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Jesus wasn’t shy about mentioning money and economic justice.
Even his instructions about how to beseech God, known in the New Testament as the Lord’s Prayer, included this line: Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
Those words have been translated differently in various Christian traditions, but the message is largely the same across denominations: Don’t be stingy with forgiveness — whether it applies to finances or sins or hurts of any kind.
But it has taken on new, and urgent, meanings in the time of a global pandemic — when newly unemployed workers struggle to pay rents and mortgages, lenders large and small look for ways to cover their bills, and businesses scramble to keep staffers on the payroll as their revenues crater or even disappear.
“We are called to live generous, openhanded lives,” says the Rev. Steve Aeschbacher of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Salt Lake City. “Being sympathetic to the circumstances of other people is really important.”
The relevance of Jesus’ statements about debt during the coronavirus reminds him that Christians, particularly in England, proposed making 2000 a jubilee year, during which first world countries would forgive debts incurred by developing nations.
These days at his church, Aeschbacher says, members are trying to figure out how to continue their humanitarian efforts, including serving meals at the Ronald McDonald House when they can’t even meet or touch.
People of faith ought to be considering “what love is like in a time when other folks are in challenging circumstances,” he says, “not just what are our rights.”
To Pastor Terry Long of Calvary Chapel, an evangelical Christian church in Murray, Christ’s message about debt was that to be forgiven, people must forgive.
Most of his current sermons are about “teaching people to trust God,” Long says, "when it’s hard.”
He has seen friends lose jobs and face tough challenges.
“As a church family, we try to pull together and help each other,” he says. “We are able to keep our church and thrift store staff on salary, even though no one’s working.”
‘Humbled all of us’
The virus has “humbled all of us,” says the Rev. Steve Klemz of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church. “Our priorities have changed toward more love of neighbors.”
He welcomes talk of debt relief and the jubilee as he sees the jobless ranks skyrocket.
His east-side Salt Lake City church houses a preschool, and the teachers, while social distancing, are still being paid.
As part of his faith, the longtime Lutheran is committed to greater economic equality and less seeking for riches.
“The world would be better off if people tried to become better,” Klemz quotes Catholic Worker founder Peter Maurin, saying, “and people would become better if they stopped trying to be better off.”
In the Methodist tradition, the word “debt” in the Lord’s Prayer is translated as “trespasses,” says the Rev. Elizabeth McVicker of First United Methodist Church. It’s more about sin and redemption than money.
Still, she is talking to her parishioners about how they can help one another during this time.
“This is all such a shock; everything has changed so quickly,” says the minister of the historic downtown Salt Lake City church. “I’m just trying to help them cope with their lives.”
Many who aren’t experiencing financial hardship are wanting to help those who are, McVicker says, by contributing to a fund set up for them.
But the church itself is experiencing a “substantial decrease in giving because we aren’t meeting on Sundays,” she says, and can’t physically pass the collection plate.
'Are we not all beggars?"
For members of Utah’s predominant faith, Jesus’ talk of forgiving others’ debts echoes the words of a prophet/king in the Book of Mormon, the signature scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
King Benjamin condemns those who withhold their means and argue that the poor brought their misery upon themselves.
“O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God,” the scripture says. “For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?”
In a 2014 sermon, Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland used this verse to admonish members to help the poor in any way they could.
“I don’t know exactly how each of you should fulfill your obligation to those who do not or cannot always help themselves,” Holland told his listeners at the fall General Conference. “But I know that God knows, and he will help you and guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment he has given us again and again.”
The Salt Lake City-based faith has provided support, supplies and funding around the globe during these times as part of its mission, according to Sharon Eubank, who directs Latter-day Saint Charities, in partnership with other Christian groups.
That resonates with the Rev. Martin Diaz, priest at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in downtown Salt Lake City.
Forgiveness of debt is complicated, Diaz says. The church helps individuals pay rent but would also aid some landlords with crushing obligations.
In this time of unemployment and distress, the Catholic priest says, “every one of our parishes has resources to help.”
His sermons have always, not just in the current crisis, focused on trying to get people to be more kind, more considerate, less self-centered and more oriented toward the needs of others.
“Capitalism is as evil as communism for a Christian, making people seek their own good,” Diaz says. “The virus has pushed us to realize we are all one humanity.”
Once the virus is over, he fears, “we’ll go back to being selfish.”