Martin Luther once said of preaching passages such as these, “Sometimes you have to squeeze the Biblical text until it leaks the Gospel.”
While studying this confusing Gospel, I felt a longing for texts like the Christmas stories or the Resurrection accounts; the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.
After I read the lectionary I sat back and thought, “what?”. In my research I was comforted by the words of biblical scholars who seemed, on the surface, equally perplexed. Some even candidly referred to this gospel as not only confusing, but awful, bazaar, challenging, unsettling and even weird. Phyllis Tickle calls it the most difficult of all the parables. One scholar wrote that even Luke himself seemed to struggle and stumble with it. One of the podcasters that Corby recommended, for whom I credit for leading me out of the weeds, started his talk by declaring that this Gospel passage “sucks”.
Some wrote that the gospel supports capitalism, some said forgiveness, and some said it was about how to treat and value possessions. At first read I thought it was about procrastination. Like when I’m being lazy all week about housework and then frantically clean for 12 hours throughout the night because my mom announced she would be visiting the next day. But Jesus was not talking about procrastination.
Jesus is making us work a little for the lesson. Jesus is demanding that we listen and hear with ears and minds focused on hearing and understanding the Good News. The Good News Jesus is preaching today is revolutionary and radical inclusiveness.
Luke 16:1-13 is known at the parable of the dishonest steward. It should be called the manager who switched sides choosing relationships over wealth.
Let me explain.
In most parables Jesus uses the archetype of the landowner or boss as a metaphor for God. Not this time. For perspective, the landowner would have been one of the Rich Romans who lived in the south. He would have been a real estate tycoon, property developer and land Barron who owned farming property in the north. Tenet farmers worked the land for and the rich landowner collected the wealth. Tenet farmers or surfs worked the land paying most of the income from the harvest to the landlords. Managers were hired by the landowner to shake down the tenant farmers for as much as they could shake out. In order to please the landlords and provide a more than modest living for themselves the shakedown was often harsh and cruel.
Think of a mafia capo, or a fixer, like Michael Cohen or Christopher in the Sopranos. These “managers” were ladder climbing thugs. They lived among the rich and benefited from the rich. They dressed well and lived in nice homes. They were invited to dine and party with powerful and wealthy men. They rubbed elbows with and earned favors from the most exclusive and elite set in Rome. Good managers were probably in high demand. The job came with luxury, but the job demanded 100% loyalty to the boss.
The tension in the story begins as the manager’s loyalty seemed to shift, and the landowner notices. Revenue is down. The manager was not squeezing the tenants enough. He was getting soft.
The manager’s loyalty was drifting away from the landowner and towards the tenants. The landowner quickly fired the manager, making his message direct and clear: the manager was easily replaceable.
Knowing and accepting that loyalty is a one-way street in his line of work, the manager decided to serve the poor tenants who he believed will treat him mercifully. He treats the tenants will support and care for him if he is in personal crisis. He choose the tenants instead of seeking favor from the powerful landlord for whom he knew he meant nothing.
By his actions the manager is changing the social pieces to create a more just system. He stopped the cycle of the loan shark system in his life as well as the tenant farmers that we worked served. By cutting their taxes the manager provided a life changing opportunity to the farmers. The farmers can now grow food for their families instead of cultivating only cash crops to pay the greedy landlords.
The manger has developed meaningful and supportive relationships with people who now can move out of abject poverty and become self-sufficient. All this to no expense of the landlord. He does not lose anything. He continues to receive enough of the farmers income to stay rich and go on with the business of being whatever.
The manager created a perfect win-win. The landowner is pleased, albeit blindly; hence, keeps the manager employed allowing him the luxury of continuing to build friendships and protect the farmers. By not taking his cut, he is redistributing wealth and creating a new social order.
Last week we processed Jesus’s parable of the lost and God’s love for the lost. Today we are asked to ponder who do we invite to the table and who do we serve. The manager is now welcome at the table of the tenant farmers, and maybe still the rich landlord, but it is the farmers for whom he is focused.
The manager understands that the ones who have less to give will actually provide the most. He is the prodigal manager who switched sides. The world calls him wasteful and dishonest, yet he is the one Jesus is praising. He is praised because his priorities are sound and just in the eyes of God, if not by the world’s standards. He is serving the better master.
Jesus challenges us to be honest about whose approval are we seeking. Are we climbing the ladder of power, influence and wealth; or tripping over ourselves to rub elbows with the “right” people? Who are the people who count? Are we caught up in admiration for Celebrity and Wealth? Or are we like the manager, poorer in wealth but richer in relationship?
The manager used money for people instead of people for money.
The first will be last and the last will be first.
The word Mammon has been replaced by the word ‘wealth” in the lectionary. Mammon means wealth and power sinfully gained or at a cost to others. Imagine the meaning of Mammon, with a capital M.
