A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. John Kirkley
St. John's Episcopal Church, San Francisco
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:10-11). Amen.
How do we demonstrate our faith in God? Christians have often defined faith in terms of belief, such as affirming the Bible or the Christian Creeds as propositional statements of revealed truth. On this view, demonstrating faithfulness means believing in the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and so on. Perhaps a more modern understanding of faith has been to define it as trust, a passionate subjective feeling of reliance upon God. Faithfulness is then demonstrated by a commitment to cultivating a certain kind of religious inwardness, or felt sense of God’s presence.
While both of these ways of understanding faith have some merit, neither of them seems to me to be very clearly related to daily life. Faith as belief can be an abstract, theoretical exercise that leaves our lives untouched. Faith as trust can become a very sentimental, private affair that focuses more on the self than on God. Shouldn’t faithfulness to God transform both our selves and our world? Where then does the “rubber” of faith meet the “road” of life in the world?
In his life and teaching, his death and resurrection, Jesus exemplifies a way of demonstrating faithfulness to God that is deeply rooted in his own Jewish faith. Jesus is at one with the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures in viewing faithfulness as loyalty to God demonstrated in daily life. Faithfulness is a matter of action, of acting in conformity with the ways of God discerned by God’s people in community. Reason and feeling have their place in the life of faith, but faithfulness is finally a matter of the will; not what we think or feel, but what we do is the final determinate of our faithfulness.
This means that the whole of our life is subject to the demand of faithfulness. Faithfulness cannot be relegated to Sunday morning. It cannot be compartmentalized, so that we love God with our heart or mind, but not our soul and strength as well. We cannot bargain with God in such a way as to say, “I’m willing to turn this part of my life over to you, but this part I am going to keep to myself.” Our growth in the life of faith is precisely this continual turning over of more and more of our life to God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, until all is Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
Central to this matter of faithfulness in daily life is the issue of our relationship to material possessions, and in our age, our use of money as the currency that mediates our relationship to material possessions. This is a very loaded matter for wealthy North American Christians, and nearly all of us in this room are wealthy by any standard of comparison among the peoples of the earth. We hesitate to talk about the demands of faithfulness in this area of our lives, perhaps because we are so ambivalent about the material abundance we enjoy as participants in a global economy in which some benefit enormously while others suffer miserably.
Secretly, and perhaps not so secretly, we carry a burden of guilt about our wealth that makes us reactive and defensive about discussing it. The threat here is that we become so preoccupied with wealth (both acquiring it and fretting about it) that we becomes enslaved by it, and thus no longer free to serve God. Jesus is quite clear that we cannot serve both. If we are not faithful with our dishonest wealth (and in a sinful world, there is, tragically, no other kind of wealth), then we cannot enjoy the true riches God wishes to entrust to us.
Now, you don’t need a priest to tell you what to do with your money. Mercifully, Moses, the prophets, and Jesus have devoted a great deal of their teaching to the issue of faithfulness with material possessions. If we will not listen to them, then like the rich man in the parable that we will hear next Sunday, we will not benefit from anyone else’s counsel. So, then, what does faithfulness with dishonest wealth look like according to the Biblical witnesses?
The message of Holy Scripture is consistently clear that faithfulness to God requires justice for the poor. God’s covenant with Israel as mediated by Moses includes the obligation to see to the welfare of widows, orphans, and aliens, those most vulnerable members of society. The prophetic tradition, recalling these covenantal demands, denounces Israel for its failure to meet these obligations. For the prophets, idolatry – serving false gods – and exploitation of the poor are flip sides of the same coin. You cannot separate faithfulness from economic justice.
Listen again to God’s plaintive cry recorded by the prophet Jeremiah, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jer. 8:21-9:1)
Poverty equals death, and so God weeps for the poor who have died. There is no physician to heal this wound in the social body, because of the faithlessness of those with dishonest wealth who refuse to honor the covenant obligation to care for the vulnerable. God loves to the point of suffering with God’s poor people, and in this suffering love acts as the lure toward compassionate action in history to redeem the plight of the poor. We either respond to this lure of divine love with faithful compassion, or we betray this love in the pursuit of self-interest regardless of the cost to others. The choice is up to us.
In Jeremiah’s time, there would be no balm in Gilead. The wound of injustice festered and grew within Israel, until the social structure decayed to the point that national security was undermined. Israel, victim of the self-interest and greed of its ruling class, overplayed its hand and was destroyed by another rising superpower – the Babylonian empire.
We cannot sow the wind of economic exploitation without reaping the whirlwind of social and political chaos. Our economic choices have consequences, as Israel’s elites
learned belatedly through the experience of exile. Those consequences, however, are not simply social and political; they are also spiritual. The decisions we make as employers, workers, consumers, investors, and voters reflect either faithfulness or betrayal of God. They either enhance or inhibit our capacity to receive the true riches that are our inheritance as children of God.
