In my youth three things were considered inappropriate for dinner-table conversations: religion, politics, and money. Sex didn’t merit listing because it wasn’t even mentioned in “polite society.” The Church has been having that conversation, even if one wag has said that “only bishops could make sex so boring!” Even the pope is insisting that other subjects are far more urgent. So, what about the other three?
Conversations about religion and faith seem to have re-entered the public sphere, in ways that seem increasingly healthy. We don’t hear quite so much dogmatism in public discourse about religion, and many are asking questions of far deeper significance. The political discourse still leaves a great deal to be desired, and it is frequently dogmatic, but few people are hesitant about having the discussion, except maybe in church.
It’s the topic of money that many people see as the third rail. That is an urgent public conversation, and a great part of it recently has been about transparency and accountability in financial matters, both here and globally. We are increasingly aware that our economic systems are interconnected – that our livelihoods quite literally depend on others, here and abroad. Plenty of pixels and sound bites are devoted to debt and bailouts in Europe – and China’s economic muscle is always of interest.
Money matters are still the most challenging to talk about in church. A stewardship sermon or two every fall is pretty much expected, but we don’t often tackle the really hard economic issues. It’s like the letter I received about ten years ago, when a parishioner complained about “politics in church” because there was a plug in his parish’s Easter bulletin about the need for health care for all. We still haven’t solved that one – mostly because it’s related to deeper economic issues.
Yet Jesus talks about money far more than he talks about the things most people think he’s concerned about (or think he should be concerned about). Marriage and sexual behavior only come up four times. He does say rather more about faith and faithfulness. Money and wealth comes up over and over – in 11 of the parables, and in this gospel of Luke, in one verse of every seven. He actually says more about the subject than about heaven and hell combined – and most of the times he talks about heaven it’s about what heaven on earth is supposed to be, a society without poverty or violence. Amos offers a brief example, in a vision of hell, when the wealthier members of the community use their free time to plot profit-making and extortion schemes – that’s what God’s future will eliminate. The psalmist echoes, ‘the Lord God… rescues the poor from the ashes and makes them like royalty,’ and unlike Cinderella, their glory and dignity don’t end at midnight.
Jesus walked the earth at a time when economic stability was a major concern, right up there with Roman occupation and religious oppression (that trio of religion, politics, and money again). Economic inequality was pretty extreme. The humble people around him usually didn’t own any land – and more and more of those who did have land were being foreclosed for nonpayment of taxes. Slaves and tenants worked for the few landowners (remember his parable about workers in the vineyard). The crowds who came to listen to him probably included a lot of homeless people and day laborers; his comment about the son of man having no place to lay his head is about his solidarity with the poorest people around him. But his followers weren’t just the poor. The wealthy members of the community were definitely involved as well – Joseph of Arimathea, Zacchaeus, dinner party hosts, and the wealthy women who supported and welcomed the early Christian communities into their own homes.
The story Jesus tells in this gospel may have one of the more familiar tag lines in the gospels – ‘you can’t serve two masters, you can’t serve both God and wealth.’ But as a whole it may be the most ambiguous parable of all. It’s not easy to decide whether he’s condoning unethical behavior. That just might be the most important aspect of the story – we have to think and explore and discuss and ponder over it. We can’t just listen once and get it and go on about our business.
A rich man hears rumors about his manager’s poor business practices (wasting the boss’ assets), and asks for a final audit before he’s fired. The executive sees what’s coming, and starts working his network. He makes deals with the different accounts, telling one guy to cut his bill in half – just 50 jugs of oil, instead of 100. He cuts a deal with another one for 80% of what’s owed. The owner’s network is pretty good, too, and when he gets wind of this, he calls in the executive and congratulates him on his savvy. He may not keep his job, but at least he’s set himself up for the next move. The owner is apparently glad to get a major portion of what he’s owed before the manager leaves. The accounts are glad to get off for less than they’d contracted to pay. Everybody seems to benefit, yet this has been called squandering and waste.
And yet… this manager has not fulfilled his fiduciary duty to the owner. He hasn’t kept the contracts originally made, and there won’t be a clean audit. This is where Jesus’ commentary makes us start to squirm. “If you haven’t been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches? Whoever is dishonest in little things is also dishonest in the important ones… you can’t serve both God and wealth.”
Who’s who in this zoo? Is the rich man a figure for God? One of the bedrock understandings of our faith is that God forgives debts. Is the executive perhaps a godly actor, releasing debtors from their obligations? Does faithfulness here mean forgiving debtors and relieving poverty rather than worrying about dual-entry bookkeeping? Whom do Jesus’ disciples serve?
We live in a society that proclaims its interest in financial transparency and accountability, and we make laws about undue influence and insider trading because we rightly see the need to limit the opportunities for the kind of exploitation Amos rails against. In Jesus’ society those rules often looked equally scrupulous – give 10% of your grain to the religious institution, pay your taxes to the government, and if you don’t do both, then you’re not an upstanding member of the community and you’re not fit company at any decent person’s table. For a lot of people in that context serving two masters looked like never going to the wedding because you didn’t have the appropriate garments, and not having a place to lay your head because you’ve spent all your earnings on food and taxes. For those on the other end of the economic spectrum it might look like spending all your energy on creative bookkeeping and judging the prudence of spending on the ultimate advantages of charitable contributions.
Parables don’t always have neat and tidy answers or interpretations. They are meant to make us ponder and wrestle and feel uncomfortable. Consider that the loudest public rhetoric in this country right now is about reducing government spending, a quarter of which goes to relieve the plight of poorest – food stamps, public assistance, and health care. Consider that this rhetoric is mostly led by those who represent the wealthiest micro-tier of this nation’s wealthy. Consider that the economic disparity in this nation today is the greatest in its history; it’s about 2.5 times what it was in Jesus’ day, which was an empire built on slave labor. Consider that while we outlawed slavery here 150 years ago, we have more people in prison than any other nation, and they are overwhelmingly poor and non-white. Consider that the average wage and real personal wealth have been decreasing for 80% of Americans for the last three decades, producing a vast underclass of economic debt-slaves, who have little real hope for escape. The poverty level continues to rise and living wage jobs are disappearing. Where do we find ourselves in that parable, and what does it mean to serve God?
Our hope is the good news of our continued prayer: Your kingdom come, O Lord, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us – all of us – this day our daily bread. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Send us out as instruments of your peaceable kingdom. Send us in the name of the one who has ensured that our debts are forgiven. Send us out to make real peace – and to serve the Lord.
 He does speak about divorce (he prohibits it) and adultery (Matthew 5:27-28, in the context of lust, and in John 8:1-11, when he pardons a woman about to be stoned). He also has a conversation with the Samaritan woman about her marital situation (John 4:16-18).
 The wealthiest 1% had about 16% of the wealth http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2011/12/19/391998/income-inequality-rome/