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September 19, 2004 (Pentecost 16)
Katy Grindberg, Intern Pastor
Amos 8:4-7, Luke 16:1-13
The gospel this morning is a difficult text. I have read many commentaries and writings of different scholars this week, and they cannot agree on the meaning of the parable. They do not even all agree with what verse the parable ends and Jesus' commentary on the parable begins.
This is also a difficult text for me, mainly because it's about money, and talking about money makes me uncomfortable. Whether it's my money or your money, or the church's money, talking about money seems intrusive. How much money we make , how much we give, where we give--those are in the realm of "personal" questions that we don't ask in "polite" company. Most of us consider it nobody else's business how or where we spend our money--those are decisions made in private and best left there. Many of us don't even talk to our closest friends about money.
As much as we may dislike talking about money, as Christians we are called to live our lives in the world, and the decisions we make with our money are seen by other people, and perhaps evaluated with, the knowledge of our faith. You checkbook is a good indicator of your priorities. Where you spend your money gives important information to yourself, and to others about what is important in your life.
Luther warns of a balance of priorities in his explanation of the first commandment in the Large Catechism. The first commandment is "I am the Lord your God, and you shall have no other gods before me." Luther says: "There are some who think that they have God and everything they need when they have money and property.... On the other hand, those who have nothing doubt and despair as if they knew of no god at all. This desire for wealth clings and sticks to our nature all the way to the grave."
I guess it's a comfort to know that many of us still struggle with an issue that people 500 years ago struggled with, and probably before that time. The danger is that when we focus too much on what we can get in terms of money, possessions and the status they bring to our lives, our focus gets turned away from God, and these things become our "gods." As Luther put it: "God is that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need." So, that to which we turn when things get difficult, where we find comfort that is our god. That to which we turn to for joy, that is our god. This is what Jesus says in the gospel when he says "you cannot serve God and wealth." The word for serve is more literally translated as "be enslaved to." Both the word used here for serve and the word for slave have the same root in Greek. So, it's not that you have money, properties or possessions, it is the hold they have on your life. You may ask, "Are your money and your possessions managing you, or are you managing it?"
There are many people who are good with money. There probably are people here today who are talented with the investment and the growth of their personal wealth, or the wealth of other people or businesses. When wealth increases, so does the power of the people or organizations that have that money. Because whether we like it or not, money does represent power.
We many not like it, but if you've ever been in dire straits and worried about being able to pay for food, or rent or the utility bills, you've had the experience of real powerlessness. And many people live in that reality day after day and they live in a state of powerlessness. It is a fact that the people, the corporations, and the agencies with money are the ones that get heard by the lawmakers and policymakers. So often, the voices of the sick, the sad, and the poor are overwhelmed by those who have more money and more power.
Unfortunately, it has always been this way. In the reading from Amos, written around 760 BCE, God expresses anger over the way the poor and the needy are being treated in Israel. The prophet exclaims God's anger to the people of Israel over how their dishonest business practices trampled on the rights of the needy. The businessmen couldn't wait for the Sabbath to end so they could return to the marketplaces to sell their wares, and they were not taking care of the poor, the widows, or the orphans as God had commanded. And this lack of regard for God's people, greatly angered God.
I wonder if God is angry today, or if God weeps when God sees what is going on in the world today. A world where the richest 50 million people in the world, living mostly in Europe and North America, have the same income as 2.7 billion poor people. The slice of the cake taken by the top 1% is the same size as that handed to the poorest 57%. (The Guardian, Jan. 2002) In early 2000, 16.1 percent of the U.S. civilian population (44.0 million people) had no health insurance coverage. No matter where you look, it is clear that the richest people and the richest countries are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And it has always been this way.
This paints a bleak story. I know that I get depressed when I think about many of these things. In the United States, we benefit from the monetary and political might of our nation, and most of us wouldn't be willing to give that up. No matter how many streets are under construction in Honolulu on any given day, at least we have paved roads and cars to drive on them. I, for one, am not interested in giving up my indoor plumbing, electricity and email access. So we, who have so much, how do we manage the wealth of the God's kingdom?
How do we, like the manager in the parable, act shrewdly? This is another problem for many people, when looking at this parable--the word "shrewd." For many it has a negative connotation, and when the steward is commended by his master for being shrewd, it makes one wonder. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, however, shrewd is defined as "characterized by keen awareness, sharp intelligence, and often a sense of the practical." So a shrewd manager of resources is someone who is creative and practical, perhaps finding those loopholes in rules and regulations and leaping through them to help those who are more powerless. It is not taking "No" for an answer, but an rather an excuse to look for another option.
I'm still learning about this congregation and about this community, but the story of how "Save the Foodbasket" came into being, demonstrates a shrewdness. The way I understand it, the ministry was in danger of being closed due to lack of money and resources. A committed person or persons rallied other likeminded persons around the effort and it continues its good work today.
Many people get frustrated by the hopelessness of it all, I know. "The poor are always with you", Jesus said in the book of Matthew. People have always been and will continue to be hungry, homeless, uninsured, lonely. Why do we even bother to do try to help? No matter how much money we give, how much time and effort we put forth, there is always more to do. Sometimes it seems infinitely easier to console ourselves in our possessions and getting more and bigger and better toys. So why do we bother?
We bother because as the steward in the parable unbelievably, and for his own reasons, handed a note to his master's debtors forgiving them their debts, Jesus has handed you a note. It was a note written on the cross and guaranteed in your baptism. And where the steward only forgave a portion of the debt owed, The note from Jesus promises the forgiveness of ALL of your debts to God. You bother because God calls you to a life bigger than your own. God calls you to turn your focus away from your money and your possessions. And we bother because there is no better response to what God has done for us, through Christ, than to act that love out to others in God's creation.
Copyright © 2004 Katy Grindberg
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