Finding Justice in Shrewd Subversion

A sermon preached on September 22, 2013
First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC

About a year ago, I met a woman named Vicki.

Vicki is a single mom, in her early thirties, working on her college degree. She had also only recently gotten out of a massive spiral of debt. With two kids and a full-time job in the service sector, making ends meet became increasingly difficult, and Vicki’s checking account would often empty before she had a chance to pay rent or purchase food for the next few weeks.

Using the only option she felt was available to her, Vicki took out a payday loan for $200 to cover her expenses. But when payday came around two weeks later, she wasn’t able to pay off the $200 plus the $35 fee in one lump sum. So she took out another loan – this time for $235 – and used it to pay off the first loan, with the promise that two weeks later, on her next payday, she would pay back the $235 loan, plus an additional $40 in “fees.” But two weeks later, Vicki wasn’t able to make that payment, either.

Things spiraled out of control. Financial emergencies came, and Vicki began taking out loans from a new lender to pay off the first. Her desperation led her to take out a loan against the title of her car. Before all of this ended, Vicki had lost $8,000 to escalating fees (which we might better name as an APR in excess of 400%). She had lost her car since she wasn’t able to pay off her car title loan, been evicted from her apartment, had become homeless, and declared bankruptcy. All of it led back to that original $200 loan – which she had thought she could easily pay back in two weeks.

There are many ways to interpret Vicki’s story. Some among us might gently scold her, chiding her for making such impulsive decisions about money. Others might commend her for her courage, doing anything it takes to survive. Myself, I lay quite a bit of responsibility at the feet of those who lent the money to Vicki in the first place: who are they to charge such sharply escalating fees, using Vicki’s own desperation against her in order to turn a profit?

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Photo by rutty on flickr

Ah, money. Such a fickle, essential, powerful, and injurious invention we humans have imposed upon ourselves. The word for money in today’s text – mammon – is much more complex than our English word, implying money’s all-encompassing presence in our lives. Translated as “that in which one fully trusts,” the word also not surprisingly has idolatrous undertones to it, recognizing money as a compelling force that counters the power of God in human lives.

It should come as no surprise that what this parable is trying to get at is just that – the power money has in all of our lives – the power to give and to take, the power to make or to break. What force other than God is actually so powerful in our lives? When it comes down to it, is there any part of our lives that are not touched by money?

This is a complicated parable. Just reading through it can be utterly confounding – nearly every commentary I read this week began with words like “this is the most perplexing parable in all of the Gospels” – and not one of them agreed on its meaning.

But just setting our parable within the context of the chapters surrounding it, and within the Gospel of Luke itself, can tell us a lot about the meaning behind it.

The story of the Shrewd Manager is the second of three consecutive parables about money in Luke. First, we have the story of the Prodigal Son, a warm fuzzy exposition about a father who forgives his son for squandering his inheritance. Often seen as an allegory exhibiting God’s great forgiveness for humankind, I wonder if it might be better understood as a teaching about prioritizing human relationships over even a massive loss of wealth.

The third parable, which follows today’s text, is the most challenging. It is about a wealthy man who in life, repeatedly ignores the pleas of a poor man who lives outside his home. In death, the poor man ascends to heaven, but the wealthy man descends to Hades. He repents his actions and begs for mercy – but because he did not act mercifully with his possessions in life, he receives no mercy in death.

All three parables are told before an audience that we are told includes tax collectors and Pharisees, who were notoriously concerned with money, and perhaps even exploited others to make more of it.

Add to this two final things we know about the book of Luke: one, it is the gospel in which Jesus most frequently aligns himself with the disenfranchised. And two, the author of Luke knew Jewish law and teachings. So he would have been very familiar with texts like the one we read today in Amos, which over anything, emphasized the injustice of preying upon the desperation of the poor. Luke would have been more than familiar with texts like Deuteronomy 23 and Leviticus 25, both of which condemn any interest charged on a loan, particularly a loan to someone living in poverty.

So holding all of these things together, let’s listen again to the basic storyline of the parable. Essentially, there was once a wealthy man who hired a manager to handle his finances, and who has just received word that the manager’s been squandering his properties. He decides to fire the manager, but asks that as he leaves, the manager put together an accounting of all of his wealth. So the manager goes about settling up his boss’s debts. Knowing he will lose his job, he cuts deals with his neighbors who owe his boss money. One man owes 100 barrels of olive oil; that debt is cut to 50. Another owes 100 containers of wheat; the manager makes it 80. In this way, he cultivates goodwill with the community, ensuring his survival when he’s no longer employed at the residence of his wealthy boss.

The standard interpretation of this parable is that the manager gets out of his predicament by falsifying IOUs, thus dishonestly depreciating the value of something belonging to his boss. But what is confusing about this interpretation is that the wealthy man then praises the manager for his dishonest actions – as does Jesus.

But like Vicki’s story, the parable of the Shrewd Manager can have many interpretations.

What if, for example, instead of dishonestly depreciating the value of his boss’s goods, the manager subversively acted in accordance with Jewish law?

That is – what if the amount the manager deducted from the olive oil was actually an unjust interest rate, immorally collected by his master? And what if the percentage of wheat he subtracted was also interest set at a usurious rate?

This would have been a clever move. Although the wealthy man would stand to lose some money, he would gain the honor and respect in his community by acting in a manner that would be perceived as just. Thus the manager gains his master’s praise, at least for his shrewdness.

Additionally, in reversing his actions from being one who squandered his master’s property to one who brings honor to it, the manager repents, in the same way the prodigal son begged forgiveness for squandering his inheritance. And, he does so in a way that not only brings redemption to himself, but brings the master and his debtors into a fair and socially just relationship, thereby earning Jesus’ praise.

Money can be a useful tool. With money we are able to provide ourselves with a sense of security – we can build a home; cook nourishing meals; keep the harsh winter cold at bay.

But there is something nagging, isn’t there, that some people have enough money to do all these basic things, and others do not. Recently, the United States reached the highest levels of income inequality for the first time since the years before the Great Depression, with the top 1% of Americans controlling 40% of all our wealth. At the same time, unemployment remains stagnant, the use of payday loans doubles over itself, and crucial government programs like SNAP (food stamps), and the Affordable Care Act are at real risk of being gutted.

Jesus makes clear that loving our neighbor has a material dimension to it. If one were to propose a “Love Your Neighbor” bill in the U.S. Senate, crafted after the teachings of this parable and the two that surround it, you can bet that it would trigger a substantial fiscal note. Loving our neighbor – that nebulous concept of emotional care for the other – in these parables, is not so nebulous after all. It means not simply that we feel for one another, but that we take care of each other in a very embodied way, with bread and with milk, with warm heavy blankets and sturdy roofs, with healing tonics and compassionate healthcare.

We do these things with money, but not because we trust money. When Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and money,” what he means is that we cannot have faith in money in the same way that we have faith in God. At the core of our selves, each of us knows that money is not something in which we can really place our trust. Wealth falls away with a sharp drop in the markets, with the onset of a costly illness, with even a small loan made by an unjust lender.

Choosing God over money means to place human relationship first. It is to provide our children with a piping hot dinner tonight. It is to acknowledge with compassion the one who stands on the corner near your home. It is to fill our food shelves with toothpaste and canned beans and shampoo and red meat. It is to advocate for policies that reduce income inequality, that stamp down predatory interest rates and unfair health care policies, that put food in the mouths of those who need it.

Indeed, it is to love our neighbor as ourselves. May that it be so.