Lord Jesus Christ,
Although my words will undoubtedly humiliate you,
Please accept them all the same;
And through the humiliation of preaching
May we be encountered by you
Who bore the humiliation of incarnation
And the cross
For our sake and the world’s.
In the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.
Money is a touchy subject. We don’t like people telling us how to spend our money. Some synagogues deal with this neatly by means of a membership system. You pay up front for a year’s worth of benefits. By contrast, most Christian churches wave the issue in your face with a weekly Offering ritual. It is good to be reminded that we leave this world in the same penniless state in which we enter it. So we can live with the Offering. But sermons on money? Forget it.
Preachers know this and typically keep things simple. We praise the virtues of generosity and diligence, and hint that listeners should support the “Kingdom of God” with pledges and donations. I will not object if you send mountains of money to Dean Neville in support of this fine chapel. But I am not standing in this sacred place to raise money. Today our readings force us to grapple with the Bible’s view of money. Is it mammon from hell, as Jesus and Luke suggest? Or is it manna from heaven, the key to health and happiness and a form of divine blessing? The biblical perspective on money, wealth, poverty, and economic justice is painfully out of sync with our way of life. Jeremiah and Jesus and Luke never remotely imagined our economic circumstances. Yet there is something timeless about the Bible’s preference for the poor and marginalized. So how should we think about money and what should we do?
First, then, let’s get this biblical view of money, wealth, poverty, and economic justice out into the open. Many years ago as a newly minted minister I was just beginning to lead a Sunday evening worship service when a young woman entered the door of our church with a child about 6 years old. They both looked unhealthy. The woman was strung out on drugs and desperate for money. I still vividly remember what I felt, especially for the child, who may have been the woman’s daughter or just borrowed for the evening. This was a heartbreaking scene of desperate need and child abuse, scenes common around my city church. Do you feel compassion joined with a shudder of horror when you contemplate such a desperate situation? The driving principle of the biblical view of money is as simple and direct as those emotions of compassion and horror. The Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ teaching alike prioritize the poor and vulnerable, the sick and lonely, the marginalized and disenfranchised. Economic arrangements that protect and support these people are good. Economic arrangements that do not are wicked. It is an uncompromising litmus test.
The Democratic Party in this country has been drifting away from these bracing principles of economic justice. Their opponents mocked them as “soft-hearted liberals,” saying that government welfare breeds dependency and laziness in the poor. Save for a few lone voices, democrats seem to have succumbed to this critique in their quest for the hearts of the vast American middle class. But at no point does the Bible apologize for being idealistic and compassionate in its litmus test for economic justice. I wish we would worry less about the poor taking advantage of tax-based hand-outs and more about suffering children, here and abroad. It makes long-term economic sense as well as moral sense. Taking care of children is the surest path to peace in a world that easily sacrifices peace on the altar of power. It is soft-hearted and hard-headed and biblical all at once.
In this country the most loudly trumpeted Christian view of money is the prosperity gospel. Just as God took care of the Israelites in the desert with manna from heaven, so God will send you money, in proportion to your faith and generosity. We have all heard this used as a fund-raising technique on radio and television religious broadcasts and there is no shortage of books to fill in the details, in case you are wondering how to get in on this remarkable financial scheme. It is ironic that such a popular Christian view has so little biblical support. It reminds me of New Guinea cargo cults. My Bible-translating missionary friends used to tell me about native people going into a dangerous frenzy every time an airplane arrived from the sky gods with wondrous goods and supplies. If they could get their religious rituals just right, they believed, they could induce the gods to send more planes with more good stuff. See the similarity with the prosperity gospel? If we live and believe just right, we can get God mysteriously to send us all this good stuff.
Since I have just slammed the Democratic Party in this country, let me cast my jaundiced eye on the Republican Party. One of the invocation prayers at the recent Republican National Convention in New York included the statement, addressed to God, that “You have blessed us to be the most prosperous nation on Earth.” (The RNC website records that it was Bishop Keith Butler, Southfield, MI, who delivered the invocation at the beginning of a Republican National Convention session, Sep 2, 2004, 9:02pm, New York.) You know, I have a good idea of how hardworking and imaginative people get their money, and I don’t think God sends it from heaven. Religion sometimes helps people be hardworking and imaginative but powerful economic systems that create good jobs and opportunities matter more. This prayer sanctifies in a national audience the prosperity gospel’s cargo-cult superstition. Worse, it pretends that the massively disproportionate resource consumption of this country is just the sort of thing God favors, a divine blessing. This is a dangerous fiction. In the biblical perspective, being the most prosperous nation on earth conveys deadly serious responsibilities and brings not divine blessing but divine judgment.
