What are the two things which you were told not to discuss in polite society? Yes, God and Money. In following Jesus’ lead from today’s gospel, I shall throw caution to the wind and violate that primary rule we were taught.
We live in a society which places such a high value on money that we develop multiple industries to manage it. Bankers, stock investors, financial planners help us to navigate the complex world of money management. Even for us of modest means, money plays an important role in the decisions of our lives.
Yet many of us run on auto pilot in our money management. We inherited from our parents an attitude toward money, and for many of us that attitude is marked by the scarcity of money after the Depression of the 1930’s.
When it comes to God and money, we associate money and the church with the annual appeal before we make our pledge. If some of us notice that Jesus regularly talks about money we might imagine he tells us to give it to the poor and follow him. Since most of us think Jesus only wants us to abandon money, we fail to hear his other words describing the right attitude toward money. If you carefully listen to the Gospel according to Luke, you will notice that Jesus teaches two seemingly contradictory lessons on money: give it all away or make regular contributions to support the needy. Since most of us count ourselves as regular contributors, we imagine that if we just give the same amount we have given for years, that we are fulfilling our responsibilities as disciples. But what if Jesus invites us to a deeper responsibility toward money as a spiritual practice?
If we think that today’s parable of the crafty steward defines Jesus’ attitude toward wealth, we might think he should go back to school to learn some lessons about upright behavior. Our first reaction to the parable comes from the little child in us; we scream “Unfair!” Why should we take the example of an underhanded money manager as a model for our Christian use of money?
Perhaps we should place the parable in the context of the economy of Jesus’ day. All of us know as goods move up the production ladder from the person who made the item to us who buy it everyone takes a cut of the costs. Just think of all the people who handle that tomato you purchased from Shop Rite for tonight salad and you will know how many people take a cut on the profit. If a wealthy distributor in Jerusalem bought oil, wheat and wine, his chief steward would mark up prices first for his boss and them for his cut of the profit. If the steward bought oil from a local farmer, he would mark up the price 50% for the boss and 20% for his own cut.
Everybody in the ancient world knew the system was rigged. Jesus knew the system was rigged. When Jesus tells this parable, he presents the picture of a steward who is reducing the exorbitant mark ups which would have gone in his pocket. If we place that parable in the ancient world’s system of markups, perhaps we can see that Jesus is inviting us to compassionate giving in our dealings with others. From this understanding of the parable, we can now imagine that Jesus would have a lot to say about the strike impacting UAW workers, that Jesus would stand on the side of those demanding a more equitable sharing of profits. Jesus would have a lot to say to the top 1% who hoard money they do not need.
But Jesus invites us to go deeper in the way we deal with money. Jesus points to our hearts and asks us to discern the direction of our heart with money. Is our heart set on God or is our heart set on money? It does not matter how much or how little money we have. Money can seduce us, set its hook into us and lead us away from God. Jesus invites us to a wise use of money and not to make ourselves the slave of money. Such a wise use of money involves knowing how to use it, how to invest it, how to share it. Money is a means for us to advance God’s reign. Money cannot take the place of God in our hearts.
One of the blessings of being an Episcopalian over one of those churches in the backwoods of Appalachia lies in our drawing a dividing line when it comes to snake handling. We don’t have a basket in the sacristy filled with rattle snakes and the leaders of the church do not have to prove our faith by playing that game of touching the snakes while avoiding their venomous fangs. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from them in realizing that money can be a venomous snake. Our management of that snake will keep us far from its venom. Our management of money should alert us to its danger as well as its possibility. Our challenge lies not so much on attending to the snake as attending to our hearts.
If our hearts are focused on God, the giver of the gift, we will steer clear of that idolatry so rampant in our nation and our world. If our hearts are focused on God, the giver of the gift, we will become like the one we love and so learn the lesson from the crafty servant: That it far better to trust mercy over justice for mercy will lead us to our true home.