Week of Sunday 19 September: Pentecost 17
Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”
3Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.”
5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.”7Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.”
8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
The parable in this week’s gospel is difficult for a rich Australian to understand, but it all comes down to this: No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
This parable highlights the absolute divide between two worlds. There is the world governed by the Gods of wealth and privilege, and the world of God the truly Divine. We are challenged, “Which one will you serve?”
And we are warned, if you cannot serve God the truly Divine, the real God, in the little ways of this life, how can you think you will be found worthy of the life of God? It says, “if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” It is very easy to hear Luke saying “how can you think you will be found worthy of the life to come,” but the life of God, the receiving of what Jesus called “your own”, the life in the Kingdom, starts now. If we make the wrong choice about serving God or mammon, the consequences for our life experience are immediate.
Let’s look at the background of the parable, because on the surface, read with our eyes, it seems like Jesus is praising, as we would say, “a very dodgy operator, who sails pretty close to the wind.” And that’s being nice about the manager. Why would Jesus praise him? In fact, the manager does the praising, and Jesus is talking about something else. Let's look again:
We have this thing called the Australian Dream, which has got something to do with owning your own house, everyone getting a fair go, and having plenty of meat for the barbecue, and beer, if you want it. In Israel, the dream was much more clearly laid down than ours. It was even enshrined in the law.
They understood how God intended the world to work, and wrote it down. It was called the law of Jubilee. Basically this meant,
1. Let the land periodically lie fallow in order to restore itself,
2. Forgive all debts every seven years,
3. release all slaves every seven years,
4. and redistribute the land so that all extended families received an equitable amount of the land every 49 years.
I’ve taken this neat summary from Dr Robert Linthicum, but you can also find it in the bible. Read Leviticus Chapter 25. There’s some strange stuff in Leviticus, from our perspective. But this chapter will blow you away.
Jubilee was a social strategy designed to stop people from getting too poor, and to stop other people getting too rich and powerful. It was a strategy to make the Promised Land something like what we would call Heaven on Earth; life as God means it to be.
Dr Linthicum says, and he is right,
The Jesus in Luke was about the restoration of the entirety of Jubilee and thus the leveling of Jewish society so that there were no powerful and wealthy forces exercising domination over the rest. To Jesus, this was not simply an economic and political task, but a religious task as well – for only by eliminating poverty and powerlessness would the nation ever discover the spirituality and relationship with God that God had always intended Israel to experience. This was the world as God intended it to be.
This means that for Luke, being rich is a problem. It’s only by the grace of God, if we take Jesus’ words, that a rich person can enter the kingdom of heaven.
Another way to understand this is to look at how we treat the poor. We often treat them with suspicion. It’s probably their fault. All too often, they have to prove themselves to be worthy of help. In one CentreLink office we had to visit when we received child allowance it was clear: We were guilty until proven innocent. Luke reverses this: essentially, the rich are “guilty until proven innocent .”
There was a reason for this. Scholars are unanimous that life in Jesus’ time was nothing like it should have been. Linthicum says that in Jesus’ time
there was both a significant and growing [gap] between the peasants and the powerful. Between 60% and 70% of the wealth of Israel at any given time was owned and managed by 2% of the population -- Israel’s religious/political leaders, the Herodian nobility and the land owners … along with their bureaucrats or managers…
These are the people in our parable, the rich man and his manager. They got there by being merciless. As my colleague John Petty says, “If you couldn't pay your debts, so much the better. They'd just take your land. If you didn't have any land left, they might take your daughter.” The rich lived in total contradiction of the laws of Jubilee, and thus the wishes of God.
The peasants, on the other hand, made up between 83% and 93% of the population … the peasants… perennially lived on the edge of economic disaster. Farmers, for example, didn’t own the land they farmed but rented it from the land owners mentioned above.
Typically, 50% of their harvest would be paid as rent to the land owner, 25% would go in taxes to Rome and the Herodian nobility, 10% went to the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and 3% would go to the village. Thus, each farmer realized only about 12% of his harvest, which had to be spent both on the family’s annual income and next year’s seed.
This is the life for which the manger knew he was not strong enough. Begging would mean being poorer again.
The way the system worked was that the manager ran the day to day business for the rich man. Periodically he was asked to “give an account of his management.” It meant he had to show how he had run things to make money for the boss; an audit. From day to day, the boss was not much interested in how things ran, except this rich man had heard on the grapevine that the manager was living high on the hog.
Everyone knew that managers took a cut. Everyone knew that when the bill was for 50 barrels of oil, the manager would charge for 60, or 70, or more, and keep the difference. As long as the rich men got plenty they didn’t worry. It was an incentive for the managers to work hard. But this manager had been a little too free and easy with the boss’s business. And when the boss said “Bring in the books for audit,” he knew he was in trouble. He would be sacked.