Everywhere we look, it seems, the biblical view of money and wealth is ignored. But the Bible doesn’t budge: it is manna from heaven when used to support the poor and defenseless but its influence on our moral sense and our social priorities can make it mammon from hell.
This is abundantly clear in Jesus’ curious parable of the sneaky steward. It seems to be a story of white collar crime. The steward accepts responsibility for managing the affairs of a wealthy landowner, botches the job through laziness or corruption, and then deepens his wickedness to make last-minute friends among other wealthy people by discounting their debts to his boss. He is going to need those friends immediately because he is being fired. I suppose it is the ancient world’s equivalent of monster.com, a clever way of getting your résumé out there. On this reading, the steward certainly is not a heroic character.
There is another interpretation in which the much maligned steward is not so bad. In this part of the ancient world, the very few wealthy landowners such as the steward’s master hired people to run their affairs and gave them a lot of authority. Think of
Joseph running things for Pharaoh. So the steward probably had the discretion to discount debts. As for his corruption, the story refers to rumors, not facts (think of Joseph again). On this reading, the master was gullible, believing local trash talk, and the steward was the victim of a conniving competitor. He had to do something. Without friends who needed his skills, his alternatives were straightforward. He didn’t have the money to run a farm for a wealthy landholder, and he lived in an occupied country that didn’t have a military, so the vast peasantry was his fate. There he would dig ditches and plant crops. If he didn’t like hard labor, the only choice was begging in the streets. That’s how it goes in economies with no middle class and not much of a social welfare system, both in ancient times and today. So the steward did his sneaky thing and survived.
In Jesus’ context, wealth was rare and brought great power. It meant profiting from a system that kept most people hard underfoot. It is no wonder that his pro-peasant preaching insisted that you can’t serve God and money. Still, Jesus found a moral in the parable of the steward: religious folk should be as smart about matters of ultimate concern as worldly people are about their economic affairs. Luke took that spiritual message and gave it an economic twist, urging his readers to use dirty dollars wisely. Make sure that your arrival at the pearly gates of heaven draws cheering crowds of people who remain eternally grateful for your generosity in this life. Lucre might be filthy, but you can buy good stuff with it, so spend it as though heaven means more to you than feathering your earthly nest. Jesus’ and Luke’s messages differ, so it is no wonder that this passage does not read smoothly.
At this point, we have four biblical insights about money and wealth. One: the Bible’s litmus test for fair economic arrangements is the way the poor and vulnerable get treated. Two: you can’t serve God and money. Three: be smart about ultimate matters in your life and don’t let the desire for wealth destroy you. Four: if you’ve got money to spend, it is nothing to be proud of, so spend it on things that advance good in the world and create a home for yourself in heaven. These are all worthy take-home messages. But do they make sense in our context?
What would Jesus or Luke or Jeremiah say about flexible economies full of opportunities for creative and disciplined people, which girlie-man Arnold Schwarzenegger correctly says is the secret of immigrant success? What would they say about Alan Greenspan’s subtle adjustments in a Federal Reserve interest rate, tuning economic growth to create employment while keeping inflation in check? Or about international loans used to leverage social and economic change in poor nations? Or about the way global free trade spreads wealth but also brings hated economic and cultural side-effects?
Our world is not the world of the Bible and I find it difficult to apply Jesus’ and Luke’s views of money to our economic choices. Whereas Luke calls money unrighteous, I give my children weekly pocket money to help them learn how to manage money, partly because I have seen how economic activity can be a means of personal growth. Should I teach them money is evil instead? We have seen wise economic support gradually transform run-down communities, improving health and welfare for thousands, as well as the reverse process due to economic neglect. Should we reject the prosperity and safety brought by wealth and productivity as wrongheaded?
Jesus was a great advocate of the poor. But how do we follow his example? Does caring for the poverty-stricken mean tax-funded social welfare programs or do we replace government help with a thousand non-profit points of compassionate light? We all know about micro-loans to the poor, initiated by Muhammad Yunus’s amazing Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. But the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an both ban interest on loans, a policy that would destroy micro-loan initiatives. Does caring for the poor allow us to ignore these sacred texts on this question and spread micro-loans around the world? I hope so.
