Our Role in Helping Others Out of Debt

This past week I got thinking about what the Bible teaches us about helping each other get out of debt. I have been studying personal finance for a few years and I recall reading something over the years which suggested taking extreme action against debt by cutting major living expenses; to the extreme of selling or renting their house and finding someone to live with in the meantime. With very low living expenses as a result, people could then make serious headway out of their debt! As my house is currently my only source of debt, I shrugged off this advice as something that didn’t really apply to me and probably better related to something a recent graduate with high student loans would say to their parents as they moved back into their old bedroom.

Or does it apply to me… in a different way?

I also recall thinking that while living with someone may be great for the debtor, what about the person whose house is invaded? What I did not think about at the time, was whether it is our responsibility as followers of Christ, to help others struggling with debt in such dramatic and simply put… inconvenient ways. This question came to mind as I recently read through 2 Kings 4.

Now the wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.” And Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me; what have you in the house?” And she said, “Your servant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil.” Then he said, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not too few.
– 2 Kings 4:1-3 –

So the woman heads out into her community, knocking on doors with her two sons to ask her neighbours if she could borrow some containers. I imagine the conversation to have gone something like:

Doorbell: <Ding Dong>
(Ok, so maybe they didn’t have doorbells back then, but this is my imagination!)
Neighbour: Hi Maureen.
(Let’s call her Maureen since we don’t know her name.)
Maureen: Hi Steve.
(The neighbor needs a name too right?)
Steve the Neighbour: What can I do for you today?
Maureen: Well, I was wondering if you had any empty oil jars I could borrow from you?
Steve: Um, I’ll have to check. “Hey Melinda do we have any empty oil jars?” <He shouts back to his wife>
Melinda <from somewhere inside the house>: Yeah, I think we’ve got two in the basement.
Steve: Just one sec Maureen, I’ll go grab them.

After a minute Steve returns with the two jars…
Steve: Here you go Marueen. I see your sons are carrying a bunch of jars back there. What do you need all these for?
Maureen: Well to be honest I don’t really know, but the prophet Elisha told me to ask my neighbours for a bit of help and that God would provide the rest.
Steve: Well glad we could help, I guess. I know you have been struggling since your husband died so feel free to keep those as long as you need them.
Maureen: Thanks Steve.
Steve: Take care Maureen.

The biblical narrative continues as Elisha instructs her further:

Then go in and shut the door behind yourself and your sons and pour into all these vessels. And when one is full, set it aside.” So she went from him and shut the door behind herself and her sons. And as she poured they brought the vessels to her. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” And he said to her, “There is not another.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your sons can live on the rest.”
– 2 Kings 4:4-7 –

Why did God do this miracle?

The issue that this woman is facing is that she recently lost her husband and therefore her family’s income stream at the same time. She is also deeply in debt and with no way to pay, she is going to have her sons taken away as payment the next time the creditor comes to collect. Having had a husband who honoured the Lord, Elisha and God team up to help her out.

Why did God ask her to borrow jars from her neighbours?

God was about to perform a miracle. He could have had the woman close the door to any room in her house and filled it with oil, money or even gold. No need for any interaction from anyone else. But that’s not what happened, God purposely involved her community.

I believe God included this small requirement to show us the role He wants us to play in accomplishing His work. In fact, the outcome of this story is directly dependent on the willingness of her neighbours to play their part. The amount of oil created, was exactly proportional to the amount of the jars that were lent to her. In this story, God uses this woman’s neighbours to help her get out of debt in a small but meaningful way. Being willing to say, “Here, use my two jars for as long as you need them.” is exactly what God tells us we need to do for one another because He can use our small contributions to fix a big problem.

So what does giving someone a jar look like today?

We may not use jars of oil so much today, so I tried to think of some contemporary ways we can offer “jars” to our neighbours:

  1. Give money (full jars)
    I wanted to touch on this first since giving money seems to be the go-to answer when we think of helping someone out of debt, both in and out of the Church. While it seems obvious that the solution to money problems is to pay some or all of the debt for them, I think this too often becomes a default answer that may not even address the problem. The old adage comes to mind – “Give a man a fish and feed him for a night, teach a man to fish and feed him for his life”. Sometimes people have to work themselves out of debt to really break the lifestyle that got them there in the first place. Tweet!  I think it is noteworthy that Elisha did not tell the woman to ask her neighbours for oil (read: money) directly; instead he had her go looking for empty jars that God could use.
  2. Give time (little jars)
    People in debt sometimes need to free up a some extra working hours in order to dig themselves out of debt. Why not give them a small “jar” by looking after their kids one night a week or mowing their lawn and tidying their garden on a Saturday morning. Even preparing a few meals can give someone that 4-6 hours of overtime they need. The less they have to do at home, the more chance they can work their way out of their debt.
  3. Reduce minor expenses (medium jars)
    Instead of giving money, how about taking care of some of their expenses. Bringing them groceries, taking their car in for an oil change or buying them a gift card from the local gas station can go a long way to relieving a stretched budget. Little things like this add up, especially when done by a group of families and can free up some serious cash which can be funneled towards the debt.
  4. Reduce major expenses (large jars)
    If you have been blessed to find yourself in a good financial position, this is where you can lend your neighbours some SERIOUSLY LARGE JARS! I’m talking about stepping in for those major expenses. Giving someone a car when their’s breaks down or perhaps getting them some needed new tools for their labourer job. To bring us full circle, you could invite them to live with you for a short time and totally eliminate their living expenses while they work their way out of debt!

Do you have any jars to offer?

Have I gone too far? Is inviting someone to live in your home (perhaps even a whole family) too big of a stretch compared with lending out some empty oil jars in an Old Testament story? I don’t think so. I think this is exactly the kind of community God calls us to form with one another. You may or may not feel like you have any spare jars to share right now. In fact you may even need a jar in the short term and that’s OK. But as we work hard, manage our money wisely and grow our wealth we will find that we start to have a few empty jars around to share with our neighbours when they need them. Just know that God can work a miracle with any sized jar. Tweet!

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