Today’s Gospel reading from Luke has Jesus telling one of his most baffling parables. It prompted me to look up a bunch of Greek verbs, and to explore a variety of scholarly interpretations. Our Bible study group wrestled with it, trying to determine who the landowner represented and how he obtained his wealth. We wondered if the manager was supposed to be doing a noble thing, cutting his own profit margin, when he offered reduced amounts to the debtors. We contemplated 1st century agricultural practices and European feudal system relationships. I wrote an entire (not-very-good) sermon about this parable, which I preached here on Thursday night.
And then, after worship on Thursday night, I went home and watched the news. The lead story was that the House of Representatives had voted to cut almost $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is the newest name for food stamps. And then I knew I was going to have to write a new sermon. Because I don’t know what to say about Jesus’ story about the dishonest manager, but I know exactly what to say about a group of leaders who were elected to care for the citizens of this nation voting to take food out of the mouths of the most needy!
And the thing is, I don’t even have to come up with original language for it! The Bible is packed with messages about that subject! It’s all right there in our first lesson from Amos! “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land. … The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. … I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation.”
So I am not going to preach about Jesus’ perplexing parable—though if anyone can enlighten me about it, I appreciate your sharing with me after worship. Instead, I am going to preach about money. I will not say anything terribly original. I don’t need to. The Bible contains more than five hundred references to prayer and almost five hundred references to faith, but it contains more than two thousand references to money and possessions! Out of thirty-eight parables Jesus tells in the Gospels, sixteen deal with how we handle our money. Jesus said more about money and possessions than about heaven and hell combined. One out of every ten verses in the Gospels deals with money or possessions– 288 verses in the four Gospels. So I don’t need to come up with anything new to say. I’m just going to say what has already been said and urge us to consider what we are supposed to do about it.
I know that we elect our representatives, in part, to make some hard choices about our national budget. SNAP is a teeny-tiny portion of it with a far-reaching impact. 72% of the people who need nutritional assistance are families with children. 5.5 MILLION single parents receive SNAP benefits. (Now people can say all kinds of things about how folks abuse the system, and I know that they do, but studies have been done that indicate SNAP is one of the LEAST abused programs our government provides. Anyway, that’s beside the point). The point is that if the US Senate also votes to approve this bill, literally millions of kids will be going to school hungry. Oh, and did I mention that many of them will also no longer be eligible for free or reduced school lunches?
Only legislators with full bellies could have passed such hard-hearted legislation.
“But what does any of this have to do with me?” you might be wondering. “I didn’t vote for this bill. Why talk about the government when we are in church?” I have a couple of responses to that. One is that we ARE the government, and if our elected leaders don’t act on our values and our convictions about what is just and fair, we have to do something about it. More than that, this is a topic for a sermon because we ARE our brothers and sisters keepers! Caring for the poor and hungry is our primary response to a loving God. When we see the most vulnerable among us being abused, we have to stand up for them and protect them.
Amos didn’t plan to be a prophet. He was a shepherd. I imagine he would much rather have been about the business of tending to his sheep than warning the people in another land to listen to God. But God opened his eyes to see what was happening around him–and what he saw made him open his mouth. Like Amos, when we see this kind of corruption, we cannot be silent. We have to tell the people who are “trampling the needy” and “bringing to ruin the poor of the land” that we will not stand for it. GOD will not stand for it! We must discourage well-to-do people with power from promoting their own welfare while neglecting those for whom they are responsible.
We live in the wealthiest country in the world. Right AFTER he tells his baffling parable, Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Just like that. Not that we shouldn’t, or that it would be difficult to do so, but that we CANNOT serve both God and wealth. Whatever he wanted his hearers to get out of the story about the dishonest manager, this he says quite clearly: You cannot serve both God and money.
But, you might say, “I’m not in the Congress. I didn’t do anything wrong. Instead of railing about those inept legislators, why isn’t our pastor encouraging us to get busy making sandwiches to hand out to kids?” Well, I might do that too. But right now I want to make sure we see how Thursday’s vote really is OUR problem, and not just a problem for the legislature in Washington DC.
