Being faithful to belonging to God
“And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”
In the name of God who teaches us what will pass away and what will endure, Amen.
Even the quickest survey of the various resources for approaching today’s Gospel gives the reader a very vivid impression- there is widespread agreement that this parable is among the most challenging texts in the entire New Testament. Even Luke seems a little uncertain of what to make of it, presenting at least three interpretations at the parable’s conclusion, one of which aligns with our usual Biblical expectations and two of which really do not. That to be trusted with true riches, we need to be faithful and honest with ordinary wealth- I think we can all agree on that. But- that the children of light should learn from their more corrupt neighbors- seriously? And that we should make friends- schmooze, really- with our neighbors through dishonest wealth- what the heck? What are we to make of a parable that praises this supposedly dishonest manager, presenting him as a bit of a scoundrel through both his words and actions? There are more questions than answers here and I believe they’re worth considering, because I’m certain that getting too focused on them can distract us from the vital meaning of this story.
It always makes sense to me to start with a look at the story itself, and even more so in this situation where we’re faced with some really unusual information. A rich man had a manager who was accused of squandering his property (although no proof of this is ever offered), and so he tells the manager that he must provide an accounting to him and that he cannot be his manager any longer. Unwilling to commit to either manual labor or begging as a new career choice, the manager comes up with a better plan, one he hopes will ensure a better future for him. He summons everyone who owes his master one by one and reduces their debts- some by as much as fifty percent, thus making these persons now indebted to him as well through their gratitude. When he discovers this, the rich master actually commends the manager for this shrewd behavior. The final paragraph seems the clearest and easiest to understand- to be faithful in much one must be faithful in very little, no one can equally serve two masters, you cannot serve both God and wealth.
We did not hear this term today, but from earlier, influential versions such as the King James Bible many of us know this verse as “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Mammon is commonly thought to mean money or material wealth and is associated with the unjust and greedy pursuit of personal gain. Both Matthew and Luke include this exact phrase and it is meant to be a warning against the danger wealth poses to us as a kind of false god. Understanding this term is crucial to the story because it is not wealth specifically that is being cautioned against here, but a devotion to it that tempts us away from sharing with others, that leads us towards almost an idol worship of it that directs us away from caring for God’s people- and of course, this is every bit as true now as it was then.
If we continue just one sentence past today’s reading we hear this: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” I share this with you because it guides us towards seeing this parable of the dishonest manager as a bridge- between Jesus’ constant companionship with flawed human beings and the human weakness with material wealth. Shortly after the Pharisees are criticized for their love of money we have the story of Lazarus and the rich man, when Lazarus’ earthly poverty and suffering are described as being rewarded in Heaven. In a few weeks’ time we will again meet Zacchaeus, who hears the ever-present grumbling of the crowd and responds with his willingness to give generously to others and repay past debts which gifts him with the beautiful phrase “Today salvation has come to this house.” So perhaps it is helpful to see our dishonest manager as a link between these two important thoughts- that while he is someone whose life most likely involved a corrupt handling of money, his willingness to reduce their debts (which benefits everyone) is why he is deemed worthy of praise. We cannot forget that these first century debts almost certainly involved an exorbitant interest rate, deliberately hidden- charging interest was biblically forbidden because it exploited the vulnerable poor- and that paying back debts was usually difficult to impossible. Luke’s audience would have known this, and so it would have been an in-your-face kind of example. In order for salvation, the true riches, to come to us, we cannot serve both God and any other master, cannot prioritize anything that entices us away from a life focused on loving and serving God’s people. A reminder from the Litany of Penitence we say on Ash Wednesday is powerful here: “Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work, we confess to you, Lord.”
I believe there is a deep subtext to this parable where we will discover our most profound connection to its meaning in our lives today. It is impossible not to consider that the term “dishonest wealth” has an implication that material wealth and comfort have injustice intrinsically built into them. Today, as in Jesus’ time, financial wealth and other resources are very unevenly distributed for a wide variety of reasons. All too often, what we consider to be our own ease and comfort is bought at the expense of the labor of other humans, labor that may be grossly underpaid and offered in conditions that range from difficult to life-threatening. If any of us have bought an item at a chain discount store for an amount of money we consider trivial with a credit card we had no qualms about using, carried it from our car to our comfortable home- then we have, in all honesty, been guilty of dealing with “dishonest wealth.” There are times when we cannot help this- deliberately spending more is often not an option. But I think the real issue here is to be aware that the consequences of our actions affect the financial health of others and deeply connected to that, the dignity and well-being of those persons as well.
Our vestry is currently reading and discussing together a book titled Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America. As a sort of real life research project author Barbara Ehrenreich searched for and worked at several low-wage jobs in order to learn about the real lives of persons in these situations. She considered practical things such as housing and the purchasing of food and other necessities, as well the mental and emotional factors portrayed against the backdrop of our American way of life. Her findings should be disturbing to us all- not only did she determine it is almost impossible to live at a level of economic inequality for any length of time, she discovered that doing so causes harm to humans on every level of our being. As the book points out, the implications of this are profound- the fear that comes from living in unsafe housing, the consequences of an insufficient diet, how to afford the necessary items of life. There are heartbreaking choices that have to be made on a daily basis, such as “Should I choose decent footwear for work or a doctor visit for my child this week?” A life where everything is a luxury puts such a high price tag on it all that sorting out what has the most meaning can feel impossible. The most heartbreaking thing of all is when people come to believe that their personal worth is somehow associated with their material worth, that lacking wealth means you are somehow undeserving of all good things- beauty, peace, joy, the time and energy to wonder and the gratitude to praise. I have close friends who live every single day like this. We must do everything we can to ensure that God’s reckless and unconditional love is equally felt by all- because this is what God wants for God’s people.
Before we are too hard on our dishonest manager, if we participate in this on even an unconscious level we are unfaithful to the teachings of this parable. Jesus wants us to remember that if we serve Mammon, instead of God, we perpetuate an unjust system that breaks down other humans who are working so that we might have the life we’re so greedily grabbing for. If we do not persist in loving humans beings, beloved children of God, over material things then indeed we will not be faithful to what we have so lovingly been given. The very best of all that is entrusted to us is each other and this is what it means to be faithful to what belongs to another- because we all belong to God. To be trustworthy to what we have been given to care for in order that we be given what is our own is to remember our choice between God and material things, savoring the words of today’s Collect which teaches us to love heavenly things over earthly ones, letting go of what flees away to cling instead to what endures. Amen.