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Forgiving Debt

by Tim O'Hearn

It was the time of month that bills came due. They went out on the same day every month. The accounts were reconciled the same day every month. There was no excuse for not paying your bills. At least, that was the thinking of the head of the company. Let us call him Ebenezer, just because that name has already been applied to such a man.

Ebenezer was checking his books. The bills were paid; on time as always. Never let anybody say that Ebenezer reneged on his accounts! If you expect others to pay you on time, you had best make sure to make your own payments on time, or early. But there was a problem. Somebody was behind on his payments. This man (we will call him Jacob) had amassed a huge debt. That doesn’t give it full credit. Jacob owed a HUGE debt. It was strange that Ebenezer would have loaned him this amount; it was even stranger that Jacob could have expected such a loan. How huge was it? In the currency of that country it was T10,000. Consider that the average wage for a day laborer was d1, and there were about d8,900 in T1. That means that Jacob would have had to work at an average daily wage for almost 244,000 years just to pay off this debt. “Debtor’s prison is no place for children! Haven’t you read Dickens? I will find a way to pay you everything.”

Thanks to Ebenezer, Jacob was a rich man; a filthy rich man. Even assuming he had squandered some of that wealth, he had to still be as rich as Croesus. (And to loan him that much, Ebenezer must have been much richer than Midas.) What could it hurt for him to pay off a significant portion of that debt? Even if he couldn’t pay it all at once, surely he had enough to pay most of it. If you borrow 250 millennia of pay, surely you can live on 1,000 years’ worth of that. But Jacob didn’t think that way.

Ebenezer called and Jacob came before him. He knew what was coming.

“Pay what you owe,” said Ebenezer. “I demand payment. You are behind on your debt.”

Jacob replied, “I can’t. I don’t have that kind of money in liquid assets. It is all tied up. I would need time to collect it. After all, I have debtors, too.”

Ebenezer said, “I’ll tell you what. I will make it easy on you. You don’t have to try to liquidate your holdings. I will throw you and your family into debtor’s prison, and I will take care of liquidating your assets. Between you, your wife, and your children, maybe you will be able to pay the difference by the time the baby grows old and dies.”

“Debtor’s prison is no place for children! Haven’t you read Dickens? Just give me a little time and I will find a way to pay you everything. We are both men of business. You have shown me the light. I know I can get your money for you. Please, have mercy on my wife and children.”

Now, Ebenezer wasn’t a total Scrooge. He had “seen the ghosts,” so to speak. He could afford a little kindness. He responded to Jacob’s pleas.

“Jacob, you owe me a lot. It’s even a lot to me. If I owed that much money, I would need time to pay it off, too. In fact, I once owed a large sum. I needed money to get started in business, and had to take out a loan. I invested that money wisely, and in just a few years I was able to pay it back, with interest. Now, I know you haven’t made the smartest investments with what I loaned you. But, hey, not everybody has my business sense. What sort of loan repayment plan could we come up with to help you out?”

“Well, sir, I don’t …, “Jacob started.

“Hold up, Jacob. I know what you are going to say. There is no sort of arrangements that can be made that could help you pay off what you owe me. Right?”

Jacob just looked sheepishly back at him.

“There is one plan that would deal with all that debt. Only one, as far as I can tell. And I’m going to offer you that plan. What would you say if I just wrote it off as a bad debt? You don’t owe me anything.”

It’s a good thing Jacob was sitting down. Had he not been, he might have fainted. Such a huge debt, and Ebenezer was saying it was all forgiven; every T, every d. Jacob could continue to live in his lavish lifestyle. He didn’t have to worry about debt; at least not his own. He could still live high on the hog (except that hogs were forbidden). Maybe in the lap of luxury would be a more appropriate phrase. Not only could he live well, he could lend money and increase his wealth with the interest. He already had a number of people who owed him substantial sums. That is why he felt he could, in time, pay off what he owed to Ebenezer.

When Jacob got home, he opened his account books. Now, a lot of people owed him money, but one, Bob, was behind on repayment. Something had to be done about this.

Bob could usually be found nearby. He was often in the marketplace with others who were either looking for a job, or looking for someone to lend them a sum. So Jacob went looking for him. Nor was Bob hard to find. Jacob spotted him as soon as he entered the market square.

