09/18/22 – Paying off the Principle

PAYING OFF THE PRINCIPLE

September 18, 2022
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon: Luke 16:1-13
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

One of the more controversial political and economic issues in recent years has been student loan debt. Many students, and some parents, looked at years of loan payments, which had compounded interest rates that prevented them from ever paying off the loan because they could not afford to reach the point where they were paying off the principal. The compounding interest rates locked them into a situation like sharecroppers and laborers who, as the song said: “owed their souls to the company store.” It remains to be seen what will happen after the legislature passed a bill allowing for some student loan debts to be forgiven. Currently, there are groups against loan forgiveness that are vowing to bring legal action to stop it.

Without us seeing the government loan contract, our middle child took out a student loan for graduate school. She learned a few years into paying off the loan, the compounding interest rates would have kept her from ever saving enough money to buy a house or apartment or saving for retirement. She was lucky. After receiving an inheritance a few years ago, I was able to pay off her student loan. Do I begrudge other students or parents who might see some or all of their debts forgiven? Absolutely not. Having more people who are educated and trained to fill needed jobs in our society, who can also afford to buy homes and pay taxes, support themselves and provide for the next generation, is good for our communities.

Jesus told stories about those types of day-to-day problems that ordinary people dealt with and continue to deal with to this day. Issues of wealth and economic justice were high on Jesus’ list of concerns. For those of us who are fortunate enough to live beyond subsistence level, Jesus’ money talk can become a bit uncomfortable. We especially don’t like to talk about money in church, which is kind of strange in that Jesus talked about it quite a lot. At this point in Luke’s gospel, the audience has already heard many parables about money and our attitudes about wealth. Unlike the previous parables in Luke, however, this parable is particularly perplexing. There is a moral gray area that is difficult to interpret. For as far back as we have had biblical commentaries, the second century, biblical scholars have pulled their hair out trying to get a handle on the Parable of the Dishonest manager.

Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees when he told the parables we heard last week. The Pharisees heard about the shepherd who left 99 sheep to go find the one that was lost, the woman who lost one of her ten coins and searched diligently until she found it, and the father who welcomed home his prodigal Son. But now, Jesus is speaking to his disciples alone. If Jesus chooses this parable to address those who have accepted his call to be a disciple, then one assumes this parable probably has something to do with being a disciple. Here’s the cast of characters. You have a rich landowner who was expecting his financial manager to increase his wealth with profitable business practices. You have a financial manager, a middleman, who does the hands-on, day-to-day overseeing of the operation. And finally, you have the laborers who toil in the fields.

In those three parables immediately preceding, the protagonist is identified as God. Is the master in this parable God? If so, a God that condones dishonesty just doesn’t fit the rest of our scriptural revelation. Is this parable an allegory based on the common business practices of the day? If God is the great company owner, would he keep a manager who wasted his money? Would he praise a manager who brought in less profit than expected? That would certainly make no sense to Jesus’ audience.

The wealthy landowner who, as an absentee landlord, had allowed his laborers to pay rent which left them in dire financial straits. Then this master of the estate praises the duplicity of his steward, who appears to have taken a cut of the inflated cost of farming the land, without the landowner’s knowledge or consent. What biblical scholars admit in their commentaries on this unusual parable is there is no consensus as to how to interpret it. But there are some clues as to the message Jesus is trying to convey. If we don’t get bogged down in the details, there is some valuable theological food for thought.

All the wealth that is being used and passed around in this parable belongs to the Master, he owns the estate and all that is in it or comes from it. We are told the estate manager squandered or mismanaged the money his boss had given him to run the operation. We don’t know how much money the manager took or what he did with it, but we do know that it has been lost to both the master and the manager. However, the money was used, it isn’t doing anybody any good now and the laborers are still poor and struggling. A manager is a middle-management man who has gotten his pink slip and is faced with entering the job market without marketable skills. The manager understands that his future is now pretty bleak, and he hastens to protect himself from the dire consequences he envisions.

