Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: God among us, we gather in the name of your Son to learn love for one another. Keep our feet from evil paths. Turn our minds to your wisdom and our hearts to the grace revealed in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“You cannot serve God and mammon.” Luke 16:13
Most of us do just that. If we are not laboring to pay off mortgages, car loans and credit card debt we are striving to improve our standards of living in pursuit of a better life. As I have often pointed out, our economy is driven by the desire for increased wealth. In his book, The Wealth of Nations, philosopher/economist Adam Smith argued for a global free market economy based on the premise that the human tendency to pursue one’s own self-interest leads invariably to greater prosperity and economic growth for all. That may be so. I leave to economists the job of hashing out the validity of Smith’s assertions. I am more interested in the moral dimensions of his philosophy.
The concern of both Jesus and Amos is the effect self-interested pursuit of wealth has on the soul. Amos points out to the people of Israel how their pursuit of wealth has hardened their hearts toward the poor of the land and led them to abandon the terms of the covenant with their God. Only grudgingly do they cease from their commercial activity on the Sabbath. Amos 8:5. In blatant disregard of God’s command to leave the gleanings of the harvest for the poor, the commercial class is eager to “sell the refuse of the wheat.” Human beings are reduced to units of labor that can be bought and sold like commodities. Amos 8:6. The self-interested pursuit of wealth has made Israel “rich in things but poor in soul,” as the hymn says. Jesus therefore speaks a stark and unwelcome truth to societies like that of 8th Century B.C.E. Israel and 21st Century C.E. America that make pursuit of wealth the driving cultural force: “You cannot serve God and mammon.”
I believe that we in the church of Jesus Christ need to have some honest conversations about money, possessions and wealth and how they are shaping our priorities and the decisions we make about the way we live our lives. The early church had no compunctions about addressing the dangers of wealth and the inappropriate use of money. The story of Ananias and Sapphira makes the point very graphically. Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that “the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.” Acts 4:32. He goes on to tell of how Barnabas sold a field which belonged to him and gave the full amount of the proceeds to the Apostles for the benefit of the church. Acts 4:36. But when Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sold their land, they brought only a portion of the proceeds to the Apostles, representing that they had, like Barnabas, made an offering of the whole. When the Apostle Peter confronted them with their dishonesty, they were both stricken dead. I urge you to read the entire story in Acts 5:1-11. You won’t ever hear it from the lectionary. The message is clear. Greed kills. Self-interested pursuit of wealth does not lead to a better life. More is not better when it comes to money.
I am not suggesting that the early church was a communist utopia. The members of the church clearly had possessions and I suspect that some had more than others. But they all understood that possession is not the same as ownership. They all understood that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Psalm 24.1. What we possess is held in trust for the God who calls us to love our neighbor and care for creation. We came into the world with only our birthday suits and we will leave it with less than that. How we spend each penny in between is a matter of life and death. The question is not whether you have money or how much you have. The question is whether you are spending it, much or little, to invest in the things that are eternal, the things that matter to God, or whether you are simply enriching yourself in a vain effort to find happiness, security and a measure of fulfillment. Do you think of the money in your wallet, checking account or IRA as yours? Or is it a loan given you by the Lord to do God’s work in the world?
We mainline, middle class, ever white and ever polite progressive protestants are a little embarrassed by the outbreak of God’s wrath against Ananias and Sapphira. Yet perhaps the Lord’s swift action there was a kind of mercy. This couple did not live long enough to develop the stress conditions leading to heart attack, stroke and addiction so common among people caught up in the pursuit of the elusive American Dream. They did not live to discover how useless money is when you are standing over the casket of a loved one or how easily the love of money leads you to cross lines that you will regret for the rest of your life. Greed usually kills us gradually, awakening in our hearts a thirst that can never be satisfied, hardening our hearts against our neighbors and filling us with suspicion against our dear ones we suspect of scheming to get hold of our wealth. Mammon is a cruel and jealous master.
We need to recognize and name the false god, mammon. We need to shine the light of truth on the dangers of an unsustainable, greed driven economy that is increasingly dehumanizing.us and poisoning our planet. Jesus calls us to a way of living that is radically different from the self-interested pursuit of wealth. He calls us to learn, as the birds of the air and the lilies of the field already know, that all we need and more comes from the hand of a generous God. Disciples of Jesus know that the world is not a shrinking pie and that we don’t need to be obsessed with getting and keeping our piece. God has no interest in getting from us a share of what is ours. God wants us. When we finally figure out that, because we belong to God and everything we possess belongs to God, we have all we need, then we can start truly living.
