Posted by: dacalu | 3 August 2010

God and Mammon

I’ve been thinking today about the parable of the dishonest manager. It’s always troubled me a bit, but I wanted to share one interpretation. Because it is so challenging, I thought I would print the whole parable here (Luke 16:1-13):

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

‘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? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

I, like most of you, have been trained to have a very high view of property. It makes this an uncomfortable passage. Why would the master praise the dishonest manager? Isn’t this stealing?

As time passes, I come more and more to believe that this passage should be taken at face value. The manager is shrewd because he has valued his relationship with people over his economic obligations. He uses the wealth of his master in order to secure his relationships with people (noting that his relationship with his master is already broken). In light of the few passages that come immediately after the parable, this really seems to be the best conclusion. People are more important than property. Love is more important than ownership. And yes, Jesus actually seems to be saying we should be more concerned with charity than with stealing.

I would encourage you to look at the world through this lens for at least a day. What would you do if you had no regard for property? What would be the appropriate action? Would you allow a beggar to sit on the street outside a restaurant or a bakery? Would you allow a sick person to lie in the street? How would you feel about homeless people curled up on vents in front of apartment buildings? If all you had to do was reach out and take…

There are, of course, many bad consequences from this sort of anarchy. (At least we imagine there are.) We don’t want people taking from us. We want stability. I appreciate that. The Torah says “Do not steal,” and Jesus tells us that he has come with an even more difficult law. So I generally say this of Christians: We should be great respecters of other people’s property, and not so much of our own. We should spend the money in the bakery to feed the person outside. We should tend the sick person in the street. We should take in the homeless.

Still, I think Jesus’ message is a little stronger than that. There are rules of this world that we live in, and in the United States, we spend a great deal of our energy on rules of property. There are rules in the Kingdom of Heaven. I suspect they will be much more oriented toward people. I will take the biblical literalists far more seriously when they start taking these passages literally.

“Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Mt 5:42

“‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” Mk 12:17

“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Lk 14:33

And I will start taking myself more seriously when I do these things.

But my point is not, in the end, that we should ignore property – our own or others. (Use your talents wisely.) It is that property is of this world. There is no ownership in the Kingdom of God. Let us keep property for the sake of the people it serves, but never for it’s own sake. And let us never conflate personal offenses with property offenses. The one is immoral, the other inconvenient. There is a world of difference – and a difference of worlds.

And I hope you (and I) can start this day to take people more seriously and property less, for no one can serve two masters.

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