Monday, February 4, 2008

Is it Wrong to be in Debt?

Continuing on the subject of debt, I've heard some Christians teach that it is a sin to borrow money and go into debt. One primary verse used in the argument against debt is Prov 22:7, as we discussed in the last post: "The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender."

Romans 13:8 is also frequently used to argue that Christians should not be in debt: "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law."

Note that the preceding verse, 13:7, states "Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor."
Paul's focus is that we must pay what we owe, and not necessarily to stay out of debt. This emphasis on the importance of paying your debts is seen in other verses throughout the Bible:

Proverbs 22:26-27 "Do not be a man who strikes hands in pledge or puts up security for debts; if you lack the means to pay, your very bed will be snatched from under you."

Psalms 37:21 "The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously"

If it was a sin to borrow and become indebted, Jesus wouldn't have said,
"Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." (Matt 5:42) or "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matt 6:12)

It is really easy to pick a verse here and there, and create a black and white doctrine out of it. But, we often miss the point entirely. So I would like to ask: what does Bible as a whole teach about this subject?

The moral question
The most important question is: Why are we borrowing money? Is it for materialism, for the appearance of prosperity (i.e. Mammon ), OR for basic needs, or for the purpose of growing wealth to enable others? Jesus talked profusely about the condition of the heart, which therefore must be the primary consideration in borrowing money. If we are going into debt so we can live beyond our means, this creates a moral problem. And, it will make it increasingly difficult to pay back our debts - which is unacceptable as seen in the verses above.

One man pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth" (Prov 13:7). Jesus condemns the servant who buried the talent, rather than use it to gain interest. If Jesus is so hard on people who simply bury their money, how hard would He be on people who negatively go in to debt to buy frivolous things?!?

Yet, if someone uses debt wisely, they may be able to actually create wealth and provide for their basic needs as well as for others.

For those that see debt as a black and white issue: I'd like to know what is the difference between leasing your home from a landlord or loaning money to "buy" your home from a bank? Would Jesus get caught up in this argument?

We are already indebted to God. Everything is essentially on loan to us. God is the Creator and rightfully owns everything. As He is the provider, we are all called to be His stewards or property managers of all that He has given. Our Creator's generosity benefits all of us, in the same way that the under- privileged can benefit from the ability to borrow money (i.e. start a business, invest, etc).

"Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all." (1 Chr 29:12)

"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!" (Matt 25:21)

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own." (Luke 16:10-12).

So, I believe that debt in and of itself is not necessarily right or wrong, nor does the Bible actually forbid the borrowing of money. The Bible does clearly warn about the danger of becoming indebted, and cautions us not to borrow more than we can repay. What matters most is WHY an individual goes into debt and how they decide to USE the debt.

One final thought to consider: "Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house." Proverbs 24:27

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Borrower is Slave to the Lender

"The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender." (Proverbs 22:7)

The above verse seems so pertinent to current events in the U.S economy and the average American consumer right now. Here are some thoughts:

Proverbs 22:7 is direct and self explanatory.
Whether we are living in 8th century B.C. Judea or in modern America, the lender will most likely charge interest or demand some sort of compensation. If we borrow something, we are now subject to the will of the lender and are forced to comply with their terms.

Every time we pay interest, we are WORKING for the lender - in effect becoming their slave. We must work just to support that debt. Not only has the lender become the master in this regard, he/she is becoming wealthier at the same time.

This is one important way that the rich become richer, and the poor become poorer. (See Matthew 25:29 - "For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.")

The "rich" put money to work for themselves in the form of lending and investments. They earn money from their loans, just as Jesus encourages in the parable of the talents. (Matthew 25:14 - 30 ) The "rich" are masters of their money, not servants to it, as it works and multiplies for them.

Those that are "poor" not only fail to make money work for them (lend/invest), but they are losing money/net-worth by paying out interest. One borrows when they want to spend more than they actually have. The price, according to Proverbs, is servitude.

The rich, who are wise with their earnings, just keep getting richer as they continually master their use of money.

On a side note:
Its interesting that the Hebrew word translated as 'borrow' is lavah which, in addition to referring to borrowing/lending, is often used throughout the Bible to mean "to cleave" or to "entwine" or "join." For example, in Genesis 29:34 Leah desires Jacob to be "joined" with her - as an intimate lover. Hmmm...

