24 September 2013

Serving Dishonest Wealth

Proper 20, Year C -- Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Luke 16:1-13

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and our Lord Christ Jesus. Amen.

Wall Street

Five years ago, as the stock and housing markets crashed, we heard about a lot of bankers who, despite their culpability in the economic fiasco, were getting away largely unscathed. CEOs who took paycuts that still left them making millions of dollars, traders who were receiving bonuses with public funds, and golden parachute severance packages – plans that pay executives exorbitant amounts of money when they leave a job. For years, it seemed that you couldn't turn on the news without hearing about brokers who, as the rest of the world went broke, made sure that their pockets were lined and that their bank accounts were well cared for. Frankly, it all seemed a bit like that 80s movie, Wall Street, and the antagonist, Gordon Gecko's famous line, “Greed is good.”

Today, we hear a parable from St. Luke that echoes (or foreshadows) this same sort of financial self-interest but does in a rather bizarre way. Imagine if a modern banker started cutting borrower's debts to curry favor with his neighbors like a bizarrely selfish Robin Hood who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, but only because there's something in it for him.

The Parable

In the parable, St. Luke tells us, a steward – someone who manages the estate for a wealthy landowner – is accused of rather shady bookkeeping. When the owner confronts the steward, the owner demands to see the records and fires the steward. But here's where things get weird. The steward realizes he is not cut out for physical labor, but he's also too proud to become a beggar. What's a guy to do? Instead, he decides to curry favor with the property owner's debtors. Imagine if a soon-to-be-fired Bank of America employee were to cut the amount owed on your mortgage in half with the expectation that he could sleep on your couch. That's more or less what the steward is doing. It's not the most logical plan. Given the choice, I would have more readily expected him to raid the owner's coin purse. Either way, there you have it, the steward has managed to create his own severance package.

The parable takes a second awkward turn, though, when the owner catches on. The owner approaches the steward and says (I can only imagine), “You conniving, back-stabbing, lying, little cheat! *beat* That was brilliant!” And at this point, I'm sure the steward, expecting the worst, was cowering in fear and then....just...really confused.


Thus the story ends, and we find ourselves just as confused as the steward. Christ begins to offer an interpretation of this bizarre little tale. The parables are confusing, often detailed around specific aspects of life in first-century Judea and the “moral of the story” isn't always obvious. Clearly, even the disciples – the very people who are supposed to understand what Christ is saying – get lost. But here, Christ's words of explanation just add more confusion: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Wait, did the Bible just say that? This is an arresting statement that demands more attention. It is not something we ever expect to see in Scripture, let alone in the Gospel. It spits in the face of so many prophets who condemned such neglect for the poor.

Making matters even more confusing, the parable ends with Jesus telling his disciples that they can't serve both God and wealth. And almost immediately after, Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Within the span of a single chapter, we hear Jesus seeming to praise a man who “makes friends by means of dishonest wealth,” but then immediately after, Christ tells us we shouldn't love money or be like the rich man who shuns the beggar Lazarus. Such different positions are incompatible, aren't they?

A number of biblical scholars have tried to make sense out of this story and engaged in some fairly impressive mental gymnastics in the process. Why is the steward the good guy? Some have pointed out the Bible's condemnation of usury, or charging practice. This theory suggests that maybe, in reducing the borrower's debts, the steward also reduced the amount of interest they were paying. Another idea recalls that stewards and tax collectors would add a “finder's fee” to the debts they collected. Maybe the steward is foregoing his fee as a way to curry favor with the debtors. Both of these theories claim, in short, that the steward, upon being fired, decides to do the right thing, but they still leave plenty of questions. Why does the property owner find this so impressive? Is Jesus really commending the person for doing the right thing for ulterior motives? Sounds like it. But Luke doesn't usually paint Jesus in such cynical language. Something is certainly going on here.

Cynical Jesus?

Indeed, we do see a slightly more cynical Jesus than we're used to, but his biting sarcasm is turned in a different direction. Instead of praising the steward for his cynical actions, Christ is telling a story of self-congratulating back-stabbers. The point of the story is not to extol the virtues of selfishly looking out for yourself. Instead, the end of verse nine instructs us to turn our minds to our “eternal home.” The parable isn't telling us to look out for ourselves but to look out for others. To forgive those who trespass against us just as our trespasses are forgiven. To give to those less fortunate. Jesus isn't instructing us to prepare our own golden parachutes. Instead, Christ is challenging us. He is saying, in essence, “If the shrewd businessmen of the world use their wealth to prepare for their future, why won't you sell your possessions, give your money to the poor, and follow me to your home in eternity?”

Serving God and the Poor

Christ is urging us to care for the poor. Reminding us to remember the words of the prophet Amos. Commanding us to show favor to those less fortunate than us. And this, not because it is good for us right now. No, not because we stand something to gain from it. We aren't called to act in the name of self-interest or profit, but in the name of Christ, our Lord, God incarnate. We are called to act in the name of a God who looks with favor upon his lowly servants, who scatters the proud in their conceit, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.

It's an uncomfortable proposition and rubs against everything we're told by our culture. We are called to care for those on the bottom as the rest of the world focuses on the top. But, as Christ challenges us, if we are unfaithful with the money and resources we have in this life, how can we expect to be entrusted with the Kingdom of God? If we are enslaved to our wealth in this world, how can we properly serve our God?

This is certainly a difficult teaching. It calls into question up against what we've been taught as Lutherans. It sounds a lot like works rather than grace. At times, we might be tempted to ask the same question as the wealthy young man in Luke 18, “Then who can be saved?” And we can only point to and have faith in Christ's answer: “What is impossible for humanity is possible for God.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.