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Thursday 23 December 2021

Prepping For The Holiday Season – Avoiding Unnecessary Debt



Last week we spoke about a very sensitive topic, how to do deal with difficult family at Christmas time. My goal with that message was very simple: to share with you the freedom you have in Jesus to worship him at Christmas in the way that best brings joy to your family. Many of the obligations that society puts on you are a charade, they are only a perceived obligation. It is only the obligations that God puts on you which are the genuine ones, and when it comes to celebrating special days, Jesus says you are free. What you do with that freedom, as long as it is righteous and holy, is up to you.

I have observed over the years a fascinating aspect of human nature: humans hate freedom. They fear it. They are terrified of it. Tell people they are free to make a decision, and often they will get upset at you for giving them that freedom, especially if you make a different decision. This is a fascinating aspect of the sinful human nature: we tend towards slavery, we tend towards being under the thumb of others. It is in our sinful nature. It is like a gravity that is almost impossible for most people to resist. Indeed, some people will look at you like a madman just for saying that you should resist this gravity.

We see this in the account of the Exodus. Once being free of Egypt started to make life for the Israelites a little tricky, they freaked out, and wished to go back, Exodus 16:2-3 –

“2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3 and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

The Israelites scorned their freedom because it was hard, and would rather have just continued to be well fed. They were ok with owning nothing, not even themselves, as long as they were well fed. They preferred their slavery to the uncertainty of freedom.  

This human mentality for slavery, for accepting it, for tending back towards it constantly, for flirting with it, and risking everything by doing so, is I think one of the reasons why we are so addicted to debt in our current age. Debt is like slavery in a very important way: it can provide everything you need, and many of the things you want, as long as you give your body to it to work for it. It is a pernicious evil in our society, and wealthy and powerful people exploit our human tendency to fall back into slavery to profit off of us and put is into debt. The wealthy in our world know that many people are just like the Hebrews in the wilderness, willing to be slaves, just to be well fed.   

Sadly, many people enslave themselves in debt for holidays, including the Christmas season. So today I want to address this and see how the Scriptures can give us wisdom about avoiding debt as best as we can, and why this is so important leading into Christmas. Let’s begin, by establishing a Christian baseline on debt.

      1. Christianity The Anti-Debt Faith (Luke 4) – Debt is a funny thing. Because it is a largely unnecessary part of our world, that most people think our world could not function without. If you try to say to a normal conservative that we should regularly cancel debts, they will “explain” to you all the ways that this cannot work, how money would dry up, and that people should be made to pay, because a world where people know they don’t have to pay would be horrible. But it can work, and we will address that, but there is a more important point, a higher principle, being anti-debt is intrinsically Christlike. The entire moral centre of Christianity is founded around the principle of cancelling debts. The Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” is an important principle, but the entire focus of Jesus’ ministry is founded upon cancelling debts. Follow along with me.  

1.1  Luke frames Jesus’ the beginning of the ministry in the context of cancelling debts, and proclaiming liberty, as Michael Hudson notes, specifically liberty from debt. Luke 4:17-19 - “17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

1.1.1       This is a quote from Isaiah 61:1-2. Both Isaiah and Jesus are referring to the year of Jubilee here. The year of the Lord’s favour is the year in Israel where all the slaves were set free, debts were cancelled, and people were liberated to return to their own land. The year of the Lord’s favour is the year of jubilee.

1.1.2       Indeed, liberty in this ancient context was often a reference to being free of economic burden, or slavery, or both.  

1.2  We read in Leviticus 25:28 - “But if he does not have sufficient means to recover it, then what he sold shall remain in the hand of the buyer until the year of jubilee. In the jubilee it shall be released, and he shall return to his property.”

1.2.1       The whole point of the year of Jubilee was to reset the economy of Israel, wipe people’s debts so that they could be given a new chance to flourish and so that children did not have to suffer for the mistakes of their parents.

1.2.2       The goal was that instead of allowing the rich and powerful to constantly gobble up all the land and wealth, every generation there was a return of people to their ability to provide for themselves so that all could have a chance to prosper.

1.3  In fact, Leviticus 25 is also filled with commands for family to help other family get out of debt. 25:25 - “If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his brother has sold.”

1.3.1       In other words, and this is vitally important, the character of Israel, the moral core of Israel was to be centered around the concept of forgiving debts. This stood alongside the day of atonement, where people could watch their sins be demonstrably sent off into the wilderness and removed far away from them.

