Posts Tagged ‘debt’

Just Managing

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, and death on a cross.  In the limited amount of time he has left, he wants to teach his friends and the crowds that follow them, all he can about discipleship.

The teaching we explore today is about money, stewardship, and ethical work.  It’s interesting that there is more discussion of rich and poor in Luke’s gospel than in any of the others.  The community for which he wrote must have had some people of substance, as well of those of humble means.  Luke believes that the right management of money is at the heart of Christian discipleship, and I agree.  How we take care of our own and others’ money and debts is central to our faith.

In my time traveling from church to church, I’ve run across some folk who argue that faith and money should be kept separate.  People who believe that way don’t like the pastor to preach about money.  There is a subtle current of belief that money is somehow dirty, not fit for a Sunday morning.  Such churches refuse to put the collection plate on the altar, reserving that space for “holy things.”  But I believe the collection basket sits appropriately next to the candles and communion elements, because we bring all that we have and all that we are to the place where God meets us.

Jesus in fact has lots to tell us about money, how we get it and how we use it.

So what, then, are we to make of this confusing story?  Would a wealthy man be OK with his steward altering the bills of debtors?  Is Jesus really commending dishonesty with other people’s money, even if it helps us make friends?  At the Wednesday prayer group, we were stunned by this scripture and wished we could cut a few sentences out of it, like Thomas Jefferson used to do.

Let’s look closely at the story, and see what we can find.  This particular parable only appears in the gospel of Luke, so we can’t turn to Matthew or Mark for help.

First of all, we have a rich man who is so rich, he doesn’t even have to manage his own properties.  He employs a manager to see to it that his accounts are collected, in an age when the middle class pretty much was non-existent.  The story focuses on this manager, whom you might think of as middle management.   I imagine at least some of you are acquainted with the joys of middle management—there is little happiness in being squeezed between the boss who expects the profits, and the workers who provide the means.

The manager gets into trouble—and we don’t really know why.  There are no explicit facts of dishonesty, just that a rumor that the manager is squandering the rich man’s property.  Maybe it’s a false rumor!  Or, perhaps he is skimming too much off the top!   On the other hand, “squander” may mean the manager is not wringing enough profit out of the business.  Perhaps he is not trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip, and further bankrupt the people he works with.

Remember that in Jesus’ day, to be rich was to be predatory.  In times of famine, rich landowners scooped up the land of poorer neighbors in order to satisfy their debts.  Former land owners became tenant farmers on their ancestral land, or even indentured servants.  If harvests weren’t good, or new taxes were levied, debts piled upon debts, and people starved.

The manager is starting to look a little better, isn’t he? Maybe!

When it becomes apparent that he will lose his job, the manager quickly cuts deals with the debtors, reducing their debts and collecting part of what’s owed to the rich man.  He makes friends for himself so that, when he’s out of a job, he can at least get some dinner invitations!

Once the rich man discovers the manager’s trick, it’s too late to do anything about it.  If he tries to get out of the deals, and extract the full amount of the debt, we might imagine he could have a bunch of angry people on his hands.  Surprisingly, he isn’t angry!  He admires the manager’s shrewdness, perhaps recognizing him as one of his own.

Or perhaps he’s happy because a partial payment in the hand is worth much more than an uncollectable debt still on the vine.

The text becomes a bit problematic as we try to think of God as the landowner.  Does God really admire shrewdness and clever accounting?  It doesn’t seem quite right, does it!

Professor Sharon Ringe, a New Testament scholar, gives us some clarity.  She says that the Greek expression shown as “dishonest manager” should really be translated “a manager of injustice.”  The wealth by which we are to make friends for ourselves is not “dishonest” either, but is translated “the wealth of injustice.”  The wealth of injustice.  Hmm. Remember that ancient people lived by an economy of scarcity.  When there is not enough to go around, and one party has more wealth, it follows that his wealth has to have come from robbing others.  Any excessive accumulation of one person must be balanced by a redistribution of wealth called “giving alms.”

By reducing the amounts owed by the debtors to the rich man, the manager is actually doing justice for the debtors, in an appropriate redistribution of wealth.

And then the peculiar sentence towards the end of the reading suddenly makes sense: the manager has done what the children of light, those who are focused only on spiritual things, too pure to soil their hands with money, would not dare to do.  He has secured a place for himself, using the very fruits of injustice, by doing justice for others in need.

This, then, is God’s new economy: the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  The economy of scarcity is not only unjust, but unnecessary.  There is more than enough for all, in this abundant world, if we can only learn to share the wealth appropriately.  By participating in God’s new economy, the manager will be welcomed into the reign of God, as symbolized by those eternal homes, actually “tents” or dwelling places.

Jesus says, forgive the debts of others.   “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  We are called to forgive 70 times 7, or, indefinitely!  We worship a God of grace and forgiveness.  The one who forgives participates in God’s reign.  I am so happy whenever the World Bank and IMF agree to forgive loans of poor countries, because they often find themselves spending nothing on education or health care, in order to pay their debts.

The management of money and debt is important in God’s eyes.  Money isn’t good or evil in and of itself—only its uses make it so.   Some are called to total poverty like St. Francis, but not so many.   But I do believe we are all called to be just stewards of our money.

There’s nothing wrong with taking care of ourselves, as the manager did, so long as we also seek to do justice with our money, both individually, as a church and as a society.  We just can’t worship God and money at the same time!

Love God, love self, love neighbors as ourselves.  If we can keep that focus, everything else will fall into place.  Amen.