The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20c): September 22, 2013
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Do we possess our money, or does our money possess us?
Recently scientists at the University of California conducted an experiment that hoped to measure how money affects psychosocial behavior. Two subjects played a Monopoly game that only one of them had a chance of winning. One of the players was made “rich.” He got $2,000 from the Monopoly bank at the start of the game and received $200 each time he passed Go. The second player was given much less. He began with only $1,000 and collected only $100 for passing Go. To move around the board, the first player rolled two dice, while the other player could roll only one, slowing his progress around the board. The students played under the watchful eye of two video cameras, while down the hall researchers recorded the subjects’ every facial twitch and hand gesture.
The scientists reported that, at first, the players made rich seemed a little uncomfortable. Soon, though, as they whizzed around the board, purchasing properties and collecting rent, whatever discomfort they felt seemed to dissipate. The researcher reported that many of these subjects began to smack their playing piece on the board as they went around, (in the experiment, the wealthy player got a Rolls-Royce) ending their turns with a board-shuddering bang! Often the richer subject began to move the poorer subject’s token (the little elf shoe) for them. By the end of the game the richer player’s seldom met the gaze of the poorer player, instead quietly, efficiently, and coldly taking all the loser’s cash.
This experiment, along with many others undertaken as part of a comprehensive study, have led to some interesting conclusions: “People higher up on the socioeconomic ladder are about three times more likely to cheat than people on the lower rungs,” says the primary researcher, Paul Piff. His research also suggests that people who yearn to be richer or more prominent make different choices than those more content with their present level of material comfort.[i]
So all of this, along with today’s scripture, leads me to ask: Do we possess our money, or does our money possess us?
I think that might be the question that Jesus is asking in this morning’s gospel, but I have to confess I’m not really sure. Today we are again brought face-to-face with a parable from Jesus – one of those stories that Jesus tells to illustrate a point about the Kingdom of God. A parable most often employs characters or objects familiar to the listener to help explain an unfamiliar, or abstract idea. Their point is usually to clarify an ethical question that might prove elusive.
But here we get a parable that seems to muddy the water. A dishonest manager is about to lose his job because he has misspent his employer’s assets. He goes around to all the people who owe his employer money and reduces their debts. He does this so that they will be hospitable to him after he loses his job. To our surprise, the employer commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.[ii]
One commentator has said, “Jesus weaves a story in which the main character is a shyster—a lazy, conniving, self-centered manager of someone else’s treasure. He is out for personal gain, to save his own skin. We listeners lean forward to the end because we want to see this scoundrel get what is coming to him, and when the master finally speaks, we are shocked.”[iii]
Why does the rich man praise him? And then, why does it seem that Jesus immediately contradicts that praise by noting that, “whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” [v. 10]?
One way to go at this parable is to consider that its focus might be on the consequences of squandering money. This story immediately follows the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke, where the younger son also squanders money. Having these two stories in sequence might suggest that Jesus is not as concerned with how we spend our money as he is interested in how we react when it is gone. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father is focused not on the lost money, but rather on the gift of a son that he had thought gone forever. In this parable, the rich man seems unconcerned with his financial loss. Maybe he has already accepted the money’s loss, and, knowing that the manager has already been fired, knows also that this is the last loss at that manager’s hands. Rather, he seems impressed by the fact that the manager figured out how to use the money to secure his future.
Still, this interpretation of the parable doesn’t lead me to Christ’s conclusion in verses 10 through 13. I can’t see how these actions might be interpreted as being faithful or honest.
Another way to look at this parable is to remember Luke’s ongoing feud with the Pharisees. In fact, in the very next verse of this chapter Luke refers to the Pharisees as “lovers of money.” Perhaps the manager (and by direct implication the Pharisees) has lost proper focus (remember, the Pharisees were the keepers of the Torah), and has become solely focused on wealth and money. In this reading, perhaps the rich man is being ironic—or perhaps he too has the wrong focus. The manager has pursued a way to manipulate the situation for his own gain and missed the proper focus on the love of God.
I wonder if that doesn’t get a little closer to Jesus’ intent. If we look at the end of the passage (working backwards is often a productive way to dig into scriptural puzzles) we find that very familiar phrase: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” [v. 13b] Certainly this idea is one that deserves our attention now in 2013.
As a society we Americans have an uneasy relationship with money. I doubt any of you would argue with me if I say that beginning with the post-World War II boom, an ever-accelerating focus on material possessions has taken hold of our national zeitgeist.
