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What does the Bible say about debt?


Claude Vignon | Public Domain

John Burger - published on 02/16/20

Owing money can lead to a host of evils, but having the right attitude about money is key.

The love of money is the root of all evil, says the Bible. It certainly can feel that way when you owe it.

But just what does the Bible say about debt?

For one thing, debt is sometimes used as an example, in teaching about the right relationship between God and man — and among men. For example, Jesus tells the parable of the king’s servant who owed 10,000 talents. Begging mercy from the king, who was “settling his accounts,” the servant escaped being sold along with his wife and children.

“Out of pity for him, the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt,” we read in Matthew 18.

Unfortunately, the servant did not learn from the king’s example. Even as he was walking away, he encountered someone who owed him 100 denarii. He refused to listen to his plea for clemency and had the man put in prison “till he should pay the debt.”

When the king caught wind of his servant’s actions, he was furious. “I forgave you all the debt because you besought me,” he said to him, “and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” He “delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.”

Jesus sums up the parable saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

This would seem to give meaning to a translation of the Lord’s Prayer that uses the word “debt” rather than “trespasses.”

“And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors,” reads the Douay-Rheims version of Matthew 6:12. If we want to be forgiven by the King, we’d better show mercy to those who offend us.

The concept of debt also shows up when Jesus goes to dine at the home of a Pharisee. One of those in attendance was a “sinful woman” who brought a jar of ointment and bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed them with the ointment. Knowing that his host found the situation to be embarrassing, to say the least, Jesus told him a parable:

Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” He said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The others at table said to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7)

So debt is certainly useful as a symbol of the sinfulness of man, as well as the theological idea that Christ paid the debt man owed to God as a result of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve.

But what about actual debt? Does the Bible offer any advice about avoiding it or getting out of it? Does it offer any counsel such as Mr. Micawber did in David Copperfield (“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”)

In his Wholehearted Commitment: Deuteronomy: Part 2 [16-34] (Threshold Bible Study), biblical scholar Stephen J. Binz takes a look at Deut 23:19-20, which says:

You shall not offer a prostitute’s fee or a dog’s pay as any kind of votive offering in the house of the LORD, your God; both these things are an abomination to the LORD, your God. You shall not demand interest from your kindred on a loan of money or of food or of anything else which is loaned.

“In ancient Israel, loans were usually made as an attempt to alleviate poverty, often in a time of crisis,” Binz writes. “In this situation, to lend with interest to a fellow Israelite would express arrogance unworthy of the covenant (verse 19-20). Lending freely, without interest, conveys gratitude for God’s blessings and generosity toward others. Since surrounding nations practiced usury, Israel could lend internationally with interest, but not to their fellow Israelites.”

While there are perennial attempts to apply biblical passages directly to modern living, Catholic social teaching focuses on the dignity of the human person and the concept of solidarity. Pope Benedict XVI applied this to the debate over deficit spending, as the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg pointed out. Borrowing now and leaving future generations to pay off that debt is a serious offense against intergenerational solidarity, Gregg warned.

Other thought-provoking biblical passages concerning debt include: 2 Kings 4:7: She went and told the man of God, who said, “Go sell the oil to pay off your creditor; with what remains, you and your children can live.” Proverbs 22:7: The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. Psalm 37:21: The wicked one borrows but does not repay; the righteous one is generous and gives. Proverbs 3:9: Honor the LORD with your wealth, with first fruits of all your produce. Matthew 5:42: Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. 1 John 3:17: If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? Luke 14:28: Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? 1 Timothy 6:10: For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains. Hebrews 13:5: Let your life be free from love of money but be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never forsake you or abandon you’” Matthew 6:21: For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. Matthew 6:31-33: So do not worry and say, “What are we to eat?” or “What are we to drink?” or “What are we to wear?” All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Luke 12:15: Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”  

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