Do we want to be joined with the lender?! Being cleaved to or entwined is the opposite of being independent. We lose our freedom at the moment we allow debt to make us the servant.
(By the way, I am not saying that all debt is bad...just trying to make observations based on Proverbs)

SO, what does this mean for Americans?

Personal spending on credit is at record levels. The average American household, has $6,000 to $15,000 in credit card debt alone (according to various statistics - who knows which to believe?) Keep in mind that this is not including mortgage debt - only consumer spending. The banks, and their investors, are getting rich by lending us money to fulfill our consumeristic desires. Are we serving Mammon?

Have we been living beyond our means????
The United States certainly has. Today, the US total government debt is over $9 Trillion Dollars. Most of the US National Debt is foreign financed, with China holding a large percentage. Is our economy becoming a slave to foreign countries? With this much debt, the lenders have the power to affect the value of our currency/markets.

Does anyone have any further thoughts on this?

Top picture is from the Culture of Life blog. The second is from The Thirds is from The Dip Shtick, Fragments from a Cluttered Mind.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

A Camel in the Eye of a Needle

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

The phrase, "camel through an eye of a needle," is not exactly typical of our language today. This saying comes from the story of the rich man/ruler asking Jesus what else he must do to inherit eternal life - as is written in 3 narratives: Luke 18:18-30, Mark 10:17-31, Matthew 19: 16-30. In the attempt to understand what Jesus means, there have been a few popular interpretations.

Kneeling under the Camel Gate. One of the most common explanations I've heard in church, is that Jesus is referring to a small gate or low entrance into Jerusalem, known as the Camel Gate. The lesson is that the camel can pass through the gate if it kneels down and crawls through. Therefore the rich man can likewise get into heaven if he humbly kneels before God. There is at least a possibility that the rich man can get into heaven. This is all fine and dandy and probably a harmless interpretation, but there's some serious problems. First, it misses most of Jesus' point (which we'll get to). Second, there is no Camel Gate - or at least it has never been found. The Roman ruins of Jerusalem have been well studied by archaeologists and there are several grandiose Roman gates/entrances. All of them would easily fit the tallest of all camels, so why would someone take their camel through some tiny obscure "Camel Gate?"

The Rope Interpretation. Another theory states the Aramaic word for 'camel' is the same as the word for 'rope', and that Jesus could be describing a rope (made of camel's hair) passing through a larger wooden needle (used for 1st century industrial projects). The point of this interpretation is, again, to create a possibility that the rich man can enter the Kingdom. A rope has a much better chance of passing through the eye of a needle than does a camel. And, for the modern reader, it lessens the 'weirdness' of the comment. Again, there are issues with this interpretation. We don't know if the gospels were ever written in Aramaic first. All of the oldest writings of the New Testament and early church fathers are in Greek and clearly say the word "camel."

The Impossiblity. This interpretation simply takes Jesus' phrase at face value; as a Jewish metaphor for describing something impossible. Jesus even explains it himself. His sentences, both preceding and following his camel comment, state "how hard it is" and that "with man this is impossible."

Its important to note Jesus' phrase, "eye of the needle," is not the only ancient instance of this expression. The Talmud uses the phase similarly to connote an impossible situation. Instead of a camel, it mentions an "elephant passing through an eye of a needle" as being analogous to seeing a "palm made of gold." In 2 other instances, the Talmud uses this metaphor to make very strong points. It was common for them to use exaggerated language, or hyperbole, and paradoxes to teach a lesson. Of course, Jesus also loved to use hyperbole to make his points (i.e. 'remove the plank in your eye', 'cut off your right hand' and 'gouge out your eyes if they cause you to sin', 'hate your father and mother if you are to be a disciple', etc).

Concerning the Rich Ruler, Jesus uses this verbal technique to astonish his disciples. They "were amazed" at such talk and they asked,"who then can be saved?" In the Jewish culture of the time, Jesus was making an inconceivable and radically deep statement. While making a point about riches and the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, He was also attacking the entire Jewish religious system and culture as a whole. The understanding of the Jews of the time was that the rich people are blessed because they do the right thing and follow all the commandments. They are godly and "good," and therefore blessed with wealth. As a result, the rich took great pride in their exalted status. Salvation was guaranteed. The poor, on the other hand, suffer because they sinned or their parents sinned in the past (i.e. see blind man story in John 9:2). Jesus did not agree. Just as He often lashed out against the respected religious leaders for "straining out gnats but swallowing a camel" (another hyperbole), he attacks the concept of the rich having an automatic get-into-heaven card. Despite the prevailing cultural thought, Jesus makes it clear that they are NOT saved by their good works, wisdom, or wealth.

