Did Jesus Have a Split Personality About Money?

Listening to the Gospel, one could conclude superficially that Jesus had a split personality when it comes to money.

On the one hand, He routine condemns the rich for their hardness of heart.   On the other hand, with parables such as He it makes it clear that we should work as hard and as smart as possible (Matt. 25:14-30).

And we know that Jesus constantly preached a message of freedom:  Within Christianity, we find freedom — even if we are slaves.

Legalized slavery has gone away.  But it’s been replaced by a new form of slavery, one where we owe lots of money to banks and other financial institutions.

It’s easier to get into bone-crushing debt today than it was one or two generations ago because many of the government constraints that, frankly, kept people from getting in over their heads have been eliminated.

There was a time when consumer borrowing for the most part was limited to a car and, if you qualified, a house.  That’s because state usury laws kept interest rates charged to borrowers relatively low, and lenders knew if the customer couldn’t pay their debt, it came straight out of the lender’s bottom line.

All that changed in the 1980s, when Citibank found a way to escape usury limits by moving its credit card operation to South Dakota and then convinced the courts that since it was a national bank, usury limits in other states didn’t apply.

All of a sudden, people who hadn’t been able to get credit could — because the interest rates charged by the banks on credit cards were so high.  And they could get mortgages, because (1) banks could sell mortgages to private investors and (2) the private investors were effectively protected from loss because they were packaged into securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, two entities that had open lines to the U.S. Treasury.

What’s not to like?  After all, the banks could make a healthy return on credit cards and investors took virtually no risk when buying mortgage-backed securities.  And because the interest rates on credit cards were so high, once in debt people effectively could never get out of debt.  That’s a good deal for bankers, and a lousy deal for consumers.

The problem is, no one told consumers the game had changed:  The banks whom they used to trust to help them build their wealth by providing decent rates on savings accounts — 3% to 5% in the 1960s-80s — now were adopting practices that would effectively prevent them from getting ahead.

Personal finance columnists didn’t help, either.  They began talking about “good debt” such as mortgages and student loans.  They never talked about the dangers of piling up too much debt.

Later, those same personal finance columnists began writing books and giving tv talks on how to get free of credit card debt.

But they never offered a framework for how to construct a household budget in such a way as to stay out of debt, and, if you’re in debt, how to get out.  Instead, we were treated to discussions about giving up lattes, which would enable one to save a whopping $25 a week.

What was needed — what is still needed — is a simple, radical new way of looking at household finance.  We have the answer to that problem, and we’ll discuss that tomorrow.

It’s an important discussion, because we know what Jesus said happened to the servant who buried his master’s money, earning no interest.  Even those the master got every penny back, the servant was denounced, bound hand and foot and thrown out where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Like everything else, our Lord gives us money as a tool, and like everything thing else, he expects us to exercise dominion over it — not to allow it to exercise dominion over us.  That was, after all, the reason Jesus so often denounced “the rich” — it wasn’t because they were rich, but because they care more about their money than fair dealing and human values.  They allow money to exercise dominion over them.



About Joel Whitaker

Joel Whitaker is a long-time professional journalist (Tampa Bay Times, Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Bulletin, Institutional Investor, executive newsletters) and Catholic convert. He is the RCIA coordinator for his parish.
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