Although Bob was talking to friends, Jacob ran up to him, grabbed him by the arm, spun him around, and demanded, “Where is the money that you owe me? I want it paid right now!”

“And how much do I owe you?” Bob asked.

“You know very well how much. I sent you a bill last week. You owe me d100.”

Bob stood up and said, “But that’s three and a half months’ pay, assuming I don’t use any for living expenses. How do you expect me to get that today?”

Jacob grabbed him by the throat and demanded, “Pay me now! I don’t care how you get it. I don’t care if you starve. I want my money, and I want it today. You are already behind in paying it back.”

Bob pulled away, gasping for breath. He dropped to his knees, partly because he couldn’t stand and partly to assume an attitude of subservience.

“Please give me time. I will pay it all back. All I need is time.”

Jacob pulled him up and practically dragged him to the nearest magistrate. He lodged a formal complaint of debt. Without further ado, Bob was thrown into debtor’s prison.

A debtor’s prison is a strange concept. If you can’t pay a debt you get put in jail. One would think that in jail you would not have the opportunity to work off a debt, and it would run counter to logic. A debtor’s prison is more of a locked workhouse. Jobs are taken, and the inmates work as if in a factory; they get paid as if in a factory. The differences are that they cannot go home at the end of the shift, and their pay is given to the person to whom they owe the debt. Once that is paid off, then they are released. Such was the future Bob faced for at least four months. Probably more, because the prison had to take a cut for expenses in keeping Bob alive.

Jacob was perfectly within his rights to do what he did to poor Bob. Isn’t that what Ebenezer had threatened him with? It was legal, and even (in a sense) just. Nevertheless, there were those hanging around the marketplace that did not like Jacob’s methods. They liked them even less when the rumor spread about what had happened to Jacob himself. Here is a man who has been forgiven a debt of several hundred lifetimes, and he almost kills a man over a quarter-year debt! It might be just, but was it right?

They couldn’t help Bob directly. But some of them owed money to Ebenezer. They knew him, and could talk to him. So they called on him.

“Ebenezer, we all owe you a lot of money. We heard what you did for Jacob. Now, wait. Before you say anything hear us out. We aren’t asking that you forgive our debts. We owe you, and we have been paying on time. We just thought you should know how Jacob took your generosity.”

Thereupon they explained what had happened to Bob. They admitted that Ebenezer could forgive or demand payment as he chose. They just wanted to know if Jacob was really the sort of person to whom forgiveness of his debt was appropriate.

It was well known that Ebenezer could have a temper. Nobody present, though, had ever seen him get this angry. He was turning red in the face. His breath came in gasps, and he let out a scream like they had never heard. He sent one of them to bring in Jacob at once.

Jacob, likewise, had never seen Ebenezer this angry. Not even when he had begged for mercy for his debt had Ebenezer looked like this. He could do nothing but cower as his benefactor ranted.

“You wicked, wicked man! How could you do what you did to Bob? How much money did I A man has been forgiven a debt of several hundred lifetimes, and he almost kills a man over a quarter-year debt!forgive you? You have no idea! You know it was a huge sum. You knew you could never repay it. And I forgave you the debt. Every bit of it. And yet you can’t forgive a mere d100! Could you not forgive that paltry amount after what I forgave you? Well, if you cannot forgive, neither can I. I demand all you owed me.”

Jacob could not beg again. He knew it would do no good. He even understood that it would do no good to let Bob out and forgive his debt. The damage had already been done.

Again, a trip to the magistrate. Again, a complaint duly sworn. Again, a sentence. But this time it was worse. There was debtor’s prison, and there was the torturer. With the torturer, the debt would not be literally paid off in kind; instead it would be paid off in pain. Of course, before the torturer even began his job, all of Jacob’s assets were seized and turned over to Ebenezer. It was the difference that would be horribly exacted.

The Teacher sat back and let his story sink in. It was, after all, just a story. But it was more than that. After telling it, the Teacher just spoke one sentence.

He paused, and then he said, “So likewise will my heavenly Father do also unto you, if you from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their offences.”

From Matthew 18:23-35