Summary: Debt can be a good thing, spiritually; we owe debts to those who have shaped us, both negatively and positively, and pay that back by sharing in mutual respect and by offering the good news to a generation yet to come.
How do you feel about debt? Do you like debt? Do you take pleasure in interest payments?
How many of you say, “Oh, Mr. Greenspan, please don’t lower the interest rate again. I want to pay more. I love debt.” Can I get a show of hands? I thought not. You don’t like debt. I don’t like debt, either. But it can be a good thing.
The other day I drove my car into a service station, filled it up, presented the credit card, and signed the slip without even looking. Just an ordinary credit card transaction. But that night, when I got home and was ready to record the day’s business in my computer, I discovered that the clerk had made a mistake, and, although I had bought $22.50 worth of gasoline, he had keyed in only $2.25! Not much of a mistake, right? It’s only a zero! Except that it shorted the gas station by more than $20.00. Well, what do you think I did? After a whoop and a holler about free gasoline, I began to think. That was a legitimate debt, and I owed it. So the next day I took that receipt and a $20.00 bill and plunked them down at the service station, to the great astonishment of the manager. But I knew that if you are in debt, you want to be clear, so you pay. None of us like debt.
I have a friend who was almost obsessive about paying his debts. He would get home from work, get the mail out of the box, and before doing anything else, would go to his desk and write checks to cover his bills. All of that before dinner or even, “Honey, I’m home”. Now that’s not liking debt. But do you know what happened to my friend? He lost his job. Suddenly he didn’t have the money to pay his bills obsessively. In fact, he had to borrow just to get the necessities taken care of. It was hard. But his wife said to me, “This is the best thing that has ever happened to my husband. Now he knows that he is not self-sufficient. Now he understands that debt just means that we are human, that we need other people.”
We may not like debt, but it can be a good thing. Debt can be a very good thing spiritually, because it reminds us that we are connected with others and that we need others. The most important debts you owe are spiritual debts. These debts involve no cash; they are spiritual debts.
Paul spoke of being in debt. He thought of himself as spiritually in debt to some very interesting groups of people:
I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.
Now what does that mean? I could understand Paul saying that he was in spiritual debt to the Jews, his religious and racial heritage. I could understand Paul saying that he was debtor to his old teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel. But debtor to the Greeks? Debtor to the barbarians? What has he received from them?
I hear Paul saying that he has been shaped, and is therefore in debt, to all who have influenced him, all who have challenged him. Paul is in debt to those who confronted him and shaped him. Like Ulysses in the Odyssey who says, “I am a part of all that I have met”, Paul also is a part of all who have bumped heads with him. He is debtor to all who have challenged him. Let’s think about that a little.
Paul says he is debtor to the Greeks, to the wise, scholarly, intellectual Greek world. Paul was truly one of the great intellects of human history. I think even non-Christians will agree with that. Paul had the ability to see clearly and dig deeply. His was the great mind that could grasp ideas and then communicate them with passion. Paul was in debt to the Greek, cultured, intellectual world of his day. It was the Greeks who by their philosophy taught the world to think logically. It was the cultured sophisticates of the Greek world who provided the language in which Paul wrote. When I think of Paul, standing on Mars Hill in the city of Athens, I think of someone very comfortable in the intellectual debates of the day. I see Paul as very comfortable in that Greek world, even though it did not know Christ. He felt at home, and he learned from them. He was debtor to the Greeks.
But then, by contrast, Paul says he is debtor to the barbarians, to the foolish, wild, untamed, uncivilized barbarians. Ancient people used the word “barbarian” to refer to anybody outside their classical culture. Germanic tribes; North African goat herders; middle Eastern Bedouins – if they couldn’t speak Greek or Latin, if they had no laws, no cultural institutions, according to the ancient world, they were barbarians. They were little better than wild animals, they were the scum of the earth, they were nobody’s nothing. But Paul says that he owes a debt even to these barbarians. Even to those who were utterly unlike him; even to those who did not have appreciate his thinking or understand his way of life; even to those who could not have cared less about Christ – even to these Paul was debtor.