Loyalties

Luke 16 1-13

The parable of the dishonest manager is perhaps one of Jesus’ most confusing teachings.

A steward, the manager of an entire estate, becomes suspected by his employer of defrauding him. The steward, anticipating the likelihood of dismissal, prepares for the prospect of a grim future in which he will not only become unemployed but because of reputational damage, like as not be unemployable. So, he sets about renegotiating contracts with his employer’s debtors; reducing the amounts owed in one case by 30% and in another as much as 50%. What attracts our curiosity is that these are huge margins for debt relief; perhaps an indication of interest charges that would excite any modern payday lender.

The puzzling aspect of this parable is why his employer commends the steward for his foresighted shrewdness? Can it be that he’s so impressed by the steward’s entrepreneurial enterprise that he doesn’t notice or care that the steward’s actions have reduced his own profit margins?

Jesus then commends the steward’s actions, telling is disciples to do likewise. Further puzzlement. Can Jesus really be advocating sharp practice as acceptable behavior for discipleship?

Having appeared to commend sharp practice: make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth – Jesus then extols the virtues of faithfulness and trustworthiness – culminating in the famous statement: you cannot serve God and wealth –(at the same time).

This is a parable of the dishonest steward is difficult for us to fathom partly because the elegance of the NRSV translation. For instance take: the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their generation than the children of light – elegantly distances us from its core meaning. Eugene Peterson in his translation in The Message gets more to the heart of the matter: Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.

Jesus is therefore telling his disciples: I want you to be smart in the same way – [but be] smart for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.

Peterson’s colloquial directness cuts through the elegance of the NRSV to disturb us even more. Where the NRSV’s elegant translates Jesus words as: you cannot serve God and wealth – in Peterson’s translation becomes: You can’t serve both God and the Bank.

Jesus’ address the complexities of conflicting loyalties. Yet for a community like St Martin’s, his identifying the conflict as between God and the Bank or wealth, is somewhat disturbing in more ways than one. Is Jesus really saying that you cannot be Christian and also have a very healthy bank balance at the same time? With an eye to an eventual capital campaign at St Martin’s, I’ve a very strong investment is hoping this is not what Jesus is saying!

The key to interpreting parables, I think, is to allow them to be as complex as they actually are, and then wait to see what they cause us to wonder about.  This one makes me wonder about how it is that we actually live together.

Richard Swanson

The parable of the dishonest steward reminds us that Jesus was not naïve in his understanding of how the world works. Using Swanson’s idea of parables making us wonder about how it is that we actually live together, we see emerging from this particular parable a realization that avoiding potential and managing real conflicts of interest are central to the way we actually live together. Navigation among conflicting interests is an essential life skill.

None of us lives in a world where we have only one loyalty. We are all torn between competing and conflicting loyalties. As a pastor, I have a loyalty to the members of my community. This loyalty frequently threatens to conflict with my loyalty to God. If I speak the truth – no matter how lovingly I do it, oftentimes someone is going to feel hurt, or judged, or rejected. Do I maintain someone within the community at the cost of turning a blind eye to inappropriate behavior?

Jesus is asking us to let one primary interest, one key relational loyalty, in our case our primary loyalty to God guide our navigation through the other conflicting sets of demands placed upon us.

We are all faced with similar conflicts of interest all the time. Jesus is asking us to let one primary interest, one key relational loyalty, in our case our primary loyalty to God guide our navigation through the other conflicting sets of demands placed upon us.

As a pastor and congregational leader, I strive to be tolerant, understanding, and non-judgmental. I accept a certain level of flack without retaliating. But I also know that sometimes the tensions just can’t be fudged, and I may have to speak my truth as I understand it emerging from within my primary relationship to God. By doing so someone may be lost, which is always a huge personal loss to me.

Being streetwise, on constant alert, looking for the angles that will stimulate us to seek creative solutions always in the interests of what is right – is preferable to being naïve and living life as an exercise of only painting by numbers – only coloring within the lines. Jesus recognized this as simply the reality that confronts us all as we negotiate our way together within complex social and economic systems over which none of us as much control.

In identifying a conflict of interest – am I loyal to God or to my bank balance, the question is not – can we serve God and also be wealthy at the same time? The better question is – how does this parable shine light on how it is we actually do live together in our present-day society?  

Sunday’s O.T. companion reading to Luke 16:1-13 is Amos 8:4-7. Jesus is in one sense the last of the Hebrew prophets. When taken together the gist of both Luke 16 and Amos 8 might be translated into contemporary terms as: the prime duty of a corporation is not to make a profit for its investors but to be an engine for social utility. By extension, investment in the market for financial return needs to be balanced with investment as a support for social good. Investment, you see, cuts both ways. When businesses are engines for the strengthening of social good, their investors benefit in more ways than simply a return on the bottom line. History is testament to the fact that mutual flourishing is a prerequisite for social stability. Unstable markets are an investor’s nightmare.

The young people this weekend rallying with raised voices in the Climate Strike events all over the world; the striking GM workers, objecting to the company’s two tier employment and benefits policies, both remind us that stability results when our flourishing is fundamentally dependent on our neighbor also flourishing.

Amos is clear that greed is seductive, and we are all seduced at least some of the time by it. When we believe that our privilege or our wealth is the result of our own hard-won gains, rather than a combination of luck and hard work, we are being seduced by greed.

When we willfully ignore the way the arrangements in human societies reflect an unlevel playing field not accessible to all, we are guilty of self-serving greed. Because, some of us enjoy an unearned leg up from the start because of our race, our gender, or the fact that we are part of a family system in which wealth has been accumulated and passed on – so that elite education flows into good jobs and fine houses and the spare financial capacity to enhance wealth through prudent investments.  All of these factors help those beneficiaries move more successfully through the complexities of the world. From those to whom much is given, a special responsibility is also required.

In this last week’s E-News I laid out the case for Christian Capitalism, a capitalism guided by Biblical principles of social and economic justice. The conflict between God and the Bank as Peterson interprets Jesus’ words is the conflict the ensues when the forces of the free market are decoupled from the consistent Biblical voice on social and economic justice. From Moses, through prophets like Amos, to Jesus – we hear God’s requirement that we build fair societies. Courtesy of our Senior Warden I was furnished with a wonderful quote from Andrew Carnegie:

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To set an example of the modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community – the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.

The Gospel of Wealth 1889

Jesus is warning us that when greed – in all its subtleties makes us oblivious to the reality that what we enjoy is not solely the fruit of our own hard work but is entrusted to us in service of the greater good, we fall into the trap of truly conflicted loyalties.

The final collect at Compline reads:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live
in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day,
who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never
forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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