Jesus and Another Story of Debt Cancellation 

Herb Montgomery | September 16, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.

“Am I prioritizing relationships with people over and above the rules that capitalism continues to try to program us with as to how to play its game? If we do this, in the end, we may make less and our net worths may be less, but our investments in people and in relationships will be greater or possibly developed in a different direction than our present capitalist system would have sent us.”

Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.Then the manager said to himself, What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.So, summoning his masters debtors one by one, he asked the first, How much do you owe my master?He answered, A hundred jugs of olive oil.He said to him, Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, And how much do you owe?He replied, A hundred containers of wheat.He said to him, Take your bill and make it eighty.And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And 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.

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.” (Luke 16:1-13)

This week’s reading puts serving God and serving wealth in tension. “Serving God” is a phrase that should be read in the context of the reign or kingdom of God. We can understand the gospel phrase “the kingdom of God” as God’s just future here on Earth, a new iteration of our present world where there is economic, social, and political justice. In that kingdom, resources and power are distributed with equity and everyone has what they need to not just survive but also to thrive. It’s a world where the rain falls and the sun shines on all.

In this context, we can begin to understand why, intrinsically, you cannot both serve this vision for human community and serve the interests of wealth. This is difficult for us in our capitalist culture to grasp. Jesus’ economic teachings in the gospels assume that there is enough for everyone to thrive abundantly because our heavenly Parent provides for us. Wealth is created when someone begins storing up more than they need, which creates a deficit for somewhere for someone else.

There’s a slightly different lesson in the manna story in the Exodus tradition. For those who tried to store or hoard more than they needed instead of sharing with others who had gathered less, the manna “bred worms and became foul” by the next day. In this example you simply could not amass a “wealth” of manna. It was impossible.

This, along with the debt forgiveness of the Torah, is an economic Jewish tradition Jesus was standing in firmly within his own culture. For the oppressed community of the gospels for whom Jesus’ teachings held deepest meaning, it was clear that one could not serve both wealth and people because one would have to choose between individual opulence and community thriving. (Certain Indigenous traditions also speak of this contrast in their ancient wisdom. See Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation by George E. Tinker.)

Someone somewhere has to suffer loss for wealth to be created, but Jesus taught that that someone somewhere was an object of Divine Universal love for whom the sun was also shining and the rain falling (Matthew 5:45).

As the saying goes “Each day there’s enough for every person’s needs, but not every person’s greeds.” Wealth means having more of what one needs while others do not. In Jesus’ worldview, however, it’s not about everyone having the same quantity, but everyone having the same quality. Some people don’t need as much to thrive. Others need more. In a just world vision with God as the Great, Just Householder, no one has too much while others don’t have enough.

Dishonest Wealth

Our story this week is a lesson on how to use “dishonest wealth” to benefit people.

This strange story only appears in Luke’s version of the gospels and has troubled Christians from the very beginning. Based on this trouble, many of the most progressive historical Jesus scholars attribute this story to the historical, Jewish Jesus.

To be clear, I don’t interpret this story as determining the moral value of dishonest business dealing, embezzlement, or fuzzy accounting. What it does do is commend the manager for his shrewdness in using managing accounts to create relationships for him to fall back on when his current employment ends.

What I glean from this story is a call to look at my priorities within our system as I imagine and work toward a different iteration of our world. What am I prioritizing? Is wealth, creating more capital in order to create even more capital, my priority? Or am I prioritizing people, using the current world and its resources to create relationships with others? Am I prioritizing relationships with people over and above the rules that capitalism continues to try to program us with as to how to play its game? If we do this, in the end, we may make less and our net worths may be less, but our investments in people and in relationships will be greater or possibly developed in a different direction than our present capitalist system would have sent us.

I mentioned Biden’s modest student loan forgiveness program last week. For some parts of the country, Biden’s approval ratings have shot up as a result of him doing exactly what we read about in this week’s story. In the story, a steward told people who owed money to cancel portions of their debts to increase his favor with them, and the manager doing this was not moralistically scolded but commended as being wise.

The uproar among some Christians about Biden’s recent actions reminds me of how this story attributed to Jesus has troubled wealthy Jesus followers from the start. But to those scratching out an existence in the 1st Century and the economically marginalized who comprised most of the early Jesus movement, this story must have resonated deeply. It was this demographic, like today, who deeply wished someone would step in and simply cancel or forgive their debt.

I like that we have an example from our sacred stories of Jesus that mirrors what we see happening around us in our modern society here in the U.S. It’s nice to see our U.S. government economically doing something I actually agree with, which is a rarity. I like the idea of forgiving debt for people who are victims of predatory loans for something as valuable as an education. I wish all of it was forgiven! I want to live in a more educated society and support using part of our society’s wealth to create a more educated populace. It encourages me that despite those Christian friends who are up in arms about this small amount of loan forgiveness, this week’s story tells us this is exactly the kind of thing we should favor as Jesus followers.

So which value system have we allowed to shape us more: Are we capitalists first or are we Jesus followers first? Have we allowed the values and ethics of the Jesus story that we hold so dear to shape the kinds of people we are becoming, or have we allowed the value system of capitalism to shape how we see the world.

These questions are far more than partisan politics. They help me to question what it is that I’m choosing to shape the way I live.

What is shaping you?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What other possible applications or lessons do you glean from this week’s parable? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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That’s all for this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

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