Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sermon; Proper 20C; Amos 8:4-7 & Luke 16:1-13

What connections are there between this reading from Amos and the parable from the gospel?  The connection that stands out to me is money and its proper use.

Amos prophesies against Israel over and over again that God will punish them for their continual disregard and abuse of the poor.  Over and over again Amos talks about how the rich continually take from the poor in order to get richer.  Over and over again Amos speaks of how those in power look for ways to cheat, lie and steal from the powerless in order to create an even further divide between those who live comfortably and those who struggle to survive.

Notice that Amos doesn’t speak against obtaining wealth.  He isn’t speaking against the rich because they are rich; he is speaking against a system created and perpetuated by the wealthiest of society that continually abuses and disenfranchises those who live on the margins of society. He is speaking against people of wealth who continually take money and benefits from those who already have next to none of either to begin with.

Amos was speaking to Israel in about 760 bce, or a few decades shy of 2800 years ago.  He could very well be speaking to us today.  Last Thursday the Republican Party managed to pass a bill slashing $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a program that helps the poor to purchase food.  People oppose raising the minimum wage to a level that actually lets people live.  Business owners lobby to avoid covering health insurance, or certain parts of health insurance, on “moral grounds.”  Banks improperly foreclose on homeowners without worrying about correcting their errors.

It’s not wealth and power that are the issue.  It’s how those with wealth and power use it.  And very rarely is it used to help those on the margins.  More often than not, it’s used to keep those living on the margins living on the margins.

In today’s gospel we hear the parable of the so-called dishonest or shrewd manager.  It’s probably more accurate to say that he was a manager of injustice. 

In the parable, the manager oversees property for an absentee landowner.  This was not uncommon and Jesus tells several parables using this scenario.  Unlike other parables, however, where the land and workers were profitable, the manager in today’s story is squandering the property.  Word gets back to the owner who immediately calls the manager into his office and fires him.

There are myriad of ways to look at this parable, some of which I discussed with the Wednesday bible study last spring.  But because I committed to connecting the first lesson and gospel together, I want to offer a connection to Amos that looks at the proper use of wealth.

The manager oversaw property.  It was his job to collect rent from the tenants.  One way of calculating rent was based on an anticipated harvest.  It was like investing in futures in the stock market.  And based on that anticipated harvest, a rental fee was agreed upon.

If things did not go well for the tenants – due to crop failure, bad calculations, or some other reason – and they weren’t able to pay the rent, the landowner could begin the process of debt collection.  This could involve taking other property they may own, or becoming indentured servants.

The manager is part of the wealthy elite.  His concern is obviously only for how much he can get out of the arrangement.  Jesus said the manager squandered the property, in other words, he mismanaged it to the point that the tenants couldn’t produce enough to pay their rent.  And yet, he still expects payment.  In some ways, the manager hearkens back to Pharaoh: “Reduce their materials and double the production requirements.”

Or maybe it looks forward to today when the working poor barely have enough money to afford basic needs, or are terminated for on-the-job injuries, or who are facing continual attacks on social safety nets at the hands of corporate executives who still desire their full take over and above what may be reasonable.  He is a manager of injustice.

In today’s parable, though, the landowner is not on the plan to continually oppress those on the margins.  In today’s parable, unlike in today’s world, the landowner is not interested in giving this particular manager a golden parachute.  When he finds out the manager has been squandering the property, he terminates him.

And in that moment the manger has a change of attitude about wealth.  Whereas before he saw wealth as something to be accumulated at the expense of others, as something to be taken from others before it was taken from him, wealth is now seen as a means to help himself as well as others.  Wealth has gone from being the god he served to being the tool used to serve others.

By reducing the amount owed, or forgiving debts, the manager pursues justice.  He pursues it because he is no longer perpetuating a system of gross inequality.  In this act he reflects a new system, a new economy, which looks to forgive debts and sins and where all people are equal.  This manager manipulates wealth in such a way that allows both him and those people on the margins to live.

We are called to strive for justice by using that which we have been entrusted.  We are called to treat all people with dignity and respect, loving them as we love ourselves.  If we wouldn’t ignore our basic needs, what makes us think it’s okay to ignore the basic needs of those on the margins?

As we approach our own pledge season, this is the time to ask yourself how you see and use wealth.  Are you using your wealth to help those on the margins, forgiving debts, striving for justice, and helping people at the most basic level; or are you using your wealth to accumulate more, telling those on the margins, “I got mine, good luck in getting yours?”

Amos and Jesus both have something to say about wealth and power, and both of them are telling us that if we aren’t helping those living on the margins we are doing it wrong.  In the end, we need to make a choice to serve either God or money; we can’t do both.



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