a more modest sum, equivalent to roughly 100 days wages, say €10,000. As slave #1 leaves the king’s presence, he sees slave #2, grabs him by the throat and demands to be repaid. He ignores slave #2’s pleas for time to pay and has him thrown into the debtors’ prison.

When the king hears about it he is furious. He calls slave #1 to him and says, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’

Jesus expects us all to see that slave #1 is a nasty piece of work. How unjust it is for someone who has been forgiven such an unimaginably large debt to force another to pay a modest one! So the king acts justly when he hands slave #1 over to be tortured until his whole debt has been paid.

But the story isn’t really about debt forgiveness.
Consider the context in which Jesus tells it. Peter has come to Jesus to ask, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ To which Jesus replies, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times’.

Now, the Rabbis believed that God would only forgive a sinner three times, based on an obscure text from the prophet Amos; and since nobody could be more merciful than God, no one should forgive another more than three times - ‘Three strikes and you’re out’, as it were.

Peter went beyond that to suggest seven; perhaps hoping that Jesus would commend his greater mercy. But in his response Jesus teaches Peter and the other disciples – and through them us – that there should be no limit to our mercy toward our neighbour.

Jesus tells the story to explain why this is so. He concludes it saying, ‘So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’ God’s mercy, Jesus is saying, is without limit. God forgives each one of us an unimaginably large amount of wrong. Therefore God expects us to forgive whatever modest wrongs other people have done to us. And if we don’t, we will forfeit God’s forgiveness ourselves.

The story is about the forgiveness of sins, not about the forgiveness of debts. It is about how Jesus’s disciples must be forgiving of the people who do them wrong, if they wish to receive God’s forgiveness for the wrongs they do.

Even so, does the story have any relevance to the debt forgiveness debate?
Only, I think, if we can identify clearly people who are suffering and need to receive the mercy that God shows us. This is not necessarily easy, so it is quite possible that Christians will conscientiously come to differing conclusions - this is my view for what it's worth.

The debate centres on ordinary people who took out large mortgages to buy overpriced houses during the recent bubble. No doubt they were foolish, but they did so to a chorus of experts advising them it was the right thing to do, that there would be a soft landing. Now they find their houses are worth a fraction of what they paid, and more and more can no longer keep up the mortgage payments, because their pay has been cut or they’ve lost their job.

Many, particularly young families who bought at the height of the bubble, face a lifetime of scrimping to pay a never ending debt, effectively making slaves of them. Without relief they will suffer terribly for their foolishness or just plain bad luck. And for many, relief must involve more than just rescheduling payments and extending mortgage terms – it will be necessary to forgive part or all of their debt.

There are some who argue against this, to avoid something they call ‘moral hazard’. But Irish banks have been given untold billions of Euro with which to pay back the money they so crassly borrowed from bondholders. In effect we the people of Ireland, and our friends in Europe, have forgiven them their debts, even though bondholders have forgiven nothing. What about the ‘moral hazard’ of that? Is there one law for high finance and another for the little people? I suggest it is our Christian duty to forgive the foolishness of ordinary folk and reject arguments about ‘moral hazard’. It is the morality of Mammon and nothing to do with Christian morality.

We must as a society – we remain a Christian society – find ways to help those crushed by impossible debts.