As Christians, we are under the same obligation to care for the poor and vulnerable that Israel bears as God’s covenant people. Jesus demonstrates covenant faithfulness in his solidarity with the poor, his feeding of the masses, his healing of the sick, and his hospitality toward outcasts and sinners. This is borne out, too, in the wonderful parables we have heard from Luke’s account of Jesus’ teaching: the Great Dinner, the Good Shepherd, and the Prodigal Son. And, of course, Jesus’ faithfulness will be sealed with his own blood on the Cross, and vindicated by his Resurrection.
In the parable of the dishonest manager that we heard this morning, Jesus begins to instruct his disciples directly in the matter of covenant faithfulness with respect to dishonest wealth. Last week, I mentioned that, sometimes, it is difficult to enter into a parable. Frequently, a parable remains closed, even if we are ready for it to open. This one is a humdinger!
Even so, try to imagine the context of this story. A rich man, no doubt an absentee landlord, has discovered that the manager overseeing his property was squandering his wealth. We are not told the exact nature of his dishonest dealings, but it seems the manager was trying to pad his own pocket at the owner’s expense, not to mention those indebted to him.
The manager is scared. He cannot bear the terrible choices presented by his downward social mobility: either the degradation of back-breaking labor or the humiliation of begging. He has survived up to now by collaborating in the creation of dishonest wealth, collecting on loans (at exorbitant interest) that have driven many a sharecropper into hopeless debt, poverty, and imprisonment, enriching his master in the process. Abandoned by his master, he can hardly expect his former clients to reach out to him in his hour of need. What is he to do?
The dishonest manager finds a very creative solution, one that involves a kind of conversion on his part. He goes to his master’s debtors and reduces the note on their loans. He is on a one-man mission to promote debt relief, eliminating the commission and interest that lined his pocket and made his master a rich man. In effect, he changes sides, exchanging loyalty to the rich master (such as it was) for solidarity with the poor. Even the master, upon discovering what he has done, has to commend him for his prudence!
Jesus, too, commends him for his prudence, and holds him up as a model of faithful discipleship. Is Jesus extolling dishonesty and self-interested double dealing? What could this really be about?
I wonder if what is being lauded is not dishonesty, but creativity? Caught in an economic system where one’s choices were to be either a victim or an oppressor, this dishonest manager struggled to find another way. In his attempt to relieve the debt of the poor, he sought to create conditions that would allow them to support him while he tried to get back on his feet.
His small attempt at redistribution of wealth was in the service of eliminating the conditions that made some too poor to enjoy the dignity of helping others, while making some so rich that, in their economic security, they deny their actual dependence upon others and became indifferent to the needs of others.
You may think my interpretation is a bit of a stretch. It may be. The dishonest manager certainly wasn’t perfect in the sense of moral purity. His hands, like ours, were dirtied by the realities of dishonest wealth. But, as they say in A.A., “progress, not perfection, is the atmosphere for spiritual growth that we seek to promote.” What the dishonest manager exemplifies, I think, is growth toward wholeness as he struggles to make faithful decisions in an unjust world. He has embarked on a process of conversion. God is not done with him yet.
And God is not done with us. God desires us to enjoy the true riches of covenant faithfulness, a life of joyful, compassionate action discerned with the help of a spiritual community struggling to make faithful decisions together. Learning to use dishonest wealth well is no small part of this struggle to be faithful. Holy Scripture does provide us with some helpful clues along the way:
Solidarity with the poor comes first; even if it goes against the grain of our own economic self-interest. That is part of the cost of discipleship if we are to follow the Christ who became poor for our sake so that we might obtain the true riches. Faithfulness demands a commitment to economic justice for all of God’s children.
In an unjust world, faithfulness also requires prudence. The point is not to become poor for the sake of being poor. The point is to become free from our preoccupation with wealth so that no one has to be poor to sustain our sense of security. This is a tricky line to walk. It can justify all kinds of self-serving behavior, yet economic powerlessness does not benefit anyone. Faithfulness demands the prudent and compassionate exercise of power.
Faithfulness entails the practice of freedom. In spiritual terms, freedom comes from giving wealth away! The more we give it away, the more freedom we experience. In our society, we are told that the more wealth we have, the more freedom we have. That is a lie. Wealth may give one more choices, but freedom is not about the exercise of choice. Authentic spiritual freedom is the exercise of faithfulness. That means learning to choose what God chooses. God chooses the poor – every time. We cannot serve God and wealth.
The blessing of dishonest wealth is that it gives us so many opportunities to die to our selves so that Christ might live in us. The shame of dishonest wealth is that it deprives so many others of that opportunity. May God grant us the grace and courage to be dishonest managers in a world of dishonest wealth.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”
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