Raleigh Mennonite Church
Today’s Gospel lesson wins the prize for slimiest story in the New Testament. It is a story that demonstrates a consistently bad economic system, top to bottom, and no one comes out looking very good.
There’s a wealthy man who has a manager, someone who handles his property. Being a manager was a good job, but it was a job for slaves, the best job a slave could have. It was so good, in fact, that freemen would sell themselves into slavery in order to become managers for the wealthy, to live under their patronage, to be the beneficiaries of this form of friendship.
This manager slave – he’s bad at his job. He starts to panic when he realizes he’s squandered the stuff he’s been charged to protect. He’s going to get fired. But the manager doesn’t want to work. He doesn’t want to beg. So he cooks the books, forgiving a serious portion of debt from a few of the people who owe his master money.
It’s a bad system. It’s a system that flourishes because of slavery, indebtedness, classism, and amassing wealth. It’s an economic system that grinds on, crushing the vulnerable who happen to get caught in the gears. It takes for granted the fact that the Torah specifically forbids charging interest as a form of usury. But here we have it, God’s people deeply embedded in oppressive economy.
Luke doesn’t imagine a way out of this. Everything that happens takes place from within, inside the system. There’s something tragic about this story. In Luke we don’t get a sense that economics can be reformed, that we can stop the machine from rolling along. It’s there. We’re all bound up in dirty money. We eat, live, work, breathe, and survive by it.
But every once in a while, every now and then, someone manages to throw in a wrench. Every once in a while someone manages to make mischief, a disruption that temporarily defies or ignores the economic rules everyone else calls just.
In this parable the reasons for changing up the rules are slimy. What the manager wants is to protect himself. He doesn’t want to be shamed by digging ditches. He wants to assure his future. And he’s smart. The manager knows how the system works, who benefits, what’s at stake, how to make the money work for him, how to get something out of it. He knows how money makes and then controls social arrangements, how it keeps everyone in their place.
Jesus looks at this scene and I imagine he laughs and shakes his head. Here’s a guy paying attention, he says to the disciples, to the crowds, to us. What if his disciples paid attention like this? What if Jesus’ followers actually knew how the system worked, and what if they caused some mischief.
A couple months ago a talk show host gave away $15 million–$15 million of medical debt. The show is hosted by John Oliver and on it he did a segment on the debt-buying industry. U.S. banks currently own 12 trillion dollars of consumer debt. That’s anything from car loans and house payments to college loans or medical or credit card debt.
These banks sell off our debt for pennies on the dollar to a collection agency. Those agencies do their best to collect the debt owed. If they can’t track you down, you don’t have a job, or you can run really fast, then the debt becomes less valuable. The agency will sell it again for even less after writing off its purchase price. At the bottom of this food chain, after multiple depreciations through sale, are unregulated, independent debt collectors–the last ones to buy. They purchase the debt at an absurdly low price and then try to collect it from those who owe, even if the statutes of limitation are up on those debts.
John Oliver created a company on-line to buy this debt at the very bottom. He called it Central Asset Recovery Professionals, or CARP, like the fish that eats detritus. For $60,000 Oliver’s company purchased $15 million of medical debt. This was debt that was too old to be collected under state law, but a loop hole allowed for CARP to continue to try and collect.
Yet instead of harassing his debtors with late night phone calls, Oliver simply forgave the debt. In good TV theatrics he brought out a giant red button and said “are you ready to make television history?” And then he forgave the debt. Just like that. With a giant red button.
Something happens when debt is forgiven. The absurdity of a system is exposed. Because someone was paying attention, we get to see that absurdity, how oppressive economies devastate people’s lives.
But Jesus goes a step beyond this. He’s asking us to pay attention to the way dirty money operates in our economic system because the good news of Jesus Christ requires the disruption of those systems. Throughout the Gospel of Luke the good news is the reversing of social boundaries, boundaries maintained by economic disparity. It’s what Mary sings in Luke 1,
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
And in today’s strange, sleazy parable we discover that something else happens when we engage in the mischief of dirty money. We become bound to one another. We become bound in some unspeakable way. It isn’t a legal matter. No papers are drawn up. No deeds signed. There is simply a recognition that something has been overcome. Something that forged a steely trap of enmity is broken. The forgiveness of the debt makes it possibly to see, even if just for a moment, outside the system of eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth, a system of reciprocity, of payback.