The Rich Ruler started the whole discussion by asking what he can DO to inherit eternal life. Before shocking the crowd with his answer, Jesus first responds by giving him a lesson on who is "good". Nothing you do makes you good, only God is good. To test his heart, Jesus gave him one difficult option: to essentially to give up his life completely, his rule and his wealth, and to then follow Him. To the rich man, the option was equivalent to 'passing a camel through the eye of a needle,' and he just couldn't do it. He was not WILLING to give it all up. Most likely it was his pride, but Jesus is looking for a humble heart before God.

So who then can be saved?

Fortunately for the Rich Ruler, the book of Mark says that "Jesus looked at him and loved him." So who knows what ultimately happened to the man. Jesus said, "with man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God." A reliance on riches, or the knowledge and wisdom used to gain them, or on following commandments and doing good works does not get you into the Kingdom of Heaven. A rich man entering the Kingdom of Heaven is impossible WITHOUT God. The wealth itself is not bad, but all of our worship and reliance must be on God who changes and humbles men's hearts. So, good news for the faithful rich people like Joseph of Arimathea, Lydia, Abraham, and Melchizedek!

Top photo is from Bible Picture Gallery.
2nd painting by Christian Dare Art .

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Good Samaritans in Business

The September 3, 2007 issue of Forbes Magazine has a great little article on the Good Samaritan, and what it means for the rich businessman in today's world. Check it out below:

One of the New Testament's key texts is about the good Samaritan, and its lessons can be applied to business and businessmen. In telling this tale Jesus had two objectives. The first was to condemn sectarianism. At the time, Jews were taught to regard Samaritans as heretics and enemies, but Jesus showed the Samaritan behaving better than the Jewish priest and the learned and pious Levite. The second and more important objective was to stress the importance of charity. Here was an innocent victim of thieves, robbed and left half dead by the roadside. The priest and Levite "passed by on the other side." But the Samaritan stopped, "bound up his wounds," put the injured man on his donkey and took him to an inn. There the Samaritan paid for the care of the poor man and told the owner of the inn to look after him until he was better and "whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee."

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher quoted this text often while in office. She thought it a first-class example of practical compassion in action. The Samaritan was a businessman--a merchant, a commercial traveler--who regularly traveled a certain route and knew the inns and their owners along the way. When he found the man in distress, he acted immediately. He didn't go around making speeches, setting up a fund and using the clich├ęs of the aid industry. He simply tended to the man, pulled out his purse and left him in good hands, personally financing any other assistance that might prove necessary. Mrs. Thatcher cited this as the best way to help an unfortunate neighbor--direct, person to person, with no bureaucracy, no elaborate rules.

But there was another point to which Mrs. Thatcher always drew attention--the reason the Samaritan was able to render such aid. He was a man of substance, a successful businessman who plied his trade industriously, lived within his income and was therefore able to provide money without hesitation when it was needed. There is, she added, a lot to be said for a society that allows people to accumulate wealth so they are able to spend it charitably.

All very well, you may say, but what about the other biblical text in which Jesus says: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God"? This harsh analogy "amazed" the disciples and led them to ask: "Who then can be saved?" The answer concerns not the accumulation of wealth but its disposition. It serves as a warning to the person still encumbered by his riches when he seeks entry to heaven.

Andrew Carnegie, one of the greatest of American entrepreneurs, took this particular text to heart and lived by it. He was a child immigrant, the son of a penniless Scots hand-loom weaver. Carnegie made one of the greatest fortunes in history by discovering how to produce high-quality steel cheaply--thus enormously benefiting society, as well as himself. But as he grew richer, Carnegie reflected deeply on the morality of becoming and remaining rich. He set out his conclusions in a remarkable essay that came to be known as "The Gospel of Wealth" and was published in the North American Review in June 1889. In it Carnegie argued that the honest accumulation of wealth was morally permissible, especially if in the process the interests of the public were served. What was wrong was to hang on to the wealth. He concluded: "[The] man who dies rich dies disgraced."

