One of the themes that has echoed and re-echoed across this nation after our housing bubble went inevitably kerpop is that of fairness. Millions of folks bought houses that were utterly beyond their means, homes that were either too big or...more likely...whose value had been absurdly inflated by relentless churning speculation.
Those struggling homeowners soon found themselves deep "underwater," as their equity dried up and their income took a hit from the crumbling job market. It weren't just a few folks, neither. Last year, 2.8 million American households faced foreclosure, a rate that is on track to hit 3 million even in 2010. The sheer volume of collapse hasn't just stirred a government response. Banks, realizing that they can't manage or sell that many homes, have often been renegotiating the interest on the loans for these houses. But that hasn't always been enough.
This last week, some banks have started to reduce the amount of principal as well. Meaning, they're deciding, heck, remember that $475,000 townhouse you took out a jumbo loan to purchase in 2008 right before your wife lost her job? The one that's worth $275,000 now? Let's make that a $300,000 loan instead! It's the only way to keep folks in their homes, and while it's a desperation measure, it works best for the banks and for those who would otherwise find themselves out of a place to live.
For some of us who bought smaller and earlier, and who've never ever not once even come close to missing a mortgage payment, this can seem, like, TOTALLY unfair. We were wise. Diligent. Aware of market dynamics. Focused on living within our means. We saw the bubble for what it was, to the point of solemnly warning folks we knew not to buy at the peak of the market. And I did utter that warning, over and over again.
But the world is full of fools and dreamers, suckers ready to believe something that is obviously too good to be true. Why should they be rewarded or cut slack? They should bear the penalty of their stupidity. Moving their family of five into Grandma and Grandpa's basement for three or four years is the only way they'll ever learn to stop making dumb decisions. They made the bed. Let 'em sleep in it. Or on the street. Whichever.
Problem is, self-righteousness and an overdeveloped sense of what is and isn't fair have no place in the heart of a Jesus follower. That was, as I recall, the whole point of that little story he told about the laborers in the vineyard. That story, of course, had mostly to do with quelling the spiritual resentments of those who have always done what's right. We want to be rewarded, and we want our reward to be bigger than the reward of those who come stumbling into the Kingdom at the last moment.
As an ethic, though, it reminds us that Christians don't desire others to suffer. We are not to want others to be diminished or humiliated. Period.
If we find ourselves grumbling because someone is being given another chance, or forgiven a debt, then something has gone very very wrong with our faith. When we allow ourselves to want that suffering as just recompense for cluelessness, or want others to be cut down a notch or two because it's what they deserve, then the spirit of grace that lies at the beating heart of Christ is no longer within us.