A Warning to America – Your Enslavement to Debt

With all of the commands of Jesus, there’s virtually universal disinterest. Nobody much cares what he has to say. However, one command seems to have greater relevance in modern day America than anywhere else in the world, and greater significance now, than at any other time in history. What may have been just morally wrong in Bible times, is having catastrophic effects in modern day America. This passage, too, comes from the sermon on the mount, where Jesus says “You have heard that it has been said by them of old time: you shalt not forswear yourself “but you shall perform your oaths only to the Lord. But I say, swear not at all! “Neither by Heaven, for it is God’s throne, nor by the earth, for it is his footstool. “Neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. “Neither shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. “But let your communication be ‘yes, yes’ or ‘no, no’. “Whatever is more than this comes from an evil source.” Now, if you ask the average American what it means swear, the most common answer will be that it has something to do with saying certain socially taboo words. Even words like: piss, ass, damn and hell all of which appear in the King James Bible, are considered swear words in America. But that is not what the passage is talking about…not by a long shot. Ironically, while people show such reverence for the word ‘hell’, that they squirm at having to actually say it phrases like, “Oh my God!” and, “swear to God,” are common even amongst churchgoers who feel no shame about taking the name of the Lord our God in vain. Ironically though, the phrase ‘swear to God’ not only takes God’s name in vain which is not what Jesus is talking about here, but it does also illustrate precisely what Jesus was getting at. In order to impress upon others, and possibly upon ourselves, our sincerity when we say something we bring God or something else that is sacred into the promise. “Swear to God.” Have you ever heard anyone say something like, “I swear on my dead mother’s grave”? What are they doing when they say that? They’re saying that failure to live up to the promise that they’re about to make would be such a horrid insult to their dead mother that people can be pretty sure that the person saying it will do everything in their power to keep the promise. If you’ve ever been in court, you would see something similar. Witnesses put their hand on a Bible, and they swear that they will tell the truth the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, “so help me God”. Now, God is mentioned, and the Bible is there to give an impression of great seriousness about what the person swearing on it is saying or is about to say in court. But does anyone swearing such an oath really think about what they’re saying? Let’s think about it for a moment ourselves. They are promising that when they get on the witness stand they are going to tell the people in the court the whole truth…not just the truth, but the whole truth. What is the whole truth, about anything? Let’s think about it, the lawyer says “Now what did you see when you walked into the room?” and the witness says “I saw the opposite wall, and out of the corner of my eyes I could see the side walls “and on the floor there was…” And then the lawyer interrupts, “I’m not talking about the walls, what did you see the defendant doing?!” And the witness says, “I couldn’t see the left side of his body because he was facing to my right “and I noticed that he had a shirt on, which is the same as the one I bought last week and…” And then the lawyer says, “Your honor, can you get him to leave out all these irrelevant details?” Do you see what I’m saying? The court is not even going to allow you to tell the whole truth. It’s such a ridiculous phrase to include in this oath. Maybe someone put it there just to illustrate that the people making the oath have never thought through what they’re saying. I’m not giving some weird far-fetched exaggeration here. Tell the truth, yes, but what do they mean by telling the whole truth? Both sides are obviously going to highlight the parts that suit them. And they’ll actually stop you from telling more, if you try. Obviously, mention of God and the presence of a Bible has not caused anyone to pay serious attention to what they’ve just said, “In the name of God” and with their a hand on a Bible. So, back in Bible times, people might swear by the sacredness of the temple and that was allowed by the religious leaders. But these same religious leaders drew a line at anyone swearing by the gold in the temple. Jesus refers to this double standard in Matthew, chapter 23 verse 16. “Woe unto you, you blind guides, which say ‘whoever swears by the temple is nothing. “‘But whoever swears by the gold of the temple he is a debtor.'” In other words, people could swear by anything sacred and maybe even get the priest to give them a reference, without it really hurting them. That was nothing, as Jesus put it. Whether the person is telling the truth or not doesn’t really make much difference. On the other hand, if anyone would have put the temple treasury in danger by promising to take funds from the religious leaders if the person making the promise fell through then the leaders wanted nothing to do with such a promise. It’s a little like the difference between giving someone a