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Reflections on the Gospel, Week before September 22nd, 2013

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Luke 16:1-13

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 accounting 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.”

What I Am Learning

This parable is widely felt to be one of the most confusing passages in the New Testament. Interpretations of this passage range from "Jesus is telling us to be faithful stewards of our money" to "Jesus is telling us that money is bad."

Now that is a wide range of interpretation!

As I reflect on this text, I am forced to wonder if a part of our confusion about this text is that we are looking at it through an individualistic, post-mortem lens. In other words: we assume that every text in the new testament is about "how persons are supposed to act so that he or she can get to heaven when they die."

The problem is that first century culture was really different from our culture in some important ways. First, they were not really so concerned with individual persons. They were more focused on the collective—the family, the city, the nation. Social science scholars say that the self-perception of first century people was that they were a part of a family, not as individuals acting on their own. This is why the language of "brother and sister" is so important to early Christians: Jesus was inviting people to leave their family of origin and enter into Jesus' family. To be without a family meant to be completely unprotected and vulnerable on every level.

Second, they were not all that focused on what happens to you after you die. The kingdom of God for them was not heaven but God's way of mutuality replacing the system of exploitation that was the Roman Empire.

If we take this lens off, however, several other interpretations are made available, one of which I will attempt.

The manager has been accused of stealing from his master. The manager knows that his options are limited, so he offers to reduce the loan amounts of the debtors. By doing this he hopes that the debtors will take him into their homes.  This puts the master in quite a pickle:

  • If the master revokes the debt forgiveness he reveals that he has not been wise in choosing a manager and he will lose credibility and honor, but he will keep the money.
  • If the master allows the debt forgiveness he reveals that he is generous and he will gain honor, but will lose money.

Either way, the manager wins because the debtors will now be indebted to him. Either way, the master loses.

Jesus is not commending this behavior. I read verse 9 as an ironic statement:  "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."

What Jesus is doing is making a cultural critique of the Roman Empire, of domination culture. He is saying that relationships in the Roman domination culture are based not on love but on greed. They are living a dog-eat-dog life marked by the worship of money - worship in this case means placing money as the most important value in life. In this kind of culture there is no such thing as a real relationship, no such thing as true allegiance. There is only using others, exploiting others for what they can give.

This kind of culture is a hell on earth and it always collapses of its own foolish weight. Jesus is not just making a cultural critique of the the Romans in interpersonal relationships - he is making an economic critique.

Jesus is saying that we can't have it both ways: we can't have God and money be our most important value. There can, in this case, be only one.

Following the various bailouts by the US government to large financial institutions there were reports from the after-work bars near Wall Street. Some of the employees of the firms were asked if they felt grateful to the US taxpayer who had saved their jobs. Many of them said that "the reason we got the bailout is because we are smart, we know how to game the system."

Read this from This American Life:

Jane Feltes in a bar in lower Manhattan talking to some Wall Street folks:

. . . I would like to walk into a bar in lower Manhattan, and have one of you thank me. "Thank you, I still have my job and I appreciate it."

Bar Patron 1

Why do you want that?

Jane Feltes

You guys still have your jobs.

Bar Patron 2

Because I'm a smart person.

Jane Feltes

And you think you got to keep your job because you're smart? You got to keep your job because you guys got bailed out. You guys got bailed--

Bar Patron 2

No, no, no, no, no. That's not what happened with my job. I mean, survival of the fittest.

Bar Patron 1

Because I'm smarter than the average person.

Adam Davidson

And even if the government bails out your industry that failed, you still say it's because you're smarter.

Bar Patron 1

No. The government bailing out an industry was out of necessity for whatever the situation was. The fact that I benefited from that is because I'm smart. I took advantage of a situation. 95% of the population doesn't have that common sense. The only reason I've been doing this for so long is because I must be smarter than the next guy.

Ira Glass

They basically saw it as their own individual initiative is what put them where they are today, government had nothing to do about it.

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/415/transcript

Jesus is, I believe, engaging in a critique of this kind culture and economy and that this kind of culture and economy destroys itself because instead of durable, covenant relationships envisioned by God, we end up cannibalizing each other, destroying the earth and thinking we are smart - until the house of cards falls.

Throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus offers another way to live and love. A way in which we turn from dog-eat-dog culture and economy to one that prizes equality and opportunity and education and mutual responsibility. He offers a vision for respecting each other and the earth - the commons that we all rely on and seeing that we are all a part of each other as children of God.