Impossible Debt

At your college graduation, the dean of your department placed the degree in your hand. You walked into “the real world” with a lifetime of new opportunities ahead of you. You’re also unemployed with $24,000 in debt. This is reality for nearly 66% of college grads.

Debt was just as common to the everyday Israelite as it is to college graduates today. Taxes and other payments often claimed two-thirds of a peasant’s production income. With such impossible demands, debt was unavoidable. So when Jesus said: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12), what must His audience have thought? How could such unrelenting debt be forgiven?

God had laid down specific laws to keep His people away from woes of interest and debt: “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest” (Deut 23:19). Even so, it was common practice for Israelites to sell themselves (and their wives and children) into slavery just to get out of debt. Interest rates were around 20 percent for cash and even as high as 33 percent for things like grain. Sometimes, interest payments were deducted before even receiving a loan. No wonder God wanted them to avoid it.

Thousands of years later, things haven’t really changed. Our culture is bathed with deals designed to get people what they can’t afford. If you want it, you can have it—at a 20 percent interest rate. In June 2010, Americans had accumulated over $830 billion dollars in college loan debt—that’s 830 with nine more zeros—even more than America’s $826.5 billion credit card debt. By the time it’s all said and done, the average college student pays nearly $9,000 in interest on top of debt itself.

Luckily a college loan isn’t just a debt; it’s also an investment. But $24,000 plus $9,000 in interest is a lot to pay, even if it is spread over ten years. It could be the cost of a car, or in some cases, a down payment on a house.

How can students come to terms with what Jesus was trying to say? Forgiving debts isn’t exactly a common practice. When was the last time you heard of a college loan company just forgetting about that measly $24,000?

Jesus was a master of metaphor, using concepts everyone in His audience could relate to. Debt and sin were nearly synonymous terms, and the people listening to Jesus knew that.

To the common Israelite, having debt meant you were under something that was impossible to get out of. But that was the point. Jesus used their financial captivity to help them understand their spiritual freedom. The burden of a 20 percent interest rate and the reality of selling yourself into slavery was an allusion to spiritual debt. The thought of amnesty was buried under an impossible weight.

But then came His teaching: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Jesus was essentially saying, “Your debt may be unforgivable, but your sin is not.”

In the eyes of many people, especially college students, getting out from underneath debt seems impossible. Sin, however, is a different story.

Justin Marr lives and works in Bellingham, WA. Visit his blog: The Social Hunger