Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
September 18, 2016
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 20C
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Amid all of the name-calling, mud-slinging, vulgarity, and demagoguery of the current US presidential election campaign, any meaningful discussion of income inequality has receded into the deep background and the white-noise of what now passes for political “discourse” in America. So, it may be worth remembering that Thursday marked the “eighth anniversary” of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the beginning of the “Great Recession,” described by politicians, economists, and pundits alike as the worst economic catastrophe in the nation’s history since the “Great Depression” of the 1930s. And, even so, lobbyists are still hard at work to eviscerate any meaningful structural reforms that seek to prevent another such calamity in the future. Meanwhile, extreme income inequality in America continues to surge and is likely to get much worse over the next ten years as the United States struggles to adjust to a post-industrial, globalized economy dominated by free trade, robotics, and the revolutionary innovations of the digital age. With most of the financial gains of these last eight years going to the top ten-percent of the population, one economist after another has pronounced that the “good old days” of a burgeoning economy and an expanding middle-class are gone and will likely never return. Some economists even estimate that the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in America is headed toward a 20 to 80 ratio within the next decade—precisely the divide that exists right now in China between the 20% of its population living in the economically booming cities and the 80% still toiling in the vast Chinese countryside. Almost 47 million Americans—15% of the population, most of them women and children—are now living in poverty; the top 1% of Americans possess 23% of the nation’s wealth; and the 400 richest Americans have a combined net-worth larger than the monetary value of the entire Russian economy.
So, it’s interesting, if not auspicious, that today’s readings from the holy prophet Amos and the Gospel according to Saint Luke for this Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost happen to coincide with the fall election campaign and this dubious “anniversary” of sorts in our national life. It’s most certainly a “sign” if not a “wonder” because, if you change the purely agricultural imagery, this morning’s passage from the prophet Amos reads like an indictment of Wall Street’s criminal shenanigans drawn directly from the news accounts of the crash in 2008. If you keep the agrarian imagery of the passage, it quite accurately and graphically describes the daily life of the more than two billion of the world’s population who subsist on less than one dollar per day, what Pope Francis referred to at Saint Mother Teresa’s canonization two weeks ago as “the crime of impoverishment.” Things have really not changed that much over the last two-thousand years insofar as economics and ethics are concerned. Most of the world’s peoples still live in abject poverty, and even the poor in the developed world live in relative comfort compared to the poor in the vast developing world.
When we come to this morning’s Gospel, however, things get somewhat murkier. Jesus’ parable of the wealthy landowner and his inept steward or “estate manager” requires us to reconstruct the economy of first-century Palestine if we want to grasp the full impact of Jesus’ teaching. In that time and place, the land and its produce, not money, were the principal currency and source of wealth. There were the few, very wealthy landowners and the very many sharecroppers and tenant-farmers who subsisted on whatever produce remained after paying their rent in kind, not cash. Most landowners were absentee—many of them city dwellers—and they managed their vast estates with a chief steward or estate-manager whose life was much less strenuous than the existence of peasants toiling in the fields. During the time of Jesus, as a result of poor crops and increasing Roman taxes, many tenant-farmers and sharecroppers were losing their land. This forced them to fall to the very bottom of that agrarian society by becoming “day-laborers” who would show up at the center of a village in the morning and hope that someone might hire them for a day’s work—much like the migrant workers toiling in American fields or standing on the street-corners of many American cities on any morning of the week, hoping for a day’s work.
