Saturday, October 22, 2011

What would Jesus say about our economic crisis?

As I have been reflecting on the current economic crisis, caused by the greed of Wall Street financiers and bankers, and abetted by America's addiction to debt, I can't help thinking about the story of the unforgiving servant from Matthew 18. When Jesus is asked how often we should forgive others, he tells a story grounded in the harsh economic realities of his day. Jesus' society, like ours, was divided into the very rich and the very poor. And the main cause of impoverishment was debt.

The Torah makes clear that it is wrong to extract interest from the poor, including those who are aliens and guest workers in our country:
"If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you.” Lev. 25: 35-36

The Hebrew prophets rail against leaders who defraud the poor, driving them from their homes:

“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Enough, you princes of Israel! Stop your violence and oppression and do what is just and right. Quit robbing and cheating my people out of their land. Stop expelling them from their homes, says the Sovereign Lord.” Ezekiel 45:9-10
The Bible calls for "Jubilee economics," the forgiveness of debts every 7 years and the redistribution of land every 50 years.

Following this prophetic tradition, Jesus made debt forgiveness the center of his teaching. The Lord's prayer says: "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." In the Beatitudes, Jesus says: "If anyone asks for money, give him what he asks for, expecting nothing in return."

The parable of the unforgiving servant has to be understood in an economic as well as spiritual context. In this story a servant to a super rich master has run up a stupendous debt: ten thousand talents.

To appreciate this extent of this debt, you need to know that a talent in the time of Jesus weighed 130 pounds and was worth around $3,106,413 at today's exchange rate for gold or $59,520 for silver. See

Looked at another way, a single silver talent would take a day laborer at least five years to earn, and a gold talent would exceed the lifetime wages of several day laborers. See notes at

The unforgiving servant lost not one but 10,000 talents, which would be worth over several billion of today's dollars.

To go into such debt, the servant must have been working for someone equivalent to Bill Gates or Warren Buffet; and he must have been engaged in financial speculation on a scale similar to that of Wall Street financiers!

According to Jesus, his boss was understandably outraged and threatened to throw this incompetent and probably shady financial advisor in jail, along with his entire family. But when the servant begs for mercy, the master feels pity and forgives his debt.

Here's what happens next:

“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii."
(A day laborer was usually paid around one denarius a day, so the debt would be around $5,000 in today's dollars.)

The servant grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.


This dramatic story has often been interpreted in a purely spiritual sense, but I don't think the economic implications can or should be ignored. Jesus announced the beginning of his ministry by alluding to "the acceptable year of the Lord," i.e. the year of Jubilee. He also repeatedly made clear his ministry was to preach "good news to the poor" and freedom to captives.

For over a thousand years, Christians believed it was a sin to lend money and demand interest. This was considered usury, a sin which some Christians, including Dante, considered worse than murder.

Reading Jesus' story about the unforgiving financial speculator, one can't help thinking of the Wall Street bailout. Trillions of dollars were given to Wall Street speculators and bankers to prevent them from going bankrupt, and causing incalculable damage to the world economy and wrecking countless lives.
Now that these bankers and speculators are back on their feet, they are stepping on the backs of the poor and foreclosing homes on the flimsiest of pretexts.
Here in Pasadena a woman named Rose Gudiel has been fighting for three years to prevent her home from being foreclosed. Her fight has become a cause celebre and is encouraging others to do likewise. She has been compared to Rosa Parks. See

People are finally waking up the reality that bankers are not acting responsibly or morally. They are acting like the unforgiving servant in Jesus' parable and they need to be challenged for their immoral behavior.

That's why many of us are withdrawing our money from predatory commercial banks like Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, and placing our funds in credit unions that engage in responsible banking practices.


This is a small, but necessary first step in restructuring our financial system so it serves the needs of people, not the greed of the fabulously wealthy 1%.

In conclusion, I must say that not only Christians, but Jews and Muslims also have a prophetic tradition condemning usury, predatory lending, and the exploitation of the poor.

For those who would like to read more about prophetic economic justice, I recommend Walter Wink's "Engaging the Powers," Lowell Noble's "From Oppression to Jubilee Justice," and Ched Myers' "Sabbath Economics."


  1. Dear LA Quaker:

    We seem to be on parallel tracks:, A Living Economic Testimony: Jesus and Debt.

  2. True, true, but far from complete. There's also the slight matter of institutionalized fraud of the sort William Black & others document... "Investment" houses which deliberately preyed upon pension fund managers (required by law to invest in securities with high ratings, but also struggling to find such securities offering a high rate of return)-- putting considerable brilliance into the effort to design shiny facades for the shoddiest financial trash they had to unload.

    And since our society has turned useful work into a commodity... leaving many of us idle and destitute, while essential human needs are unmet, with the claim that "We can't afford" to meet them.... That's yet another aspect of FIRE Sector rule we need to address.