Sunday, September 22, 2013

In God We Trust?

This morning we are given Jesus’ teaching on the parable of the unjust manager, with its stern conclusion:  “You cannot serve God and wealth.” It is worth noting that the word “wealth,” literally “mammon,” is the Greek transliteration of a Semitic word that can be rendered as “that in which one fully trusts.”  Jesus seems to be saying that you can’t serve God if wealth is the real object of your trust.   “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[1]  If we set our hearts on wealth, than we miss the true riches that flow from trust in God.

The words “In God we trust” began appearing on U.S. coins in 1864, and the phrase became the official motto of the United States through a Congressional joint resolution signed by President Eisenhower in 1956.  It is a little ironic that a society so focused on the accumulation of wealth should feel the need to adopt a religious veneer on its coinage.  Imagine the uproar if it were suggested that we adopt “You cannot serve God and wealth” as the national motto. Jesus wouldn’t fare much better in national politics today than he did in first century Palestine.

Whatever we may say with our lips, what we really trust is revealed in our lives.  Actions speak louder than words, and it is here that we discover the idolatry of wealth, the way in which it can come to replace God as the object of our trust and loyalty.  Jesus illustrates this point with his telling of the parable of the unjust manager. 

To grasp the meaning of the parable, we must understand how wealth operated in Roman society.   In the ancient world, wealth was almost entirely constituted by land turned by labor into food.  Wealth was controlled by a tiny class of rich landowners, who alone had the means to move crops to market across long distances and store them in granaries to sell for maximum profit during periods of food scarcity.[2]

This tiny class, along with its agents and managers, constituted what economic historians refer to as the “fortunate decile”:  the 10% of the population that included a small middle class up to the phenomenally rich, whose wealth was on a scale that would not be seen again until the 19th Century.  The remaining 90% of the population consisted largely of the labor force that brought in the annual harvest.  They led miserable lives at a bare subsistence level of existence.  After paying taxes and rent they might be able to keep a little less than one-third of the harvest they reaped.  That was just enough to survive in a good year.[3]

Of course, not every year was a good year.  Harvest shocks, unforeseen shortfalls in crop yields, were the norm.  Yields could vary by more than 50% from year to year.  Thus, “the primary cause of social stratification was the crushing imbalance in exposure to the risk of harvest shocks between the rich (who were cushioned against such shocks) and poor farmers, whose sole resources lay dangerously exposed to the weather.  It was these harvest shocks that all too often tipped the balance toward misery, debt, and dependence in a rural population that had to produce enough to raise the money needed to pay their rents and taxes.”[4]

If this were not bad enough, the landowners were generally absentee landlords.   There was a veritable hierarchy of imperial agents and middle managers who collected taxes and rent.  They were not averse to using extortion and violence to pad their pockets over and above what was actually owed.  These managers cooked the books to their advantage, leaving little recourse for the illiterate poor.

Harvest shocks that meant death, or at least debt slavery, for the poor, became an opportunity for rich landowners to make a killing from the sale of surplus crops.  Granaries, therefore, were the economic villains of the ancient world.  Populist radicals then didn’t occupy banks.  They occupied granaries.  The Imperial Granary in Constantinople was referred to by the local populace as “Jaws”[5] – not only, one suspects, for the huge crop surplus it “consumed” in its massive warehouse, but also for the lives of the poor sacrificed to fill it.

In this context of economic exploitation and corruption, we can understand John the Baptist’s advice to repentant tax collectors and soldiers:  “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” and “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.”[6]  Later, when Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho, whom the text tells us was rich, Zacchaeus demonstrates the sincerity of his conversion by promising, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”[7]  Zacchaeus was not being charitable.  This constituted reparations for past injustice.  He was simply being faithful with his dishonest wealth.

So, Jesus tells a story about a dishonest manager.   You can almost hear the people yawning, “Tell me something I don’t know.”  But a dishonest manager, who gets in trouble for stealing from the landowner as well as his tenants, that is a little more interesting.  At least, he is going to get what is coming to him.  But this manager is a savvy fellow. 

Notice what he does.  Knowing he will soon be fired, he goes to his master’s sharecroppers and lowers their debt to the amount prescribed, knocking off the mark-up to pad his own pocket.  This is a risky move.  It leaves him even more destitute and vulnerable, when he could have quickly tried to collect before skipping town.  Instead, he wagers that this act of restitution will regain the respect and trust of his fellows.  He is entrusting himself to their gratitude and friendship in the face of his own impending poverty. 

The parable illustrates what Zacchaeus will demonstrate in real life:  that making friends with dishonest wealth means using that wealth to liberate the poor from the weight of crushing debt.  The dishonest manager realized that true riches are found in a community of mutual care, respect, and compassion.  He no longer places his trust in wealth, in getting his piece of the pie by any means necessary, but in the mercy of God manifest in justice for the poor. 

We will never know the mercy of God unless we practice that mercy ourselves.   Recall Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”[8]  The word “mercy” comes from the old Etruscan merc, from which we also derive “commerce” and “merchant.”  The mercy of God is all about exchange, giving and receiving.[9]  The very life of God as Trinity is a dynamic exchange of love between the divine persons.   Mercy is participation in this exchange of giving and receiving in love.  This is the divine economy, the true riches.  If we are not faithful with dishonest wealth, how can we be entrusted with the true riches?

The dishonest manager lets go of his grasping attachment to wealth, which isolates him from his own humanity and that of his neighbors, so that he can enter into the divine flow of mercy.   Making friends with the poor is the right use of dishonest wealth.  It reconnects him with the exchange of giving and receiving that serves life rather than death, justice rather than injustice, forgiveness rather than indebtedness. 

In our anxious attempts to succeed in the economy of buying and selling, we are tempted to forget the deeper economy of giving and receiving.  In our failure to make friends with dishonest wealth by relieving the burdens of the poor, we cut ourselves off from the flow of divine mercy, the true riches that thieves cannot steal and rust cannot corrode.[10]  Perhaps we need “In God we trust” printed on our money to remind us that in the end it is love, not money, that will save us.  With that trust, we can begin to be merciful as God as merciful.

[1] Luke 12:34
[2] Peter Brown, Through The Eye Of A Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350 – 550 AD (Princeton and Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2012), pp. 3 – 14.
[3] Brown, p. 8.
[4] Brown, p. 13.
[5] Brown, p. 14.
[6] Luke 3:12-14.
[7] Luke 19:1-10.
[8] Matthew 5:7.
[9] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston & London:  Shambhala, 2008), p. 45.
[10] Matthew 6:19.

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