This focus on material things has misled us in many ways, I think, not the least of which is the fact that we seem to be less and less concerned with the fate of the very poor in our country. And the number of poor is increasing. This past Thursday new data was released from the U.S. Census that showed that, the poverty rate in New York City rose to 21.2 percent in 2012, from 20.1 percent in 2010. More than one-fifth of our neighbors live below the poverty line. Furthermore, Manhattan retained the dubious distinction of having the biggest income gap of any big county in the country. The mean income of the lowest fifth [of the Manhattan population] was $9,635, compared with $389,007 for the top fifth and $799,969 for the top 5 percent — more than an eightyfold difference between bottom and top.[iv]
And on the same day that the Census Bureau released these sad statistics, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut billions of dollars from the food stamp program, a move that many say will disproportionately affect children and will plunge millions more into poverty.[v]
Incidentally, we are working on ways to help us here at St. Michael’s understand better the food aid programs here in the U.S., including food stamps. In October, you and your family will be invited to join with others faith communities on the Upper West Side in taking the food stamp challenge, where you will be able to experience what it’s like to eat on a food stamp budget. And from that experience, we hope that together we will find ways to help change the conversation, and help refocus our nation’s leaders.
But it seems that we have lost our way as a nation. In June of 1978, Russian author Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn (the famous dissident exiled from the Soviet Union) delivered what is now considered an historic commencement address at Harvard University. In it, he said,
“When the modern Western states were being formed, it was proclaimed as a principle that governments are meant to serve man and that man lives in order to be free and pursue happiness…. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life…. This active and tense competition comes to dominate all human thought and does not in the least open a way to free spiritual development.”[vi]
The intervening years between that address and now certainly support his supposition that our relentless pursuit of happiness often leaves no room for spiritual growth. In the last half of the 20th century the concepts of prosperity theology, or the prosperity gospel as it is sometimes called, came into prominence in American Christianity, especially among televangelists like Oral Roberts and, more recently, Joel Osteen. To put it rather crudely, this is the idea that, “financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will always increase one’s material wealth.”[vii]
But I think that Jesus clearly cries out in today’s gospel that this is not the way. We are called to focus not on our money, but rather on the way of God. Theologian David Lose reminds us that, “one of the prominent themes in Luke is the proper use of wealth. Except that it’s not just the use of wealth; it’s more like Luke is concerned with our relationship to wealth and how that affects our relationships with others.”[viii]
Following that idea, perhaps the key to all of our musings today is found in verse 10: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.” We scramble and fret over the money that we have, or that we don’t have and are striving to acquire, and forget the riches that God grants us in family, in friends, in the good earth, and especially in surrendering our very selves to the love of God. We hold tighter and tighter to our money, and don’t realize that it is not the true treasure. The treasure lies in our relationships to God, and to the reflections of God in each other and in the creation.
And what might it mean for us to be faithful with our money? We’ll continue to wrestle with that issue in the coming weeks. Right now, I will leave you with one thought on the matter, from the immortal Dolly Levi of musical theater fame. She said, “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”
However we choose to use them, we must find our way to putting money and material things in their proper perspective. I believe that changing our focus in this way is an act of faith. If we can find the way to lower our anxieties about money, the doors of our hearts will be opened, and we will find room there for the things that really matter. Freed from those worries, we will find that we can be faithful in much.
So, as our opening collect today reminds us, let us not be anxious about earthly things, but instead focus on things heavenly, holding fast to those things that endure. And may we all find our way to this path of peace. Amen.
[i] Miller, Lisa, The Money-Empathy Gap. New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/news/features/money-brain-2012-7/, accessed 09/19/2013
[ii] Malcolm, Lois, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1783, accessed 9/18. 2013.
[iii] Debevoise, Helen Montgomery, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 92.
[iv] Roberts, Sam, “Poverty Rate is Up in New York City, and Income Gap is Wide, Census Data Show.” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/19/nyregion/poverty-rate-in-city-rises-to-21-2.html, accessed 9/19/2013.
[v] Nixon, Ron. “House Republicans Pass Deep Cuts in Food Stamps,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/20/us/politics/house-passes-bill-cutting-40-billion-from-food-stamps.html?hp, accessed 9/20/2013.
[vi] Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. quoted in Solzhenitsyn at Harvard: The Address, Twelve Early Responses, and Six Later Reflections. http://www.starlancs.com/EducateMe/Solzhenitsyn%20at%20Harvard.pdf, accessed 9/19/2013.
[viii] Lose, David, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&rp=blog53&post=2746, accessed 9/18/2013.