In Jesus’ parable, a shrewd, but inept estate manager is about to be fired by his boss for “squandering his property.” The parable doesn’t detail the steward’s mismanagement, but his dismissal will require an accounting of his unhappy tenure. He also knows that he is about to become unemployed in a predominantly agricultural economy, and he will probably need to survive for a while on any commission he can manage to wrest from the agricultural produce of his master’s tenant-farmers. Knowing that he is unsuited to field work, the steward anticipates that he will shortly be dependent on the kindness and hospitality of those very farmers working his master’s lands. So, he goes to each of them and practices the so-called art of the deal. He cuts their huge and outstanding debts to the landowner by half, securing for himself their good will, but defrauding the landowner of one-half of the income due from his land. And, oddly, this may actually benefit the master, because now there is at least a prospect that his sharecroppers will be able to pay him at least something of their impossible and burgeoning debts. The sharecroppers, on the other hand, are thrilled to have their debt burden cut in half! So, everyone seems satisfied with the arrangement, and the landowner ends by commending his “shrewd” and “dishonest” steward for his enterprise and, as they say in Yiddish, his “chutzpah.” In short, in a thoroughly inequitable and corrupt economic system, in which land is wealth, and you either own it or work it for subsistence, all parties in the parable have made their peace with dishonesty, corruption, and loss. Once again, if you disregard the agrarian imagery, the world of the parable has an all-too-familiar ring, doesn’t it?
Now, what may be surprising about this morning’s Gospel is Jesus’ astonishment and apparent admiration for the corrupt manager’s shrewdness and resourcefulness. He essentially tells his disciples: “Now look, if this is the sort of shrewdness and enterprise that the ‘children of this age’ have ‘in dealing with their own [corrupt] generation,’ what might the ‘children of light’ accomplish? If those who traffic in dishonesty and crass wealth are capable of such enterprise and resourcefulness, what might real disciples accomplish when eternity is at stake?” So Jesus tells them, “Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Yes, that’s right. Jesus actually counsels his followers to emulate the shrewdness—if not the dishonesty itself—of the steward by aiding the poor and ameliorating their lot after the manager’s example. And this should come as no surprise, because Jesus has already told these disciples in his “Sermon on the Plain” in Saint Luke’s Gospel that the blessed poor and the wretched of the earth are the ones destined to “inherit the kingdom of God.” These are the “eternal homes” for which his disciples should be striving, and it is their treatment of the poor that will ultimately determine their true inheritance at the last. When “God will be all in all,” and Jesus comes “to judge both the living and the dead,” the legacy of eternity will belong to those who, like the shrewd and dishonest steward of the parable—regardless of motivation—have forgiven the debt of the struggling poor. And are not all of us “debtors” before the Throne of Grace? After all, Jesus did, in the original, teach his disciples to pray: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; and save us from the time of trial.”
Well, Jesus never ceases to startle us with the intensity of his parables. Like every good rabbi, he draws us into the world of his story with arresting images and comparisons to illustrate the mainstays of Torah piety: repentance, prayer, and works of charity. Even a shrewd and dishonest estate manager, motivated by fear of want and sheer, unalloyed self-interest, who helps the poor sharecroppers of a wealthy landowner, can inspire in the “children of light” a genuine virtue of the “kingdom of God.” And, my sisters and brothers in Christ, that’s you and I who have been illumined through Holy Baptism and are sharers in this morning’s Eucharistic feast. Once again, Jesus reminds us that our every action and decision—even in the corrupted currents of this world—have great consequence for “the life of the world to come.” For “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 you with true riches…No slave can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and wealth.”
My friends, you and I did not design the corrupt economic system, the networks of “dishonest wealth,” in which we live and make our way in this world. Try as we may—even in the wake of the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression”—we, through our current crop of elected officials, as well as those on the horizon, can’t seem to do very much to change—or even to regulate—the widespread, structural inequities of our so-called liberal market-economy, known in another era as “laissez-faire capitalism,” which places wealth above the dignity of labor and the laborer and pays vast sums of money even to reward failure. Jesus is probably right, “the poor you will always have with you” until the final redemption. This morning, however, Jesus is also reminding us that the poor, the growing and expanding wretched of the earth, hold the keys to “the kingdom of God.” Our concern for and treatment of those poor will be the measure by which we are measured—as individuals and as a society—because, as Jesus also taught, “Where you treasure is, there will your heart also be.” “And I tell you, make friends for yourself by the means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they [the poor and the exploited] may welcome you into the eternal homes.” As Pope Francis has continually reminded the world during this “Jubilee Year of Mercy,” “The measure of a society’s greatness is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty.” Now that caution is worth remembering for any who would “make America great again”!