We live in a society where some people accept the idea that rich people can do whatever they want, and the Church should take care of the rest. That there is nothing wrong with the rich getting richer and everyone else getting poorer. Maybe that’s the problem Jesus was addressing in his parable about a dishonest manager and probably-just-as dishonest master. They were part of a corrupt system—the very one Amos railed against generations before. The wealthy landowner was collecting debts from the farmers who worked his land (the original sharecroppers). Why were their debts so high? When the manager slashed the amount due to his master, was he simply eliminating the interest due on the original loan? Was he cutting out his own profit margin? Can you imagine a society where the bankers would charge excessive interest or reap inordinate profits at great cost to those to those who borrowed money?
Jesus seems to be saying that when the premise of wealth is already that it’s being misused, then we ought to be shrewd about navigating the system. Like the people of Amos’ time or Jesus’ time, we are all tangled up in an unjust society. We all know that we live on stolen land, that we are the beneficiaries of past ethnic cleansing. We know that a disproportionately tiny number of people in this nation have the vast majority of the money. We know that many people are struggling just to get by—some of them in this very room! Some people in this very city live in tents and eat what they can find in garbage cans. Those we’ve elected to govern our community are not serving the ones who need them most, and lobbyists are making a fortune because of it. Children and the elderly and veterans and many more who are unable to defend themselves are suffering as a result. So that’s our context. The question is, how do we deal with it?
Maybe this example from Peter Rollins’ book How (Not) to Talk About God will help: imagine you are living in occupied Poland in the 1940s. There are people hiding in your cellar. If they are caught they will be sent to a camp–maybe Auschwitz or Stutthof. One day SS soldiers come to your door and ask you, “Do you have anyone hiding in your cellar?” What do you say? Do you tell the truth according to the system? If you say, “Yes,” they are dead. But if you say, “No,” the system in place considers your statement a lie. And yet, in another system–in the community of God—it is the truth. Because the SS has no claim over the lives of those people. So is there anyone in the cellar whose life they can lay claim to? No; there is not.
In the world of the land owner in today’s parable, he controls the cogs and the wheels of the system because he’s the one with the money and power. It’s a poisonous system because it rewards the privileged on the backs of those who go without. But in the system of God, where we serve God and not money, it is not so. In God’s kingdom, forgiveness of debt is lauded over due payment. In God’s kingdom, children and others with no political clout matter as much as lobbyists do. The “honesty” of the system of Caesar/Empire/power is dishonesty, and being “dishonest” in the system of Empire is honesty. This is God’s way.
So the message seems to be, if the whole system is corrupt, work around it. Do the best you can for the sake of relationships. That is what the dishonest manager does. He capitalizes on good will that comes from using money to make friends. Think of how you would feel if your biggest credit card company called to say, “You know that outstanding balance you have been carrying? We’ve decided you don’t have to pay it all back. How does 50% sound to you?” Can you even imagine what good PR that could be? I’d be a loyal customer there for the rest of my life! No doubt the relationships between the debtors and the manager and his boss are all strengthened on the basis of this gracious debt forgiveness. The landowner can’t be TOO disappointed, because to get 50 barrels of olive oil is surely better than getting none. It may not be everything, but it’s something. Everyone benefits from this crafty arrangement. So here’s what I take away: 1) money is good only insofar as we use it to nurture relationships, and 2) like a hot potato, we’ve got to keep passing it along.
But where is God in all of this? Where’s the Gospel? All of this seems to be about OUR right behavior, and the Gospel, the Good News, is supposed to be about God’s behavior, not ours. So where’s the Gospel for today? I found it in the appointed psalm. (I know people expect to find the Gospel in the New Testament reading, but isn’t it just like God to work outside of the system? Even if the system is the lectionary?)
For me the Good News is this: “The Lord raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. God gives the barren woman a home, make her the joyous mother of children.” Whatever else is true, it is true that GOD is going to take care of people. Whether we correctly interpret Scripture, or act on its teachings, God will care for us and every little part of creation. Everything we have and everything we are, are gifts from God. The stars, the trees, the oceans, our lives, our friends, every single thing in the whole cosmos is God’s! God has chosen to share it all with us, and given these blessings over to our care. Even when we are not responsible stewards of God’s gifts, God does not fire us, give us our two weeks notice. Instead God comes to us with more blessings—abundant forgiveness, and grace and hope and God’s own presence in the our midst.
God nurtures our relationships, gifts us with intelligence and creativity and resources, and says, “Here. Try again.” Not only, it seems, do we trust God to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but apparently God trusts us to do the same! Let us rejoice in a God who not only desires that the whole creation flourish, but also empowers us to be active agents in bringing about such abundance.
~Pastor Susan Schneider