We worry now, but we've been concerned about the economy for a long time. The economic recovery from the recession in America has been slower than we hoped, and people continue to suffer from the collapse of so many industries and jobs and safety nets. Much of the pain seems new for large swaths of the American population. But in reality, we've been worrying about money forever.
The August employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a slight decline in the unemployment rate (down to 7.3 percent from 7.4 percent in July), according to Businessweek. But the drop is largely attributed to a reduction in the workforce of about 300,000. What's more, the participation rate (number of people working or looking for work compared to the total working age population) fell from 63.4 percent to 63.2 percent, the lowest since 1978. The National Employment Law Project noted that much of the job growth in August was in retail and food service, industries that generally offer lower paying and part time jobs.
Even though a growing number of economists see modest and encouraging signs in the recession recovery, the slow growth continues to cause trouble for many Americans. Businessweek writer, Matthew Philips, even questioned whether the economy might be "stuck in second gear" without hope of a more robust "third gear" to propel the recovery forward.
The economic health of the nation has long been a concern to people of faith, because we care for the poor, and poverty has been a persistent problem in rural area and urban centers alike. What's more, we know there are people of all income levels who struggle with money and possessions, and we are concerned about this, too. We worry that people have enough to eat and that wealth not corrupt our best desires and intentions.
I don't know a single person who doesn't include a reference to wealth, or lack thereof, in his or her own personal narrative. "My father was a farmer who never went to college, but I went on the GI bill and now I have a pension," or, "I am teacher; I don't make a lot of money, but I love those kids," or even, "I was blessed by a family inheritance so now I can help others and travel around the world."
Money occupies our minds and our hearts and has done so for a long time. People of faith are not immune to worry about money, nor need they be absent for the national conversation about the economy.
Luke and money
The Gospel of Luke is filled with references and teachings about how the followers of Jesus are to regard money and possessions. Preacher and scholar Fred Craddock says, "Luke has used practically every literary vehicle available to him to put the subject before the reader: the song of Mary (1:46-55), the sermons of John the Baptist (3:10-14), the prophesy of Isaiah 61:1-2 (4:16-30), blessings and woes (6:20-25), and the parable of the rich fool (12:13-21)" (Interpretation: Luke, John Knox Press: Louisville, 1990, p. 189) Jesus is neither oblivious to wealth, or naïve about it, according to the gospel writer, Luke.
Stereotypes about Christians and money
The concluding verse, "You cannot serve God and wealth," brings to mind several stereotypes about Christians and money. First, there is the vow of poverty taken by some men and women when they enter certain religious orders, including Pope Francis, a Jesuit priest. They promise to forgo monetary concerns and turn over their earnings in order to avoid the potentially corrupting effect of wealth accumulation. A vow of poverty is sometimes thought to be a Christian ideal to which all Christians aspire, or should aspire. Critics then charge Christians who do possess wealth with hypocrisy.
Another stereotype is similar: That Christians are overly naïve when they espouse an ethic of wealth equality such as that described in Acts 2. A redistribution of wealth is not possible, nor desirable, critic says. Both stereotypes about Christians and money assume that Christians are not, nor should be, shrewd with wealth.
This reading from Luke 16 challenges both stereotypes. First, Jesus commends a person who had been dishonest with wealth, but then acted shrewdly to protect his future. The story goes that a manager of a rich man's property had been squandering the property; Therefore, the rich man fired him. Before the rich man could inform his debtors about the change in management, the manager approached the debtors and reduced what they owed the rich man. The manager did so to garner their favor, so that when he is out of work, they might look kindly on him.
One would think Jesus would've condemn the dishonesty of the manager and the clever plot to further swindle the rich man out of his receivables in order to secure the manager's future. At the very least, we might think Jesus would've condemned the deep desire for wealth and security that the manager displays. But Jesus doesn't. Instead, he lauds the manager for his cleverness, with an additional complement to "children of this age" (those who are not followers of Jesus), for their shrewdness. And then Jesus encourages people to be faithful to God with their possessions and wealth, not to give it all up.
Now beyond the stereotypes we've hopefully started to debunk, this reading offers a profound teaching that does guide many people of faith in their thinking about money and possessions.
Despite all the potential ethical and practical pitfalls and dangers of wealth accumulation, Jesus is suggesting in this reading that it is possible to manage possessions and money in ways that can lead us into life with God. The key, the starting point for knowing how to do this, is to know the endpoint -- to know what life with God is like. And if we use possessions to gain that life with God, Jesus may commend us, as he did the dishonest manager in the reading. Being shrewd, in this case, means using what we have for God's purposes, rather than squandering what we have for no gain at all.
Jesus says, "If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? (16:11-12)"
What rules your heart?
Being shrewd requires knowing what rules your heart, knowing whom you serve, as Jesus suggests in verse 13. If you serve wealth for its own sake, you will fail. But if you serve God and shrewdly use what you have for God's purposes, you will enjoy the blessings of life with God.
When Christians participate in the national debate about economic recovery and health, they may bring to the conversation shrewdness about the power of wealth to corrupt. But they may also bring shrewdness about how to use wealth to benefit God's entire world and all people. They are not necessarily condemning wealth nor abnegating it. And they are not, by definition, naïve. Instead, they may know that life with God is fulfilling, peaceful, forgiving, just, inclusive, expansive, and filled with joy. And they would rather serve that vision to help those among us who continue to struggle in a weak economy, than a vision of wealth.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.