Monday, September 19, 2016

The Perils of Mammon and the Promise of Love

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Luke 16:13

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
September 18, 2016 – 18C Pentecost

            So, there is this rich fellow.  And like lots of rich folk, he decides that one easy way to make money is to lend what he has to others, and live off the interest.  But he doesn’t like to bother with managing all the accounts he has with various debtors, so he hires a manager.  While we’re not told the details of the arrangement, we can safely assume that in exchange for his services, the manager gets to keep a small cut of the interest on each account.
            In this case, though, we are told at the outset of the story that, rather than being a good steward of the rich man’s accounts, this manager has instead “squandered” what he has been given.  When word gets back to the boss about this, the boss calls the manager in for a little talking to.  What is this that I hear about you?, he asks.  Give me an accounting and then pack up your bags; you’re obviously not fit for the job.  That’s when the manager starts to panic.  He is afraid what the boss will find when a proper accounting is done, and he wants to try to make the best of a bad situation for himself.
            So, the manager goes around to the various debtors and cuts deals with each, slashing the interest owed to the rich man in exchange for immediate payment.  Why does the manager do this?  In part because he wants to show the boss that he has collected something at least; and in part he wants to ingratiate himself with the debtors so that after he is fired, he might be welcomed into their homes.
            Now, here comes the first surprise.  When the boss finds out what has happened, he doesn’t get mad.  Never mind that that boss has lost a fair bit of money on his loans; he seems more interested in praising the manager for his sudden shrewdness.  But then comes the real surprise. Jesus adds his own voice to this chorus of praise:  “And I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
            What?  If you’re scratching your heads, you’re not alone.  All commentators agree that this is a notoriously confusing text and one that seems utterly dissonant to the rest of Jesus’ teachings. 
            For starters, the manager hardly seems to be a morally praiseworthy person deserving of our attention, much less our admiration.  It is conceded from the start that he is a bad steward, having squandered what his boss gave him.  To compound this failure, he then engages in blatant dishonesty by denying his boss what he is legitimately owed, and he does this merely to advance his own interests.  Calling such behavior “shrewd” doesn’t make it any less loathsome as a moral matter.  He is a cheat pure and simple, whose only concern seems to be to look out for number one.
            Now, some interpreters have tried to redeem the parable by making the manager out to be a “Robin Hood” figure, somebody who robs from the rich and gives to the poor.  These commentators observe – and on this point they are likely right – that the boss’s loans were almost certainly usurious and oppressive, as this was a common practice among wealthy lenders at the time.  The manager’s actions to reduce the interest on the loans, say these interpreters, had the effect of liberating the poor from the unfair terms of their loans – in conformity with the Torah’s prohibition on usury.  The manager is, on this view, a champion of the underclass. 
            This interpretation has some appeal, but it ultimately fails to hold water.  For while the effect of the manager’s actions may have been to rob from the rich to give to the poor, there is nothing in the text to suggest that the manager’s motive was to help the distressed or to advance the interests of justice in any way.  On the contrary, the text plainly says that the manager did what he did in order to ingratiate himself with the debtors; he was looking out for himself pure and simple.  He is no Robin Hood.
            So what, then, is the moral of the story, and who is its hero?  Well, let me suggest that perhaps these are the wrong questions.  While many of Jesus’ parables are offered in order to teach a moral lesson or to hold up someone as a hero – think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for example – sometimes a parable’s purpose is not to answer a question but to pose one.  This text seems more naturally to fall into that category. 
            Jesus’ aim is to get us to engage with the problem of Mammon – the allure of wealth and its relentless grip on our lives.  He is not holding up the dishonest manager as a hero so much as he is saying that the love of wealth inevitably weaves a tangled web of deception and that, in this fallen world, acting shrewdly is sometimes the only thing a person can do to extricate himself of herself from the web.  Once you begin worshipping at the altar of money, there is often no way out but to trade your dishonest wealth for friendship, making the best of a bad situation. 
            The second point I would make, and this is perhaps the more important one, is that this text is a good example of the lectionary not giving us the “whole story” to interpret.  For, even though the parable of the dishonest manager reads like its own stand-alone story, when you go back and put it in the context of Luke’s gospel, you see that it immediately follows Jesus’ telling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son – another story about a man who squanders the wealth he has been given and about how he responds to that problem.  I am increasingly convinced that the two parables need to be read and understood together, and that when we do, the second parable makes a little more sense.
            The Parable of the Prodigal Son, you’ll remember, is the story of the son who demands his inheritance from the father prematurely, and then goes off and squanders it; more or less, just like the manager in our story.  Only in the prodigal son’s case, after he realizes the wrong he has done and the mess he is in, he doesn’t try to cover it up by engaging in a shrewd deception.  Rather, he confesses his wrong, and returns to the father asking for forgiveness; and the father, even before the son asks, lavishes the son with mercy, overjoyed that a son who once was lost now is found. 
            So, when we read these two parables side by side, we see that they are parallel narratives, portraying two different kinds of squandering, two different responses to that squandering, and thus describing two different kinds of kingdom.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son describes the Kingdom of Heaven, and its “currency” is forgiveness and mercy, motivated by a selfless love that results in the joy of true reconciliation.  The Parable of the Dishonest Manager describes the Kingdom of this World, and its currency is the quid pro quo of transactional dealings, motivated by an acquisitive desire that is entirely self-centered.  The only kinds of relationships that survive in the Kingdom of this World are those that are bought and sold by those shrewd enough to know better.
            St. Augustine once put this point very simply and very memorably in these words:  God gave us people to love, and things to use.  Sin is the confusion of the two.  The rich boss and the dishonest manager are all about using people as things to advance their own interests.  The father and the prodigal son are all about authentic human relationship built upon an honest and forgiving love of the other.  By telling these two stories together, Jesus is comparing and contrasting two different ways of being in the world, one based on loving people and the other based on using people. 
            This week I ran across a cartoon in the New Yorker.  The picture is of a man and a woman at a bar, both with a drink in hand.  The woman leans over the bar and says to the man:  “To be honest, I’m not looking so much to connect as to segue.”
            That is one way of capturing this Augustinian insight, and the difference between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world.  We can choose to connect with people, by honoring them as ends in themselves, and treating them with the dignity of a forgiving love.  Or we can choose to use people as a means to an end, a mere segue to our next diversion.  The question Jesus poses with these two parables, told one after the other in Luke’s gospel, is just this:  Who do we want to be and to which of these two Kingdoms will we pledge our hearts?

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