|Photo by MyEyeSees. Flickr Creative Commons.|
Saturday, September 21, 2013
It's Time to Talk About Money (Sept 22 2013)
Homily: Yr C P25, Sept 22 2013, St. Albans
Readings: Amos 8:4-7; Ps 113; 1 Tim 2.1-7; Lk 16.1-13
It’s time to talk about money! Because in today’s gospel, and in the gospel we’re going to get next week, Jesus talks about money. In fact, Jesus talks about money a lot, especially in the gospel of Luke. And the reason that money is one of Jesus’ favourite subjects is because he knows that how we use our money has an awful lot to say about our priorities, our values and our faith.
So let’s take a look at today’s story. There is a rich man. Most likely he’s a landlord who makes his money from charging rent to tenant farmers and loaning money to people. He obviously does well out of this arrangement, after all we’re told that he is rich. And this man, the master, has a manager who works for him. The manager’s job is to deal with the people who work the rich man’s land, who pay the rents and borrow money. They would be poor people for the most part. The manager in our story sets up the deals, signs the contracts and collects the payments. It’s a good job, no physical labour involved and it pays pretty well. But there’s a problem. Apparently this manager is not managing his portfolio very well. He’s not making as much money as he should, as the other managers do. He’s squandering the rich man’s property and somebody’s ratted on him. We’re not told exactly what the problem is. But the rich man hauls the manager into his office, tells him what he has heard and asks to see the financial statements immediately. And, the master tells him, if the poor performance is confirmed, the manager will be fired.
As you might imagine, the manager is desperate. He’s in a state of crisis. After years of working for this master as a manager, he knows that he’ll never get a job anywhere else. But then, in the midst of his desperation, he has an idea. “I know what I’ll do. I’ll go and forgive the debts of all my master’s debtors, so that when I’m fired, they will welcome me into their homes, and at least I’ll have some place to eat and live.” And so he goes to each one of the debtors, takes out their contracts and reduces the amount owed to the master. A hundred jugs of oil, which might be several years of production for a small olive farm, is reduced to fifty jugs. He does the same with all the debtors.
But the rich man finds out what the manager has done. You can imagine the rich man’s reaction – or can you?
This is where the story takes a strange turn. We expect the rich man to condemn the manager for what he has done. We expect him to say “you have no right to fiddle with the contracts.” We expect him to tell the debtors that the original debts still must be collected, that the manager had no authority to change them. We expect the master to have this dishonest manager thrown in prison.
But that’s not how the story ends. Instead the rich man praises the manager because he had acted shrewdly. And Jesus himself concludes his story by praising the manager and holding him up as an example for the disciples, and for you and for me.
Why does Jesus praise the dishonest manager?
[time for discussion groups]
Now, if you had a hard time figuring our why Jesus praises the manager, don’t feel too badly. Many commentators and scholars have said that this is actually the most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables to understand.
What’s going on here? Surely Jesus isn’t advocating dishonesty, is he? Surely he’s not advocating breaking the rules or fiddling the books? The dishonest manager is basically self-serving isn’t he? What is it about him that makes him a model for the disciples, a model for us?
It’s a bit of a dilemma isn’t it? We’ve been taught all our lives to be honest and to play by the rules.
But what if the rules aren’t just?
I think that one of the reasons that this parable poses such a dilemma for us is that we operate out of the assumption that the economic system with its associated rules and practices, and the court system that backs them up, is basically good and just.
But what if the economic system is not good? What if it is not just? What if it is an oppressive system by means of which the rich are able to exploit the poor so that the rich get richer and the poor are oppressed? What if the usual way that society operates simply perpetuates injustice? Would this change our perspective on the actions of the manager?
Why is the rich man so rich? Well, it’s because he seeks out poor people in distress and exploits them by providing loans which enable them to feed their starving children today, but at interest rates they cannot afford to repay. When they default on their loans, he takes possession of their land as collateral, and they become tenants on the ancestral lands of their own families. The absentee landlord lives in the city and becomes rich off the excessive rents paid by the peasants. It’s an economic system called sharecropping, and it existed in Jesus day, and it still exists in many parts of the world today. And the manager who worked for the rich man was supposed to play by the rules and make the system work, work that is, for the benefit of the rich man. I think it’s interesting to note that in our text, the manager is referred to as a dishonest manager. But I think that’s a bad translation. If you actually look at the original Greek, the literal translation is that this man is the “Manager of Injustice”. This isn’t a parable about honesty. It’s a parable about justice. Economic justice.
We don’t need to go back 2000 years to find examples of economic injustice. Starting in about 2004, commissioned salespeople at financial institutions all over the U.S. and elsewhere realized that they could take advantage of relaxed lending rules and a housing boom to convince people who really couldn’t afford it to buy houses and take on mortgages. These were called sub-prime mortgages and they boomed between 2004 and 2007 and the interest rates and the profits were high. The people selling these mortgages knew in many cases that the customers wouldn’t be able to make the monthly payments for very long, but these same salespeople simply pocketed their commissions and moved on to the next sale.
And the bosses of the salespeople didn’t worry about it too much either, because they figured out a way to bundle all these sub-prime mortgages together as derivatives called Asset Based Commercial Paper and they sold them to the big investment banks who were always looking for ways to get bigger returns for their customers. And because the investment banks were making these higher returns, they were able to borrow lots of money from the big banks where you and I deposit our money.
As you know, all of this came crashing down five years ago this month in the financial crisis of 2008. Homeowners defaulted on their mortgages. The housing market in the U.S. and other countries crashed. Asset Based Commercial Paper was frozen. Lehman Brothers, one of the big investment banks went bankrupt and the entire global financial system came to a grinding halt and was only saved by the fact that governments handed billions of dollars of taxpayer money, including $750 billion in the USA alone, over to the banks to prevent them from collapsing. We are still dealing with the after-math of the 2008 Financial Crisis: prolonged economic recession, job losses, high unemployment for young people, and high government debt loads which we will have to be repaid by the next generation.
And you know what? Nobody committed any crimes. People didn’t break the rules. In fact, the main players followed the rules, and they obeyed the incentive systems that had been put in place, and they made big commissions from 2004 to 2007 and almost all of them kept them because according to our economic system, they had earned them.
But God has another vision of economic justice.
God’s vision of economic justice is revealed through Moses in the law given to Israel, where every fiftieth year was to be a year of Jubilee, and in that year of Jubilee, all debts were to be forgiven, all property which had been taken as collateral was to be returned and all people who had been taken into slavery because they were unable to pay their debts were to be freed.
God’s vision of economic justice is revealed through the prophets. Amos, in today’s first reading, declares God’s judgment against those who commit economic injustice: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land, and tremble.”
God’s vision of economic justice is revealed in today’s psalm: “God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes.”
God’s vision of economic justice is revealed in Jesus, who in the first public declaration of his ministry declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor and to proclaim the year of Jubilee.”
God’s vision of economic justice is revealed in the gospel of Luke, from which we can distill the following basic economic principle:
Everything you and I have actually belongs to God and has simply been entrusted to us for a time and a purpose. I do not own it. I have not earned it. I have no right to do what I please with it. I am simply a steward, a manager, a caretaker who has been entrusted with both a gift and a responsibility.
Despite what the laws of our society say, despite what our economics tells us, despite what it says on our employment contract and the deed to our house, wealth and possessions don’t belong to us. They belong to God and they are given to us so that we can use them in accordance with God’s purposes.
Questions for Open Space.
Q1. If we really believed in Luke’s economic principle how would this change our relationship with money?
Q2. How can we serve God, not wealth, but still navigate our way through the economic situation we find ourselves in?