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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before September 18, 2016

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:

Often when we read of a story that Jesus told, we assume that the most powerful person in the story is God.

If that is true in this story, then God commends the dishonest manager for his dishonesty, after charging him with squandering his property. Then this same God tells him to continue to use the strategy of lies and deception. Then this same God tell him, basically, that this is just how things work, except the “children of light” just don’t know how to play the game very well.

The rich man is not a stand-in for God. Rather the rich man is a stand in for the way the Roman system of economics worked for the rich and against the common person and then later against even the wealthy and their managers.

According to the Social Science commentary by Malina and Rohrbaugh, the manager pulled a fast one. Usually the manager might have been put in prison for wasting the rich man’s wealth. When the manager reduced the debt of those in the village he made the rich man seem generous – and he indebted these people to both the manager and the rich man.

The rich man was made to look generous to the village and so he could not take back the great deals his former manager had made. Nor could he put the manager in prison because he had made the rich man look generous.

So the dishonest manager manipulated the situation so that he could avoid prison and also have the good will of people who might take him in their homes when he was no longer employed.

What does this have to do with anything?

One possibility is that Jesus was speaking here about an unjust economic system in which the vast majority of people were poor and a very few were rich and how that system fostered dishonesty, manipulation, greed that grows out of a sense of scarcity.

Today we see a situation very much like this. Over 5,000 employees of Wells Fargo have been fired this week for falsely charging customers for accounts they didn’t sign up for. These were not just “bad apples” who did wrong. The employees were not paid very much but were given bonus checks if they sold current customers new accounts. The system was set up for them to have to cheat to make ends meet at home and a lot of them did it. To date the mangers who set up this system have not been fired.

In Luke, Jesus was very concerned with the effect of greed on people, and the effect of unjust economic systems that drive people to do wrong things to stay alive.

In response to this toxic environment he encourages us to clarity: he said that we can either serve God or serve wealth, not both.

While we cannot be sure of Jesus’ intent in this story, as it is so very complicated, we can be sure that he is asking us to consider what our God really is. As Luther said, your God is what you “fear, love and trust.” Our God is what we are willing to orbit around, make life decisions for, what we will spend our life on.

He asks us to be clear that to make our wealth into God does not assure us of survival, but of a never-ending cycle of manipulation, lies, broken relationships and exploitation of others.

In Luke there are people of wealth who are a part of Jesus’ community. They used their wealth to support Jesus and the disciples (women who provided for the disciples), who repay those who they had wronged (Zacheus), and those who buried Jesus (Joseph of Arimathea.).

Wealth is not the issue per se. Wealth is not wrong in and of itself. But we human beings are so wound up in our survival instinct and our anxiety about it that we subtly begin to worship wealth.

In a recent podcast of Hidden Brain on NPR, a researcher has found that people with more wealth feel less empathy with others and often give less than the poor.

The poor seem to remember not only the power of capital, but the power of social capital. That what truly helps us survive is not our wealth but the richness of our community with others.

The kingdom of God has often been translated “the kinship of God.” Martin Luther King, Jr. called it “the beloved community.”

In the power of the Spirit, may we continue to recognize our false gods of security and wealth and help us to worship with our whole lives the God of abundance and community we see in Jesus.