Sunday, December 14, 2008


Matthew 1:21 “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

It’s almost Christmas and we’re in the midst of economic crisis. When it’s Christmas time and banks are failing; when Congress is trying to decide if US automakers deserve a bailout, this season gives us stories to ponder.

We’ll get back to the biblical Christmas story in a moment, but there’s another Christmas story that speaks to our situation quite directly. “It’s A Wonderful Life.” We often remember this classic film simply as showing how our lives have ripples out well beyond what we can see. We remember how Clarence the angel gets his wings by showing George Bailey how different (in a bad way) the lives of his family and friends would have been without him, thus convincing him not to end his life.

But what I want to remember now is that the plot device of the story is a large corporate bank (owned by Mr. Potter) trying to own a town and, through scheming and corruption, put the only competition—the Bailey Savings and Loan—out of business. The economic story in “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a perfect education in fundamental banking systems. We see the seamy side as Mr. Potter is exposed as a slum lord who will quickly foreclose on someone to gain a buck and who will steal from the competition to put them out of business. And, of course, we see the good that banks were meant to do when Potter causes a run on the Bailey Savings and Loan and people try to take out all their money.

Faced with angry customers, George tries to explain to them:
No, but you...you...you're thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The, the money's not here. Well, your money's in Joe's house...that's right next to yours. And in the Kennedy House, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and, and a hundred others. Why, you're lending them the money to build, and then, they're going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?

The bank closes $2 in the black and is saved. Potter, of course, is not done and later steals $8,000 during an audit and then threatens to have George jailed for misappropriation of funds. That prompts George’s suicidal thoughts, which is when Clarence the angel steps in. The film closes on Christmas day with the loyal friends that George has made through his generosity bringing as much money as each one can, capped with a telegram from his old buddy, Sam Wainwright, promising a $25,000 bailout.

I think many are offended by the bailout of the financial system because the criterion for receiving funds has been whether an institution is “too big to fail” not whether their practices have been good and fair. By the government’s criteria, Potter would get the bailout and George Bailey would go under. But let’s circle back to the Christmas story. Another way to talk about the birth of the Savior is to talk about the birth of the bailout, because that, in essence, is what saviors do. We call it grace, or mercy, or forgiveness, but we’re all there as sinners with our hands out.

The rest of the Gospels try to give us an insider’s view into how Jesus makes bailout decisions. Moneychangers in the Temple are going home empty-handed. The woman caught in adultery is pardoned with a warning to “go and sin no more.” Blind Bartimaeus, who keeps hollering at Jesus until Jesus pays attention and stops, gets a full healing while presumably those who were not the “squeaky wheel” are left in their condition. Those who fail to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. step into a handbasket bound for you know where, but a thief being executed for his crime gets full absolution, simply by acknowledging that he deserves what he’s getting and asking Jesus to remember him. The rich young ruler was offered a bailout but turned it down when he learned that the terms included his willingness to bailout others. Of course that is how Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (The economic “debts” reflects the original Greek much better than “trespasses” or the more generic “sins.”)

Make this Christmas relevant to our time by using it to think about bailouts. Watch “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and think about whether some banks really should get some help and why. Read not only the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke but the rest of at least one of the Gospels. Think about who Jesus bailed out and why. Then do the hard part. Think about what sort of a bailout you need at this point in your life, and then turn to the one born to “save his people from their sins.” I have always found him to be more merciful than I am. Maybe Lehman Brothers should have thought of that.

Labels: , , , , ,