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 will 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 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. Like the Australian government did with the French over the sub-marine deal. 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 ignominy.
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 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 Mediterranean world.
First, you need to know that there were two very different views of wealth in the ancient Far-West, the world in which both Jesus and Luke, who is telling 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. Prominently, many Pentecostals. 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. This community 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. And you must redistribute any such wealth that comes your way to the ‘children of the light’, those who already have a place in heaven because they can depend on nothing else but God’s mercy and favour.
You can perhaps see, if you have not seen it before, where Karl Marx learned his economics!
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, simply because of where we live, benefit from dishonest gains. A couple of pertinent examples. First, I take it as uncontroversial that anyone who has settled in this land having migrated from another, benefits on a daily basis from the genocidal policies of the British Crown in its annexation of Indigenous lands. Whether we’re comfortable with the fact or not, all immigrants to this place are economic beneficiaries of colonialism. Second, in world-economics terms, living in a First-World economy means, by definition, benefitting from the unjust market conditions and terms of trade which keep most of the world poor. In simple terms, we enrich ourselves off the back of cheap manufacturing and indentured labour in other parts of the world, all of it made possible through the ecologically unsustainable harvesting of natural resources.
Now, obviously, there’s a sense in which we cannot change that overnight. Thousands have tried, and failed. And getting all high-and-mighty in the annual meetings of multi-nationals or the World Bank, 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 little power, those most beloved of God, those who are the true 'children of light'. Be shrewd.
I have a friend who used to work in a paint supplies outlet in Collingwood. The boss would put the same product in different containers 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 to a poor community in Indonesia.
What Jesus would say to all the prosperous 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 personally costly to do so, then God will entrust you with the joy and the peace 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 merchant-class 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. Perhaps, I would humbly suggest, by first considering those from whom our wealth was dishonestly extracted in the first place.
Garry Worete Deverell