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The Word on the Week

Negative Equity

A lot of newsprint has been used this week to highlight the plight of house owners repaying mortgages which are higher than the house is worth. Their task has been made harder by the shrinkage in jobs with many unemployed or working a reduced number of hours per week resulting in much lower incomes. The Master of the High Court called for debt forgiveness and reckoned the threat of re-possession by the banks was driving people to suicide. He wanted the Bankruptcy Laws to be updated. The Minister for the Environment said that they were being looked at and a Bill would be published next year. He expressed concern for the “moral hazard” of writing off one person’s debt and expecting his neighbour to pay all of his debt. The Journalist took the high moral ground by claiming the banks were going after the public who have been called upon to bail them out! The picture is painted of the mighty bank taking the poor mortgagee by the scruff and shaking the last cent out of him. It is especially abhorrent since the bank itself through massive greed pressed people into taking out such large mortgages in the first place. Can the Bible shed any light on the matter? The classic example of debt forgiveness occurred in the parable of the unforgiving servant. (St Matthew chapter 18 verses 21 to 35) In it the massive debtor (the Bank in our times) has its debts forgiven by the King then goes after the tiny debtor whom he treats without mercy demanding payment in full. So what kind of debts does a lender forgive? Those where there is no possibility of ever being repaid. If there are assets the lender will take those rather than writing off the debt. It is only in cases where there is a complete inability to repay that forgiveness becomes the remedy. Jesus, who told the parable, was simply making the case that sin incurs a debt. The context is “If your brother sins against you go and show him his fault” (St Matthew chapter 18 verse 15) In the parable the King was owed an enormous sum of money and the debtor made the familiar plea for more time to pay it off. Ten lifetimes would have been insufficient to repay it and that assumes he would not add to it in the meantime! God is the King and we are debtors. We cannot ever make restitution. Our debt to God is incalculable. The wonder of grace is that Jesus paid it. St Paul writing to the church at Colosse (Chapter 2 verses 13/14) shows our state and our standing. “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, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” The greatest debt forgiveness happened at the cross. There the sinner who believes in Jesus has his debt cancelled. It is the place of reconciliation to God.