Sunday, September 22, 2013

Free Financial Advice for the Filthy Rich (and the filthy middle-class, too)

Warning: This blog gets personal. It’s about one of the most intimate relationships we have in our lives -- our relationship with money.

Whether we love it or hate it, we all have feelings about money. I never feel like I ever have enough of it. When I waste it, I get depressed. Gambling makes me physically ill. When other people rip me off, it incenses me. When I am heavily in debt, I can’t sleep at night. And on those rare occasions when I have a lot of it in the bank, I’m happy, happy, happy.

Well, if you’re like me and you care about money, Luke 16:1-12 is a text you might want to pay attention to because Jesus offers us some free financial advice: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Say what?! Well, it’s the punch-line to the parable he told. And, it’s a hard one.

As the story goes, there is a master who has so much property that he has to hire a manager to take care of it for him. The manager does a terrible job and he gets himself fired. He knows that, without a job, he’s going to end up on the streets, so he devises a plan. Before he hands over the books, he goes to all the people who owe his master money and tells them they can settle their debts for a rock bottom price, much less than they actually owe. As a result, they all think he’s the greatest guy ever, so when his master boots him to the curb, he’s counting on the fact that they’ll feel sorry for him and take care of him. Unethical? Yes. Stupid? No.

Now, if you’re listening to this story for the first time, you can probably predict how it’s going to end. The master is going to find out what his slimy former employee has done and he’s going to go ballistic! But we’re talking about Jesus here, a storyteller famous for his surprising endings. So this is what happens… The master doesn’t blow a gasket. Instead, he is absolutely delighted with his dishonest manager and he praises him for being so shrewd.

“So I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes,” Jesus says. Is he telling us to be dishonest in our business practices? A key to understanding what he’s getting at can be found by looking at the larger context of this puzzling parable.

Immediately before this story in Luke, we read the story of the Prodigal Son, a guy who also finds himself in a lot of trouble when he can’t manage his money. He ends up going home to Daddy. And then, immediately after today’s passage, comes the story of two men: one is a rich man who is all decked out in fancy clothes; the other is a poor guy named Lazarus, who is dressed in sores, which apparently taste good to dogs. Lazarus is starving and longs to eat the rich man’s garbage. Well, both men die. Lazarus is carried into Abraham’s bosom. The rich man goes to Hades. Hmmm.

So, if you read today’s parable in context, within Luke, you could conclude that Jesus is saying we should use our dishonest wealth to make friends with the poor so that when we kick the bucket, the poor might just welcome us into eternity. According to Jesus, no one gets into heaven without a letter of recommendation from the poor.

Exploitation of the poor was a problem in Biblical times. Look again at today’s reading from Amos and you can see it was a practice that goes way back. “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘We can’t wait for our next opportunity to cheat the poor out of their money.’” For prophets like Amos, and Jesus, this was an affront to God and they couldn’t stand by and say nothing while blatant exploitation of the poor was taking place.

I read this week about billionaire hedge fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller’s assessment of the Federal Reserve’s current policy of quantitative easing. This lowering of interest rates is good for all Americans, right? Well, when 80% of the stocks and other assets in this country are owned by the top 10%, think about who stands to benefit the most. Druckenmiller says, “This is fantastic for every rich person. This is the biggest redistribution of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich ever.” What do you think Amos and Jesus would have to say about that?

Last week Congress voted to cut 40 billion dollars in food stamps from both the unemployed and the working poor. What do you think Amos and Jesus would have to say about that? Well, I know what they would say, actually. What I really wonder about is why people like us, followers of Jesus, don’t have much to say about the exploitation of the poor? Do we not see it?

Did we not see all the people who never thought they would ever be able to afford a home, and were offered the opportunity in a deal that seemed too good be true, but too good not to pass up? Now they’ll be paying for that decision for the rest of their lives.

Did we not see all the students who didn’t know how they’d ever be able to pay for college until they were offered a student loan that seemed like the answer to their prayers? Then they graduated from school $100,000 in debt. Now they’re financially crippled for most of their adult lives because of a decision they made when they were young and clueless and vulnerable.

Did we not see the people who ended up maxing their credit cards to get through a period of unemployment? They were sure they’d soon be back to work and they’d be able to pay it all off. And after that credit card maxed, they went on to another one. And before they knew it, they were in debt up to their eyeballs and they couldn’t even afford to pay the 30+% interest rate. Really, a 30+% interest rate?

Things haven’t changed much since the days of Amos. And the words of Jesus ring truer than ever.

Of course, it’s easy for us to point fingers at Donald Trump and others in his filthy rich club for exploiting the poor. But when we spend too much time doing that, we miss the larger picture. And in the larger picture, on a global scale, WE are the wealthy. If we have fresh drinking water, a roof over our heads, an automobile, and at least one meal today, we’re wealthy by global standards.

