“No one can serve two masters; you cannot serve God and wealth.”
That’s the conclusion of today’s gospel. And if our reading and interpretation of the story that Jesus tells doesn’t move us in that direction, then maybe we’ve missed the point.
Which is why today’s parable often confuses us. We hear the manager labelled as dishonest, we see the way he breaks the rules and fiddles the accounts. Then we find it jarring to hear the dishonest manager praised by both the rich man in the story and then again by Jesus in his concluding remarks. What’s going on here?
Most people call this the parable of the dishonest manager. The author and preacher Brian McLaren suggests that a better title would be “The middle-class person who switched sides”.
And there’s a lot of merit in that suggestion, especially if you notice that this is the fourth in a series of stories that Jesus is telling. We talked about the first three last Sunday: the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. This is the fourth story; next Sunday we’ll get to the fifth. But do you remember what started all this?
It all began when the religious elites started grumbling because Jesus was spending too much time with the wrong people: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
In other words, Jesus, you’re on the wrong side. You should be with us, not them. You should switch sides.
And so in response, Jesus tells them a story about being on the wrong side. It’s a story about switching sides. There was a rich man; and the rich man had a manager who looked after his accounts.
Now we need to know a few things about 1st century economics in the Roman province of Palestine in order to understand this story.
The first thing we need to know is that this is Roman occupied territory. The Roman Empire had two main objectives in its occupied territories: to keep the peace, by force if necessary, and to extract as much tax revenue as it could. To do this the empire would co-opt a rich elite in each occupied territory, rewarding the rich so that they could have their collaboration in oppressing and extracting revenue from the poor - which was pretty much everyone else.
The rich lived in the south, in Judea and Jerusalem. They made their money as real-estate investors, as land-owners. Most of the good agricultural land was in the north, in Galilee. The rich acquired the land by making high interest loans to distressed family farms and then seizing the land or buying it for a song when the poor farmer could not repay. They would then turn the now landless poor people into tenant farmers, who would work the farm but turn all but a fraction of the produce over to the rich land owners, who would then sell it for a good price to the Romans.
In order to handle all this, the rich used managers, middle-class people with some education or skills, who would deal with the poor tenants, pressure them to increase production, call in loans, buy distressed properties and collect what was owed to the rich land-owners. In exchange for doing the rich land-owner’s dirty-work, some of the rich man’s wealth would trickle down to the manager.
That’s how the system worked. The manager in this story had chosen to side with the rich man, the guy from the south who was at the top of the wealth pyramid, in a system that exploited the manager’s own kin who were at the bottom of the pyramid. That was the role of the manager in an economic system which oppressed the poor and kept them in poverty so that a small number of rich people could get rich.
I suppose you could say it was a good job. Good pay, no physical labour, solidly middle-class, perfectly legal, in fact, there was even a little power and privilege that went with the position. There are advantages, after all, to being on the side of wealth. But then, at least for this manager, it all went wrong. Somebody snitched on him. Said he was squandering the rich man’s property. We don’t know what really happened, we just know that the master was not pleased.
It’s a moment of existential crisis for the manager. It should remind us of the third story Jesus told, of the younger son who has his own existential crisis when he is reduced to feeding pigs. What will I do?
“I know what I will do, so that when I am dismissed as manager people may welcome me into their homes.”
And he proceeds to use his remaining hours as manager to fiddle the books, to summon each one of his master’s debtors and to reduce the crushing debt load which had been imposed upon them. How much do you owe my master? A hundred jugs of oil? Make it fifty, and do it quickly.
Now, we can question the manager’s motives. Nobody’s saying that he’s a saint here. But one thing is clear. The manager has switched sides. He is no longer serving the rich man. He is no longer aligned with the wealthy and the powerful. He has switched his allegiance to those who are the poor and the oppressed. And he's using the only tool he’s got left in his toolkit to relieve their debts. His motives may be doubtful. His ethics might be questionable. But he has changed sides, and by his actions he is now furthering justice rather than oppression. He is bringing good news to the poor and letting the oppressed go free. And we know whose side that is.
No one can serve two masters. For you will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Oh how we wish that wasn’t true. According to Brian McLaren, speaking from an American context, the church has thrived because it made a deal. It told people that you can love both God and money. But that’s a bad deal for the church. It’s a bad deal that turned a blind eye to slavery. It’s a bad deal that thought it was ok to steal indigenous land. It’s a bad deal that’s killing life on this planet through climate change. We need to get out of this bad deal.
Jesus is clear. You can’t love both God and wealth. Why do we have such a hard time believing him?
We don’t believe him because wealth is seductive. We don’t believe him because wealth is addictive. We don’t believe him because wealth has created a society and a culture which constantly tell us how good wealth is. We don’t believe him because wealth is dishonest and we have fallen for its lies.
We call this story the parable of the dishonest manager, despite the fact that Jesus himself has told us that it’s really about dishonest wealth. Our gut reaction is that the manager is a bad guy because he has broken the rules by fiddling the books. But why do we assume that the rules created by wealth should be obeyed?
Wealth is dishonest. Wealth tells you that it is the measure of all things. That’s a lie, but we believe it. When we want to know how a country is doing we measure its GDP. When we want to know how a company is doing we look at the bottom line. We let wealth tell us what to study, who to work for, who we should associate with, what neighbourhood to live in. Wealth tells us that it’s okay to pursue money now, because we can always use it for good later. Isn’t that a tempting lie for those of us who want to convince ourselves that we can serve both God and money? Wealth is seductive. It’s not just about money, it also comes with prestige and power and privilege and security and social status, all those things that feed our very human needs for self-worth, significance and belonging. It reels you in, slowly, without you even noticing, inch by inch, until it’s got you.
Until one day when maybe you too will have an existential crisis, and you will finally have to decide which side you are on.
You know the Dylan song. You gotta serve somebody.
So who are you going to serve?
Homily. Yr C P25, Sept 22 2019, St. Albans Church
Readings: Jer 8.18-9.1; Ps 79.1-9; 1 Tim 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13
Image by MyEyeSees, Creative Commons