1.3.2       The moral core of Israel was to be a society where people were reset back to their own possession. They would own something and be happy and be able to provide for their families. Each man to have his own vineyard and fig tree.  

1.4  Jesus is framing his ministry, through Isaiah and in light of the year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favour. Jesus’ ministry is going to be a time of liberty, of freeing, of releasing people from bondage. And then he goes about doing this by casting out demons, healing people and challenging Pharisaical laws, and much, much more.

1.4.1       The basic character of our Lord and Christianity is founded in passages like Leviticus 25. Christianity it is a forgiving faith, a debt relieving faith. Jesus himself is telling us, that what the Israelites were hoping for in Leviticus 25, and what was prophesied in Isaiah 61, he was fulfilling in their midst.

1.5  It is fulfilled in his actual person - “21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” What Jesus is saying here is that this passage is fulfilled in him and his ministry. In him will be found liberty, in him shall be found healing, in him shall be found the favour of God. Jesus is our Jubilee.

1.5.1       This was ultimately fulfilled on the cross, when Jesus died for the punishment we deserved, and then rose again making a way for us to be saved. Colossians 2:13-14 - “13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” He cancelled the record of debt that we owed because of our sins. So, the ultimate fulfilment of this passage is forgiveness of the debts we owe God. But it also tracks back the other way.

1.6  If releasing people from their debts is Christlike, then those who have been released from their debts should be willing to release others from their debts.

1.6.1       What Jesus has done for us, with our sins, we should be willing to do with others for their sins and the debts that they owe us.

1.6.2       In other words, it should come back full circle. When we understand Jesus in light of the year of Jubilee, we understand what character his kingdom on earth should take, and the character of his people, a Christlike character is an anti-debt character: Luke 6:34-35 – “34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

1.6.3       We should not be too quick to spiritualize all of Jesus’ references to forgiving debts to only mean sin, because the foundation core of his ministry is the Day of Atonement, AND the Year of Jubilee. This is powerful stuff, in these two things is the solution to most of society’s evils. We sit on a gold mine of advice of how to make the world more like the kingdom of God. Praise God. But what was the response of the people Jesus was speaking too? They got angry.

1.7  When the implications of what Jesus was saying became clear, this is what the people of Nazareth did to Jesus, Luke 4:28-29 - “28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away.” At first, they marveled and spoke well of him, but then when he pointed out that most Israelites don’t get it and God often gives favour and insight to the Gentiles, because those in his fold don’t have eyes to see, they got furious.   

1.7.1       God often works outside his nation, outside his church, because we can become hard of hearing, and hard of seeing, because we see and hear so much from God’s word. Sometimes fresh eyes respond better.

1.7.2       But also people don’t like hearing they are free, they want comfort, affirmation, and the road of least resistance. They also don’t like hearing that they need to take steps to help others be free. Jesus was pointing out that these principles of liberty were not just for God’s people, but for all people who wanted to benefit from them.

1.8  Israel had failed to live up to the ideals of passages like Leviticus 25, or Deuteronomy 15. They had failed to foster liberty, and instead fostered all kinds of rules that further enslaved people, including those that indebted people.

1.8.1       Indeed, and this is so important, the Pharisees legacy of debt lives on in our modern banking system. Just a few decades before Jesus was born Pharisees, led by Rabbi Hillel, developed a loophole in this ancient period, where a borrower could waive away their right to the year of Jubilee. According to the Economist Michael Hudson, this loophole serves as part of the basis of our oppressive debt-based system, that locks people in.[1]

1.8.2       Debt cancellation used to be the norm. Partly because of the Pharisees, it not longer is.  

1.9  So, think about this: we have here in our Bible two very clear contrasts: a debt based system like that advocated by the Pharisees, who got angry at Jesus. Or a Jesus based system which regularly seeks to set people free from their debts.

1.9.1       Jesus only used violence once in his ministry, and it was when he was cleansing the table from the corrupt money lenders. Showing us how much he opposed such practices. 

1.9.2       When Jesus overturned the money lenders tables, he was pronouncing judgement on their system of debt, and signaling the day when he would replace it with a Jubilee. Which system should we seek to emulate in our own lives?

1.9.3       The answer is pretty clear. We should be the kind of people who seek to avoid debt as much as possible, and that find ways to relieve others of their debts. How we celebrate Christmas should exemplify this.