No, we may not consider ourselves filthy rich, but we’re not exactly poor either. So is it possible to be filthy middle-class? If the word filthy bothers you, try using the word from Luke 16: dishonest. And actually, there’s a better translation for the word Jesus uses here. In its original language, the word that’s translated dishonest here was the word for unjust or unfair. And it’s a good descriptor for wealth. Because wealth is always unfair.  

It’s hard to know how to live with that. For example, I think of my own struggle with Wal-Mart. For many years I refused to shop there. Among other things, I detested the way they treated their employees.  Wal-Mart employs more people than any other company in the United States outside of the Federal government, yet the majority of its employees with children live below the poverty line. To me, shopping at Wal-Mart is participating in injustice, exploiting the poor. But, guess what. I was just in Wal-Mart on Friday, and it wasn’t the first time for me within the past year or two. So, what did it for me? What got me to close my eyes to the poor people I’m trampling on every time those magic doors slide apart at Wal-Mart and I enter in? I can tell you in two simple words: prescription drugs. The medicine for my dog Pooky is so cheap at Wal-Mart, why would I buy it anywhere else? My passion for justice only goes so far when it interferes with the relationship I have with money.

Of course, this isn’t the only time I exploit the poor. Whenever I buy something to wear or something to eat and I pride myself on what a great deal I’ve gotten, there’s a very good chance that that great deal for me was a raw deal for someone else.

Wealth is a challenge to us when we try to live justly. At its core, it’s always related to accidents of birth or fate or historical injustice. At the very least, we have to acknowledge that we live on stolen land as the beneficiaries of ethnic cleansing in the past.

Wealth is important to us, and in order to have more of it, we’re all a party to injustices that we’re not proud of. But there is hope in this parable for us. If our money is tainted, we can still use it for good. If we can’t be perfect, we can at least be generous.

Jesus challenges us to consider the relationship we have with money: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

For Jesus, there’s a clear connection between how people handle earthly and spiritual things. So, as people who are way too attached to material wealth, what are we to do? If it’s true that, as Jesus says, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, then what hope is there for us?

A story in Luke 19 offers a way. Jesus enters Jericho and goes right over to the wealthiest guy in town, who has by his own admission gotten rich by cheating others. The man’s name is Zaccheus, and in the end, he gives half his money to the poor and repays those he has cheated times four. When Jesus sees what Zaccheus does, he says something astonishing. “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Generosity is not in itself salvation, certainly. But generosity IS a sign that one’s heart is right with God.

And so, the good news is that God does save the rich, and there are clear signs when this happens. May it be so with us.

 

 

 

 

2 comments:

Kaye said...

I've read this post 3 times and I'm still trying to understand the Biblical text that says in addition to accepting the gift of the gospel Christians need a recommendation from the poor to enter Heaven. I too refuse to shop at Walmart for the same reasons. However, I'm probably shopping at stores in the same category. When I share my views about restructuring the way corporations/business pays its employees, people gasp that I am touting Socialism. I strongly believe the 400 to 1 ratio of pay between the highest paid employee and the lowest is plain wrong. What workers earn is the business world is kept private. My son who has a degree in Accounting/Finance explained to me that labor is in the expense column. The goal is to keep expenses low (apparently the management, owners and shareholders are not expenses.) If the ratio (I believe Hillary Clinton shared this ratio several years ago) were halved wouldn't we all benefit? Is is pure greed that binds our economic system? Does it not hurt to watch the poor suffer? The Christian Right says it is the fault of the poor; that their plight is due to their own lack of effort and their involvement in crime, drugs and sex. Perhaps if they were part of the economic system the poor would not have to rely on the crumbs of the rich. If Jesus does tell us in Luke 16: 1-12 that it is through the poor that we enter Heaven, then those who screaming the loudest that they are Christians have totally missed the fundamental truth that faith must bear fruit. Oh, I am forgetting that corporations are individuals. Well, that is something to be addressed first. And the cycle goes on ... the poor will always be with us.

Nancy said...

Hi, Kaye --
I'm amazed that you read this post three times! To respond to your first point, it's a conclusion based upon both parables in Luke 16, the combined impact of them. When you look at the two of them together, that seems to be what Jesus is saying. Now, whether he meant that literally or he was just using hyperbole is the question. I would go with hyperbole. But I wouls also say that when Jesus preached about eternal life, it wasn't just about going to heaven someday when we die. It also was about the way we live our lives here on earth. In the next parable, the one about the rich man and Lazarus, the chasm was created on earth. It seems to me that the way we relate to the poor has a strong connection to the way we experience the abundant life (eternal life) Jesus wants for us, whether in this world or the next. Sometimes I think that maybe heaven is a place we all experience together, but for some of us spending eternity with those we despise would be hell.
-- Nancy