Monday, September 19, 2016

THE GOSPEL OF LOVE MEETS THE GOSPEL OF GREED

THE GOSPEL OF LOVE MEETS THE GOSPEL OF GREED
a/k/a THE GOSPEL AND THE ECONOMY
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
September 18, 2016 (Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas

Luke 16:1-15
16Then 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.’*
14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15So 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.

         This passage is considered one of the most difficult parables of Jesus to understand.  Why is Jesus teaching a lesson in which an unscrupulous money manager was commended by his wealthy employer for more dishonesty when the money manager wrote down debts owed his employer by others? 

In this lesson, Jesus spoke about a man who was accused of mismanaging (squandering) the business interests of a wealthy fellow. The manager was about to be fired from his position because of that mismanagement.  After he realized he was about to be fired the manager decided to ingratiate himself to people who owed his employer by marking down what those people owed.  The manager reduced what one person owed his employer by half (from 100 jugs of olive oil to 50)!  He reduced what another person owed his employer by one-fifth (from 100 containers of wheat to 80)! 

At this point the parable really becomes complicated, even morally confusing.  Jesus said the manager “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”  Jesus commented that “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Luke 16:8).   

The moral of this parable takes another confusing turn by the next sentence attributed to Jesus:  And 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 (16:9). 

It is not hard to make sense of the next statement Jesus made (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.  Jesus explained that one with this summary at verses 10 thru 12.  If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

Many people, including people who are not followers of Jesus, are familiar with what appears to be the conclusion to the parable at verse 13.   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. 

But how does that conclusion apply to other parts of the parable?  Was the dishonest manager serving God or wealth by slashing the debts owed to the rich man who was about to fire him? 

Even if the amounts owed were unfair or otherwise improper, why did the manager’s rich employer commend him for not collecting what was owed after having served him with a termination notice because he mismanaged other accounts? 

And how does the example of a dishonest employee who used his position to be even more unfaithful by writing down what his employer was owed show what faithfulness means? 

The longer one ponders this parable the more perplexing it seems. 

·      What is commendable about taking what belongs to someone else (the manager’s conduct in writing down what his employer was owed in olive oil and wheat) to confer a benefit (reducing the debts owed for the olive oil and wheat) so one can befriend the people who owed the debts? 
·      What is the moral worth of friendship based on stealing from one person in order to benefit others? 
·      Were the people whose debts were reduced by the “dishonest manager” being dishonest by accepting the write downs?  Why not? 

Rev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder is an ordained Baptist and Disciples of Christ minister who holds a Ph.D. in religion from Vanderbilt University and teaches New Testament at Belmont University.  Dr. Crowder has written that “[w]hile many have termed the manager dishonest, he merely employs capitalistic bartering for the sake of his personal well-being.  He does what he has seen his supervisor do in order to survive.  Luke makes it clear that there is a system of financial exploitation in place and encourages those in his community to do what they have heard and seen the rich do in order to survive.”[1] 

Dr. Crowder cites Professor Justin Upkong, one of the pioneers of African biblical scholarship, for an interpretation of this parable that sheds a more favorable light on the manager based on the situation of African peasant farmers who are indebted to rich produce traders.  The produce traders have managers loan the farmers money for medical expenses or school fees for their children, and the interest rates on those loans range from 50 to 100 percent of the amount loaned.   Based on the situation of the African peasant farmers, Professor Upkong commented:  “…[T]he rich man in the story is not the benevolent grand personage he is often thought to be, but an exploiter.  The reading has also concluded that the manager of the estate is not the villain…but the hero of the story….[2]  

Dr. Crowder then adds the following commentary.

 This reading brings to life not only the image of African peasant farmers, but also the plight of African American farmers, the plight of African American families, and the plight of African Americans who have lost faith in the American justice system.  Fearing hunger and homelessness, many use a well-established, corrupt system in order to survive and meet everyday needs.  For example, supposedly “retired” senior citizens receiving Social Security checks find themselves working in order to supplement their income because these monthly checks are not enough to meet needs.  Yet any supplemental income is subject to taxes that seniors cannot afford.  Thus some seniors receive funds from these extra jobs in cash or “under the table.”[3]

Hmmm! 

Could it be that this parable only seems complicated because our religious views are more strongly influenced by the gospel of capitalism and greed than by the gospel of divine love and compassion for people needing deliverance from financial oppression?  What oppression are we choosing not to see when we read this parable? 

Are we choosing to not see an economy where wealthy people use “middle managers” to oppress others? 

Are we choosing to not consider that the “dishonest manager” may have decided to write off what were oppressive debts owed his employer before he was dismissed? 

Are we choosing to not see what this parable says about an economic system in which people become wealthy and remain wealthy by using money, and the threat to withhold money, as tools, weapons, and instruments to oppress others? 

