Monday, September 24, 2007

Escorting the Poor to the Front of the Line

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Rats. There goes the Episcopal Church, to hell in a shopping basket.

“You cannot serve God and Money.” That’s how the New International Version of the Bible puts it, with a capital M on Money. I think that translation moves us closer to the mark.

It’s like Luke to say that. You know that both he and Matthew bring us our Lord’s rich sermon, “on the mount” in Matthew and “on the plain” in Luke. They differ in how they represent the teaching of Jesus, differ more than subtly. Where Matthew’s Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Luke’s Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Matthew spiritualizes the message. Luke does not. I would say that Luke politicizes the message. For him, it’s not the poor in spirit who move from last place to first place in God’s reign of justice and truth: it’s the poor who are escorted to the front of the line, and in that movement the dividing line is turned into a unifying circle. And there, says Luke, is the church’s task: to escort the poor to the front of the line, and so to change the very shape of life. He doesn’t say this just once or twice in his Gospel, but over and over.

This is why I think his lesson is, “You cannot serve God and Money.” Wealth is a broad concept. Wealth embraces all that our senses delight in: freedom to enjoy hiking these rolling hills, to splash through the surf at your favorite beach… Wealth is Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello, and Mavis Staples deep-singing Gospel… Wealth is leaning into the precious circle of family and friends; wealth is also creative solitude; and wealth is the new life we find, and that finds us, in Jesus Christ by the embrace of the Spirit of God. In all these examples, wealth is shared, it is common wealth. And as Christians we are committed to stewarding such wealth, to adding to its store, and to its liberal distribution. We believe that we can serve both God and common wealth, that we serve God through our stewarding of wealth such as this. Money is part of it, often required for it, but is not itself the deepest, truest treasure.

We are by temperament drawn to Matthew: we understand his Jesus, who teaches, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We need Luke, whose Jesus teaches us that the way we use what we have shows who we are serving.

And while we’re thinking about Matthew saying one thing and Luke saying another, let’s recognize what that says about the Bible: the Word of God is always greater, truer, finer, and more than the various words of one text or another. We do justice to the Bible when we pay attention to its own internal differences and when we’re patiently open to the big picture that is being painted.

So today Luke takes his brushes and paints for us us the parable of the dishonest manager. We get to listen in on how he keeps his books, juggles his accounts, gives us an ancient example of insider trading and runs his own backyard version of Enron.

And talk about internal differences—between the story and the comments that follow, we could spend hours in these fourteen verses of Luke and feel increasingly like we’d entered a hall of mirrors. This text is right up there with “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,”—brought to you just two Sundays ago also by St. Luke the Evangelist.

Remember, we’re looking for Good News! That’s what “evangel” means. So where do we hear it in this story about dishonest management?

It’s actually a story about deciding what you’ll stake your life on.

That makes it worthy to be heard as we baptize André Alan Horton, who is seven months into the adventure of his life. He stakes his life—instinctively, not by decision—on Amy and Alan, his Mom and Dad, who do management for him, especially during this highly portable stage of infancy. With each month and year, he moves toward the time when he will take on management himself. By what we do today, we want to prepare him for management. What we do today, baptizing him, opens to him the commonwealth of the family of God, gives him his place at the table of sharing, his toolkit for building a faith and an ethic, and his invitation to learn how to take up the task of escorting the poor to the front of the line, and so create circles of transformation.

As we renew our own baptismal covenant today, every question and every answer will urge us to decide to stake everything on God’s love and wisdom and purpose.

The shrewd worldly unrighteous dishonest manager (the Greek word translated “dishonest” means all those things) recognized that, having been caught red-handed, he had just a short time to make lemonade out of his lemons—and so he stakes everything on a decision born out of his shrewdness.

If only, Luke’s Jesus seems to be saying, If only my disciples are as eager and as ingenious in their attempts to take care of the poor, to wage peace, to cherish creation, then they will succeed in what I have come to do. They will turn the tables I too have overturned, scattering the proud in their conceit, and lifting up the lowly.

I’ll confess. What I’ve just done is to jump over all the interesting stuff to highlight the bottom line. That’s because we have a baptism to get on with, and André isn’t yet into textual criticism.

But lots can be read out of, and into, this story. One thing I notice is that all throughout there run two messages. One is right in our face: Jesus is not reluctant to talk about money, to use it to convey his message. We may expect religion to divide sacred from secular, and if so we’d probably locate money on the secular side; but Jesus is drawing money across that line, claiming it as a tool for God. He knows the human heart, and how close it lies to its treasure. In fact, his Gospel, his Good News, speaks more about money, wealth, and poverty than it does about sex, worship, good manners, and all the many other preoccupations that the Church loses itself in. His freedom, his justice, his compassion run so deep that they pass right through a person’s check register and on to the heart and soul and mind and strength.

A second message is more subtle: Everything we have is really not our own. It’s on loan, for a while, and life is all about what we do with it as a tool for loving God and for loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

That juggling the manager did with the books: Did he gouge his former employer, redistributing the owner’s goods to the debtors? Or would a first-century audience have said, “No—he chopped off his own commission! The owner got back his own, but the middle man sacrificed his own plump share.” Still others might have said, “Wait—he’s lobbing off the interest! Only he knows what the Big Man tacks on for interest—but we know it’s forbidden in Deuteronomy and Leviticus to charge interest at all, so the owner’s getting only what he deserves.”

That last interpretation ought to make us chuckle. Follow laughter to find Good News. Has the manager been so clever that, in addition to providing good will for himself, he has also put his former boss in a position where the man cannot argue with the outcome because it is a righteous outcome? Have the tables been turned on the rich man, covering him with the goodness of the Torah, the Word of God obeyed—and all he can do is let it stand, quietly saying to the manager, “Touché!”

The message is not so subtle: we do not own with lasting grasp the things of this world. We have them on loan. What we have, for a while, is the power to use them.

Jesus is saying: The critical moment is here. The Kingdom of God is near. History is being cracked open by the hand of God reaching to the need of humanity. The old ways no longer serve the new creation. Will you stake everything on the way of the world and fight over every red cent and inch of land and power to control—or will you seize the moment of opportunity to make provision for the future on God’s terms, securing your place in the new order by using what you have shrewdly, escorting the poor to the front of the line and by so doing be transformed by your service?

Our Bolivian medical missioners this summer learned and felt the power and the powerlessness of serving at tables that turn like this. Our generation will see more and more the wisdom of what the ancient rabbis taught: “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come.”

The way of the world says, “Use—or be used.”

Oddly enough, Jesus agrees. We use our riches, or they master us. Sharing is divine: by it we extend the giving of God, and build a common wealth.