Here’s poem by William Wordsworth about life wasted in “getting and spending.”
The World is Too Much with Us.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
Source: William Wordsworth: Selected Poems (c. 2004 by Penguin Books). This poem is in the public domain. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland in England. He made his debut as a writer in 1787 publishing a sonnet in The European Magazine. In the same year he began attending St John’s College, Cambridge. There he received his BA degree. Wordsworth traveled widely throughout Europe and was particularly drawn to places of natural beauty. Though an ardent supporter of the French Revolution, he was first and foremost a poet drawing his inspiration chiefly from the natural world. Wordsworth was Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death. You can read more about William Wordsworth at the Poetry Foundation website and sample more of his poetry.
Amos was a prophet from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, but the preaching we have from him comes to us from his ministry in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. After the death of King Solomon, the small empire King David had built split into two separate nations. Judah, consisting of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, continued under the reign of the house of David until its final destruction by Babylon in 587 B.C.E. Israel, consisting of the remaining ten tribes, was less politically stable. It was ruled by a succession of royal families succeeding one another through violent coups. The Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 723 B.C.E. Amos came on the scene during the long and prosperous reign of Jeroboam II beginning in about 782 B.C.E. Little is known about Amos. He describes himself as “a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees,” which could mean that he was a wealthy land owner or that he was merely a servant on someone else’s estate. Amos 7:14. In any event, Amos makes it clear that he has no prophetic credentials other than his call from the Lord to preach, not to his own people of Judah, but to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Amos 7:15. By this point, the struggle in Israel between the worship of Yahweh and the cult of the Ba’als was all but over. A decisive death blow had been struck against the priesthood and temple of Ba’al by King Jehu two generations before. After taking power through a bloody revolution, Jehu killed Queen Jezebel, the widow of King Ahab and the chief patron of Ba’al. He then extinguished the entire line of Ahab. By the time Jeroboam II took the throne, worship of the Lord had become the religion of the Northern Kingdom once again. Peace, prosperity and religious revival seemed to demonstrate God’s pleasure with Israel.
But that is not the way Amos saw it. Peace and prosperity had come at a terrible price. The new commercial economy that brought so much prosperity to the commercial classes in the urban areas led to oppression and impoverishment for the rural masses. Property that under Israelite tribal law was held in perpetuity by family clans was now open for purchase or seizure. Statutes limiting the power of creditors over debtors were disregarded. The “safety net” for the poor consisting of “gleaning rights” was likewise ignored by farming interests that routinely soled “the sweepings of the wheat.” Amos 8:6.
Amos criticized the religion of Israel as empty, false and hypocritical. Religious observances, however faithfully performed and liturgically correct, are worthless unless accompanied by justice and compassion. Speaking on behalf of the Lord, Amos has this to say concerning the worship of Israel:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 6:21-24. Not surprisingly, Amos’ preaching came to the attention of the Israelite authorities. Amaziah, the high priest of Bethel, informed King Jeroboam about Amos’ preaching, saying to him “the land is not able to bear all his words.” Amos 7:10. Shortly thereafter, Amaziah ordered Amos to return to Judah and never again preach at Israel’s sanctuary at Bethel. Amos 7:12-13.
What application does this have today? I dealt with one societal issue in my opening remarks, but find it necessary to repeat the point I made last week with respect to application of biblical texts to the contemporary scene. Amos is not speaking to the world at large on the basis of human rights, natural law or some universally recognized concept of justice. He is speaking specifically to Israel as God’s covenant people convicting her of violating the terms of her covenant obligations. That is precisely why we cannot go marching up to Wall Street quoting Amos and insisting that Wall Street has broken the covenant. Wall Street would quite understandably reply, “What covenant?” Neither AIG, nor Bank of America nor J.P. Morgan Chase is God’s chosen people. The United States is not God’s people. The words of Amos are thus directed toward Israel and, through its baptismal covenant in Jesus Christ, to the church.
