September 22, 2019
All Saints’ Church
If someone thinks thinks Christianity is a simple faith, an uncomplicated set of easy premises, some formula or rule or whatever, well, that person should read the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel passage.
What on earth is going on here? Jesus tells the story of a rich man and his dishonest steward. Now just a brief note on what that means: wealthy landowners in Jesus’ time hired stewards, or managers, to collect from the famers who worked the land they owned. In the case of this farm, the peasants paid their master not in money, but in an amount of the produce from the land they rented. They didn’t borrow anything; they are paying their rent, and they pay it in oil and wheat. Their debt to the landowner is that the landowner allows them to farm his land. It is the steward’s job to collect this rent, and for his services he charges a commission.
You can already see how this could go wrong. With no one overseeing the system, the steward could easily overcharge or abuse the farmers, or maybe underpay his master. We don’t know the particular nature of this manager’s corruption, but we do know that he made a pretty bad decision. He doesn’t have the strength of the expertise of the farmers he collects from, and he’s too weak for any other kind of labor. You kind of want to say, well, he’s getting what he deserves—let him figure something out for himself.
But that’s not what happens. What does happen is truly bizarre to our understanding. The steward gathers the farmers together and cuts their bills. It would be as if your landlord caught the rental agency cheating, and in response the rental agency says to you, that $2000 you pay for your apartment—just send us a check for $1000 this month.
Of course you’d think this would anger the master. But that wouldn’t be an interesting story, now would it? So instead, the master proclaims his delight in the corrupt steward. He’s actually happy the steward cut the rents. Can you imagine a New York landlord having the same reaction? The story ends with this bizarre sentence: “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
What? Make friends with dishonest wealth? What is Jesus talking about?
Let me share with you the method I use for dealing with situations like this. The Bible can be very confusing, especially when you lift a story like this out of context. If you knew nothing about this religion and came to church today, you’d think we gather here week after week to discuss how best to commit fraud. But of course, that’s not the case. There are a few places where Jesus tells us to reallllly pay attention, where he says, look, this is a longer story, and when things are confusing, come back here.
The parable of the dishonest steward is in Luke, Chapter 14. Just a little while back, in Chapter 10, Jesus has a discussion with a lawyer who asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him to open the Torah and read, and the lawyer answers, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ Eternal life is love: love of God and love of your fellow human beings.
As it turns out, nowhere does Jesus say that dishonest wealth gets you eternal life. That distinction is reserved for love and love alone. The reason we have this strange parable of the steward is that it’s not enough just to say, love God and your neighbor. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need the whole of Scripture. Love is our guiding light, our north star. But love…how? What does love really look like? How can we square love with all the terrible things in life? And how much does love really demand of us?
When you read the dishonest steward in these terms, I think he actually starts to make sense. Because where does love fit in to the concept of debt? Maybe that’s a weird thought: what do debt and love have to do with one another? But when you think about it, it’s actually pretty important. Here we are, some 2000 years after this story was told, and it’s not like debt is a thing of the past. Actually, it’s something that pretty much everyone will struggle with at one point in our lives.
And the point of the story is this: debts are just part of a game we play with one another. But love is eternal. I’ve said it before in this pulpit and I’ll say it again: money is the curse of the living. But as long as we have to deal with this curse, we might as well acknowledge that it’s part of a game, that we can use money for good or for evil, and the choice is up to us. The dishonest steward had been using his access to money for his own benefit, hurting others. He was playing the game in such a way that only he would win. When got caught, he could have made himself pathetic, or turned the tenants against the landowner, or run away in shame. Instead, he decided to stop playing the game to help himself and start playing it to help those who needed help. And that’s what the master is pleased with.
The Gospel says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” But when it comes down to it, in a certain sense, all wealth is dishonest. We did not buy our lives, nor can we buy our way out of death. The earth, with all its beauty, does not charge us for giving us what we need to live. Life is a gift freely given, and it is given to all the living in equal measure. Why do you have $10,000 in you bank account but I owe $10,000 to the same bank? Circumstance, mostly. Chance, plus decisions we have both made. But in God’s kingdom, neither wealth, nor circumstance, nor chance, nor even our bad decisions, can keep us from the love of God. Nothing, nothing at all can separate us from the love of God. If you think I’m overreaching here, remember the words Jesus teaches us to pray in Chapter 11 of Luke’s Gospel: forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. This is to be one of our most fervent prayers: that our debts would be forgiven, and that we would have the strength to forgive those whose debts we hold.
You’d think we would learn this lesson in 2000 years, but it turns out, it’s a pretty hard one to take in. This week marked the 11th anniversary of the financial meltdown of 2008. I’m sure you remember it—the weather was the same as this crystalline week we’ve had this year. Lehman Brothers collapsed on September 15, followed by AIG the next day. Washington Mutual went bankrupt a few days later. Congress passed the bank bailout at the beginning of October, but even with that, by March, the stock market had lost more than half of its peak value.
They say every generation is formed by certain events. The financial crisis was my formative event. The stock market crashed a few months after I was ordained a priest. I was supposed to be making plans for the youth group. Instead, I buried a young father who worked in the finance industry and took his own life. I counseled parishioners who lost their jobs and tried to find a way to preach God’s word about wealth in a way that was comforting but also honored the words that end today’s Gospel passage: you cannot serve God and money. I also observed something disturbing: that although the wealthier people in our community lost much, it was those on the margins who truly suffered. If you have $10,000 in the stock market, after a decline you may only have $5,000. But if you owe the bank $10,000 and lose your job, you have far less than nothing.
For me, the spiritual lesson of the financial crisis was that debt binds together the fates of the debtor and the debt holder. As long as the debt exists, their fates are intertwined. The wise debt holder seeks to lift up and empower the debtor. We may think that the lender is more powerful than the borrower, but the contract they enter into is an intimate relationship that depends on the health of the borrower, not the lender.
That’s probably why the ancient Hebrews observed the Jubilee commanded in the Book of Leviticus. The Jubilee happened once every 49 years, and on that year, all debts were forgiven, all property returned, and the earth was left to rest from farming. The game was reset and acknowledged for what it was after all—a way for us human beings to relate to one another in this life, but nothing more. Whatever you may have thought of it at the time or even now, back in 2008, the Jubilee was declared—but not for everyone. Only for the debt holders were forgiven, while the debtors’ debts were sustained. The game was reset for only half of the equation. This is the world in which we still live: a lender’s paradise. But this inequality comes at a great spiritual price to society as a whole, because a nation of exposed debtors is not one that sees the game for what it is. It is not a society that has understood the lesson of the master and the steward.
This may be the world in which we live. But it is not the world as God sees it. Jesus makes it clear that we are all God’s beloved, that there is no debt we could possibly rack up that would make us unworthy of God’s love. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who debts we hold.” This is the prayer Jesus taught us, and it is our prayer forever.
The game will continue to go on. Sometimes it will be fair, and sometimes not. It is a game created by the human imagination, and is therefore flawed. But what if we took Jesus at his word? What if we lived the prayer that he taught us? What if we believed that whatever imaginary money number hangs over everyone’s head was totally invisible to God? If we did this, then we would look every person in the eye and see inestimable value, a treasure beyond compare, God’s perfect gift. You, me, everyone here, everyone you will meet this week. Look in the mirror, look in the face of someone on the subway, look into the eyes of your enemy, your friend, the stranger, the outcast, the powerful, the poor, and even the indebted—and you will see neither debt or debtor, but the face of Christ. That is the way God sees the world. And God invites you to do the same.
May all debts be forgiven. May all wealth be God’s. May love be the greatest treasure known to humanity—for Jesus’ sake.