Rev. Danielle K Bartz August 28, 2022
Luke 19:1-10 “Let’s Talk about Money”
There is a great scene in one of the first episodes on Downton Abbey. The family of the abbey are sitting down with their ‘upper middle-class’ cousins for the first time for a formal dinner. The cousins are newly arrived in the village and trying to settle into their life there. Isobel Crawley, one of the cousins and mother to the heir of the Downton estate, has a passion for medicine and it is suggested that she might take an interest in the village hospital. In her questions she asks who pays for the hospital. The first response to her question was the dowager countess saying, ‘Oh good, let’s talk about money.’ She makes it clear that amongst the wealthy, money is not a suitable subject – which is an easy rule to have when having enough money to suit your lifestyle is not a concern. The scene ends with my favorite line in the entire series when the young heir to the estate says that there was plenty of time for him to help manage the business of the estate on the weekends. The dowager countess, played by the incomparable Maggie Smith, asks, “What is a weekend?”
That scene serves to highlight the social differences and ranks of the various classes in turn of the 20th century England, and while it might seem antiquated, some of those same social norms about talking money exist today. Money is not a subject for ‘polite’ company. And some say money is not an appropriate subject for the pulpit, but I disagree. If anything, talking about money is a necessity for the pulpit, because it was a subject Jesus talked about a lot. The Gospel of Luke, which today’s lesson comes from, is the most pointed of the four. In this Gospel Jesus’ ministry and teachings are largely characterized around his understanding of the ancient Jewish Jubilee laws, which were the economic laws laid out in Leviticus. Luke begins with Jesus’ first act of public ministry in which he preaches to his hometown that he has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – Jubilee. In continues with Luke’s reinterpretation of the Beatitudes, in which Jesus preaches that the poor are blessed, but goes on to say ‘Woe to you who are rich.’ Many of the parables throughout the Gospel – from the parable of the rich fool to the parable of the ten pounds – are cautions about hoarding riches. There are numerous stories of Jesus interacting with the rich, and many can be summed up in the way his interaction with one in the preceding chapter does, “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Jesus clearly took the Jubilee laws seriously and was using his ministry to convince people to follow them. Those laws, outlined in Leviticus, create a system in which debts are regularly forgiven, the enslaved are freed, the land is allowed to rest, and restitution for financial wrong-doing and exploitation is outlined. The laws are clear – the only way a society can function in an equitable fashion is to not allow money or wealth to become a god. So, a system was created that would ensure that would not happen, because every few years wealth would be redistributed. But there is no evidence the Jubilee laws were ever followed. Money became a god, and the world has suffered for it.
Jesus said in his first public statement that he had come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – the Jubilee which was to occur every 50 years. People would return what was not theirs, from land to human labor. Debts would be forgiven and the land allowed to rest from toil. When Jesus preached this to his hometown crowd, at first the people rejoiced. But when Jesus went on to say the Lord’s favor was with and for everyone, even the people ‘polite company’ don’t like, rejoicing turned to anger and an attempt was made to quite literally throw Jesus off a cliff. But, of course that didn’t work, and Jesus didn’t stop proclaiming Jubilee. So, if Jesus was willing to talk about it despite the risk, as his followers we must as well. Money is a conversation for the faithful – which in today’s world makes us not polite company, but just may make us radical.
Several years ago, in my study of Liberation Theology, which leans heavily on Jubilee laws and Jesus’ use of them, I decided that everything in the world would be better if we simply followed those commandments from God. I remain convinced of this. This world is besieged by debt and exploitation of land. Wealth is funneled away from the poor and to the rich. Racist systems are in place that ensure the Black, brown, and Indigenous communities of this world are kept in cycles of generational poverty. Everyone in this room lives on stolen land and benefits from unjust systems. Which makes us uncomfortable, all of us – me too. We know this to be true yet we don’t want to think about it, and by not thinking about it we do nothing to right it. But then here comes Jesus making us think about it, over and over again. Jesus telling us we cannot serve money and empire as if they were God.
