Gospel: Luke 16, 1-13
1st Reading: Amos 8:4-7
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
A friend once told me, when I said we're only having one child, “There are just some things that siblings can only tell each other.” That doesn't really convince me, since there have been many only children that have been a-ok. Any family configuration has it's own positives and negatives. I've seen my nephews learning from each other how to work things out. Sometimes it is by wrestling. Sometimes it is by wits. My child is missing out on that daily experience. I had this thought from the beginning that I would let my son work out his differences with other kids, and not step in every time to help him or to make him behave. However, I soon realized that doesn't work in a lot of cases because my son is usually in a position of power. He is male. He is white. He is big for his age. He communicates pretty well. So in many situations the other kids defer to him. He has the power. I get to help him become aware of his power and use his power well. I tell him, “You're bigger than he is,” or “Watch out for the babies!” The other day he came home and said, “Mom, there's a baby at preschool who doesn't cover her mouth when she coughs.” He was disgusted. I had to tell him, “You didn't always know how to do that. Have patience with her. Maybe you could help teach the baby how to cover her mouth.” He was delighted to think that he could help.
Today's Gospel reading is about a lot of things, but today today I want to focus on power. This is one of the most difficult parables that Jesus told, and Luke doesn't really explain very well what Jesus meant. So then after the parable it looks like several authors tacked on a bunch of other sayings or explanations, including “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Another difficulty comes with translation. The word for wealth here is “dishonest wealth.” “You can't serve God and dishonest wealth.”
Then there is the contradiction that the master commended the dishonest manager and later when the Gospel reads “whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”
Some have said that the manager was caught between the land owner and the debtors, with the landowner always wondering if the manager was doing a good job and the debtors always resentful that the manager was squeezing every last penny out of them. So when the manager lost his job, he had to think of something to help himself. He slashed the debt, so he would at least have some friends among the debtors. The debtors all threw him a party. So when the landowner showed up, everyone was thanking the landowner for his generosity, as well and suddenly everyone loved the rich landowner, too. So rather than get mad or heap the debt back on, the landowner just thanked the steward. He was so rich that he wouldn't even miss that money the manager slashed. Maybe the rich man learned that friendship and relationships are more important than money and eeking out every little drop he could get from those debtors.
The reading becomes slightly more clear when placed in context, surprise, surprise! If you don't understand something from the Bible, it can often be helpful to read what comes before it and what comes after it. Just before this reading is the story of another person who squandered or wasted his property, and that is the prodigal son. In the story of the Prodigal Son, though, the father is waiting with open arms for his son to return home and forgives him and throws him a party.
In this parable, today, the rich man is waiting in judgment over his steward. He doesn't even let him defend himself. He's already made up his mind that his steward is guilty.
Jesus is telling both of these stories in the midst of the Disciples and Scribes and Pharisees and the tax collectors and sinners. He tells them to the Disciples. They are close to Jesus. They have power because of that, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes they are able to heal people or cast out demons. Sometimes they just want to make sure their special relationship, their power in relationship to Jesus gets them a front row seat in the heavenly kingdom. Jesus is giving them two examples of how power can be used.
He's telling the Pharisees and Scribes who also have power and need to use it well. He's telling it to the tax collectors because they are often like the steward or manager, stuck in the middle. He's encouraging them to be creative in their response and he's telling them that relationships are more important than money. And he's talking to the sinners, because they are the debtors and their debt is getting slashed. God cares about them. God treasures them and finds value in them, as we learned last week. God is forgiving.
We are powerful. On the one hand we can use our power to forgive and welcome and celebrate. On the other hand we can use our power to judge and condemn. Some of that power is financial. Many of us have enough money to be pretty comfortable. Some of it is our skin color. Most of us can drive down the street without getting stopped by the police. We can get approval for our loan applications. We can get an Uber driver or an Air BNB. We don't realize the roadblocks that people with darker skin experience. Sometimes it's our gender. Sometimes it is our profession. Sometimes it's our height or language. We are powerful. We are privileged.