By the time Carnegie died in his sleep at age 83, he had given away almost all that he possessed. The canny old Scots-American had acquired his money in a businesslike fashion. And it's clear he gave it away in the same manner--and while he was still around to supervise the process (an important point).

A Better Way

More has been given in the last half-century than in all the previous ages put together. But most of it has been through transactions between governments. Immense sums have simply been transferred from one public treasury to another, with all the decisions regarding the funds--on the part of both donor and recipient--made by politicians and civil servants. The whole process takes place within a context of politics, not business, and correspondingly has been inefficient and wasteful. The big international aid organizations, though less politicized and therefore more effective, are still bedeviled by bureaucracy.

What is common to both kinds of donor, whether they're government-financed through taxes or big charities that raise their income worldwide, is that none of those making the decisions are spending their own money. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that someone who opens his own purse to give to those in need is likely to take a close interest in the ways in which and how effectively the money is spent. As a result, it is more likely to be spent wisely.

Many of the vast government aid schemes have done more harm than good, and despite all the money spent there is as much poverty and distress today as there ever has been. However, there is one consoling factor: More money is being made by the efforts of individuals than ever before. And in the U.S., where the number of such private fortunes is greatest, the culture of personal charity is stronger than ever. The parable of the Good Samaritan is remembered and heeded. The example of Andrew Carnegie is understood and followed.

We should rejoice that we have a system that allows men and women to accumulate riches--one that produces so many who voluntarily use the fruits of their industry and acumen to benefit the unfortunate. They do not, in their thousands--indeed, in their millions--"pass by on the other side."

by Paul Johnson, eminent British historian and author for Forbes Magazine.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Business Lessons from the 'Wife of Noble Character'

The final passage of Proverbs describes this "Wife of Noble Character":
Proverbs 31:10
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. 11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. 12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. 14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. 15 She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls. 16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. 17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. 18 She senses that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. 19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. 20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. 21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. 22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes. 25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. 26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. 27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness...

Women in Business
Contrary to many Christian stereotypes of proper female behavior, this passage does not depict the virtuous and praiseworthy wife as a submissive homebody whose sole purpose in life is to raise children and do dishes. No, this noble wife is a shrewd and profiting businesswoman! Even the Hebrew word for "noble character," often translated as "excellent" or "virtuous" literally means "power" or "strength." Of the 244 times this word is used in the Bible, it almost always means "strength", "army", or "wealth." The woman in Proverbs 31 is described in this manner, as is the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings (10:2) and 2 Chronicles (9:1). Her strength is mentioned several more times throughout this passage.

So what makes her so strong and noble?
As is obvious from the passage, women engaged in business as well as men in Biblical times. This particular woman profits from her skills (19), selective buying of imported raw materials (13), wise trading (24), hard work (15,17,27), managing of servants (15, 26) and money sense (18). As an effective businesswoman, this wife has a successful business plan. She creates her own wealth, not by taking advantage of the poor, but out her smart choices and hard work. After buying cheap raw materials, she sews them into linen garmets and belts and then sells them to merchants for a profit. But that' not all! After accumulating wealth with the work of her hands, she spends her
seed money on an asset: land. She then proceeds to improve this asset by planting a vineyard, and she continually expands her money-making enterprise. She is "like the merchant ships" and brings riches to her household. Because she is so diligent and trustworthy in managing these affairs, the husband is free to serve in the political and judicial affairs at the court in the city gate (23,31), as is customary in those times .

Her noble use of money.
Part of what makes this virtuous wife so praiseworthy is what she does with her wealth. She provides for her family and servants, but then she helps the poor and needy out of her excess. Her wise use of time and money enables her to be charitable, just like Lydia in the New Testament.

After she has provided for the needs of many, she still has the means for a little luxury. She clothes her entire household with the finest scarlet linens and purple bed coverings. She is in a position of confidence, and doesn't need to stress about the future (25). Her household is prepared for variable conditions and disasters, such as a blizzard hitting Judea (21). While "she can laugh at the days to come," she wont let her wealth make her too comfortable. The wife of noble character will never "eat the bread of idleness" and she "fears the Lord."