credit reference and actually becoming a cosigner on that person’s loan. The credit reference doesn’t cost you anything; cosigning could. The priests were happy to stretch the truth as long as their income was not affected by just how true it was. Banks and other lending institutions do the same thing today. They don’t care how many vows you make in the name of God. If you don’t have assets to back up the loan…some way for them to make good on the debt and if you fail to keep your promise, then they don’t want to know you. There is one very American exception where the government virtually enslaves a good proportion of the population for a good portion of their lives, by extending tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to students on the basis of their promise that they will work for money for as long as it takes to repay those debts after they graduate. They don’t have assets to back up the promise. But they do have their lives, and that is basically what the students give as collateral. They sell their soul, that is, their lives to the government in exchange for all that money while they’re going to school. All over the country, we find people in their 20’s and 30’s, and some even in their 40’s still paying off those debts. You see, even though everyone has jobs, most of us know if we wanted to quit them, we could. But not if you have a student loan. What have they done? They’ve done exactly what Jesus forbids on his sermon on the mount. He said, “Swear not at all!” Do not presume upon the future, because it doesn’t belong to you. Yet all over the country, hundreds of thousands of students, forswear themselves year after year. They have solemnly entered into a contract for the future, and their collateral is their own lives. Let’s compare that to something that James, the brother of Jesus, said in the fourth chapter of his epistle. “Go to now!”, that’s something like listen up, “You that say, ‘today or tomorrow we will go into such a city “‘and continue there a year, and buy, and sell, and get gain.” “Whereas don’t know what will happen tomorrow. “What you ought to say is: ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’ “But now, you rejoice in your boastings”
(That’s boastings about the future) “All such rejoicing is evil!” Yet the whole Prosperity Gospel runs on indebtedness. Members of the congregation invariably get loans from various banks, and then they all rejoice. “Look at this, God blinded the bank managers eyes to how little money I have with which to repay that loan. “He approved the loan, oh praise God! What a wonderful miracle!” And whoever can get the most loans is seen and being the most spiritually and most blessed member of the congregation. But what did James say? He said, “All such rejoicing is evil.” And I mean really evil! A whole nation has been enslaved because of it! I would guess that nearly half the people under 40 who write to me from the United States, about living by faith in obedience to Jesus, tell me about this same problem. “I have this huge student loan debt. “I’m trapped for the next few years.” And most of these people writing to me are church people of one sort or another. Where was there ever an outcry in the churches about this? Where is anybody teaching members of the congregation not to sell their souls to the system? Where was there anyone telling them to live within their means? If you don’t have the cash, don’t buy it! And even if you do have the cash, don’t spend it on stuff you don’t need. This is just one more command of Jesus that is glossed right over in the churches. Some see what Jesus said as good sound economic advice, but on the whole professing Christians never see it for the abomination that it really is. Okay, so that’s the problem. Is there any solution? I would like to say that there is, but the best we can hope for is a somewhat sad compromise. When you promise something that is outside of God’s will you create a horrible lose-lose situation for yourself. Keeping the promise destroys your freedom in Christ. You’ve made yourself a slave to the system, and breaking the promise destroys your reputation often reflecting on your previous claims that you’ve been a Christian. I want to look at a few stories from the Bible which illustrate this same dilemma. In the 11th chapter of Judges, we read about Jephthah, the military leader of the children of Israel. He makes a vow to the Lord, that if God will deliver the Ammonites into his hands he will make a burnt offering, of whatever comes out of his house first to meet him when he returns from the battle. It was a vow, and it was to the Lord. God kept his part of the part of the bargain: he won the battle. Presumably, Jephthah thought some animal would come to meet him first on his return but instead, his only child–his daughter–comes out to greet him. Jephthah laments the fact that he made such an ill-advised vow. He says to his daughter, “I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot go back.” There is no happy ending, for he has made a vow to God himself. Breaking that vow may have ended in Jephthah’s death, as punishment from God and he would have died as an enemy of God. So, Jephthah keeps his word. Two months later, after his daughter has had time to mourn her own death, he sacrifices her to the Lord. Ironically, this practice of sacrificing a child was strictly forbidden