Are we choosing to not see what this parable says about a U.S. economy built on enslaving Africans and expanded by terrorism, massacre, and land fraud against Native Americans and Mexicans?  Do we see Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosser, Caesar Chavez, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, and the many other women and men called and treated as villains because they challenged, fought, and schemed to oppose a society built according to the gospel of greed?

Are we choosing to not see what this parable says about a railroad system and mining industry established and expanded by mistreating immigrants from Asia, South America, the West Indies, and Europe? 

Are we choosing to commit the mistake made by the lectionary committee?  The lectionary committee did not include verses 14 and 15 for the lesson today.  But those verses show Jesus spoke this parable knowing the Pharisees were listening.  Look at those verses:  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.” 

Jesus said that worshiping wealth “is an abomination in the sight of God.”  That should make us think about how wealth is worshipped so much.  The Walton fortune exists because Sam Walton, his family, and the Walton corporate empire cheated their workers (calling them “associates”) for decades by paying low wages and by denying health benefits. 

By omitting verses 14 and 15 from this lectionary reading, the lectionary committee dodged this question:  Who are the Pharisees among us? 

The gospel of divine love we see in Jesus denounced religious people who ridiculed debt forgiveness. 
·      Who are “the Pharisees”—religionists—now who ridicule forgiving student loan debts? 
·      Who are “the Pharisees”—religionists—who refused to forgive home mortgage debts for homeowners oppressed by “balloon” interest rates during the Great Recession? 
·      Who are the religionists who argue that helping people who need social services is fiscally “irresponsible,” but that giving tax breaks to millionaires “sows seeds of economic prosperity?” 
·      Who are the religionists who help real estate developers and speculators take over neighborhoods from lower-income homeowners in the name of “gentrification?”
·      Who are the religionists that vote for politicians to increase military spending and buy expensive weapons system that enrich defense contractors and suppliers, and who demand that politicians slash spending for social services to people who are homeless, sick, aged, unemployed, widowed, orphaned, and otherwise vulnerable?
·      What religionists embraced a presidential candidate (Donald J. Trump) with a reputation for building his real estate empire and personal fortune by refusing to pay construction contractors and discriminating against people of color?

This is not a feel good parable because it forces us to come face to face with the gospel of greed that Jesus called "an abomination in the sight of God" and would have us reject. 

Jesus declared what Senator Bernie Sanders echoed during his unsuccessful presidential campaign—our economic system is “rigged” to favor the greedy and oppress the needy.

Jesus declared what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in Where Do We Go From Here.

 “…[F]or… years two groups in our society have been enjoying a guaranteed income.  Indeed, it is a symptom of our confused social values that these two groups turn out to be the richest and the poorest. The wealthy who own securities have always had an assured income; and their polar opposite, the relief client, has always been guaranteed an income, however, miniscule, through welfare benefits…. The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity,... and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag…. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity.  It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent… The curse of poverty… is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them.[4]  

This parable is not truly puzzling.  It only seems so because our sense of God’s truth, love, and justice has become perverted, if not deadened, by greed, the idolatry of wealth, and the way we glorify wealth and wealthy people. 

This parable challenges us to admit how Jesus denounced the way we worship profit-making, capitalism, and the way our loan practices do violence to children of God who are like the debtors who owed 100 jugs of olive oil and 100 containers of wheat. 

This parable challenges us to see that when Jesus said that the rich man commended the manager for having acted “shrewdly,” Jesus subtly showed that the rich man was over-charging.  The rich man wasn’t losing money or he would not have commended the manager for writing off half the debt one person owed and a fifth of what another owed!  Jesus commended the “dishonest manager” in the same way we celebrate the legend of Robin Hood.

In this parable the Robin Hood gospel of love meets the gospel of capitalistic greed.  Which gospel are we following?  Which gospel will we choose to follow after we reflect on this parable?  What will we do—in the spirit of God as followers of Jesus—to relieve economic oppression in our place, our time, and our situations? 

Will we draw back from the “Robin Hood” lessons in this parable?  Will we draw back from the examples of heroes and heroines who thought it better to be condemned as subversives by a society addicted to the greed Jesus called “an abomination in the sight of God” than become complicit, comfortable, and complacent about that greed and its impact on people who suffer?

God is waiting and watching. 

So are our oppressed sisters and brothers.

Amen.





[1] Stephanie Buckhannon Crowder:  The Gospel of Luke in True to Our Native Land:  an African American New Testament Commentary/Brian Blunt, general editor; Cain Hope Felder, Clarice J. Martin, and Emerson B. Powery, associate editors, p. 175 (Fortress Press, 2007). 
[2] Id. p. 178, See also Justin S. Ukpong, “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-13):  An Essay in Inculturation Biblical Hermeneutic,” Semeia 73 (1996), 193.
[3] Id. at 176.
[4] MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., Where Do We Go From Here?, from A TESTAMENT OF HOPE:  The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr, (James Melvin Washington, editor), pp. 616-617 (HarperOne, 1996). of 

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