I’m finally back in the parish, at St. Andrew’s in Marblehead, Mass. My first week preaching there finds the lectionary giving me one of the worst Gospels to preach on (read it here: Luke 16:1-13). I did my best. Here’s the link to the video (on my Facebook):
Before we start, I want to clarify one thing. I have read a lot of different translations of the Bible, a lot. And the word that is translated as manager, is a horrible translation. It is not manager. It is slave. The word translated as manager is slave. So please, every time you see manager, think slave. It could be steward, but we have a different understanding of the word steward today. The word is slave. This is not the parable of the dishonest manager, it is the parable of the dishonest slave.
Ok. That’s done. Let’s go!
I must confess something to you all. I was really looking forward to showing off a bit this week. Maybe not showing off, but definitely giving you a glimpse of what I can do as a preacher.
And then I looked at the readings.
I looked at the readings and remembered that God has a wicked sense of humor. And likes to occasionally check my ego.
Because really, what am I supposed to do with this?
What am I supposed to do with a story that at first glance makes it seem like God is rewarding wasteful, deceitful, and potentially illegal behavior?
And then, I had a realization. If I can help this story make sense to a modern audience, that might actually be a better way of showing y’all what I can actually do.
So, here is what we are going to do today: I am going to set this story into its historical context. I’ll also explain some of the things the ancient audience would have known that we today don’t.
And then once we have a stronger understanding, we’ll have some fun. Or, at least I will.
Are you with me? Good!
To begin, please remember one thing: this story takes place pre-Capitalism. What we now know as capitalism didn’t really get started until the 16th or 17th century. We view everything through the lens of Capitalism. The ancient audience, did not.
I think the capitalism reminder is important. For a variety of reasons. But Jesus wasn’t speaking to a world that was designed to favor private citizens making money at the expense of other private citizens. That happened, but it wasn’t the basis of the political and economic system.
With that in mind as we go forward, I want to ask a question. Whose side are we supposed to be on?
As I see it, there are 4 actors in this parable:
Mammon – the god of wealth and possessions, which recently has been translated as simply “wealth”
God is also floating around in this story, but honestly, as a modern reader, it’s difficult to tell where.
While capitalism didn’t exist yet, Predatory Lending definitely did. Very high interest rates (think in the neighborhood of 25% for money and 50% on goods), coupled with a mostly illiterate group of borrowers made for a perfect storm of taking advantage of people.
Disingenuous lenders would often place interest in with the principle borrowed, but the common borrower who couldn’t read, didn’t know.
People were taken advantage of.
The lending itself would be a bit different than what we are used to today. Debts were often for land rental and exchanging goods based on the coming harvest, not just for borrowing money.
In this story, let’s say debtor number 1 paid for his land from his harvest. Now, his rent would be 40 jugs of olive oil, but yet he owes 100. Wrapped up in that amount, are 10 jugs for Roman taxes, 40 jugs for the landowner, and 10 for the slave.
The modern version of this is student debt. Where, for example, I will end up paying more than 2 times what I borrowed for law school and seminary. But I digress.
But back to the olive oil guy – he had no idea this happened. He just thought he owed 100 jugs for his land. So he is overjoyed to only pay 50. Same for the wheat guy, who now owes only 80.
Wheat guy doesn’t get such a good deal, probably because the slave only cut his portion of the proceeds from the wheat payment.
So to summarize, the slave is forgiving the portions of the debt that are above what was borrowed anyway – either by giving away his share or by forgiving all of what was borrowed over the original cost.
While predatory lending is frowned upon today, it was illegal back then, and, more specifically, it’s against the law as prescribed in the Torah. Still is. You are not supposed to profit from lending to your neighbors in need. Ever.
God is against this practice. Which is why I don’t think God is portrayed by the slave owner in this story, as has been the common interpretation.
But, regardless, we have a slave who is rewarded for acting shrewdly and being rewarded for this behavior. Even though all he is doing is forgiving the illegal part of the debts.
And! This guy isn’t doing this out of the goodness of his heart. He’s renegotiating to help himself. He wants to have the possibility of life after his punishment from his Master.
The slave has done the most he could with what little he had. He has bet on his future at the expense of his present. I like that. When I think of this parable from that perspective, it’s more tolerable.