But, where his lessons often get hung up, especially in our divisive world, is that many people assume they are delivered in an effort to shame. And that simply is not the case. Yes, Jesus teaches that riches separate people from God, but Jesus never shames the rich. He offers them an alternative, an opportunity to move away from their idolatry and back towards serving God first. And when those lessons are met with resistance or dejection, he doesn’t go on to shame anyone. He simply lets the lesson rest and by doing so offers grace to all of its hearers. And Jesus certainly didn’t hate the rich. In today’s lesson he calls to Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector, whose wealth was legally obtained by over-taxing the poor on behalf of the Roman Empire. In the scripture Zacchaeus seeks out Jesus and Jesus seeks out Zacchaeus. They share a meal together, despite the grumblings of the people. And in this interaction, in this mutual seeking out of one another, Zacchaeus finds his liberation. He gives away half of his goods to the poor, and to those he defrauded, he gives back four-fold – the clearest case for financial reparations found in the Gospels. Zacchaeus has decided to follow the Jubilee laws – both of those actions were not novel ideas, they are outlined in Leviticus. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says. And the year of the Lord’s favor is proclaimed once again.
In my more contemplative moments, I try to imagine a world in which the Jubilee laws were always followed, a world in which they became the norm. While I would never assume that every religious tradition would conform to them, I wonder what it would be like if our ancestors in the faith did as they were commanded by God and it became a common practice for us to follow today. A world where debt wasn’t considered a way to make the rich richer, because debt would be forgiven regularly. A world where the land wasn’t exploited and allowed to rest. A world where captives were freed and everyone was allowed to thrive. A world where money wasn’t the end justifying the means, but a means to serve an end, which was to serve God and neighbor. I can’t really imagine that world because it is so far removed from the one we live in. But I can see glimpses of it.
RIP Medical Debt, an organization I serve in a volunteer capacity is trying to live in that world. By purchasing and forgiving medical debt, people are given a bit of liberation. So far, RIP has eliminated $6.7 billion in medical debt in this country, which is extraordinary, but just a tiny fraction of it. Another example was just last week land in northern Wisconsin was returned to the Fond du Lac Band of the Chippewa people, sacred land where the remains of 200 Indigenous people were dug up in order to build an iron ore dock that ended up never being built at all. It is only about an acre, but it was something. And today conversations about financial reparations for the descendants of the enslaved in this country and for the Native people’s whose land this was in the first place are becoming more frequent. These are just glimpses of a possibility of a world in which money and wealth are not considered a god. True, the people are grumbling, just like the elite when Jesus shared a meal with Zacchaeus. But, I guess if the elite are grumbling, we are doing something right.
I am not naïve enough to think we will ever be able to follow the Jubilee laws completely. Money will continue to be served as a god, and uncomfortable conversations will continue to be shied away from. The wealthy will gloss over the sections of the Gospel that point out their distance from the Kingdom of God, or we will assume those sections are not about us. But they are. But maybe, just maybe, if we are willing to sit still long enough in those uncomfortable conversations and allow ourselves to listen, really listen, then perhaps the year of the Lord’s favor will draw just a bit closer. Maybe, just maybe, faith will begin to drive the social agenda – not power, not greed, not empire – but faith. God is always seeking us – no matter who we are, just as we saw in today’s scripture. And if we seek out God in response, then salvation will arrive in the household. A friend of mine once said that hope is imagination powered by God. So, I choose to hope, to seek, and to imagine. And I hope you will too. Amen.
Liberating God, you have sought us out all our lives and continue to seek us out today, even when we resist you. For your constant reaching out and your extraordinary grace, we are grateful. And we pray to you this day with a spirit of gratitude.
For those moments that make us uncomfortable, God, we seek your wisdom. We seek your courage to face them, and we seek your face in those with whom we share them. When we see the injustices of the world and find them too numerous to count, give us the resilience we need to do one thing, and to do it well. And when we are too tired to do anything at all, give us your comforting embrace to lean into, until we are filled up and can begin again.
Today we pray for those held in the systems that violate your hopes for us. For those stuck in poverty and injustice. Those held down by empire and greed. Those who seek money and not you. We pray for ourselves to be liberated from all that is separating us from you and your Kingdom. And we offer to you in the silent prayers of our hearts those needs and hopes which we cannot bear to utter aloud…
God of grace and love, you hold us and our prayers gently. So gently, we can face the lessons you sent Jesus Christ to teach us. It is in his name we pray all of this and so much more. And we pray now in the way he taught us by raising our voices together…Our Father…