by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

November, 2008

In discussions of the current financial crisis, the expression “toxic debt” has become part of the conversation, especially in Europe and the UK. Interestingly, these “debts” were originally considered assets; in fact, the term “toxic assets” is sometimes used instead of “toxic debts.” These debts—such as so-called “subprime” home mortgages—were considered assets on the grounds that someone might actually repay them someday but are now essentially worthless.

I don’t pretend to know any more about the economy than anyone else. I took one semester of Economics in college years ago and beyond that I only know what I read in the newspaper and magazines and what I hear on the radio. But I know enough to recognize a problem. The current situation will ultimately affect us all unless something is done: Companies may not be able to pay their employees. Students will be less able to get student loans. Ordinary people will have trouble buying cars, homes, or getting other credit. Retirement accounts will be worth less. These “toxic debts” have poisoned the entire economy.

In the same way, the world has a problem with spiritual poison. Moses told the people of Israel, “‘It may be that there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart is already turning away from the Lord our God to serve the gods of those nations. It may be that there is among you a root sprouting poisonous and bitter growth.’” (Deut. 29:18 NRSV). Moses knew that a few disobedient members of the community could disrupt everyone’s relationship with God.

Jesus told his disciples, “‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’” (Matt. 16:6b NRSV). When they didn’t understand, he explained to the disciples that he was referring to “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt. 16:12b NRSV). The Pharisees and Sadducees were poisoning the people in their relationship with God through their legalistic teachings.

Among physical poisons, some are so deadly that only a small amount is fatal. These include botulinum, the toxin that causes botulism (a teaspoon full could kill seven million people); the radioactive element polonium 210; and ricin, which is made from castor beans (twice as deadly as cobra venom: two-tenths of a milligram is a lethal dose—I even found instructions for making it while researching this column!) Similarly, Paul warned the Christians in Corinth, “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” (1 Cor. 5:6b NRSV). He urged them to “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. . . . not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor. 5:7a, 8b NRSV).

Paul told the Romans, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23 NRSV). If you or I knew that someone near us had been poisoned—and especially if we knew where to find the antidote—surely we’d try to do something about it. And yet, we stand by and watch while the people around us are dying from the poison of sin. But there is an antidote for this poison: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Rom. 8:2 NRSV). Christ has paid the price for the antidote to sin. We owe it to everyone around us to tell them about the deadly poison of sin—and the marvelous antidote of God’s  grace.

“So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom. 8:12-17 NRSV.)

Copyright © 2008 by David Phelps