Unfortunately, Jesus did not talk much about the economic arrangements of his own time, which might have helped us figure out how to implement his vision. He did say that his followers should pay taxes to the Roman Empire that occupied their country; they were Caesar’s coins after all. But that’s a tough sell for Bostonians who revolted over taxation by a foreign government. Jewish law dictated a schedule of debt forgiveness but debt holders routinely preserved loans by transferring them to holding companies when debt relief time came. Did Jesus think this was a sensible way around a silly rule or a devious way to observe the letter of the law while violating its spirit? We simply do not know how Jesus would advise us to implement his views of money and wealth in his time or in ours.
Of course, the bible is not entirely without cutting-edge economic wisdom. And here I hope you’ll allow me a little humor for the patient children present as this sermon turns for home. Did you know that President Bush’s economic opportunity zones are biblical? The area around the Jordan River got especially rich when its banks overflowed. Investment interest appears in the Moses story: Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the river bank and drew out a little prophet. And what does the Bible say about selling or holding your investments in hard times? Well, Noah was floating his stock while everyone else was in liquidation.
More seriously, Jesus did give financial advice on one occasion. He told a rich young man to give his money away in order to be saved. Some saintly people have given away everything and lived with the poor, but I guarantee they weren’t raising families in Boston. Let’s face it: by global standards, most of us are wealthy, and on the wrong side of Jesus’ teaching on money. But I don’t want us to regard our wealth as intrinsically wicked, as unrighteous mammon useful only for buying our way into heaven. I want us to use our money wisely, to make a difference in the world by means of it, to be thankful for the security and comfort that it brings, and to act positively instead of obsessing over money and mortgages and bills and taxes. I want us to take a stand against rampant consumption, to be mindful of the whole world and not just our own families, to advocate for global economic responsibility and ecological prudence.
That’s what I want. But what practical advice would Jesus give you, if he were preaching here? Well—and this is thought provoking—I am pretty sure he would not be hanging out here. Despite the many Bible stories documenting Jesus’ social preference for the poor and sinners, suburban middle-class Christians think they would be Jesus’ favorites if he walked among us. The Cosmic Christ may like hanging out with everyone equally. But not the biblical Jesus. If he were in this country at all—and that’s a big leap—he would be preaching and healing in the streets of South Boston and Dorchester, calling gang members to be his disciples, living out his commitment to the poor and marginalized, and paying little attention to big churches and anxious wealthy people. I am sure that most church folk would find Jesus as offensive as the religious leaders of his own time did. I am sure that most would overhear his message about money and the poor and think it unrealistic. And I am sure Jesus would not compromise his message, not for a second, not even in the smallest degree, not for anyone.
Living a life of poverty in solidarity with the poor might make you one of Jesus’ favorites. But if you’re not going to do that—and I’m not—then all we really have to go by is Jesus’ l
itmus test: we can tell how well we are handling the wealth we have by evaluating the circumstances of the poor all around us. There might be a place in the kingdom of God on earth for wealth, even though Jesus was poor. There might be room for lovely homes and mortgages, even though Jesus was sometimes homeless. There might even be a role for executives in luxurious boardrooms deciding the fates of thousands of workers, even though Jesus was sometimes unemployed. In Jesus’ picture of that kingdom, however, there is no place for people who don’t care about the vulnerable, who don’t acknowledge the effects of their over-consumption, who are numb to the circumstances that immerse children in disease and ignorance and violence, or who refuse to bend their influence to change those circumstances. Jesus was incredibly idealistic. He didn’t care about being practical. He wanted to transform our values, open our eyes to exploitation and poverty, and devote ourselves to God’s service.
My question for you, dear listeners, is what will you do? What wealth do you possess but do not yet use on behalf of the poor? What influence might you wield but do not yet bring to bear on unjust economic circumstances? What compassion do you feel but do not yet pour out on behalf of our planet’s poor? Forsake your possessions and live with the poor, if you have that saintly calling. Otherwise, rein in your lifestyle and use your resources on behalf of the kingdom of God with the shrewdness of the steward in Jesus’ parable. Resolve today to root out the evil of self-righteous neglect in your own life. Decide today to make one small change to alter the world around you. Sponsor a child through one of the agencies that make that convenient. Spend some of your spare time volunteering. Read something that raises your consciousness about growing poverty in the United States. Meditate on the deadly poverty of the last hundred years in much of the world—the two-thirds world it is called, not for nothing. And in all that you do, if you intend to follow Jesus seriously, never forget his litmus test for economic arrangements. It is tough. It is idealistic. It is impractical. But it is also good and true and beautiful. Amen.