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Difficult Words Unpacked

Today’s gospel from Luke is a little vexing.  Jesus appears to be praising the “dishonest manager.”  In fact he is just saying that the dishonest manager wasshrewd from the perspective of his economic world view.  Then he challenges us to be shrewd from the perspective of a more expansive economic world view, the Kingdom of God.  After that Jesus says another puzzling thing: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealthso that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.” (Luke 16:9)  What does this mean?  To try to answer that, I want to describe what I call thebig picture economic system.  Then I want to compare that to our present market economic system.  Finally I’ll take a stab at answering what the point of all this is.  Here we go.

Big Picture Economy

If we look at the big picture of how the good things of life come to us (i.e., the real economy), we see a pattern of pure gift.  The world simply produces things out of a continual abundance.  Seeds are planted by birds.  Rain provides water for the growth of plants.  Bees pollinate the plants.  All of this is “free of charge.”  Food is available for us and indeed for all species out of the good earth and its rich waters.  If we keep looking at the big picture, we find mothers of more complex species providing for their young, e.g. mammals breast feeding.  Free of charge.  Human parents provide food to their children without charging. Grandparents babysit without charging.  The big picture is a cosmic economy of abundance, given-ness and sharing[i].  Long before humans and for a while after humans appeared, this system prevailed.

Furthermore, my basic experience of life, which the simple act of contemplative meditation opens me up to, is that I am constantly on the receiving end of life coming from outside of me as a complete unearned gift.  My last breath is mine in a sense, but it did not come from me.  It quickly becomes me as the oxygen courses through my circulatory system.  You could say that I am analogous to an electric fan that only “experiences” itself because of its connection to the power grid.  There is no fanning without my being a part of something greater.  Upon paying attention to my life I see that I am in many ways connected to this whole system, inseparable from it, and continually benefiting from it.  As I go deeper into this reality I sense the loving presence of what I believe to be Source of it all; I’m touched and moved to gratitude.  This is why the ancients had thanksgivings after harvests.  We don’t always hear those Alleluia’s at Schnucks,[ii]so I thought I would remind us of this tonight.  We’ll come back to this important sense of gratitude in a moment.

The Market, A Different System

While domestic life tends to perpetuate this system of egalitarian participation in all that the family has, the marketplace rarely does.  The big banks that control the capital of the world do not have as a primary aim making sure that everyone has enough.  Their aim is that their investors get even more money in the process; their goal is that those who have will have even more.  It is widely understood that this is the investors’ motivation for participating: making more money.  Many feel that this is the only motivation that makes the whole market work; the chance of having even more money.  Notice though that it is not a system designed to provide, modeled on the abundant earth and how it functions.  The market is a system that is at its core designed to acquire.  If this market system were imbued with the values of the big picture economy (described above), it would be a system determined to provide. 

Of course the narrative that the market economy tells is that it is in fact providing, that as its participants do their business, goods are distributed and others are making money to live on.  But the market provides in a way that disproportionately distributes the goods of the one earth to those who already “own” most of it to begin with[iii].  And so we see lately new evidence that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer and, not only that but, at an increasing rate.[iv]

What Does This Mean?

What is fundamentally missing is congruence between the pattern of the abundant earth, authored and sustained by the mystery of Providence, and the machinations of the market economy.  This is why the evangelist Luke in tonight’s gospel refers to wealth as being problematic.  We tend to earn wealth through a system that is literally un-godly because it has opted out of the big picture.  So Jesus in Luke’s gospel is challenging us, “What are you going to do with the money that you have acquired through this system?  Are you going to make a choice to get more in line with the values of the big picture economy, the universe that is striving to keep all of life thriving.  Or is it just going to be about accumulating while others people and other species go without?  We cannot serve the goals of each of these two economic perspectives at the same time because they are contradictory.  This is what Jesus in Luke means by, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  He is asking us to think about the primary purpose of the money we have.  (Notice too that the first reading from Amos testifies to the fact that the Hebrew tradition was always concerned about the unequal distribution of wealth.)

We Are Not Made to Hoard

When we realize that our life has always been a precious gift, gratitude wells up within us.  This is the beginning of the desire to give.  I said before that I could be analogous to an electric fan.  It would be better to say that I am called to be more like a wind turbine.  In that analogy I freely receive the wind; I freely give the electric power.  It is all meant to flow through me not to be hoarded within me.  In this way I imitate the mysterious Visitor whom I find residing deep within me.  She has given me everything I have; the gratitude I sense is the beginning of Her workings, urging me to keep up the giving pattern. 

September 21, 2013
Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year
Sts. Clare & Francis ECC
Amos 8:4-7
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Luke 16:1-13
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Ojie Paloma on flickr.com


[i] I don’t mean to overly romanticize this; I understand that the “food chain” can be violent.  We are a people who believe we can move beyond violence; but that’s another discussion.

[ii] A local grocery chain.

[iii] Of course I put “own” in quotes because the Judeo-Christian tradition is that only God owns the earth.  We are simply its stewards or managers.

[iv]See for instance,  http://billmoyers.com/tag/economic-inequality/

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