So, what does he do to raise some social capital fast? He goes to the folks further down the socioeconomic ladder than himself. He goes to the master’s sharecroppers. The guys that the master lets farm his land in exchange for a small share of their harvest — minimum wage earners. These sharecroppers owe quite a lot. Their credit is maxed out on their rent and the necessary inventory needed to produce enough. There is just a little left over for them to live on, so they are delighted to have their debt reduced. The manager is now their hero, even though he had contributed to their poverty in the first place. The Lord and Master of the land now have more of his money than he would have if the laborers were unable to pay. There has been some redistribution of wealth, to be sure, but oddly the owner seems perfectly happy with the arrangement the manager has made.

Jesus’ praise for the wily manager is a bit surprising. Jesus says of the manager: “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” The children of this age are the worldly folk, and the children of the light are those that repent from worldly sins and seek to follow God’s guidance. When I read this, I think back to the verse in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus commissions his disciples:16“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matt.10:16) It seems as if Jesus is allowing for some moral gray area in this perplexing parable.

The dishonest manager ended up doing more for God’s kingdom by lifting the laborers out of their debt-induced poverty than many of Jesus’ followers. How very odd!

You may remember other parables in Luke in which the phrase, “How much more” is used. In Luke’s gospel the man reluctantly gives his neighbor bread when he disturbs him at midnight, which ends with Jesus saying, “how much more will your Father give to those who ask him!” (Luke 11: 13) “God clothes the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, how much more will he take care of his children.” (12:27) If an estate manager with questionable financial skills and integrity can distribute his Master’s money, cancel debts and establish positive relationships with his fellow debtors, how much more can Jesus’ disciples, the children of the light” do if they work with the focus and passion of the manager when he was faced with his own misfortune?

Can money that comes from unethical or unjust financial practices be redeemed by its use for economic justice? What makes money honest or dishonest? We know about such practices as money laundering used by drug lords, Russian oligarchs, and crooked corporate executives. There is no good in that money because the ill-gotten money all goes back to the dishonest actor. What would justice and mercy look like in this situation? Is the money redeemed if it is seized and given to the people who suffered from the perpetrators’ means of getting the money? Should interest be attached?

Take the recent case of an extremely wealthy and famous former pro football player who asked the Mississippi governor to use state funds, earmarked for lifting poor people out of poverty in the poorest state of the Union, to build a volleyball stadium at the publicly funded university his daughter attended and played the sport. The unscrupulous deed had several bad actors – the pro football player, the governor, and the head of the government agency, who allowed the money to be spent for reasons other than its intended purpose. What would justice look like here that would right this wrong? If the poor are not part of the equation, punishment for the perpetrators of injustice, though deserved, would not bring justice. Justice would include the victims receiving the money intended for them. Should they receive interest payments as reparation?

In Jesus’ parable, the laborers did receive benefits. We see the situation the laborers faced originally in this parable in the current high prices of goods. Though the Covid pandemic may have made companies pay more for shipping and materials, the costs were not just passed on to the consumer to keep up their current profit margins. Some companies made and continue to make unprecedented profit margins from the sale of such necessary goods as oil, gas, cars, and food at higher prices.

On the other hand, what about people who donate the money they should pay as their taxes like ordinary folk, but instead donate large amounts of money from their abundant wealth to charity? The money goes to good causes, but like the manager, they get a tax break and, in many cases, public praise which, in turn, gives them prestige and, perhaps, more business. Tax money goes to provide our society’s infrastructure that we all use. It goes for public education for all. The list is endless. Does Jesus’ parable address the justice of this scenario? Not easily. Not in black and white terms for every case. But when Jesus says: the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” it seems he is telling us we should be as smart, imaginative, and motivated to use the money for God’s kingdom as we are for using the money for the benefit of only ourselves and for making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

Jesus sums up the rationale for telling this parable in his final remarks to his disciples. If we want to be his disciples, Jesus says, we must love God more than we love our own wealth. How do we do so? That’s one of Christ’s greatest challenges. It isn’t a black-and-white, easy answer. There will be no obvious answer every time we make a decision about our use of money. But it does bear thinking about; being honest with ourselves about our motivations, praying to God, and looking to the scriptures to guide us. Jesus told a puzzling parable, but he has warned us – he spoke in parables to make us think in new, transformative ways.

 

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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