in the Torah. Jephthah was going to be guilty no matter what he did. He had promised something that he had no right to promise. Yet, how could he go back on his word now? On the other hand, how could he do something that was forbidden in the law either? It would have been, with hindsight, far better if he had sacrificed himself by letting God kill him for not keeping his promise. At least his innocent daughter would have been saved. But Jephthah kept his promise, and his innocent daughter died as a result all because he had made a foolish promise, and then he had been too proud to back out of it. Now, fast forward to Herod’s birthday party in the new testament, about 27 A.D. Mark’s Gospel says that Herod feared John the Baptist because he knew he was a prophet. But at the party, Herod made a promise to his stepdaughter that he would give her anything she asked for, up to half of his kingdom. With help from her evil mother, the girl asked Herod to behead John the Baptist. Herod deeply regretted his rash promise. But he, too, was too proud to back down. So, he had John executed, all because he had sworn an oath and did not want to look bad in the eyes of the people at the party. Now, one last story taken from the book of Daniel. The King of Persia had been tricked into making a law a law forbidding people to pray to anyone other than the king himself for a period of 30 days. The Hebrew prophet Daniel was a personal friend of the king. However, the same people who tricked the king into making the law provided him with evidence that Daniel did pray, in fact, three times a day to the god of the Hebrews. The Bible says that the king tried all that day to find a loophole in the law a way to get out of him enforcing it against Daniel. Now, mind you, he was the king…he was the one who made the law. But those who sought to control the king reminded him “Know, O King, that the law of the Medes and the Persians is that no decree “nor statute which the king establishes may be changed.” As a consequence, Daniel was thrown into a pit, where there were hungry lions waiting to eat him. Okay, we know that God intervened and saved Daniel’s life unlike what happened with John the Baptist and with Jephthah’s daughter. But in all three stories, a life-and-death situation came about because someone made a promise and they were too proud to back down from it. So, what happens when all these people write to me to tell me that they are in debt? (Most of them for student loans, but others for things like business loans and house mortgages.) Well, I suggest bankruptcy, and they say, “Oh no, I could never do that. It’s my debt I must pay it.” Or with student loans they tell me that bankruptcy will not erase the loan. So, I tell them that they could choose to spend the rest of their lives in poverty and they would be free from the loan. No loan company is going to spend all the money that it costs to take a homeless street beggar to court if they know that the beggar has no money to pay the debt anyway. I tell them that they need only walk away from the debt having learned a powerful lesson, and they can start living by faith, but still they baulk. Why? Because like Herod, like Jephthah, and like the king of Persia, they would rather see a life destroyed than to confess that they were wrong to have signed such an agreement in the first place. In America, debt slaves are not put into prison. Their only punishment is that they can never be rich. For if they do become rich, then the debt collectors will be on their doorstep ready to collect their pound of flesh. As I said at the start, the ending to this story was destined to be a sad one. But worse still, many of these people with such big debts now, are always going to be in debt. It’s an attitude thing. Some generous donor can front up tomorrow and pay off the debt for them and they would take out another loan the day following. They are addicted to having it their way, right now, even if they have to steal to do it. If this story does nothing more than scare others away from putting themselves into debt whether it be for a car, a house, a student loan, or just asking a friend to loan you ten dollars until payday if I can get you to not do that for the rest of your life then that is something good that could come out of an otherwise depressing situation in America today. Another possibility is that those who have debts will get serious about paying them. You’d be surprised how often people talk about giving me a donation, right after telling me that they’re in debt. Are you kidding? You want to give me stolen money? Don’t you understand, until your debt is paid your money isn’t your own!? It belongs to someone else. You hear me? It’s not your money, if you’re in debt. Either declare bankruptcy, and make a new start, or pay off the debt immediately with every cent and every asset that you own, until it’s paid for. Or you could decide to stay poor for the rest of your life, so that you can get started serving God right now. But don’t spend the rest of your life living a lie about who owns you. Paul said to the slaves of his day, “Are you called being a slave? “Don’t fret over it, but if you have the opportunity to be free, use it. “Don’t let God’s free man become the slaves of others.” Or as Jesus would put it, “Swear not at all”. Amen,

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