That said, there are obviously both Jews and Christians who live in the United States, have obligations to the United States and owe loyalties to the United States. So what happens in the United States cannot be a matter of indifference. Disciples of Jesus are called upon specifically not to conform to the surrounding culture, but to be transformed by the renewal of their minds that they may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2. That means it is not our aim to transform society or “change the world” or “make a difference.” Our call is to live faithfully and counter-culturally as the Body of Christ in whatever context we find ourselves. That, of course, might very well turn out to be transformative bringing about significant change that makes an important difference. But whether faithfulness to Jesus does or does not bring about change or the change we hope for and expect is not our concern.
This psalm is remarkable in its juxtaposition of God’s overwhelming power and transcendence against God’s intimate concern for the “weak,” the “poor” and the “childless.” Verses 4-6 glorify Israel’s God as sovereign over nature and history, exalted over the nations and even far above the heavens. Yet the greatness and magnitude of God are manifested not chiefly in his transcendence, but in his imminence, and particularly in his concern for the lowly. God is glorified in the exaltation of the weak, the salvation of the helpless and the deliverance of the childless from the curse of barrenness. God’s special concern with the weak and the powerless is grounded in Israel’s experience of God’s salvation in the Exodus and is reflected throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s compassion for the childless woman echoes the experiences of numerous women of the Hebrew Bible, including Sarah, Rebecca and Hannah to mention a few. This theme is given expression in Luke’s gospel through Elizabeth, the aged and barren wife of Zechariah to whom John the Baptist was born.
This psalm is the first of a collection (Psalm 113, 114, 115, 116, 117, 118) labeled “Hallel.” These psalms are essentially expressions of thanksgiving and joy for divine redemption. In later Jewish liturgical practice they were sung for feasts of pilgrimage at Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles, New Moon and the Dedication of the Temple. It is nearly impossible to determine the original setting of Psalm 113 or its original connection, if any, to the other Hallel psalms. The archaic Hebrew expressions found throughout the hymn suggest that it may have ancient roots in the monarchical period of Israel’s history prior to the Babylonian Exile.
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone…” So begins the lesson. Just as Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity, so the church is the mediator between Christ and the world. When you think about it, the chief social function of bodies is mediation. What do I mean when I say, “I know Janet”? Most likely it means that, among other things, I can recognize her face, describe her features and identify body language unique to her. I must qualify this with the word “likely” because the digital age has made it possible for relationships to develop on line without the parties thereto ever meeting face to face. I have a few of those relationships myself. Yet even for these people I have developed mental “pictures.” I know full well that these people probably do not look anything at all like my mental pictures of them. Still, I cannot help myself. I think this involuntary imaginative reflex of mine just goes to show how impossible it is to conceive a disembodied person. That is also why the church confesses “the resurrection of the body” and not the immortality of the soul. Bodies with eyes, ears, noses and mouths are the way persons engage one another. That is why the Word became flesh.
So the Body of Christ mediates God to the world just as Jesus’ bodily presence mediates God to the Church. Precisely because God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4), the church is to pray for all people without exception. Accordingly, the Kyrie begins with the words, “For the peace of the whole world, for the well being of the church of God and for all people, let us pray to the Lord” (emphasis supplied). Just as the focus of prayer is not confined to those within the church alone, it is not withheld from any nation, tribe or clan even if some of these folks are considered enemies of our own nation or even the church. Thus, prayer is to be made for “kings and all who are in high positions.” Note well that the first century authorities were not particularly well disposed toward the church. To the contrary, they were suspicious of the church and prone to hinder its mission-and that was on good days. Persecution of the church, though not systematic or wide spread at this point, was not infrequent. Nevertheless, Paul understands that however flawed and corrupt government might be, it makes possible the living of a “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” I Timothy 2:2.
All of this is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 where he writes: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Romans 13:1-7. I hasten to add, however, that I think protestants and Lutherans in particular have loaded far too much freight on these verses. The terms “instituted” and “appointed” appear to suggest that God has ordained whatever government happens to be in power and that, therefore, disobedience to government constitutes rebellion against God. But that does not follow.
The Greek words used in Romans for “instituted” and “appointed” actually mean more to “order,” “direct” or “arrange.” Thus, God did not ordain the Roman Empire, but God does order, arrange and direct it to do God’s bidding and accomplish God’s purposes. In the same way, God directed Assyria and Babylonia to bring about his judgment upon Israel and arranged for Persia under Cyrus to enable Israel’s return from exile. To say that God makes use of governments (without their knowledge or approval) is quite different from saying that the structures of power that exist were ordained by God and therefore cannot be resisted. Paul’s point, therefore, is not that obedience to government is obedience to God, but that faithful disciples who conduct themselves righteously need not fear the authorities. They are God’s tools whether they want to be such or not. Even if they act unjustly and persecute the people of God, God can be trusted to turn even this conduct to his own good purposes. Consequently, no argument can be made here to support the proposition that God wills for there to be nation states, governments or empires. Neither can this verse bear the weight of that uniquely Lutheran concoction, “The Two Kingdom’s Doctrine.” But don’t get me started on that.
