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Sunday, September 18, 2016 | 4:00 p.m.
Utilizing Our Gifts in a Dishonest System
I have a younger brother named Lawson. He loves to be in nature. He loves to notice divinely created intricacies in the ways a fox tiptoes along the earth looking for its next prey, how the roots of a tree wind along a path creating ecosystems for the insects and interacting with microorganisms of the ground. The peace of nature and also the primal balance of surviving and thriving in nature inspires him, challenges him, and helps him cultivate love for the world. He lives in the northwest and spends as much time as he possibly can in the outdoors.
I didn’t notice this in him growing up. As the older, wiser, and obedient sister, I watched my brother struggle with the cultural expectations set before him that could bring him economic success. I confess that I watched him with judgment, wondering why he didn’t make similar choices as me, following my dreams, (as if becoming a pastor does really bring economic success . . . but I think you know what I mean).
Lawson forges his own path; like the Fleetwood Mac song sings, he “goes his own way.” And, of course, this takes some privilege. It’s not an easy path, and he can’t do it without the support of his community encouraging him and loving his gifts, adventuring in places many of us wouldn’t know how to survive in.
I’ve learned something from Lawson. I see how God works in him through creation and Lawson works with God there in that rustic and rough terrain. This heals him from the pressures of our society, and it helps him work in community for the glimpses of God’s glory on earth now. Today’s text in the Gospel of Luke isn’t necessarily about nature—or even about following your dreams—but it is about money, power, and what is truly valuable to God.
Today’s text is a parable and one of the hardest parables to understand, so I’m going to turn to some general tendencies of Luke and parables to help us grapple with its meaning. The Gospel of Luke has the most parables of any of the Gospels, and a major theme portrayed in Luke is what many scholars call “The Great Reversal.” Luke highlights the corruption of those who are in power and the injustices against the poor. Luke is critical of the rich and shows Jesus as bringing the kin-dom of God to earth right now—not a far distant heaven, but right now.
In the kin-dom of God, the rich are brought to justice and the poor’s humanity is restored. God’s abundance is offered especially to the poor. And if today’s text is a parable that is one of the hardest parables to understand—puzzling pastors and scholars—I wonder if it’s so puzzling because those who are most often doing the public interpreting aren’t actually poor themselves. So I turn to an interpretation that puts the debtors in this parable as the subject.
We read in Luke that Jesus turned to the disciples to tell this parable. Now who were those disciples? They were fishermen. They were tax collectors. They were men near the bottom of the economic hierarchy, chained to their jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, reliant on the fisheries for use of their boats and nets, in debt and bound to the economic structure of the state. Jesus came to them and invited them to come away from this work, and he offers an alternative vision of living. He shows them a possible world where they don’t have to be chained to hopelessness and poverty any longer. So if the parable is set on an estate, involving a rich man, a manager, and debtors, who do you think the disciples are going to relate to and understand the best? Who do you think the disciples would be rooting for? The debtors. The people, of course! The people, like the disciples, don’t have much power.
So Jesus tells a parable beginning with a rich man who hears rumors and charges against a manager who’s been squandering the rich man’s property. A rich man who holds lots of property probably doesn’t know all the intricacies of his estate. He probably doesn’t know each individual laborer and what they owe; he’s reliant on a manager to run things. The people, they know what’s really going on. They hear the sly deals in the shadows; they know if they’ve been wronged, and they can see an opportunity. There’s power in numbers, and so they talk. They protest. They organize. They bring charges to the rich man against the manager. The rich man’s estate can’t run if there is heavy unrest among the people. So the people utilize what power they have and put the rich man in a position where he has to listen to them.
We never learn if the allegations are true or not. There was no trial, but the rich man threatens to fire the manager nevertheless. This puts the manager in a difficult position. He knows that the people don’t trust him. Without his job he can’t continue to live in a position of marginal power; he won’t be able to maintain his ties to the rich man. And come on, it’s not like he’s going to turn to begging. He’s too proud to consider working as a laborer. Therefore, he reduces the debts of the people. He has to make cuts from his own salary so the rich man never feels the pain of this economic loss, but the people win! Their debts are lowered and for a brief moment they glimpse God’s glory. They glimpse the jubilee practice of debt forgiveness that was always hoped for but never practiced in Jewish law. By mobilizing their power and working the system creatively, for a moment they win.