Luke’s Gospel lives close to the people around it, intensely focused on real life, its ear to the ground, attentive to the complexity of daily human life. Luke’s is theology in the dirt.
And so I wonder if Luke knew from looking around him that there are debts we forgive that bind us to one another. There are two types of patronage happening in the story we heard today. The first kind is the strong taking in the weak, the poor indebted to the rich. This kind of patronage is fickle. It depends on getting the job done right. It’s about keeping in line with the system, acting according to the rules.
But there’s a second type of patronage here, another type of friendship. This is the kind that forms between people at the margins of wealth, the periphery of power—between those who are casualties of the system, because they have to, because their lives depend on the dehumanizing system, and they can’t live without participating in it. Luke seems to point us towards these people, towards those who know the system and can find ways to play tricks, to act shrewdly and in the process to find one another.
I wonder if Luke saw, as he wandered the countryside behind Jesus, the ways people overcame social class through this kind of shrewdness. I wonder if he saw how dirty money can throw a wrench into economic systems. I wonder if he knew that, sometimes, we end up finding that we are bound to one another—we are bound together as we pay attention, as we make trouble within a system we cannot escape.
Jesus tells his story as a signpost of heavenly homes. He tells us there is something that outlasts oppressive economics, and that is the bond of love, the debt of love we cannot repay. I was reminded of this last week when getting an update on one of the members of my former church. Kate is dying at a faster-than-average rate from cancer. And Kate also recently learned that she lives in the same town as the doctor who discovered her rare, genetic form of cancer. The doctor who made this discovery won a Nobel Prize for the thousands of hours he spent in the lab discovering her genetic mutation.
Kate, for the debt owed to this man—this doctor who has made it possible for her to extend her life, for her to parent her child a bit longer, to be married a bit longer, to finish writing another book – because of this debt, Kate showed up at his office, and she gave him cupcakes.
The goods we possess, the work of our bodies, the wealth we gather – all of this exists within a relentless system. That’s what Luke tells us. It’s a system of death and destruction. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel isn’t confident that we can redeem these entrenched, tragic economic practices. But this Jesus has seen that every once in a while we have a chance to trouble old economic habits, even if it’s only for a moment. And when this happens, when we do this, when a brief interruption occurs, we participate in the hospitality of heavenly homes.
Luke also reminds us that there is no way to disambiguate our financial and personal lives. Economy is always personal. There are always people who are hurt, who thrive, who starve, who gain, who lose. And Luke pulls no punches when he tells us there is something that keeps us apart, something that creates barriers within the beloved community, something that keeps us from the service of God. When we yield to the system, when we refuse to engage, when we don’t pay attention we have been unfaithful.
Jesus, instead, welcomes us to peer into heavenly homes. At the door of the father welcoming home his wayward son, in the home of the woman rejoicing over her lost coin, in the sleepy flock together at last because all have been left to gather in the one – in each of these stories we discover that there are debts we cannot repay, and there is no way of ever coming to terms, to evening the scale. Instead we live in the constant debt of love, perpetually indebted, eternally giving what we have.
In Luke we are redirected to a life in which there are no strings attached, where we look out for places where, even within the vast corruption of Mamon, we are able to carve out moments in which we are bound to one another, where social barriers are eradicated, where we break the rules.
Brothers and sisters, we are all holding out cupcakes to the Nobel Prize winning doctor who discovered our cancer. We are always finding ourselves unable to repay another, clinging to the bond that forms us, one to the other. In these moments, Jesus says, you will find yourself in God’s home—dwelling in our bond of love, living into the gift of God’s love, heavenly love drawing us into a new world here and now, in our gifts of friendships.