Verse 5 contains what appears to be a fragment of early Christian creedal teaching:
5For there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
6 who gave himself a ransom for all.
The term “mediator” is not used anywhere else by Paul in this or any of his writings. Yet if this is indeed a citation to some other fragment of church teaching, it is hardly surprising that it differs from Paul’s own way of expressing the faith in linguistics and vocabulary. Paul seems to be citing this saying in support of his appeal for prayer directed to all people and reflecting God’s desire that “all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” I Timothy 2:4. One God-One Mediator-One ransom for all.
This parable has famously (or infamously) been labeled the “Dishonest Steward.” I am not convinced that this fellow in Jesus’ story was dishonest. The parable begins with a “rich man” who had a steward. According to most commentaries, the “rich man” was an absentee landlord letting out his property to tenant farmers. The “steward” was a “property manager” in charge of supervising the tenants and selling the landlord’s share of the produce. Such arrangements were apparently common in first century Galilee. See Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 617 citing Grundmann, W. Das Evangelien nach Lukas (Theologischer Handkommentar zum NT, Berlin 1966) p. 317. The charges brought against the steward involved waste and mismanagement. Such conduct surely evidences carelessness or incompetence, but it does not imply dishonesty. Moreover, we cannot even be sure these charges are true. The allegations of misfeasance against the steward came from third parties that are not even identified and we never hear that the steward was even given a fair opportunity to contest them. In today’s corporate world, heads must roll when mistakes are made and they are often not the heads of those actually responsible. That could well have been the case here.
The steward finds himself in an untenable position. In our culture of unemployment benefits, disability payments and the like, we might be tempted to roll our eyes a bit when the steward reflects: “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” Luke 16:3. This is no laughing matter, however. Day laborers were paid a mere denarius per day in Galilee. SeeMatthew 20:1-16. The work was brutally difficult, dangerous and not always available. Ibid. Begging was also difficult work and paid a good deal less than labor. Either profession would have been the death sentence for a man of delicate physical constitution.
So here is where the story gets interesting. The steward calls in his master’s debtors and reduces their bills. On the face of it, this appears to be dishonest and it might well be. But if that is the case, why would the master praise his erstwhile steward for defrauding him? That makes no sense. Of course, Jesus’ parables sometimes are counter intuitive. Only last week Jesus told the parable of a shepherd who left 99 sheep alone and unprotected in the wilderness to go searching for one lost lamb. But that was to show how God’s valuation of those persons we have written off is entirely different than our own shallow cost/benefit analysis. There was a point to the implausibility of the parable. It does not seem to me that there is any such literary purpose for the master’s improbable response to getting fleeced by a disgruntled employee.
The most plausible explanation I have found was given by two commentators who suggest that the amount of each debt written off by the steward was his own commission for collecting the debt, not money that was owed the master. Findlay, J.A., Luke, The Abingdon Bible Commentary (c. 1929 Nashville/New York) p. 1049; Fitzmyer, J.A. Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament, (c. 1971, London) pp. 161-184 cited in Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 615. If that is in fact what happened, the master would have no cause to complain and might indeed admire the shrewdness of his former steward for using his last commission to create a “golden parachute” for himself.
In either case, Jesus commends this fellow because he understands that he is now in a position where his money will be of very limited use to him. What he needs now more than anything else is friends. He recognizes that his future does not lie with his master or any of the master’s rich friends who no doubt know of his dismissal and are unlikely to hire him to a position of responsibility. Any future he has is with his master’s debtors, the folks he was accustomed to exploiting. For him, the “great reversal” that Mary sings about in the Magnificat is unfolding in his own life. The rich, of which he used to be one, have been cast down. The future belongs to the hungry soon to be filled. This fellow understands that the future belongs to them and that he had better make sure he is among them. To that end, he employs his last commission. He does exactly what the rich young ruler should have done in Luke 18:18-30.