Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Make Friends for Yourselves – Thoughts on Luke 16:1-15

Jesus' parable of the “Dishonest Manager” in Luke 16: 1-15 is notoriously one of the more difficult to understand. Is he commending dishonesty? Is he just talking about forgiveness? Just what is Jesus saying in this parable?

First of all, a word about parables. All parables use images and metaphor to mess with our imagination and reorient it toward Jesus and the kingdom of God. But parables are not one thing. “Parable” is a broad category. Some of them are allegories in which one thing stands for another. Others are more like stories with a moral. Others are similar to proverbs. Still others are like riddles that leave you pondering. Many, including the Dishonest Manager, have an element of humor. And some are more like a joke in which the point is not so much the set-up as it is the punch line.

Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:1-13 is of the last variety. It is like a joke with a punch line. The story itself is not really the point. We will get hung up if we try to turn it into an allegory in which "the rich man" represents someone and "the manager" represents someone else, etc. It is not that kind of parable. We will also get hung up if we try to figure out why Jesus seems to commend this scoundrel of a manager as morally exemplary. But it is not that kind of parable. The story itself is just a somewhat ridiculous and humorous set-up for the punch line. And the punch line packs quite a punch.

And what is the punch line? It comes in verse 9: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest [unrighteous] wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” I told you it packed a punch. The manager dealt shrewdly with what he had in a worldly way. If we are children of light, we will deal wisely with what we have to make friends who will welcome us into the eternal homes. What does that mean?

1. Unrighteous wealth: Although the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version read “dishonest manager” and “dishonest wealth,” the King James Version and some other translations has it better when it translates the adjective as “unrighteous”. The Greek word, 
adikias, is translated "unrighteous" or similarly everywhere else in the New Testament so there seems no reason not to here.We have come to think of money and wealth as a good thing or at least morally neutral – as long as we do not come by it dishonestly. But it has not always been so. Jesus, and a broad and long tradition following him, sees money with great ambivalence. It has spiritual power and that power is dangerous. You cannot have much of it without that spirit starting to work on your soul leading you into all sorts of unrighteousness. Jesus goes so far as to call it an abomination in verse 15 (some translations have "detestable" instead, but it is the same Greek word, bdelugma, that is often translated "abomination" in Mark 13:14 and Matthew 24:15). So, the best thing to do is have as little has you need. So, what to do with it?

2. Make friends: It is deep in the tradition that giving alms to the poor is basic to faithfulness. Give and give and give. It is not only a good and faithful thing to do. It might just be salvific (see 
Mercy – Caring for the Poor as Redemptive Liturgy). Caring for the poor for their own sake is good in and of itself. But for Christians, as Pope Leo the Great (400-461) pointed out, rightly in the needy and poor do we recognize the person of Jesus Christ our Lord Himself” (Sermon 9.III). So, making friends with the poor is one way we make a friend of Jesus. 

In verse 12, Jesus goes further, “And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” So, if my “dishonest/unrighteous money is not my own, whose is it? God’s? Certainly. As we pray over our offering, “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee” (1 Chronicles 29:14). But in the context, it seems Jesus is implying that the “other” to whom our money belongs is the poor. This was certainly the understanding of the early Church. This line from Ambrose of Milan (340-397) is typical, “You are not making a gift of your possession to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.”  Thus, understanding and clinging tom our money as simply our own is dishonest. The honest and faithful and righteous thing to do is use it to make friends with the poor.

3. They may welcome you into the eternal homes: Shaped as we are by the Reformation, we are used to thinking that all you need is faith. But it is hard to pay attention to Jesus (or to Paul for that matter) and come to the conclusion that it does not matter what we actually do. And the early church was clear that what we do matters and matters eternally. Giving alms to the poor is one of the things that matter. You all know I am big on grace. Grace is indeed the fundamental reality for Christians. But Jesus will not allow us the complacency of cheap grace. Who will welcome us to our heavenly homes? The poor whom God loves. We would do well to make friends with them now. James Forbes put it this way, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” Similarly, Pope Leo said, “Food for someone in need is the cost of purchasing the kingdom of Heaven, and the one who is generous with temporal things is made heir of the eternal” (Sermon 9.II).

Everything before verse 9 is set-up for that discomforting punch line. Everything after is an elaboration of the point that caring for the poor is an essential means of befriending Jesus and preparing for the kingdom of God.

Here is a story attributed to John the Merciful (early 7th century) that also makes the point well:

There was a certain man, Peter Telenearius, who, in order to get rid of the poor, threw rocks at them. One day when he was again surrounded by them, he had no stone handy, so he grabbed a loaf of bread and threw it at the head of one of them. Later he became sick and saw a vision in which his deeds were being weighed in the balance of divine justice. All his sins were on one side of the balance and on the other side was the loaf of bread thrown at the head of the poor. It had become acceptable to Jesus Christ as an act of mercy.

So, let us be children of light and make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome us into the eternal homes.

Of course, alms alone are not enough. We must also address the moral and systemic issues that cause too many to be poor. But that must never let us off the hook of giving of our own wealth for the sake of the poor. And for the sake of our own souls.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

On Luke 14:25-33 and Hating Father and Mother, etc.

This Sunday's Gospel (Luke 14:25-33) contains some hard words from Jesus regarding the cost of following him.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” And “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Hard words indeed. They are a reminder that faith in/loyalty to Jesus calls into question every other loyalty.

Loyalty to Jesus demands examining all the ways our hearts are entangled with other loyalties that compromise our ability to fully commit to him and his self-sacrificial love of God and neighbor – and enemy.

I have known people who were literally rejected by their family because of their loyalty to Jesus. But, it is also possible to allow love of family to compromise our love of neighbor. Or to choose loyalty to familial norms over loyalty to the norms of Jesus.

By extension, this means all other loyalties are suspect and to be "hated". Loyalty to nation. Loyalty to ethnicity. Loyalty to ideology. Loyalty to political affiliation. Etc. Each can be substituted for true faith in Christ. And each can interfere with our ability to love of the other.

Loyalty to Jesus means relentless and fearless detachment from other loyalties. Not that we are disconnected from others, but we must examine to what extent those connections begin to take priority over our attachment to Jesus and his way.

And all attachments, not least to money and possessions, must be relentlessly and fearlessly examined. One cannot be loyal to Jesus and Mammon. And those loyalties are harder to disentangle than we want to believe. Out attachment to our possessions create spiritual static. The more we have the more likely the static will interfere with our attachment to God and neighbor. The best thing to do is to give away as much as possible.

In 'Grace and Free Will' Augustine argues that this extends to our attachment to/love of our own lives when discussing whether or not it is a faithful option to kill in self-defense. He suggests, with Jesus, that it is not.

This is not easy stuff. But, the point is that Jesus knows that it is only through putting our whole trust in him and following in his way without distraction that we will find the fullness and depth of love, peace, and joy for which we yearn.