Serving God above all else

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, September 22, 2019

Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus said: “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  It’s a pretty bald statement, and fits very well with other of Jesus’ statements about money elsewhere in the Gospels.  Jesus spent more time talking about money more than about any other topic except the kingdom of God, and Jesus tended to be very critical of wealthy people.  Moreover, this statement that you cannot serve God and wealth fits very well with many parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, where wealth and poverty and economics are central themes.

Our first reading is a prime example of this.  Amos was a prophet known for his thundering denunciations of sin, and he focused on the sin of economic injustice.  In our first reading he rails against the business owners and traders who use treachery and deceit, cooking the books and falsifying measurements so that they can cheat both the people they’re buying from and the people they’re selling to.  That’s what “making the ephah small and the shekel great” means.  It’s like if a grocery store sold 2lbs of meat as being 2¼ lbs.  Obviously, lying is wrong, but the thing that makes this kind of lying even worse than regular lies is that it preys on the most vulnerable.  Sure, it’s not good for anybody; but the poorest people in the community are the ones for whom it is the heaviest burden.  The powerful people in Amos’ day were quite willing to cause poverty and enslavement among the most vulnerable people in the community, as long as they got paid for it.  In a straight-up decision between higher profit margins for themselves personally, and doing the right thing, they would always choose profit.  They believed themselves model citizens and good people, but they destroyed lives and communities for their own profit.  And Amos was appalled.  Amos warned them: The lord God almighty saw what they were doing, and God was not going to forget.  All the good things about them—how much they went to worship, how they respected their own parents and treated their spouses and kids well, all the money they donated to good works—was not enough to make up for the evil that they did in impoverishing others for their own gain.  They were going to have to answer for their actions.

You cannot serve God and wealth.  It’s like a servant trying to serve two employers.  For a while, it looks like it works.  But what happens when both of them want the servant working at the same time?  He can’t be in two places at once, he’s got to choose between them.  In the same way, there are times when our allegiance to God will conflict with our allegiance to money.  Because sometimes doing the right thing is not always the most profitable thing.  Generosity is the most obvious: it is more profitable to keep your money for your own things instead of giving to those in need, but God calls us to be generous.  But it’s more than that, as the reading from Amos shows.  Bad business practices gain wealth, but they are exploitative.  But there are even business practices that are perfectly legal and above-board that are still very likely to disproportionately penalize poor and working-class people.  You make more money if you don’t pay your employees well than if you pay them a good wage.  You make more money if you use unpaid interns instead of paid employees.  You make more money if you treat employees like interchangeable machines rather than accommodating any disabilities or special needs they might have.  But all of these things result in poverty and vulnerability and peoples’ lives being measurably worse.  And God values people more than money, and God expects us to do the same.  It’s not that money is bad, it’s that when it comes down to a choice between doing what God wants and doing what is most profitable, we have to choose.

Which brings us to the parable.  It’s so weird.  Jesus praising dishonesty?  That’s not something you find much of in the Bible.  And we tend to assume that the master or landlord in a parable is an allegory for God, but I don’t think that’s the case here.  Let’s look at a little bit of Roman economics to see if we can shed some light on this parable.  In the Roman Empire, landowners were pretty much all absentee landlords.  They lived in the city and owned lots of land all around, which was worked by slaves and tenant farmers.  The tenant farmers were like sharecroppers, and the whole system was designed to benefit the landlords at the expense of the people who actually did the work.  You had to plant mostly olive trees and grape vines, because olives and olive oil and wine were profitable and that’s what the landowner wanted.  But that meant that you weren’t growing the wheat and barley to feed yourself and your family.  Which meant you had to buy food, which meant you were always in debt.  And if you got into too much debt, the only recourse was to sell yourself or your children into slavery.  A good year was one in which you and your family got enough to eat and only went a little bit into debt.  A bad year, well.  It was a great system for the major landlords, very profitable.  But it was awful for the vast majority of people, resulting in hunger and grinding poverty in the midst of a world filled with abundance.  There were the super-rich, and there were the people living in grinding poverty, and in between there were the managers who made sure that the wealthy landowners got every shred of profit they could squeeze out of their land and their tenants.

The manager in our parable had probably spent his life sucking up to the wealthy people he worked for.  Of course he did; how else was he going to advance?  The landowners controlled the purse strings; they controlled everything.  If he didn’t want to have the same dire straits as most of the people of the community, he needed the wealthy people to like him and employ him.  He probably aspired to join their ranks some day, the ranks of the people who had it all and pulled all the strings.  And if that meant carrying out their orders and turning the screws on the workers he managed, well.  It was better than being a laborer himself.

And then he got accused of wasting his employer’s money or property.  Taking advantage of poor people and forcing them into greater poverty and possibly even enslavement was business as usual; wasting a rich person’s wealth was a crime.  And this manager, who’s built his entire life on sucking up to the rich and exploiting the poor, all of a sudden he’s terrified.  Most people really don’t like him, for good cause.  He is the embodiment of a system that has made their lives hell.  Nobody’s going to give him the benefit of the doubt.  If his employer fires him for cause, nobody else is going to hire him to be a manager … and then he will be well and truly up the creek without a paddle.

So he cheats.  We don’t know if he’d actually wasted his employer’s money before this or if he was falsely accused, but we know that at this point, he absolutely cheated his employer.  He went to the people who owed the landowner money—the same people that, up to this point, the manager and landowner have been doing their level best to chisel and gouge and exploit—and cancels some of their debts.  He’s doing it for purely selfish reasons: he hasn’t had some miraculous change of heart, he hasn’t decided to turn and undo the whole system, he just wants to have people willing to take him in and help him once he gets fired.

But do you think it matters?  The people whose debts he forgave, do you think they care whether he did it for selfish reasons or out of the goodness of his heart?  The people whose burden was relieved, who didn’t have to worry about being sold into slavery because of their debt, do you think it mattered to them why he did it?  The whole system was messed up.  The whole economy was based on degradation and exploitation and putting profits above people.  Is there any such thing, in that system, as honest wealth?  And that manager who cheated his employer by relieving peoples’ debts, he may have been cheating his manager but he might have been faithful in that moment to what God wanted, even if he didn’t know it.

And that’s the real question for us as Christians, isn’t it?  When it comes to a conflict between God and money, who are we faithful to?  Will we serve money—the profits, the market, the corporation, the bottom line—or God?  Our economy is a lot better than the Roman one, it’s far less exploitative, far fairer.  But it’s not perfect, and we still have to make choices sometimes: will we serve God, or money?  Will we be faithful to God, or faithful to money?  Which master will we serve?  Which will have the greatest place in our hearts?  Money is very useful, but if we are to call ourselves Christian, we have to serve God above all else.  May we learn to care more about God’s call and command than about what the world teaches us about money.

Amen.

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