It makes more sense that Jesus would want us to take away that we need to do what is right, even if it doesn’t mean doing what is best for us.
And there was a lot of shady dealings that got us to this point. So I don’t think God is being played by the slave in this story either.
I think, honestly, that God in this story is when the guy got scared and did what was right and then all of the good that happened after.
Because, and I think this is important, what God cares about is your heart and if you are right in your relationship with God.
The slave could also have called the debts as due, taken his share, and ran. But he didn’t. He forgave the illegal portions of the debt even though that meant he would leave penniless.
God, to me, is in the doing of the right thing.
I like this; a lot – God is in the doing of the right thing.
But here is what I don’t like:
This Scripture has been used for hundreds of years to justify slavery. I don’t like that. At all. I don’t like how this Scripture just glances by slavery, and assumes it to be ok. I don’t like it. You shouldn’t either. I want all of you to go home and think about this. Please.
Think about how the condemned in this story is the slave, not the slaver, not the predatory lending. The slave, for looking out for himself instead of putting his master first as was required of all slaves, means the slave is the bad guy.
God is in the good that the slave does. But, I really dislike what is skipped over by Jesus here.
However, this is not a sermon on race, racism, and slavery. There will be time for those sermons. Plus, racism, believe it or not, is easier to talk about than what I’m about to say.
At the end of the day, this is a text about money. The Roman god of money, Mammon, is an actor in this story. And honestly, Mammon is still alive and well today.
The god of wealth and possessions.
And the rare clear teaching that you cannot be a slave to God and to Mammon.
Now, I know it’s hard to envision ourselves as being a slave of any kind a slave, but go with me on this. Because the reality is, we either belong to God or we belong to money.
Are we doing what is right, even if it isn’t what’s best for us? Or are we doing what’s best for us, even at the expense of others? The basis of Capitalism is to get monetary benefit at the expense of others.
I think, at the end of the day, this Scripture is warning us to not be slaves to our money; to not let money control and dictate our lives. Don’t miss life by chasing money. Don’t enrich yourself by preying on those in need.
Because a person in need will do just about anything to make sure needs are met.
I don’t know you all well yet, but I want to tell you something about myself: I’ve been homeless. When I was in 7th grade, my house burned down. And we were homeless. My single mother, and me.
Family and friends got us through that time, others doing things out of the goodness of their hearts.
If you have never done without, if you’ve never been desperate, I am truly happy for you, but you don’t know what that’s like. I was a child, and this was a very short period in my life, but I will never forget. And if you’ve had this experience, you won’t either.
The way we are treating asylum seekers infuriates me, the assumption that these are people seeking a better life in the US. When the reality is that these are human beings, seeking a way to live. They are desperate, vulnerable people, acting on pure survival instincts. And we are taking advantage of them – gaining political leverage (on both sides of the aisle), instead of actually helping.
We wonder why women stay in abusive relationships – but where will they be able to go and be safe? Is it better to be abused but alive, or risk death to leave?
The same is true of the debtors in this story. They are seeking ways of having basic needs met – food and shelter.
And they are being taken advantage of.
God, explicitly, tells us not to. It’s in the Old Testament, frequently, not to lend at interest. As is the Jubilee – all debts are to be forgiven every 7 years. God doesn’t like taking advantage of people.
Jesus tells us in this story that God is in the actions when we treat each other with kindness.
This isn’t a story about doing bad and good things happening.
This IS a story about getting right with God, and about actually living out the commands of Christ.
Love the Lord your God above all other things, especially money. Love one another the way you love yourself. Treat each other the way you want to be treated.
You can’t follow God and the dollar. One of those things will lead you astray, everytime. The other, will stay with you no matter what you’re going through.
I will end with this, and if I’ve lost your attention, come back to me because I’m almost done and this is important: It’s the way that I have developed to test if I am acting for myself or for the Will of God:
Will this thing I want to do hurt other people? Does this belief I have hurt marginalized and bullied people?
It’s a fairly easy rule of life that I’ve started trying to follow: does this hurt people? This belief, this practice, this business deal, this insistence on not using a blinker? Does this hurt someone?
If the answer is yes, you are not following God. Period.
If you follow this rule, you have a good head start of following God.
And yes, for those of you who are paying attention, I did just equate God with using your blinker, but I think that God really likes blinkers and we should all use them.