Now God is asking us—how will we use our power? How we use our power might partly depend on how we see God. Some see God as a stern judge. Others see God as a forgiving parent. Will we use our power to welcome and share that power, to look foolish and undignified, throwing a party and sharing our wealth and power, giving people second chances, not hiding our enthusiasm to be in relationship with them? Or will we use our power like this rich man, judging people, just trying to earn more money for himself, firing people and making their lives miserable, taking advantage of his debtors, the poor who are working the land?
Of course we do both. These days we can trample on the needy and never know it. We don't know the working conditions of the people who make our clothes. We try to buy things made in America, however many of us don't realize that most manufacturing in the US is prison labor, in effect, slave labor, for people who don't make but a pittance for that work. We don't know where much our food comes from, what forests were cut down to grow it, who harvests it, or what the crop or fertilizer or pesticides do to the soil or the economy. One woman who shops for Backpack Buddies was saying that she started shopping at Walmart, because the lower prices meant she could serve 30% more kids. However, those kids might as well be the same kids who are receive the Backpack Buddies food each weekend, children of people who work at places like Walmart and can't make a living wage.
We can pollute the earth and never know our personal part in it. We can drive past a person who is in desperate need and never see our own responsibility. We are blind to our own part, our own sin.
On the other hand we are faithful. We volunteer. We are generous. We are kind. We forgive. We welcome.
Now sometimes we are not in such a position of power. I have seen people treat seniors like little children. I have heard doctors talk about their patients as if they are not there in the room. We get ill. We lose our job. We have to give up most of our possessions and go into assisted living. Our driver's license gets revoked. We feel powerless to help our grown child who suffers from domestic violence, or alcoholism, or mental illness. There are plenty of times we are in the chair of the steward, losing our power or in the shoes of the debtors, powerless to do anything to help ourselves.
This story urges us to be creative. The manager could have told his boss to “Take this job and shove it!” He could have told him all the things that were wrong with him and his business. But he didn't burn that bridge. He asked himself what he would need going forward. He would need friends. What would be a way to make friends and make his boss look good? Cancel some debts. What power did he have and how could he use it to help himself and others?
We don't know what ultimately happens to this steward, just as we don't ultimately know what happens to the prodigal son. But they are both practical, eventually, and they both get commended. For them, the money was no longer there, the power was no longer there. That is true for all of us. No matter how powerful we are, we all face powerlessness. However, there are some kinds of power that last longer than others. Money is pretty short-lived and not very flexible. There are certain things you can't buy, such as true friendship. However, there are other kinds of power, such as the power of creativity that can help change a powerless situation into one of strength, and the power of relationships that can get us through hard times. The most powerful forces are not money or possessions. They are the power of love, the power of compassion, the power of relationship.
My son doesn't know anything about money yet. But I'm trying to teach him about power. Some of that is through my own example, how I treat him and try to involve him in decisions, and let him have a say. Some of that is helping him to understand how much power he has, how big he is, how loud he is, how expressive he is. Some of that is helping him to understand where the other person is coming from, that they have feelings just as strong as his. And some is helping him to understand the options and consequences of each action.
We were at Westmoreland park on Monday with some friends. Sterling was standing in the midst of someone's project with water and sand. The kids were older, taller, expressive, powerful. I let the situation play out. I didn't try to rescue him. I let him face the consequences. Thankfully the kids had been taught compassion. One tried yelling at him, which didn't phase him a bit. The oldest talked calmly and patiently, repeatedly explaining that he was standing on their dam and would he please move. After the 5th or 6th time he heard, he got it, and calmly moved away. If I had intervened, I probably would have embarrassed him and he wouldn't have been able to learn a thing. Instead he figured some things out for himself, practiced listening, responded in a way that showed he cared about what someone else cared about. That's what God wants for us, to guide us into life-giving relationships of compassion.