The 18th Sunday after Pentecost/ Proper 20C/ Lectionary 25
How to Make Friends With Dishonest Wealth
Thanks to the Chicago Chamber Choir for their beautiful music today. We cherish our partnership with you, Timm Adams and the choir, which has been ongoing for over a decade now. I realize, of course, you love us mostly because of our beautiful space here and its exceptional acoustics! But seriously, I think we have developed a strong and fruitful relationship with each other as well.
In the language of the gospel reading, we are indebted to the Chamber Choir for this mini-concert today. And, I think -if I’m not mistaken- they feel like it’s a thank you gift they can, and want to, offer to us – and so to extend the biblical-literary-metaphor just a step further, we could also say it’s a debt that is paid, or forgiven, from each side of our partnership.
So thanks for your gift to our Open House Sunday, and we look forward to hearing from you a couple more times yet this morning.
The dishonest manager, in our Gospel Parable today, who quickly forgives his master’s debtors 20 & 50%, in order to save his own butt, is a shrewd one indeed! And against all our better judgments, he gets praised for it! This is definitely one of the more shocking and confusing parables we’ll ever hear from Jesus.
The deal with the debts reminds me of student loans, specifically, my student loans.
How many of you have ever had to pay back student loans? Or, maybe you’re in school right now, accumulating debt on a student loan? How about a home mortgage loan, or condo, or a car loan?
My experience wasn’t that bad, actually. Way back, when I had student loans from 8 years of college and seminary, the interest rate was pretty low, 3% I think. I also took time to work, especially during seminary, and so, even though it took an extra year to graduate, it helped significantly in reducing what I had to borrow. There was a generous grace period in those days, before you had to start paying it back if you didn’t have a job, thank goodness, because it took Kim and I about two years to get our first position. And so, for the first 10 years of our first-call, Kim and I budgeted to pay everything back, but it was doable. I think it was about 15% of our income at the time. Not near as much as some students today.
Today, the cost of secondary education has sky rocketed. One year can easily cost more than my whole undergraduate degree did, in the 70’s! Interest rates have more than doubled, and it’s not uncommon for the rate to be unknown to the borrower. As a rule, students aren’t told how much they’ll have to repay. Also undisclosed in the loans, are the punitive restrictions. More and more, there is no way out, even if you can’t get a job! In this age of high unemployment, students without a job accrue unbelievable interest and have reconciled themselves to paying it back literally until they die! Universities are in competition with each other for the latest and greatest campuses: new buildings and high tech equipment are constantly being updated. The Chancellors are rewarded with 7 figure salaries as never before, to make this happen. And all this becomes fuel for the fire of the precipitous rise in tuition rates. And so, too often, the banks doing the loaning are reaping the profits, on the backs of students and their families.
Could this be an example of the dishonest wealth, the master calls attention to in our parable? It is certainly a kind of cheating, in a sense, as we watch helplessly – watch our young people mostly languish in this anemic labor market. Record numbers of graduates remain unemployed or are forced to get by at McDonald’s with their advanced degrees. Our Universities are joining the gristmill of a system that continues to decimate the middle class, and some are saying, is creating the next dangerous bubble in our economy.
But the dishonest wealth, as the master describes it in Jesus’ parable, is about subverting this system and economy. Listen to what he says, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” It’s first of all about making friends! It’s about being shrewd in our relationships with one another. So Jesus’ story transforms our expectations, and he bids us to learn from “the children of this world.” When the world was about to come crashing down around the dishonest steward, he was right in that he needed to react quickly to save himself. It was a wake-up call to doing something.
In “making friends for himself by means of dishonest wealth,” he creates allies and relationships of mutual interest and trust, amongst his master’s debtors, so that when he was kicked out of his old life, based on relationships of money, he has a new foundation to rebuild on.
You know that saying, “You can’t buy friends.” Jesus seems to be saying, that’s precisely what we should be doing. Deep and meaningful friendships and relationships involve spending treasure, both tangible and intangible. The point is to use it while we have it, and so he hustled to make friends among the debtors.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.” “You cannot serve God and wealth.” And, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, according to Luke, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us!”
The theologian Ched Myers, based on his 1st C. Near-East research, has a brilliant insight here: He says that the principle which the dishonest manager is congratulated for, is really for, keeping money moving. Money is a resource, so long as it is given or spent--scattered or broadcast—especially for providing to those in need and releasing people from debt. In this way, it builds up the realm and kingdom of God, whereas privatized accounts protect against dispersal, and stand in the way of growing relationships that matter the most.
What the dishonest manager realizes is that generosity is the best investment. He gets himself out of a hole by building social capital. It’s as if the rich man, *turns to the manager he fired,* to discover the secret of true riches: generosity.
What would it mean if we lived, not just in competition to build bigger and bigger monuments and buildings, without regard to human consequences, but practiced, keeping money moving, including debt forgiveness? What would happen if we practiced building social capital and generosity?
Sarah Dylan Breuer says, it’s all about forgiveness, which, in Luke’s Gospel, is the co-equivalent of “debts”.
The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that’s typical Luke: Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.
Forgive with intentionality, because, for example, we're intensely aware of what we ourselves are like, as unforgiving people. Forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus' power to forgive and free other sinners or debtors like us. Or, forgive because we think it will improve our odds of winning the lottery!
It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive, and forgive debts. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena – moral and financial -- can only put us more deeply in touch with our generosity, and God's grace. Forgive each other. Forgive debts, as we ourselves have been forgiven.
In the realm and kingdom of God that we are called to, we are learning to, keep the money moving. We desire to spend our capital on friends and creating allies. If you need a motivation, says Jesus, this is the way to be welcomed into eternal homes. But, don’t delay! You cannot serve God and wealth.