      2. Christmas should be celebrated from our excess (Deuteronomy 14). We looked at a passage last week that applies to our sermon this morning as well. So, let’s look at it again, Deuteronomy 14:22-29 – “22 You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. 23 And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. 24 And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, 25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses 26 and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27 And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.”

2.1  A lot of people, including Christians finish the year up with a massive Christmas spend-a-thon that leaves them in serious debt. The average Aussie has $1,863, debt just after the holiday season. This totals $30 billion dollars in credit card debt.

2.1.1       This is the best possible present you can give to the bankers, who sit on top of that pile of debt and rake in much more than spent, because of interest. 1 in 4 Aussies are still paying of their Christmas debts 12 months later.[2]

2.1.2       I love how the article recommends paying off more than the minimum requirement to pay off your credit card debt sooner. Perhaps a better strategy would be that if you can’t pay off the credit card at the end of each month, or close to, then cut it up.

2.1.3       What would God’s recommendation be?

2.2  Celebrate from your excess, not your banks excess. “22 You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year.” This is not the ordinary tithe, this is a special tithe for celebrating a big yearly feast. There is really no commands about how much you can or should spend over the Christmas season. I am not preaching this sermon to place limits or burdens on you.

2.2.1       The feast of the tithe required Israelites to spend a tenth of their income and produce for the year one a big party. This is an epic party. We look at this on occasion and marvel. I would like us to have more parties together, but I am not good at organizing things.

2.2.2       But a key principle in Scripture is this tenth is put aside from their produce of the year. In other words. This is a tenth of their current year’s income, not a debt that they carry into the next year.

2.2.3       They could spent it on whatever they wanted: Deut. 14:25-26 - “25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses 26 and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.”

2.3  This is a very simple principle: be as generous as you want at Christmas, but do it avoiding debt. And if you can’t be very generous without debt, then start putting aside this year, or next year, and built up to when you can finally be free to be generous without debt.

      3. Some Final Principles – It is perhaps one of the grandest ironies in life, that one of the very days celebrating the free gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, has turned into a day of many enslaving themselves to debt. This is because of our human tendency towards slavery, that we see all through the Bible. I just want to finish with a couple of general principles of debt, and then I want to show that being anti-debt and pro-generosity from what you HAVE, that is at the core of the Christmas message.

3.1  Getting into debt was really not seen as a sin in Scripture, not always at least, it is more seen as a cursed state, a state brought about by bad decisions, or unfortunate circumstances:

3.1.1       David gathered to himself a bunch of people in such a state:  1 Samuel 22:2 – “And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.”  To be in debt was seen as a pitiable state. A state to be avoided at all costs. A state outside of God’s blessings.

3.2  A land given over to debt is a land that is under God’s judgement:

“1 Behold, the Lord will empty the earth and make it desolate,

    and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants.

2 And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest;

    as with the slave, so with his master;

    as with the maid, so with her mistress;

as with the buyer, so with the seller;

    as with the lender, so with the borrower;

    as with the creditor, so with the debtor.

3 The earth shall be utterly empty and utterly plundered;

    for the Lord has spoken this word.” (Isaiah 24:1-3).

3.3  Getting into too much debt can force you to have to make decisions you would prefer to not make, because it enslaves you. Proverbs 22:7 – “7 The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.”

3.4  Let’s ask ourselves: why have we allowed ourselves to become enslaved by something, that Jesus came to save us from? Yes, he ultimately wants to save us from our debt record of sin, but as we have seen, his teaching on debt forgiveness goes much deeper than this.

3.4.1       Why is the Church not at the forefront of confronting such things in our world? Have we been yoked by the slavery of the Pharisees?

      4. Conclusion: A Christmas Carol - There was once a time when the Church was fully away of what a Christian perspective on debt should be. Deuteronomy 15:6 says, “For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.” I don’t believe in the prosperity gospel, but I do believe in general when God’s principles are applied Christian nations look more like this, than the way they do now. Charles Dickens got it, that this was part of the heart of the Christmas message. The famous A Christmas Carol, tells us of the transformation of Scrooge. Scrooge was one of the worst of the money lenders, but in a night when confronted with his mortality, he is transformed:

4.1  Read Dickens, pp94-98, here

4.2  Charles Dickens got it. One of the greatest Christian novelists of all time, he got it. Christmas is about giving from what God has given you. Not about giving what the bank locks you into slavery to be able to give. And the greatest gift we have to give is Jesus himself. Let’s pray.     

[1]And Forgive Them Their Debts” Michael Hudson. 

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