Sermon for Sunday, September 18, 2022 || Proper 20C || Jeremiah 8:18–9:1; Luke 16:1-13
That was a weird story I just read, wasn’t it? A really weird story. I’m not going to pretend I really get it. Some of the stuff Jesus says, I’m like, “Yep. Right there with you Jesus. Love my neighbor as myself. Got it.” But not this story. The parable of the dishonest manager is just a really confusing parable. And it’s perfectly okay for us to be confused by a passage in the Bible. If we understood everything the Bible said on our first read through, it would not hold the depths of truth that it does hold. So, it’s okay if I finished reading that parable and you were sitting there scratching your heads. I don’t really get it either.
So instead of trying to unpack this confusing parable, I want to key in on one detail of it that jumped out at me this week. Let me read you a bit of the story again: “One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’”
What is the manager doing here? Bible scholars are mixed in their thoughts, but the interpretation that makes the most sense to me is this: The manager is cutting out the interest from the loans of these debtors. The second debtor owes a thousand bushels of wheat, but 20% of that was interest, making the original loan 800. The first debtor owes 900 gallons of oil, but half of that was interest. The original loan would have been 450 gallons and the interest had accumulated and accumulated until the current debt was twice what it started at. You can imagine that was a pretty high interest rate – so high it’s probable that the debtor was never going to be able to pay off the loan and lived every single day weighed down by the exorbitant debt.
Such a creditor/debtor arrangement was actually prohibited in Israel. It was against the law of Moses. You could not lend at interest. In one of the sections of God’s law as interpreted through Moses, God says, “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:25-27)
That’s one of multiple examples throughout the early books of the Bible that prohibits charging interest. Not only that, but the ancient Israelites practiced the jubilee, which was a periodic festival that included the forgiveness of debts. They recognized that one of the ways to destabilize a society was to create an underclass of debtors that would increase the gap between the haves and the have-nots. And unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. The people of Israel did not take God’s command seriously not to take advantage of the poor. They did charge interest. They did cheat those in poverty. They did create a massive wealth gap. And what happened? Their society destabilized to the point where foreigh powers were able to conquer them.
Just listen to the words of today’s reading from the Prophet Jeremiah, who was writing as those foreign powers were closing in:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”…
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Jeremiah recognized the downfall of a society that ignored the poverty in its midst. Yes, the Kingdom of Judah was going to be conquered by Babylon, but it had already fallen to its own greedy wealth gap.
In the parable, the dishonest manager slashes the interest out of the accounts of the rich man he served. But he doesn’t do this in order to fulfill the law. According to the story he zeroes the interest to curry favor with the debtors, who might then let him into their own homes once he is dismissed. But it’s also possible he does this so the rich man he works for won’t be exposed as a predatory lender. Remember, the law said that if your neighbor pawns you their coat, you have to give it back that night lest they catch cold. That’s the kind of society God’s instruction envisioned: a society in which no one was taken advantage of. It just didn’t turn out that way.
And that’s why Jesus ends this confusing story of the dishonest manager with one of his least confusing sayings: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Throughout Christian history, wealth here has actually been personified as a false god called Mammon. This false god leads people to value money over relationships and tricks societies into thinking poverty is a personal moral failing instead of a systemic one. But when we serve God, we serve the foundation of all good relationships. We serve the God of love who seeks the thriving of all creation. We serve the God of compassion, who listens to the cries of our cloakless neighbors.
That service happened in a beautiful way during a terrible situation this past week on Martha’s Vineyard. When two planeloads of migrants were dumped without warning on the island, the members of St. Andrews Episcopal Church and other churches took the migrants in and provided for them at the drop of hat.
We live in a society much like ancient Israel at the height of its power, but whose foundation was crumbling under unjust financial practices. Since the middle of the last century, our society has been built on debt, which is an unstable foundation. The wealth gap is wider than it has ever been. But here’s the thing: We live in this society, but we don’t have to serve it. We serve God, not wealth.
We serve the God of loving relationships, the God of compassion, the God who can’t bear to see anyone go to sleep shivering. We practice this service through reeducating ourselves away from the societal lie that poverty happens solely due to individual moral failing. We practice this service by not burdening ourselves with debt or encouraging others to take it on. We practice this service through our own generosity. For we serve a generous God, a God who was so unselfish as to give us God’s own beloved child to show us the way to Life.
Photo by Polina Rytova on Unsplash.