Rev. Lillian Daniel, a United Church of Christ pastor in rural Iowa and a writer, was a speaker at the Festival of Homiletics, the preaching conference I attended in May. She stood in front of probably 1000 preachers, looked at us and said, “I fear we have lost our way.” She went on to say that she feels we, those of us who stand behind a pulpit on a regular basis, have forgotten our role as teacher. That we spend the time we have asked for your undivided attention in a wasteful way. That, because we like to hear positive feedback about what we preach, we set aside the complex and academic nature of Biblical literacy, and instead focus on entertainment. She fears that pastors have forgotten their responsibility and call to be teachers. We prefer to make our congregations laugh, instead of wonder. We prefer to tell our best stories, often ones that paint us as heroes, instead of spending time drawing apart the nuances of Biblical texts.
I tell this to you for a couple of reasons. One, I think Lillian Daniel is right. Too often we preachers worry that if we do too much teaching in a sermon, we will lose your attention. Second, by not taking the time to explain the scripture in a thorough and complete way, we are mistakenly making the assumption that everyone listening to us has also spend the majority of their lives in professional exploration of the scriptures. And finally, because today I need to teach. Today’s scripture is complex. If it were read alone, outside of the context that it sits in the narrative, outside of the historical context in which it was told, it would make no sense. In fact, it may even seem contrary to the Gospel, the Good News of God. This scripture is complex, but it is also vital. One that contains the entire message and ministry of Christ in 13 verses. As your pastor and teacher, I must ask for your attention this morning because this lesson must be understood.
First, a reminder where this scripture falls in the narrative of Luke. Chapter 16 is a continuation of one story that began in chapter 15. The Pharisees, the religious leaders and elite of the time, were upset that Jesus was teaching and sharing a meal with tax collectors and sinners. They were angry that he was ignoring the social norms of his time and showing kindness and love to people who considered to be not worthy of neither time nor kindness. These leaders were upset with Jesus and Jesus responds back with a long set of parables. The first three are very well known – the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Each of these parables is about God’s inclusive, all-encompassing love and compassion for all people. Not just those who were deemed worthy by societal standards. Jesus taught in these parables that God will go to great lengths to make sure everyone finds inclusion and welcome in God’s Kingdom. And the only way of doing that, Jesus is saying, is that all social norms and laws and policies which keep people separate must go – that they have no place in God’s kingdom.
And, here is something incredibly important to remember as we consider today’s scripture – Jesus is still talking to the Pharisees. They were still listening to him teach. Yes, our scripture this morning is a lesson directed at the disciples, but it was heard by a much larger audience. The next verse after our lesson for this morning confirms that, as it says the Pharisees heard everything Jesus had just said.
So, we are now reminded of where this lesson comes in the larger narrative – it is a part of a long series of lessons that are teaching people the ways of God’s Kingdom and how so much of how this world has chosen to organize itself will not work, does not work, in God’s beloved kingdom. But, what were those systems of organizing that Jesus was speaking out against? How did this parable about a manager forgiving debts sound to the people, the disciples and the pharisees, Jesus was teaching? That brings me to the second part of my lesson.
Israel-Palenstine at the time of Jesus was under Roman Imperial rule. They were an occupied people. The people and the land were exploited for the financial benefit of wealthy Roman rulers. The people and the land were taxed – and the taxes were significant. In fact, the taxes were so high, being a landowner and producer of goods was financially insolvent. Landowners could not afford to pay the taxes – so the Romans came to them with a deal. They said, “we will buy your land and you can live on it and work on it for free – isn’t that great! You can still live on this land, but we will take the burden of taxes away from you. All we ask is that you give us a percentage of what you produce.” This system turned landowners and producers of goods into tenant farmers. They still worked the land, but they did not own it or control it, and they had to give a large percentage of what they produced to the wealthy Roman landowner who lived far away. The percentage was so high, that what was left was not enough to live on – so they weren’t able to give all of it to the landowner, leaving them in debt. For example, if a farmer grew olives and produced olive oil – an incredibly lucrative product for the Romans – they may be required to give 100 jugs of olive oil to the landowner. But if they have a bad season, and only produce 80 jugs, they may be only able to give the Roman landowner 75, because the farmer needs to sell something to put food on the table for their family. This creates a debt of 25 jugs that is owed to the landowner. That debt, which was the norm, was insurmountable. So, next year the farmer owed 125 jugs of olive oil, but only produces 90. It is an endless cycle that keeps the farmer indebted to the landowner. Because of this incredibly unjust system, the farmers hated their Roman masters. And the Roman landowners knew this so they hired a middle-person, a manager, to collect.
