On Debt and Exploitation

Today’s Gospel reading Luke 16:1-13 sparked my imagination. Our pastor began her sermon by describing how the Gospel writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all have different personalities. I am clearly, firmly #TeamLuke. The picture of God in the Magnificat, raising up the lowly and casting the mighty down from their thrones, is my jam. Thus, reading this story of the shrewd manager through Luke’s agenda, I was not troubled by the master’s praise of the shrewd manager. His dishonesty is out in the open, but the dishonesty of the system of debt in the first place perhaps is not. So let’s bring it into the light. 

We too reward shrewdness, or at least admire it. But we think that we’re not supposed to – we think Jesus wouldn’t want us to – so it comes as a shock that the “master” associated with God in this story compliments the shrewd manager. He should stay in line, be honest, and take punishment. When did we reduce being Christlike to being obedient to authority, and WHY? What about that master’s position of power is just in the first place? The truth is, no one gets rich in this world without taking advantage of their situation, at the expense of others. We mostly admire people for whom the harm they have done is obscured. When the capital needed to get their business off the ground or fund their education is inherited, for example, it is harder to pinpoint on whose backs it was raised. But “honestly” handing over every possible profit to the powerful is not the ultimate value here. The exploiter deserves to be interrupted. In fact, the entire system does. 

With lenders and interest, people of faith can indeed be more clear. Debt accruing interest rewards the wealthy at the expense of those who do not have wealth to begin with. Mercy, not interest, is God’s law, as Leviticus 25 attests. So when we consider the debts of the people who owe the master in this story, or people with medical debt or student loan debt in our time, it’s not the principal that is weighing debtors down – it’s the accruing, compounding interest. It’s the system built on exploitation. This is why church leaders I know publicly protest payday lending businesses. 

As commentary and even memes pointed out during the hullabaloo surrounding the planned federal cancellation of some student loan debt, it’s not about free money. Virtually nobody with student loan debt is having the principal of what they borrowed forgiven/canceled. (If you made it through college with less than $10,000 of debt, we will all come to your TED talk.) $10 grand is but a fraction of the interest “owed” to an exploitative system. So if we’re talking almost exclusively about interest, wiping it out takes no money from anybody, except over-the-top profit from the wealthy. It is the same with hospital debt; my 7-year-old volunteered “it sounds like the hospital thing” because she watched an episode of Adam Ruins Everything with my husband about why hospitals are so expensive. When prices are artificially inflated for insurance companies to make a profit, a large proportion of uninsured peoples’ debt is not the real cost of care, but exploitation. Eliminating it isn’t paid for by anyone; it’s just less exploitation. And Jesus does seem to be in favor of that. 

I don’t see Jesus in the Gospel of Luke aiming for revenge on the wealthy, powerful, or exploitative. He is not waiting to grind their faces into the dirt. But he is targeting an end of their reign over the vulnerable. This is what the kingdom of God is like, according to Jesus: destroying exploitation. By any and all means available to us, in our sphere of influence. So the shrewd manager should be complimented on his shrewdness, for we must be crafty in the fight against the powers of sin and death. For this reason, I don’t really care from what direction relief for the downtrodden arrives. If student debt cancellation is a political football used to gain favor in an election year, so what? Or if churches organize to pay off people’s medical debts for pennies on the dollar, praise the Lord! It is still relief for those who are being squeezed. It is still exposing a crack in the toxic system. 

The powers that be will kill you for those exposures. Playing by the rules and quietly carrying burdens with humility supports the status quo. But that is not Christlike. Not by a long shot. We know Jesus will get killed for all of his actions against exploitation, compounded, with interest.

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