Today is one of those gospel readings that surprises us. It’s hard to make heads or tales of what Jesus is trying to tell us in this parable. Is Jesus really commending the actions of the dishonest manager, who seems to steal from his boss? Or is something more going on here?
Barbara Rossing, a Lutheran Biblical scholar, offers some background on this text which strikes our modern ears as odd. She doesn’t offer any easy resolution to the parable Jesus tells. Indeed it remains a mystery what Jesus wants us to think about the characters in the story. However Rossing says Jesus is counting on his audience being familiar with the predatory lending system under the Roman occupation. Interest on loans of money were often charged at 25% while interest on goods often charged at 50%. The purpose of those in power to use predatory lending was to inflate the principal of the loan so high the lender could never pay it down. What was often the case in a system of indentured farmers is that as interest and taxes grew so enormous that people had to forfeit their land to the lords and managers who amassed vast estates.
In light of this dishonest accumulation of wealth by the lords and their managers we can hear Jesus’ parable anew. Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly what to think about the characters in the story. However, it calls into question who is stealing from whom? The manager who starts eliminating the debt of those who owe money or goods to the lord may simply be cancelling the enormous interest of the loan. In a predatory lending system the question is raised, who is honest and who is dishonest? It wasn’t as though farmers and working class folks of the time had other places to turn. There weren’t working co-operatives of the kind that emerged on the Canadian prairies among Scandinavian farmers in the 20th Century for example. Rome and the hierarchy that propped it up would never allow people to empower themselves and help one another in such ways.
We may even find ourselves cheering for either the dishonest manager or those who owe the debts. Or we may find ourselves judging them for breaking the law. After all they borrowed the money and goods. Surely they should pay back what they owe as stated in the contract. However at a time when the vast majority of people could not read, they would have been unable to read the terms of the contract. They would have signed a promissory note they couldn’t read or understand.
While it may be unclear what we are to think about the characters in the parable, one thing that stands out is Jesus’ clear language in the last verse of the gospel reading. “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” While Mammon can be translated as wealth, more generally it is a personification of wealth. When money has become a god. The critique is not that we need money to pay for things. But rather the critique is when money becomes all powerful. Wealth as a god starts shaping a whole society, just as people would have experienced under the Roman occupation for example. The same story is true under any kind of colonial rule in which a group of people are no longer seen as fully human, but rather just another commodity to exploit.
While it may sound antiquated to think of Mammon as a god, it’s not too hard to find examples in our own time as well. Just think about the incarnations of Mammon today. Whether it’s billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, there is a cult of personality around people with vast amounts of wealth and power. We also know few of these people are ever self-made. For example we know Elon Musk inherited family wealth from emerald mines in apartheid South Africa, colonial exploitation he and his fans rarely mention. There are many other examples we could all think of as well.
So what is the good news in the midst of this cryptic gospel reading? Beyond Jesus warning us not to worship Mammon there is gospel here. One gospel message is freedom. To understand the good news of freedom, we need to compare other parts of the Biblical text to today’s reading for wider context. Rossing mentions that the Biblical idea of Jubilee can be found throughout the Gospel of Luke from which our reading comes. Jubilee as first mentioned in Hebrew Scriptures is the practice of forgiving debts every 50 years. Jubilee is freedom from the hold Mammon can have on people in a negative sense. Jubilee is about freeing people from debt, so that money and resources can be shared more equitably. It’s about hitting the reset button on debt, so that it doesn’t weigh down generation after generation. The idea is that God’s love is so great that it liberates not only in the afterlife, but in this life. That God’s goodness leads us to structure society in a way that frees us from everything holding us back from flourishing.
Freedom from debt mirrors Jesus freeing us from the weight of sin. We often talk about sin as a debt Jesus pays for us. A debt that is too great for us to repay. Likewise, Jubilee is about celebrating a removing of a weight that is too great. Too heavy for us to bear.
Imagine if we practiced something like Jubilee today that families would be liberated of debt so that children and grandchildren would not become responsible for family debt. No doubt it would be messy and complicated, but we just experienced a small version of this living through the pandemic. People and businesses were offered loans, much of which was forgiven. No doubt with greater knowledge of how the economy and financial markets work would be better equipped to come up with concrete responses.
As churches we may not be in decision-making positions to usher in something like Jubilee. However we are one of the few places that have these conversations. We can help dream dreams of organizing a society based upon God’s grace. Worshipping a God of love we can see beyond the rules of contracts that can lead people to financial ruin.
Jesus desires our liberation from Mammon. So that we can breathe. That our lives are not seized by fear of being unable to pay bills, to pay rent or a mortgage, of being afraid of inflation, of a world in which inequality grows. The gift of breath, of feeling release is powerful. The Holy Spirit is breath and sometimes we need to remind one another to breathe when things get challenging. This is in part why Millennials so often share simple messages like, “Take care of yourself. Get some rest. Drink some water.” Living in a time in which many people struggle with hope for the future these simple reminders say, “God loves you. You matter. You are worth saving. You can survive another day.” I am too old to be a Millennial. I am Gen-X in-between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Already Gen-Z are in their 20s and becoming leaders. We can learn from one another, share life lessons, and support one another no matter the language we use to express ourselves. That too is a gift of grace from God, building support networks of love.
As we celebrate Season of Creation, I think about a wonderful event folks at Church of the Cross are planning called Sustainable Clothing Show-and-Tell. It’s happening Sunday, October 2, 12 pm to 2 PM in the Upper Hall. More people are thinking about ways to reduce our carbon footprint. Reducing the amount of new clothing we buy can be a significant part of that shift. While not required to attend, organizers invite you to bring an item of clothing that is “a hand-me-down, thrift store find, hand-sewn or knit, mended, or just worn since forever.” I know I’m interested in hearing some of these stories about people’s favourite articles of clothing. Story can be powerful to talk about care of creation.
Thinking about things coming around again, I am amazed by how trends I grew up with are in style again. I see how many men are wearing moustaches, adopting styles from the 1980s. I saw a guy riding his bike wearing purple wind pants and a crop top, which I don’t think has been in fashion since Mick Jagger wore these on stage in the 80’s. Everything that is old is new again.
Wrapping up, while Jesus doesn’t resolve the paradox within his parable, he does gives us some clues about distribution of wealth, predatory lending, and steering us away from the god of Mammon. The gospel also reveals the good news of liberation. The promise of Jubilee to lift the weight of debt and anxiety. Just as Jesus frees each one of us with unconditional love. Amen.