FIFTEENTH 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 wealth.” Luke 16:13.
If you read the very next verse after the end of this Sunday’s gospel reading, you will discover that Jesus’ opponents, who were listening in on a parable directed to his disciples, “were lovers of money…and they ridiculed him.” Luke 16:14. Among those who ridicule Jesus might be former New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie who took part in a “round table discussion” on ABC’s Good Morning America this Sunday. He made the point, and not for the first time, that however much the American people might dislike Donald Trump, they love the low unemployment rate and they love what the stock market is doing for their retirement accounts. That, says Christie, is what they will take into the voting booth, not, what for them, are distant and abstract issues like immigration or foreign policy. To put it in the words of a slogan dating back to the days of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
This is all chillingly reminiscent of the attitude expressed by millions of Germans in the 1930s who, however much they might have disliked the vulgar and pretentious little corporal with the audacity to call himself “the Fuhrer,” nevertheless liked the creation of millions of new jobs, the rebuilding of decaying national infrastructure and the rebirth of patriotism under his reign. They, too, were less concerned about abstract issues like the “Jewish Question” and the nation’s drift toward militarism. It seems that, in the Governor’s view, the American people are as morally tone deaf as the crowds that cheered for the Nazis. In the end, says Christie, they will vote their pocket books. After all, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Jesus warns us that our fixation on the economy and reliance on the wealth it produces for us is misplaced. The economy is a notorious traitor. When corporate decides that the sporting goods store you work for could more profitably be closed, liquidated and the proceeds invested in a more promising sector of our booming economy, you learn that a good economy is not necessarily your friend. A healthy economy might promise you a comfortable retirement in your golden years. But if your next physical reveals a lump on your body that turns out to be malignant, there may be no golden years to enjoy. Money can’t do anything about that. Money can buy you a new swimming pool for your dream house, but it provides little consolation the day you find your toddler floating face down in the middle of it. For those who are willing to learn from history, the decades of misery suffered in Germany and throughout Europe during and after the Second World War should demonstrate how foolhardy it is to “vote your pocket book.” A self centered and myopic equation of security with wealth leads to destruction every time. It’s not the economy, stupid.
Jesus’ parable illustrates the point. This story is often given the title “The Dishonest Manager,” but I am not convinced that the manager was actually dishonest or even negligent. We are told only that “charges were brought to [his master] that this man was wasting his goods.” Luke 16:1. Those of us who have spent time in the corporate world know that when mistakes are made that hurt the bottom line, heads must roll. They are not necessarily the heads of those responsible. Lower sales figures might not be anyone’s fault, but there is no better way for a middle manager to show corporate that s/he is in charge and taking matters in hand than by fixing blame and firing people. That shows the people on top that you are holding your subordinates responsible and sends a message to your subordinates that you expect improved results. In any case, whether the manager in Jesus’ parable was dishonest, incompetent or merely a victim of someone else’s scheme to deflect blame, he has clearly learned one of life’s cruelest lessons: Corporate doesn’t care, not about you, your ailing spouse or your child with a serious medical condition. The bottom line is the only line that matters. Everybody else is expendable.
So, our hero, who just moments ago imagined himself firmly established among the proverbial 1%, suddenly finds himself among the other 99% without the skill sets needed to survive there. He responds by reducing the debts of his master’s creditors in the few hours he still has left in the office, hoping to ingratiate himself to them. One can read this cynically as a disgruntled employee’s final attempt to screw his boss on the way out the door. If that were the case, however, you would hardly expect the master to congratulate him on the cleverness of his fraudulent scheme. Can you imagine yourself admiring the skill of the thief who broke into your car? More likely, I think, the manager was writing off only his own commission on his master’s debts. That would have won him a debt of gratitude from the master’s creditors without decreasing the master’s accounts receivable.
Whatever conclusions you might draw about the manager’s actions and motives, the point here is that he has learned an important truth about the security wealth and privilege promise, namely, that such security is illusory. Genuine security comes not from wealth, but from one’s ties to a caring community. In the end, my own security is no better than my trust and confidence in my neighbor. My wellbeing is finally dependent on the wellbeing of my neighbor. The best way to achieve security is to work for the freedom, security and wellbeing of your neighbors. Losing sight of that fact and focusing solely on your own financial well being while your neighbors are being detained, separated from their families and deported is, well, stupid.
Here is one of my favorite poems speaking to our connectedness and our aching need for “Love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light…” It was composed by Elizabeth Alexander for Barack Obama’s Inauguration. How hard it is to believe that this day once dawned in the nation we have become.
Praise for the Day
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.
All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.
We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.
I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.
Source: Praise Song for the Day, (c. 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander, pub. by Graywolf Press). Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem in 1962. She grew up on Washington, D.C., however, where her father, Clifford Alexander, served as United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman. She earned her Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania. Alexander is chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a professor of poetry at Yale University. She composed and read the above poem at President Barak Obama’s inauguration in 2009. You can find out more about Elizabeth Alexander and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.