The managers were typically people who never owned land, so they had nothing to sell to the Romans when they took control. They needed to do something to make money, so they agreed to do the dirty work of the Romans. They agreed to keep track of what the farmers owed and to collect on it. They too, were hated. Because they were the neighbors of the farmers. They were the tax collectors. They were the people who made it possible for Romans to maintain their control. The Romans never travelled to Israel-Palestine – it was far too dangerous. They were despised and would likely be killed if they showed up. They were the ones exploiting the people and land, and the tax collectors or managers were making it possible for them to do it from a distance. But these tax collectors and managers were simply trying to do something to survive in an economy that was based solely on exploitation and inequality.
So, now that we are reminded where this parable falls in the narrative and the socio-economic system in which it is told, let’s hear the parable again. There was a rich Roman man who had a local manager. But, the manager’s days of employment were short. He was not exploiting the people enough – he was not getting enough profit for the rich Roman landowner. The manager knows this, he knows that he is about to lose his job because the landowner is not happy. Maybe it was a bad season and the crops were smaller. Maybe the farmers could no longer afford to pay for help, so they couldn’t produce as much. We don’t know, but what we do know is the manager’s days are numbered and he doesn’t know what to do. He is not strong enough to dig, he says. He is not strong enough to labor in the fields. And he is too proud to beg from the same people he has been helping to exploit. So he devises a cunning, or shrewd, plan. He calls together all of the farmers and tells them to bring their debt receipts. He turns to the olive farmer and asks – how many jugs of olive oil do you owe my Roman master? 100 jugs the farmer says. Quickly, the manager says – cross that out and write 50 instead, cutting your debt in half. Then he turns to the next farmer – what do you owe? 100 containers of wheat, the farmer says. Make it 80, the manager says. And on and on he goes, reducing the debts of the farmers. Reducing their debts so they owe him a favor. Reducing their debts so when he does finally lose his job – he will have friends who will help him out.
Clever, the Roman master says. You have gamed the system. You have figured out a way to make sure I still get paid something – but in a way that makes people owe you a favor. Very clever. And then Jesus says something ironic, or tongue-in-cheek, he says – yes it was clever of the manager, he created friends for himself by establishing a quid pro quo, ‘I will get rid of this debt for you, but now you OWE me.’ Jesus says in verse 9: “And 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.” There is perhaps no other statement of Jesus that is so sarcastic, so steeped in irony, likely said with scorn and derision in his voice. Remember, Jesus is saying this knowing that the Pharisees are listening – the very people who were being paid by the Romans to use religion to keep the people in line. They were being paid to subvert the laws of God to keep the occupiers of the land in power. Make friends through money, Jesus says, and let’s see what happens. You may be invited into the kingdom of the rich, but you will struggle to find a place in God’s kingdom. Because you cannot serve money and God at the same time. And verse 14, the one immediately following today’s lesson, says it all. It says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all of this, and they ridiculed him.”
You cannot serve money and God at the same time. You will either hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t have love for both. Because, Jesus says, devotion to money and wealth is evil. It is steeped in the sinful nature of this world. This world has a love of money – both in Jesus’ time and in ours. People and corporations go to great lengths to increase their wealth and they do so by exploiting the people and the land. They work people, sometimes literally to death. They work, or demand that others work, the land to death. For some people, corporations, and countries, everything and everyone is expendable except for money. And if you serve money, you cannot serve God. If you love money, it is impossible for you to love God.
In God’s kingdom, Jesus taught, the value of a person is not dependent upon any external force. The value of a person is – invaluable. Simply because of their humanity, created in the image of God, they are beloved in God’s eye and nothing can bar them from God’s kingdom. And any system the world puts in place to put a monetary value on one person over that of another is not of God. And those systems which exploit, or diminish, or belittle, or hold people down, in God’s economy, is sinful. In God’s economy – it is not about how much money you have and can get. It is about how much love you have and can share. It is by sharing love with abandon, by drawing the circle wider, by inviting everyone to the table, by looking someone in the eye and seeing in them the inherit, divine worth they have as one of God’ beloved – that is how we participate in God’s economy. And that is how we begin to dismantle the human economy we are steeped in today.
Because we all participate in the economics of exploitation and poverty. We are all complicit in it – just as the manager was in Jesus’ parable. Jesus understood this. Jesus understood this and so he reminds us that we must do what we can. We can forgive the debts of our neighbors. We can allow the land to rest. We can share from our abundance. We can refuse to judge a person based on their wealth or lack of it. We can begin to dismantle the love our world has for money by shaping our lives to love and serve God alone. This is something, I remind you, that we pray for each and every week. We pray that our debts will be forgiven and that we can forgive the debts of others. We pray for our daily bread, so we don’t hoard more than we need so others have less. We pray that will be not give in to temptation but that we will be delivered from the evil of this world. We pray that God’s kingdom, and God’s economics will rule on this earth.
God’s economics are so contrary to the economics of this world that they can seem impossible to grasp, or to even begin to make real. But, nothing is impossible with God. Through Christ all things are possible. And, every little thing we do will lead to something bigger. How will we start today? Amen.