Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Honest Wealth, Dishonest Wealth

Scripture for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; I Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

Could it be that the cardinal sin is squandering what belongs to God? That appears to be the message Luke wants to send home with us—drive home to us—in this parable he presents.

This one reminds us of other parables Luke has sent our way, as the Gospel writer remembers and reassembles the pithy, puzzling, potent little stories Jesus uses to wake us up to ourselves and to God.

Remember the rich fool who built more barns to warehouse his crops, thinking he had retirement all figured out, only to find he couldn’t count on the actuarial tables when God turned the tables and required his soul?

Remember the prodigal son who couldn’t wait to get out of Dodge, leave behind the demands of farm and family, hit the party circuit and let the good times roll?

Today’s parable is cut of the same cloth. Each of those earlier stories hinges on a moment of urgent interior decision. “I know what I’ll do,” says the rich fool: “I’ll build larger barns to hoard all that my wealth keeps spinning off, so I can keep it.”

“I know what I’ll do,” figures the prodigal son who stinks from the pig-sty he has been reduced to calling home: “I’ll go home, make good with Dad, and resume my old life.”

“I know what I’ll do,” the dishonest manager concludes as he sizes up the mess he’s in now that the owner has reviewed the audit: “I’ll make the rounds of my master’s debtors before they hear I’ve been sacked, and I’ll reduce their debts. That will leave everyone scratching his head wondering what to make of it, but I’ll be welcomed in those debtors’ houses as the one who saved them a bundle.”

It’s hard to find much that’s commendable in any of these urgent decisions. Each is driven by anxiety: the rich fool has crops that need storing before they spoil, the prodigal son desperately needs to find a better way than running away, the dishonest manager is fired with no prospect of a good recommendation. These are all crossroad moments of crisis, aren’t they? The solutions these three fellows find suggest that, left to our own devices, we have a certain instinct to take care of ourselves… but God wants us to aim higher.

All these parables contribute to the sense Luke expresses: wealth is dishonest. Wealth is dishonest if it persuades its owner that it belongs to him or her. That mirage of belonging deceives us into forgetting that whatever creative abundance we experience comes to us more as God’s gift than as our own accomplishment or deserving. Much more.

The old Hymnal has in it an old hymn that declares a timeless truth caught by the words of John Greenleaf Whittier: “All things are thine; no gift have we, Lord of all gifts, to offer thee; and hence with grateful hearts today thine own before thy feet we lay.” There is where a spiritual practice of stewardship begins: by declaring God’s ownership of all creation, including all creativity, we reconsider who owns what we call wealth, insist that it must be God, but realize also that material wealth doesn’t deserve to be high in the list of assets that matter to God or to us. Just high enough to be useful, high enough (and here I’m quoting our opening poem) “to spend as currency of love and life in making strangers friends”…high enough to “lavish, spread, fling” wide to serve God who is “prodigal with justice, peace, and love.”

Yes, the cardinal sin is to squander what belongs to God—except on what matters high to God. Then why so many parables about money and wealth? Perhaps because, as Eugene Peterson puts it his version of Luke in The Message, “If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things. If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store? No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank.”

In other words, our financial stewardship is at the entry-level to our full practice of stewarding the riches of life given to us by God. We all need to remember that, when October rolls round and we find ourselves face to face with a pledge card from the church for the new year. That will be about a lot more than funding the budget needs of this parish. It will be about our interior encounter with anxiety and faith. It will be about listening to God’s encouragement to aim higher than that certain instinct to take good care of ourselves. It will be about the subtle dishonesties of wealth and poverty, having and not having. It will be about taking the prerequisite course in order to build the skills needed to take the electives, and among those skills are trust, gratitude, courage, generosity, and ingenuity.

Michael Hudson has his tongue in his cheek when he opens his poem by asking, “How would we use the wealth of God if it were ours today?”

It is ours today. Justice, peace, and love get named by the poet for the short list of God’s wealth assets. It’s easy to grow a longer list:

Imagination (which we squander when we keep doing the same old things that haven’t done much good in the past, but we keep wishing they would, and they’re so familiar)…

Freedom (which we squander when we are silent in the face of injustice, hatred, and violence)…

Ingenuity (increasingly squandered by deadlocked politicians and the special interests that paralyze our nation from tackling what we desperately need to reform)…

Vitality (squandered when we make choices that isolate people from community, deprive people of what best feeds them, or further toxify the world around us)…

Compassion (squanderable in every choice not to notice, not to count, not to care, not to include, not to invite)…

And wisdom, which to squander we have only to stop listening, stop paying attention.

That is still a mighty short list of the wealth that belongs to God, and is ours by God’s gift. I’ll bet you can add to it. In fact, this Gospel urges you to do that.

And I believe Luke tells so many stories about the lowest and poorest form of wealth precisely because he knows that the fullblown kingdom of God has come near to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This nearness sets us at a critical crossroad where urgent choices are to be made, choices by which we take humble part in the gracious dynamic of that kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. Our choices position us to be among the wealth assets of God… or not.

I hear Luke telling Jesus’s stories like this one today to motivate the honesty, the ingenuity, the imagination, the vitality, the compassion of believers. If non-believers find clever ways to accomplish the agenda of this world, it is for believers to exceed such shrewdness with creative ways to bring on earth the grace of heaven—in Hudson’s words, “in partnership with God.. trusted to waste, to lavish, spread, fling far too wide the riches of God’s grace.”

Thomas Friedman wrote recently about touring General Electric’s huge research lab in Niskayuna. He found there what he expects we would find at the research centers of most global companies where scientists and engineers from dozens of nationalities are using broad-based out-of-the-box collaboration to push out the boundaries of medical, manufacturing, and material sciences—let me quote Friedman: In these places, “optimal is the norm and every day begins by people asking, ‘What world are we living in, and how do we thrive in that world?’”

Well, we who by baptism are citizens of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, whom we know and love and serve as the way, the truth, and the life, whose Spirit feeds and leads us, forms and informs us… What if we learn to ask daily, “What world are we living in, and how do we help the kingdom of God thrive in that world?”

There is how not to squander the wealth of a day, the new day we are given as pure gift with each sunrise. If we all are asking these questions, unity will dispel anxiety. And our daily living will become an art form that releases into this world more energy than it consumes.

And won’t that be a miracle, many times over?

(Thomas Friedman’s piece “When Complexity Is Free” appeared in the September 15th issue of The New York Times. Michael Hudson’s meditation on Luke 16:1-13 appears in his book “Songs for the Cycle”, Church Publishing Incorporated, 2004.)