Saturday, September 17, 2016

Managers of Injustice

A week ago I was returning from St. Stephen’s, Crownsville and decided to pick up a pizza on the way home to watch the Ravens’ opening game with the Buffalo Bills. I phoned in my order to Ellicott City, and on the way through town stopped to pick it up. The man behind the counter said, “You are Kirk?” Yes, I said. “Kirk Douglas! Do you know Kirk Douglas?” Yes, the actor, I have seen a number of his films.” He went to get my pizza saying, “Michael Douglas! He is a good actor too, yes!” Yes, I said. As he was bringing my pizza back he said with a smile on his face, “Greed is good! Right? Gordon Gekko, Wall Street! Great film!” That’s right. Greed is good. It’s the American Way, and off I went with my pizza.

The parable, and accompanying sayings, in Luke (16:1-13) is often called The Parable of the Dishonest Manager, or the Shrewd Manager, or the Rogue Manager. This has been a puzzling story for interpreters almost from the day Jesus spoke it. The sayings at the end seem to be attempts to make sense of it. Jesus often features disreputable characters in these tales, but this one takes the cake – and still, after seemingly ripping off his master is praised by the master for his “shrewdness” in handling the people of “this generation.”

A clue comes in the first saying in verses 10 and 11 in the words “dishonest wealth.” Then it all concludes with the immortal words: You cannot serve God and Wealth – or as the Greek text has it, the personification of wealth, Mammon.

Sharon Ringe in her commentary, Luke [Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox: 1995] suggests that instead of the Master calling him the “dishonest manager,” the Greek text reads “manager of injustice.” And when the master commends making friends with “dishonest wealth” the text ought to read “wealth of injustice.” Let’s go with this. [p.213-14]

What is being talked about is managing tenant farmers and sharecroppers. The master is an absentee land owner. The manager collects what is the master’s due from the tenants and sharecroppers, which is usually an onerous percent of the harvest. The manager does not receive a salary. Rather, he adds on a commission to be paid by the farmers and sharecroppers and passes on to the master what he is his by arrangement with the tenants. The owner has heard “charges,” rumors, that the manager is squandering his property so serves him notice and orders the him to settle all accounts. The manager cannot see himself digging ditches or begging, so he calls farmers in one at a time and reduces their accounts figuring that by doing this they might invite him in for a meal now and again. The tenants are happy, and so it seems is the master! This is surprising, but the “manager of injustice” has managed what was typically an unjust arrangement in the first place masterfully (no pun intended)!

“Make friends for yourself with wealth of injustice,” says the master, “so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” And just like that the story is about being welcome in the household of God’s eternal Love! Furthermore, “If you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches? ...You cannot serve God and Mammon/Wealth!” A saying so important that it also appears in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Manager of Injustice in all likelihood deducted his own commission from the accounts. That is, he sacrificed what was in fact his due, his only source of income, on behalf of the tenants who were already being taxed to the max. He not only makes an attempt to make life more just for them, but does so by sacrificing his own money. His commendation begins to make more sense in the context of first century tenant farming.

The story then becomes, however, one in a nearly endless series of such tales, actions and sayings by Jesus about what it means to follow him in God’s Way as opposed to the ways of “this present generation,” which are forever portrayed as unjust for most people at the hands of a few who own all the land rights.

In Friday’s Baltimore Sun was a commentary piece [Deplorable, American and redeemable-Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editorial Page Editor, 9/16] that featured the results of a Pew Research Center survey of 16 countries including the U.S. Although 65% of Americans surveyed said they saw us as tolerant, many of the outsiders, Canada, 4 Asia Pacific and 10 European countries, did not agree. We also saw ourselves as optimistic and hardworking, as did the other countries, but they also viewed us as “arrogant, and a good many see us as greedy and violent to boot.”  There is our “friend” Gordon Gekko once again.

Despite many of us being raised not to talk to others about religion, politics or money, Jesus, it seems, did not get the memo. Those are the things he talks about most, with his views on money outweighing everything else he talks about including the Kingdom of God. In fact, and most especially in Luke’s gospel, he appears to say over and over that our participation in God’s Kingdom is directly related to how we handle our money and resolve issues around “wealth of injustice.”

So the story means to ask us: are we willing to cooperate with the kinds of economic inequities of the present age? Or, like the manager of injustice, are we willing to make the kinds of decisions with our individual and corporate wealth that reflect our participation in the “new economy” of God’s Kingdom which Jesus proclaims and commends?

Taken together, this story and the sayings at the end appear to presuppose that the wealth we handle, great or small, is not our own but is wealth God wishes all the world to share. Being good stewards it seems entails becoming managers of injustice in the cause of economic justice for all people. There are people taking this seriously: JK Rowling just fell off the world list of billionaires because she has given away so much of her money. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are busy doing the same while urging others to follow their lead.

Will it be Gordon Gekko’s, “Greed is good!”? Or, do we take the Good News of God in Christ’s declaration that we cannot serve both God and Wealth seriously? Will we too become managers of injustice?

How we answer these questions makes all the difference in the world – the world for which Jesus was born, crucified and raised from the dead. “Make friends for yourself with wealth of injustice,” says the master, “so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Amen. 

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