Yesterday Don and I went to see the “Downton Abbey” movie. We have been anticipating this movie for some time, and we were not disappointed. It followed very well in the steps of the TV series. For Anglophiles like us, it was pure candy.
The movie is so opulent shot beautifully, with beautiful settings and beautiful costumes. And it reminded me again of the excess of the time, at least for those who lived above stairs. Everything was silver and brocade; meals had many courses; clothes were changed several times daily.
But one also sees how this lifestyle was beginning to crack under all that opulence. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there are characters among the gentried and their servants who are thinking a lot about what they have, or what they haven’t, and are anxiously wondering if it is right and/or if it can go on. In short, one sees here people a lot like us, at least when it comes to money and stuff.
They may well be asking the same question that is presented to us by this morning’s gospel: Do we possess our money, or does our money possess us?
I think that’s what Jesus is asking in this morning’s gospel, but I have to confess I’m not really sure. Today we are again brought face-to-face with a parable from Jesus – one of those stories that Jesus tells to illustrate a point about the Kingdom of God. A parable most often employs characters or objects familiar to the listener to help explain an unfamiliar, or abstract idea. Their point is usually to clarify an ethical question that might prove elusive.
But this parable seems to muddy the water. A dishonest manager is about to lose his job because he has misspent his employer’s assets. He goes around to all the people who owe his employer money and reduces their debts. He does this so that they will be hospitable to him after he loses his job. To our surprise, the employer commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.[i]
One commentator has said, “Jesus weaves a story in which the main character is a shyster—a lazy, conniving, self-centered manager of someone else’s treasure. He is out for personal gain, to save his own skin. We listeners lean forward to the end because we want to see this scoundrel get what is coming to him, and when the master finally speaks, we are shocked.”[ii]
Why does the rich man praise him? And then, why does it seem that Jesus immediately contradicts that praise by noting that, “whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” [v. 10]?
One way to go at this parable is to consider that its focus might be on the consequences of squandering money. This story immediately follows the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke, where the younger son also squanders money. Having these two stories in sequence might suggest that Jesus is not as concerned with how we spend our money as he is interested in how we react when it is gone. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father is focused not on the lost money, but rather on the gift of a son that he had thought gone forever. In this parable, the rich man seems unconcerned with his financial loss. Maybe he has already accepted the money’s loss, and, knowing that the manager has already been fired, knows also that this is the last loss at that manager’s hands. Rather, he seems impressed by the fact that the manager figured out how to use the money to secure his future.
Still, this interpretation of the parable doesn’t lead me to Christ’s conclusion in at the end of the reading. I can’t see any way these actions might be interpreted as being faithful or honest.
Another way to look at this parable is to remember Luke’s ongoing feud with the Pharisees. In fact, in the very next verse of this chapter Luke refers to the Pharisees as “lovers of money.” Perhaps the manager and, by direct implication, the Pharisees, have lost proper focus (remember, the Pharisees were the keepers of the Torah), and have become solely focused on wealth and money. In this reading, perhaps the rich man is being ironic—or perhaps he too has the wrong focus. The manager has pursued a way to manipulate the situation for his own gain and missed the proper focus on the love of God.
I wonder if that doesn’t get a little closer to Jesus’ intent. If we look at the end of the passage (working backwards is often a productive way to dig into scriptural puzzles) we find that very familiar phrase: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” [v. 13b] Certainly this idea is one that deserves our attention now in 2019.
As a society most of us have an uneasy relationship with money. I doubt any of you would argue with me if I say that beginning with the post-World War II boom, an ever-accelerating focus on material possessions has taken hold of our national zeitgeist. And after watching “Downton Abbey,” I think that focus has roots that reach even earlier.
This focus on material things has misled us in many ways, I think, not the least of which is the fact that we seem to be less and less concerned with the fate of the very poor in our country. Getting a real grasp on the number of poor in our country is difficult. I spent a good hour this week just digging through statistics and trying to understand. The good news is that in 2018 poverty levels finally fell to the level they were before the recession of 2008—in other words, it took 10 years for the poorest among us to get back to where they were before the last recession.
But those numbers can be misleading, because they are taking account only of those who live at or below the official poverty threshold, which for 2019 is $25,750 for a family of four. I think you and I can agree that a mom and dad trying to raise two kids on that amount seems pretty much impossible. When experts look beyond that number and focus on the number of low-income earners just above the poverty threshold, or “near poverty,” as they say, it is estimated that almost one third to one half of our population falls in that category.
And when you dig into those numbers, you find some alarming statistics: in 2013 UNICEF ranked the U.S. as having the second highest relative child poverty rates in the developed world. In 2018 UN expert commissioned to investigate systemic poverty in the U.S. said that 40 million Americans live in poverty and over five million of those live in what he called Third World Conditions. He also notes that the rate of poverty among those in U.S. Territories and among Native Americans is “notoriously high.”[iii]
What seems clear is that in this highly developed country, there is too great a disparity between the haves and the have-nots. And there are too many poor people. Most of us are just spending away, thinking little about what we lose when we focus on what we have, and not who, and whose, we are.
In June of 1978, Russian author Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn (the famous dissident exiled from the Soviet Union) delivered what is now considered an historic commencement address at Harvard University. In it, he said,
“When the modern Western states were being formed, it was proclaimed as a principle that governments are meant to serve man and that man lives in order to be free and pursue happiness…. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life…. This active and tense competition comes to dominate all human thought and does not in the least open a way to free spiritual development.”[iv]
The intervening years between that address and now certainly support his supposition that our relentless pursuit of happiness often leaves no room for spiritual growth. In the last half of the 20th century the concepts of prosperity theology, or the prosperity gospel as it is sometimes called, came into prominence in American Christianity, especially among televangelists like Oral Roberts and, more recently, Joel Osteen. To put it rather crudely, this is the idea that, “financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will always increase one’s material wealth.”[v]
But I think that Jesus clearly cries out in today’s gospel that this is not the way. We are called to focus not on our money, but rather on the way of God. Theologian David Lose reminds us that, “one of the prominent themes in Luke is the proper use of wealth. Except that it’s not just the use of wealth; it’s more like Luke is concerned with our relationship to wealth and how that affects our relationships with others.”[vi]
Following that idea, perhaps the key to all of our musings today is found in verse 10: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.” We scramble and fret over the money that we have, or that we don’t have and are striving to acquire, and forget the riches that God grants us in family, in friends, in the good earth, and especially in surrendering our very selves to the love of God. We hold tighter and tighter to our money, and don’t realize that it is not the true treasure. The treasure lies in our relationships to God, and to the reflections of God in each other and in the creation.
However we choose to use them, we must find our way to putting money and material things in their proper perspective. I believe that changing our focus in this way is an act of faith. If we can find the way to lower our anxieties about money, the doors of our hearts will be opened, and we will find room there for the things that really matter. Freed from those worries, we will find that we can be faithful in much.
So, as our opening collect today reminds us, let us not be anxious about earthly things, but instead focus on things heavenly, holding fast to those things that endure. And may we all find our way to this path of peace. Amen.
[i] Malcolm, Lois, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1783, accessed 9/18. 2013.
[ii] Debevoise, Helen Montgomery, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 92.
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_the_United_States, accessed 9/20/2019.
[iv] Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. quoted in Solzhenitsyn at Harvard: The Address, Twelve Early Responses, and Six Later Reflections. http://www.starlancs.com/EducateMe/Solzhenitsyn%20at%20Harvard.pdf, accessed 9/19/2013.
[vi] Lose, David, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&rp=blog53&post=2746, accessed 9/18/2013.