Today Catholic Christians celebrate the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time.
On this day, we hear some wise advice from St. Paul. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13: 8).
This homily focuses on the first part of this passage, that is, to owe nothing to anyone, rather than on the second part of the passage concerning the love of others.
Paul’s words are as meaningful today as they were over 2,000 years ago, for we know that debt can have disastrous effects on our lives. That is what happened to a young woman named Jackie.
Jackie is a young art teacher who had a dream of going to school in New York to get a Master of Fine Arts in documentary film. She had visions of making films about world hunger and other world-changing themes. When she and her husband learned that they would probably never be able to have children, Jackie’s husband gave his blessing for her to go for her dream.
With student loans totaling about $120,000, Jackie went to Hofstra University in New York. There, she studied full-time for three years. In those three years, she also got grants to travel to Africa to make films about charity work and wildlife conservation. When the three years were finished, Jackie had her MFA in documentary film.
When she returned from the university, Jackie went back to teaching art in public schools. Her plan was to do that until her documentaries began to sell and then she might be able to teach on the university level.
To her amazement, Jackie became pregnant. She and her husband were thrilled with the news, but they had just bought a little house that needed work. They had not expected their family to ever grow beyond themselves.
During the pregnancy, Jackie received word from a company that promised to get her into a loan forgiveness program. The company told Jackie that if she gave them $550 up front and paid them $49 each month, they would be able to lower her $834 per month student loan repayment plan.
That sounded very good to Jackie, so she signed up with the company. As promised, they did lower her monthly payment after gathering all her paperwork and updated tax information.
After a couple of years of paying the company $49 per month, Jackie decided that she probably had enough information to be able to do the process by herself now. She was in for a great shock, however, when she got her bill, it said she owed $815 per month to pay back her student loan.
When she investigated, she discovered that the company had submitted papers indicating false information. The papers had Jackie’s nickname instead of her legal name, for example, and the papers said that Jackie had four children who were dependent on her. It also had her incorrect email address, and her taxes had been submitted separately instead of jointly with her husband.
Now, Jackie is sick with worry. The joy of having a new baby is coupled with great economic fear. She and her husband are fearful of one day becoming homeless, and Jackie feels that falling for this scam was the worst thing she could have done for her family.
Fortunately, not all people who seek loan consolidation have incompetent companies. Some get legitimate help from legitimate companies.
The moral of Jackie’s story, though, is that debt can be a very dangerous thing. Here are three things we should realize.
First, debt can cause problems in many realms of our lives, realms such as mental health, spirituality, physical health, family relationships, friendship circles, leisure, work, school, legal status, finances, and significant other relationships. Persons in serious debt from credit cards, medical emergencies, student loans, or whatever, know that this debt is like a never-ending burden that dogs them every waking hour, and such debt sours one’s life satisfaction in profound ways. Nobody is called to live that way.
Second, competent financial advisors advise people to live below their means. Living above our means is a recipe for disaster, and living within our means is very risky because we do not know what will happen in the future to the economy, our jobs, our health, and the like. Further, financial advisors tell us we should know, in advance, what things cost, something many Americans refuse to do. Today, for example, a two-parent middle class couple will spend just under a quarter of a million dollars to raise a child from birth to age 17. This amount does not, of course, cover higher education expenses. Many couples refuse to acknowledge this and, in fact, get angry at even receiving the information.
The third point is not something from the Bible directly. Rather, it is something I have learned from my own life. I have learned that for the most part, it does not matter from what university people get their degree. Rather, what matters is what they do with the degree once they obtain it. I know so many people from non-prestigious universities who are highly successful because they are hard workers, and I know many people who have degrees from prestigious universities who have little to show for their lives because they are not hard workers.
As we continue our life journeys this week, it would be a good idea to reflect on how we view debt and how we try to live below our means.
And that is the good news I have for you on this Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2017.
Story source: Jackie. “Jackie’s Debt.” firstname.lastname@example.org, August 13, 2017.