However, the parable’s twist (and there’s always a twist in parables) is that the rich man turns to the manager and commends the manager’s actions because the manager acted shrewdly in order to keep his power and wealth accumulation in the long run. For the meantime, they avoided a revolt, but the system stays the same. The people will continue to go in debt, and the manager will keep his job.
Hope is not lost, though, because the people’s power gives them a glimpse of the glory and reveals a disheartening system. For the manager and the rich man, their master was wealth. For the people, it was God—God who provides hope, healing, justice. and freedom. Jesus teaches, after telling the parable, that you can’t serve two masters. You can’t serve both God and wealth. He calls upon the people, the disciples, to be faithful with the little they have. Be faithful in the midst of dishonest wealth, a dishonest system. Jesus’ snark comes out when he says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” In other words he’s saying, “Organize in numbers in this unjust economic system because the kin-dom of God is coming and that’s what’s valuable to God. Utilizing those gifts is being faithful to God.” The people were shrewd. They utilized the gifts and the power that they had, and Jesus is encouraging the disciples to do the same.
In our culture, in our economic structure, it’s not shocking to hear of a manager abusing his power. It’s not shocking to learn of a rich estate owner disconnected with the struggles of the common people. It’s not shocking to see how the system keeps on running. But it is shocking when we hear an amazing story of people with little power utilizing their gifts to disrupt part of the system. This parable reminds me of a group I recently heard of called the Debt Collective.
Astra Taylor and Thomas Gokey met during Occupy. Together they met many people plagued by debt—student debt, medical debt—and in Occupy they wondered why banks and corporations could get away with not paying their debts but students, sick people, poor people, people of color—they had to pay their debts. In fact, they were targeted to go into debt. In the space that Occupy provided, Taylor, Gokey, and others could pull their minds together and come up with some creative responses to an unjust economic structure. They saw an opportunity. They learned more deeply about debt and how debt becomes a commodity, and they created an organization called the Debt Collective, which buys people’s debts from banks, just like debt collector companies buy debts for pennies on the dollar and then harass people into paying those debts plus interest. Instead of profiting from those debts, Taylor and Gokey’s new organization would forgive the debts. By now they’ve actually forgiven almost $32 million of debt. Just like the people in the parable, they found an opportunity, they identified their gifts and power together, and they leveraged it, bringing a glimpse of God’s glory on earth now.
As I begin this residency here at Fourth Church, as I get a chance to learn more about your lives and your gifts and your questions. I’m excited to see where God is calling you to utilize your gifts. Maybe it is to join a group like the Debt Collective or maybe it’s something like my brother, where you’re exploring a gift within you that’s undervalued in our culture but is truly valuable to God. Just as Jesus’ parable demonstrates a shrewdness that God gives to the people, God provides wisdom, bestows creativity, invokes opportunities, and empowers us to overturn dominant structures that chain us—whether we’re the food that feeds the lion or the lion cubs that learn how to slay.
My brother inspires me and I learn from him in the ways he approaches life and allows God to use him to confront our dominant models of economic success. All of you have numerous gifts that God nurtures in you. Maybe you’re actively using those gifts for the good of the world already in the places of power that you hold, or maybe you have some unmet needs that have to be met in order for you to flourish and be who God is shaping you to be, or maybe those gifts have been stifled throughout your life because someone deemed them unworthy. Well, the gift of God’s grace is that you are worthy. No matter what. Even though we’re all implicated and hurt in systems of injustice, God breeds worthiness in us that blooms gifts for the kin-dom of God. You have gifts that God designs in you to mess with injustice just like the debtors in Jesus’ parable. I can’t wait over the next two years to learn more about those gifts within you and how God is working in you creatively and wonderfully for the glory of God’s world. Amen.