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Sunday, September 19, 2010

How to serve God with your ill-gotten wealth

Luke 16.1-13 

So here’s the perplexing story we’re confronted with this morning.  Jesus tells of a clerical type who works for a credit agency, a bank we might say, who is about to lose his job because the owner looks into his work and finds that he’s been a bit slack and idle with calling in the debts.  The fellow says to himself, “Damn, I’m about to lose my job!  That means that I could be out on the streets begging.  I’m not rough enough for a labouring job.  What can I do?”  Well, what he does is make himself some ‘friends’, that is, some people who owe him big-time, so that when he’s retrenched, he’ll at least be able to find a place to stay for a while.  So he calls in the boss’s debtors, one by one, and reduces their debts by up to a half.  He gets them to pay what they can, but makes it clear that they’re not really off the hook because they now owe HIM.  Now, the funny thing is that the when boss hears about this, he commends the fellow for his shrewdness, and our clerical type gets to keep his job after all.

A strange story indeed, a story that is very modern in some ways because no matter how hard you look, there is not a hero to be found anywhere!  The clerical type acts only to look after number one.  There is no trace in the story of any genuine altruism.  He reduces the debts to his boss only to make the customers indebted to him.  And the boss himself is clearly no saint, because he commends his employee for acting in that way.  Probably because that was how the boss made his own millions!  The rules of the game in the ancient world were much the same as they are in some circles even today.  In order to make new, more lucrative, business partners you sometimes have to rip off an existing business partner.  So perhaps the boss was commending the fellow because he was finally part of the wealth-creation club, having now discovered the cruel rules of capitalism, in all their naked ignomy.

Now, you can probably imagine Jesus telling this story as a bit of an object-lesson in how evil the evil can get, right?  But that’s not what Jesus does with the story.  Quite the opposite.  There is a sense in which Jesus then commends the shrewdness of the dishonest money-lender to his disciples as a modus-operandi for their own lives.  Let me quote:
The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  So I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the tents of eternity.
Now what, in heaven’s name, is that all about?  Is Jesus telling his disciples to make wealth dishonestly, that is, by ripping people off?  And is he also telling them to spend that money within the community of faith in such a way that even heaven will owe them something in the end?  Isn’t Jesus therefore recommending a course of action which actually contradicts the example of radical grace and generosity at the heart of his teaching?  It certainly looks that way!  But before we come to any too-quickly gained judgements, let us consider two other pieces of additional evidence from the ancient world.

First, you need to know that there were two very different views of wealth in the ancient Near-East, the world in which both Jesus and Luke, who is retelling this story, lived.  One view was that wealth was a reward from the gods for the living of a virtuous life.  It is a view that was popular amongst the Romans who ruled this world, and because the Romans were imposing their culture upon the rest of the world, it was a view that began to take hold even amongst Jewish and Christian people.  There are churches, even today, who believe this.  One is the Hillsongs church in Sydney.  But I can assure you that this was definitely NOT the view of Jesus, nor of most of his compatriots in the rural towns of Galilee.  These people tended to see wealth as a sign not of virtue, but of sin.  From where they sat, in the agricultural and fishing industries, wealth was something that the powerful fellows who bought your goods extracted from your hard labour by playing your own price off against someone else’s.  Wealth, in other words, was gained through the exploitation of indentured labour and by clever manipulation of the market.  From the point of view of the rural periphery, from the point of view of Jesus, wealth was therefore a sign that you were dishonest and that you served not Yahweh, but Mammon or wealth.

That Jesus in fact saw things this way, himself, is made clear by the final set of sayings in our gospel reading today, in which he makes it quite clear that the disciple must choose between the service of God or the service of Mammon.  Mammon is an Aramaic word which means dishonest wealth.  If you really love God, says Jesus, you must also hate or despise that wealth which comes (necessarily, in this view) by dishonest and exploitative means.  You can see where Karl Marx learned his economics, can’t you!

 But here’s the other relevant information.  You must remember that the story we are hearing this morning is not, first of all, a word-for-word recollection of the story told by Jesus.  It is, rather, part of a sermon Luke the Evangelist is delivering to his congregation.  Now, if you read Luke’s gospel carefully you will find that Luke’s congregation is probably urban, probably Gentile in its culture, and that there are a number of very wealthy people in the congregation.  It may be that the church even meets in one of those wealthy person’s houses.  When Luke re-tells this story of Jesus, he is therefore doing it for a reason.  Perhaps to advise the wealthy converts to the faith—who, in Luke’s view could not have become wealthy unless they had been prepared to exploit others—what to now do with the wealth they have.  Perhaps Luke is saying, “O.K., so you live in the world, you do business with others and that means ripping someone off at some point.  Just like the shrewd manager who ripped off his boss in order to serve his own business interests.  I recognise that you can’t leave the world entirely.  I recognise that if you want to stay in business, you have to struggle with difficult rules and shonky arrangements sometimes.  I understand that.  Nevertheless, in all of this I want you to be shrewd.  I want you to use the ingenuity you formerly used to rip people off in another way.  I want you to find ways of using your Mammon, your dishonestly gained wealth, to help out the community of faith, and that means the poor and the widows and the orphans.  For here they sit amongst you.  Make friends with them, not in order to make them indebted to you, but because they need your help.  The injustice they have suffered needs to be redressed.”

So, how are we to receive this sermon for ourselves?  Well, it’s not too difficult really.  There is a sense in which all of us, in the class and part of the world we live in, live off dishonest gains.  Simply by living here, we live off and benefit from the unjust economic patterns and structures which keep the world as it is:  the rich living off the labour of the poor.  Now, there’s a sense in which we cannot change that overnight.  And getting all high-and-mighty in the boardrooms of BHP-Biliton, or on the floor of your plastering factory in Richmond, or whatever, is unlikely to achieve a revolution.  Let’s face it.  But there are still things you can do to right the wrongs.  You can use the relative power of your position to make yourself the friend of those who have less power.  Be shrewd.

I have a friend who used to work in a plaster factory in Richmond.  The boss would put the same product in different packages and sell one at a much higher price than the other.  But my friend, if a customer came in who was clearly not made of money, would always recommend the lower-priced package and get away with it, because there was a loop-hole in the ordering system which didn’t distinguish between the two.  I have another friend who works for one of the world’s worst corporate citizens, BHP-Biliton.  But she is there because she wants to make a difference for the poorer people of the world.  In the boardroom meetings, she tries to convince the company that paying the workers fairer wages will make good economic sense in the end because a happy worker is a loyal and hard-working worker.  She usually loses, but sometimes she wins.  And she redistributes some of the big cash she earns in the process to a poor community in Indonesia.  

What Jesus would say to us all this morning is this, I think.  If you are faithful in doing what you can with the Mammon, the ill-gotten wealth, you all receive whether you intend to or not, then God will entrust the real, less illusory riches of life to you as well.  If you can learn to redistribute your wealth and power towards God’s poor and vulnerable one’s, even though it is difficult to do so, then God will entrust you with the joy that comes to a person when you give, but require nothing in return.  For this is what Christ did.  He took the power that was his as a male Rabbi in a society which privileged such people, and he gave it away for the sake of those whom that society excluded.  Not in a silly, head-strong way.  But carefully, and shrewdly, so that his small, incremental, efforts would actually make a difference.

God calls all of us to do the same. 

This homily was first preached at Monash Uniting Church in September 2010.

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