Because of these characteristics, this wife gains the praise of her husband and those at the city gate (28,31). Even her
children called her blessed (28).

Pictures above: 1. A depiction of business women traveling in the ancient Near East 2.The Queen of Sheba conducts business with King Solomon 3. A coin from New Testament Judea, under the reign of Vespasian.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Eat Seed Or Reap The Harvest

"You reap what you sow." How many times have we heard this? And what does sowing and reaping have to do with us? In our extreme post-industrial consumeristic society, do we even know what this means and how it relates to anything relevant? When most people think of this subject, usually one or two things come to mind (besides the Grim Reaper cartoons): God's judgment and proselytizing (the planting of "spiritual seeds").

Certainly, there are plenty of spiritual metaphors; this is what we hear in church every time these terms are used. Paul talks about "sowing to the spirit" and Jesus relates sowing seeds to the Kingdom of God. Bearing good fruit and the fruit of the Spirit are just extensions of this same metaphor so prevalent in the bible.

What is 'sowing and reaping', and how does it relate to wealth in our modern society?

Ever since Adam and Eve flailed in the Garden of Eden, they couldn't just pick food off the trees - but had to work for it. Since then, farming has been the primary means of sustenance for most of human civilization. So needless to say, this favorite parable subject of Jesus was a critical part of daily life at the time.

Sowing is the planting of the seeds in season, and then waiting until its time to gather or harvest of the mature grain crops, or reaping.

2 Corinthians 9:10 tells us, "Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness."

As Genesis depicts, the seed comes from God. Sowing and harvesting is an integral part of God's natural system. When a seed is planted it provides fruit (grain/bread/life sustaining food/etc.), AND multiplies back even more seed to the farmer. Not only will the farmer's hard work in seeding be rewarded with a harvest of fruit, he will gain exponentially more seed with which he can plant more crop.

Now substitute "seed" with "money." The results are the same. If people take their seed-money and invest it (sow it one way or another), eventually it will grow and produce its own fruit. This of course will take time and patience, just as the farmer plants the seed in one season and the reaping takes place in another. Money can be made to work for the sower, and then be multiplied back. Sounds so simple.

Unfortunately, substituting "farmer" with "American Consumer" doesn't work so well. The average American Consumer likes to spend. This is like the farmer EATING his seed before he planted it. The only difference is that the farmer and his family would die if he did that. No seed, means no harvest and no growth. The farmer must plan ahead and be disciplined, while most Americans want to spend NOW.

No wonder so many Americans work
sooo hard and sooo many hours, yet live 'hand to mouth'. They would rather eat their seed-money than make it work for them. But reaping always comes after planting the seed and waiting for it to grow.

If we keep eating our seed and don't have the foresight and discipline to produce a fruit in this world, how can we expect to grow spiritual fruit?

See the last post on Sowing and Reaping.

Pictures above are: 1. The Grim Reaper in cartoon. 2. Sowing seed in Old Testament times. 3. Farming in Roman New Testament times. 4. The American Consumer?

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Sowing & Reaping (and Sovereignty)

I was just thinking about the next topic i plan to write on, 'Sowing and Reaping', and found that it relates well to my last post, Slack Hands and God's Sovereignty. The farming concept of 'Sowing and Reaping' is a great metaphor that displays BOTH the importance of
diligence and man's responsibilities, AND divine sovereignty. There's a ton of verses on the topic. Here's a couple:

"Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." (Gal 6:7-9)

"Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother's womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well." (Eccl 11:4-6)

As in the last post, these verses stress action and the responsibilities of man ("sow," "let not your hands be idle" and "doing good"). There is a strong emphasis on what we are to DO. The farmers spreads the seed, works the field and harvest the grain. HOWEVER, the farmer did not create the seed or grain. The farmer does all that he can, BUT not everything is under his control. He can only hope and pray for good growing conditions. As it says in the Ecclesiastes verse (11:4-6), it is God who sovereignty directs the wind and sends the clouds. While we may not "understand the work of God," He is always ultimately in control. So, the metaphor of 'Sowing and Reaping' is a great depiction of the intersection of God's Sovereignty and the life and work of mankind.

Much more coming on 'Sowing and Reaping,' culture, and money on the next post!

The above picture of the oil painting is called "Sower with the setting Sun" by Van Gogh, 1888. Another version is depicted below.

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