Mammon is the opposite of God.
In the same vain, God is the opposite of Greed with a capital G.
Economy with a capital E.
The almighty Market with a capital M or even Celebrity with a capital C.
Of course, the money we use in our daily lives is not evil, yet money when used for or gained by evil is Mammon.
Do the words ‘In God we trust” protect us from Mammon? Mark McClaron, a Christian Homilist, wrote, ‘“We write “In God we Trust” “upon the God we trust.” He goes on to point out how easily we can turn a blind eye to the personified idolatry of money when it serves our purposes. William Neil points out that when Jesus told the young man that he must sell everything he possessed and give to the poor, Jesus had put his finger on the man’s problem. His money had obviously come between him and God. The young man’s money had become Mammon.
The young man was not condemned by Jesus because he was wealthy. He was self-condemned because his wealth was his chief concern. He tragically understood the gravity of his choice. Jesus’s last word on this subject makes his meaning plain.
You can’t serve Mammon and God. You have to choose one.
Wealth can make it difficult for people to be in a right relationship with God, but not impossible. We all know how the grace of God can move us to use our wealth in remarkable ways for the good of others.
The manager and landowner shared a quid pro quo relationship. It is easy to fall into the kind of relationship that asks, “What can people do for me”?
Have you ever caught yourself treating a person in the community of high status with more respect than a person with less or nothing to offer you?
Jesus demands of us that the value of our relationships must be measured by, love, kindness and true friendship. And we are required to be in relationship with all, baring no expectation of quid pro quo. All.
That means Trump supporters and Bernie people are called to the same table. Jesus demands that People who smell bad and people who speak loudly will be central in our prayers. Rich people and poor people, powerful people and weak people are welcome together. Cat people and dog people are welcome. Even people who like bugs and snakes are invited to Christ’s table. All. Everyone.
And speaking of the powerful, we are called to pray for kings, and all who hold high positions. We are called to pray for all leaders, even dictators that may not have good intentions, or their own people’s best interests at heart.
Frankly, this concept to pray for the powerful is not the most scratchy thing Paul has to say lately, but still, it doesn’t exactly feel like the perfect scripture to embroider on a pillow. But if you think about it, who needs our prayers more than the people to can alter our lives and the world with a flick of a pen?
Here’s my advice: pray…pray for our leaders. Pray hard and pray often.
Paul. Paul Paul Paul Paul. Paul loved Jesus. He has a strong grip on the essence of the Good News. Maybe more than anyone of his time. Unlike Jesus himself whose message is consistent and pure; Paul tends to go on too long, allowing his own human biases to hijack the truth of his message.
Paul supports the lesson of the manager who switched sides when he writes “prayers and thanksgivings for everyone” and when he writes that God desires that everyone shall be saved. Everyone.
But Paul didn’t really mean everyone. Paul wasn’t perfect. Paul meant everyone the way Thomas Jefferson meant all “men” are created equal. Yes, Jefferson meant the ‘men’ part, but not really the “all men” part. The Lectionary cuts Paul off before he goes on to condemn woman and slaves. Thomas Jefferson, the man who conceived the Declaration of Independence was a slave owner and excluded all but white, male landowners in his interpretation of “all” people who are equal.
The pledge of allegiance was officially adopted during the height of Jim Crow laws and during the internment of Japanese Americans. The pledge was brazenly recited “One nation with Liberty and Justice for all.” Who did “all” mean when they were saying it?
The kingdom of God has not ever and will not ever reconcile with the same ideas of fairness that the world attests. God is not calling us to settle for a truth that makes good economic sense for the time; that adheres to left or right wing political positions or that engages in lively debate about social policy. Going against what the world values, such as oppressive social rules is not a suggestion, it is the whole point.
Two important lessons common out of the lectionary today:
1. All are invited because the table is for everyone.
2. And we can only choose one master God or Mammon.
And we will never be able to hear let alone follow the Word without the Grace of the Spirit.
The Grace to overcome our fear of the other; and to embrace a call to radical inclusiveness.
Grace to walk with the poor.
Grace to not get swept away by all that sparkles.
Grace to know it is good and right to hang out with the geeks and nerds and not always the cool kids.
Grace to accept the invitation to dine with the powerful and the wealthy, but to not fret if the invitation never comes.
Grace to choose love others and embrace human relationship over greed; honesty over dishonesty, and inclusiveness over intolerance.
The Grace to be transformed.
And Grace to be Christ in a contradictory, conflicted and broken world.
O God, you call us to embrace both you and the children of this world with unconditional love. Give us grace to discern what your love demands of us, that, being faithful in things both great and small, we may serve you with an undivided heart. Amen.