September 19, 2010
Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen
It always comes down to money.
For as long as humanity has dealt with any kind of accumulation of wealth, we have argued about it. And fought about it. For as long as we have used money, some have more and some have had less, and some have used wisely and some have squandered it, and some have been honest and some have lied and stolen and cheated. For as long as we’ve had money, it has exerted an inordinate power in our lives.
Some things never change.
Jesus knew this. Jesus talked more about money and our relationship to it than almost any other subject. Amos knew this. As a simple herdsman he probably never had much money but he understood its power.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that both our Hebrew scripture reading and our gospel involve MONEY—money and its use and misuse, money and our relationship with it.
In our Hebrew scripture we hear from the prophet Amos. Amos was called by God some 800 years before Jesus’ birth—called to leave his home in a small village south of Jerusalem and travel north, to the Northern Kingdom of Israel to deliver God’s words, God’s warnings to a people who seemed to be forgetting what their covenant with God really meant.
The Northern Kingdom, you see, was enjoying a period of relative peace and prosperity, a time when all should have been well. But instead, greed was rampant and the gap between the rich and the poor was ever widening. What’s more, the people seemed to forget that their relationship with God entailed more than just observing the Sabbath, and the holy days. They forgot that what they did the other six days of the week mattered. They forgot that their behavior in every realm of their lives reflected their relationship with God. It had gotten so bad that some were even heard wishing for the Sabbath to end quickly so that they could get back to business—back to cheating and lying and exploiting in order to increase their wealth.
It fell to Amos to point out to the people of the Northern Kingdom, to the rich and prosperous—which of course included the king—the error of their ways. It fell to Amos to remind them that their God was a God of justice, and that as God’s chosen people they were called to live just lives themselves, to order their lives in such a way that all could prosper, and to show special concern for the powerless-- the widow, the orphan, the resident alien, the needy, and the poor.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” Amos cried. (Amos 5:24)
It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that Amos’ words were not well received. Some things never change.
Which brings us to the gospel. The parable of the unjust steward—or the shrewd steward, take your pick—is one of the most difficult passages in the gospels to understand. Jesus tells the story of a man, a manager, who was called on the carpet because there were rumors that he’d been squandering his boss’ wealth—whether it was through mismanagement or thievery we don’t know. The boss, the master, demands that the manager bring him a final accounting so that he can dismiss him and manager, understandably perhaps, freaks out. “I’m too old to labor and too proud to beg,” he says to himself, and then an idea comes to him. He calls in two of his accounts, and reduces the debt that each owes, hoping of course that being indebted to him they will care for him when he’s out of work and on the street. Then the “shrewd” manager returns to the master who instead of being even angrier at this continued mismanagement of his assets, commends the manager’s behavior. It’s puzzling indeed.
What’s even more puzzling is that Jesus does not lash immediately, condemning this dishonest behavior. Instead, he almost seems to recommend it, perhaps employing a little sarcasm, appreciating the irony of the situation when he says to his disciples, “…make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Whatever we think of the outcome of the parable, and of the manager’s actions, one thing is clear—dishonesty begat more dishonesty. Lack of faithfulness begat more unfaithfulness. Devotion to money above all else ruptured relationships and caused a cascade of behavior that just multiplied the wrongs. The last line of the gospel highlights this: You cannot serve God and wealth.
We cannot serve God and wealth. Like the message that Amos brought to the people of the Northern Kingdom, this message from Jesus is one that is hard to hear—it was hard in Jesus’ time, and it’s hard now, because we have a love affair with money. Money means power, it means luxury, it means never wanting for anything, and what’s wrong with that?
Well, this is what’s wrong with that –when we make money the be-all and end-all of our existence – our god as it were – we buy into a system that is incompatible with the world God created and envisions for us. We become, like the manager who cheated his master to make up for cheating that same master, like the people of Israel who observed the Sabbath all the while longing for its end so that they could return to their scheming ways, destined to continue behaviors that promote our own well-being at the expense of others. We participate in, we support unjust systems to serve ourselves.
God wants something better for us, for all of humanity, all of creation. God wants a world in which every living creature is cared for, in which the needs of one are not met at the expense of another. God wants a world in which “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
That doesn’t mean that we must give up our money, abandon our jobs, or empty our retirement savings. But it does mean that we must remember that God is the source of all that we have, and that God holds us accountable for how we use that abundance. We can’t serve God and wealth, but we can use our wealth to serve God, to restore a world in which there is true economic justice for every human being, in which we all live in the security of knowing that our needs will be met.