He pulled off an incredibly smart move. Basically, he "wrote off" his own cut. He let people rewrite their bills. (You wrote out your own invoice in those times; the proof that a bill was real and legitimate was that it was written in your own handwriting!) So all the people in debt to the rich man suddenly got a huge discount. The rich man got all his invoices paid early, and didn’t acutally lose anything, because the manager just discounted his own cut.
So, the rich man is in front financially. He also looks good in everyone’s eyes, because he has (apparently) been pious, godly and generous, and given huge discounts. He is also caught. If he sacks the manager now, he’ll look bad, not pious. After all, what kind of person would sack such a godly manger? He’ll also look like a fool, because he will be publically admitting he let himself be cheated. And he has no proof anyway, because you can bet the manager has burned all the original bills. So it will be very easy for the rich man to tell himself that the manager has done him a real service, and that the business will benefit! Although, we can bet future audits will be more frequent, and less cursory!
The manager is way in front. He gets to keep his job, he looks like a very pious, godly man because he has been merciful to the debtors, and they all love him, and are not only obliged, but will be happy to look out for him in future. In fact, he is probably better off than he was before he was caught! This is one very clever operator.
He is totally committed to looking after number one. He will do whatever it takes. And we can bet that audits or not, he will be finding some other way to keep his nest well lined. And this time he'll stay below the boss's radar. He knows the ways of the world. He is, to use Jesus’ word, shrewd.
Jesus listeners all understood this. They didn’t need my complicated explanation. They lived in this world. They knew how business worked, and how the rich ripped them off.
Jesus said And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
Jesus’ listeners knew that “the people who …“get ahead” in this world are those who know how to manipulate and exploit the … system for their own benefit.”
There’s a broad hint here that those of us who , as Dr Linthicum says, “are working for 'the world as God intends'” need to understand the system just as well as the movers and shakers. We need to understand what is going on.
It’s not just a matter of understanding the system of “this world,” which is important. We do need to see how the powerful and rich try and rule the roost. But we need to understand both systems. We need to understand how the spiritual economy works, if you like.
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?
And here, 2000 words in, I realise my sermon draft is getting too long. But there is more background I want to get into the mind of my listeners…
Money, you see, is not quite real. It’s nothing on its own; just paper. It is a symbol of obligation and good will, and a promise to repay in kind. It’s a tool to translate your skill as an IT technician into food for my table (as your minister).
Money is, in the end, only what it provides. It can provide justice, love, sustenance, faithfulness: all the things of Jubilee. It is then a currency to secure your living and my living, so our physical needs are met, and we can be at peace to listen to God.
Or, money provides a currency for me to oppress you, and exploit you, and get my own way, and provide more than I ever need, regardless of what it costs you. This is what Luke’s Jesus calls, “dishonest wealth.” “True riches” require I have very little money. What excess I have, goes on to benefit others so that they too may experience the Grace I have found (and been given.)]
So being “faithful with dishonest wealth” means… what?
I think it might mean using the money of mammon, the exploitative dishonest system, to work for the “honest” system, using it to enabe Jubilee, life as God meant it to be. Jubilee life is not just money. It is a life and a world where land is let lie fallow, where ecological collapse is not imminent, because we have been just toward the land. It is where relationships, and justice, and fairness, and honesty are the real things of value, because they make being human a pleasure, and exciting and a blessing.
True riches are about relating to the Divine, and being in receipt of the gifts of God… what we call grace. Jesus said, “…if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”This thing called “your own” is life with God, life experiencing God, life that has more depth, life that is being saved; all the things our pressured, stressed and painful lives are so often not.
It is wrong to say God’s love is dependent on us doing the right thing. God gives… always. But it is true to say that when we live according to the world, according to mammon, and are not honest and fair and just, we are actively rejecting God’s grace, God’s gift to us.
Linthicum says, “What matters is which perspective of the world you are going to embrace, and which will you seek to practice…”
Luke makes it clear that being an economic success, and being rich, is to serve mammon. It is perilously close to being the opposite of serving God.
Linthicum goes on…
Will your life and your engagement of the world be centered on greed, accumulation and power…
Or will your life be centered on “ the world as God intended it to be”, not only believing in but actively and even shrewdly working for a world of justice, equitable distribution of wealth, elimination of poverty, and authentic relationships with God and each other?
What Luke suggests to me is that if we are rich and comfortable, and getting richer, then almost by definition, our “life and … engagement of the world is centered on greed, accumulation and power.” We can only be monetarily rich if we are part of the world system, or unless that “dishonest” wealth is being used against the system for the sake of Jubilee and the way God meant life to be. Even then, we are always perilously close to joining the world, with money constantly tempting us to forgo Jubilee.
We must make a choice. “No one can serve two masters. For a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (13).
Which will we choose? The answer will not have effects on some future Judgement Day. It will begin to change us now.
Andrew Prior Sept 2010
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