Fence the Merchandise

By Steve Schlossberg

That’s a hard gospel this morning. It’s a hard parable followed by a hard teaching: the hard teaching that we must choose between God and our money, which is hard. But compared to the parable, the hard teaching is easy. The hard teaching is at least understandable. It’s at least familiar to us; it at least sounds like the Jesus we know, who’s always telling us we must choose between God and the things of the world.

The parable, on the other hand, sounds like it was written by Niccolò Machiavelli. Instead of setting before us the example of an honest man who saves himself by giving away his money, it sets before us the example of a dishonest man who’s caught embezzling and saves himself by cooking the books.

That’s what happens in the parable. There’s an accountant who’s been skimming his employer’s money, and he’s about to get fired, so he goes to the people who owe his employer money, and he rewrites the accounts to reduce their debts, as a favor to them, because he wants those people to owe him a favor, so that when he loses his job, those people will feel some obligation to take care of him.

He gets into trouble by misappropriating his master’s money. He gets out of trouble by misappropriating more of his master’s money. Be like him, Jesus says. Use your ill-gotten gains to buy yourselves some friends who, when your money runs out, will welcome you into heaven. Use your dirty money, he says, to buy yourself some friends in high places, who can get you out of trouble.

Now he sounds like Carlos Gambino. And that’s hard in a peculiar way. We are used to hearing Jesus speak ethically. He preaches a lot of sermons and tells a lot of parables about the practice of honesty and chastity and charity and justice and prudence, and all the other moral virtues. He also preaches a lot of sermons and tells a lot of parables about how we’re not supposed to think like the world thinks. We’re supposed to think differently than the world thinks. And then in this morning’s gospel, he says, How I wish my disciples would learn to think more like the world thinks. I wish the children of God would learn to be as shrewd as the sons of the Devil.

What is he saying? The first thing to remember is that the point of a parable isn’t to confirm what we already know. The point of a parable is to get us to think about something we already know differently. This is a parable about money. The point of the parable is to get his hearers to think about money differently, by getting them to think about who their master is.

Their master is their money. That’s why, when the parable is over, he tells them that they must choose between God and their money. It’s not that God and money are mutually exclusive, or that there’s something intrinsically dirty about money, and you can’t touch money without contracting the plague.

If money itself was a plague, then Jesus wouldn’t tell us to give it to the poor.

Money itself is not only not bad. Money can be good; money can be useful; money can provide; it can bless. Money can be a good and faithful servant. But money is a ruthless and tyrannical master, which dominates its subjects; and turns its subjects into slaves — shrewdly, manipulatively. It warmly, winsomely, harmlessly invites us to trust it, and no sooner does it win our trust than it floods our hearts with anxieties, and it begins to control our thoughts, it begins to drive our decisions, and it begins to drive a wedge between us and God.

And as soon as the wedge is driven, it consumes us. It consumes its poor subjects the way heroin consumes an addict. How does an addict feel about heroin? He can never get enough. Enough, for an addict, would be just a little bit more, and for an addict, a little bit more is never enough. For an addict, no amount is ever quite enough.

That’s how people who are mastered by money think about money. Just a little bit more would be enough, and a little bit more is never enough; but just a little bit is enough to consume us. The only difference between money and drugs or alcohol or pornography or any of the other so-called dirty vices, is that money is the master that never shames its subjects. It never publicly embarrasses us, and there is no social stigma in being its slave. There’s social status in being its slave. The only social stigma when it comes to money is not having as much as other people do.

If there’s anything insidious about money, it’s that. It never lets us know, the way other ruthless masters let us know, that it’s come to displace God in our lives. Money is perfectly content to share us with God; money seems to help us trust God. It’s a lot easier to trust in God when we have money in the bank, isn’t it? Because of course when we have money in the bank, we don’t really have to trust God that much. That’s the wedge—and that’s what Jesus is trying to remove.

The funny part is that he’s telling the parable to the 12 disciples, who had next to no money. They had just barely enough money to need a treasurer, who if you remember was Judas Iscariot. They had just enough money in the treasury to feed themselves from day to day and keep themselves in sandals. They had just enough money to worry about; they had just enough money to consume them. They are mastered by their money, and they don’t realize it. They’re in trouble, and Jesus wants them to realize that.

The dishonest man in the parable is in trouble, and he realizes it, and he does something about it. For all the dishonest steward’s dishonesty, he’s at least honest with himself, like a heroin addict who finally recognizes that he’s destroying himself and finally decides to do something about it. That’s the shrewdness or the prudence or the common sense of the world, which Jesus commends to his disciples. The common sense of a common thief, who when he sees he’s about to get caught does something about it. He gets rid of the merchandise.

That kind of common sense is surprisingly uncommon. The world is full of people who are in serious trouble and don’t do anything about it because they don’t realize it, or they prefer to deny it, and many of those people are Christians. Everything that competes with God for our trust tries to assure us that we are not facing a crisis of decision. Everything that gets us into trouble tries to assure us that there’s nothing wrong with us that can’t be fixed with a little more money, or a little more shrewdness, or a little more caution, or a little more time.

To the degree that we are trusting in our own strength or our own brains or our health or our careers or our social stature or our money — if we’re banking on anything but the faithfulness of God — that’s stupid. We’re supposed to be smarter than that. We’re supposed to be shrewder than that. When it comes to money, we’re supposed to be as shrewd as the dishonest steward.

Be like him: use somebody else’s money to save yourself. Whose money? Our master’s money. Our money is not our money. Our money belongs to God. He is our master; and he has entrusted his money to our management. And when I take his money and treat it as if it’s my own, I’m embezzling. The judgment for that in the parable is that I’m going to get fired. I’m going to lose my place in my master’s household, and I’m going to lose my money. I’m like a common thief who’s about to get caught, so I need to do something about it.

What am I supposed to do about it? Well, if I’m shrewd, I take more of my master’s money, and I use it to buy myself some friends in high places. I buy myself some friends who will welcome me into heaven.

That’s code language in Luke’s gospel, and what it means is that I give my master’s money to the poor. In the gospel according to Luke, the poor are the friends who will welcome us into heaven.

It’s not that the poor, as such, are any holier than the rich, as such. There are just as many poor people in the world who are consumed by money as rich people — like, for instance, the 12 disciples. It’s just that, in the Old Testament and the New, those who are in need enjoy the special favor of the Lord. And in the Old Testament and the New, when we favor them, we are honoring the Lord.

There’s the ethic that’s enfolded in the unethical teaching. Share your money with the poor. Because it’s not your money, Jesus says. It’s my money. I’ve entrusted it to your care so that you can take care of the people I have entrusted to your care.

It’s a parable. It doesn’t say everything there is to say about this. It just says one thing there is to say about this. Just giving money to someone is sometimes like giving them the plague. There are not only some problems that money can’t fix; there are some problems that money makes worse, like addiction to drugs or addiction to money.

But the upshot of the parable this morning is that when we give our money away to the poor, we are fixing one of our problems. We are buying our way out of trouble. Not because it’s a good work and good works buy us into heaven, but because learning to part ourselves from our money liberates us from slavery, and puts our money back in its place, as a good and faithful servant.

And it helps us remember that it’s not our money. It belongs to the Master we’ve been cheating. Our true Master, who is rich, and generous and honest, and just and chaste and forgiving. He practices what he preaches, so I suppose he’s even prudent. But there’s at least two things that God doles out inexcusably recklessly, and even wastefully: love and money.

Jesus says, Be like him.

The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.


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