About a month ago, President Biden announced a plan to offer student loan relief for low- to middle-income earning borrowers. The reaction has been all over the place. Those owing thousands of dollars have expressed tremendous gratitude and relief, often chained to an albatross of debt with no hope of financial stability. Critics have argued that taxpayers should not bear the financial burden of funding what is essentially seen as privilege and access to financial advancement that is only accessible to a few. Supporters have pointed to the fact that the cost of college has tripled since the 1980s, even accounting for inflation, while things like Pell grants, which once covered 80% of college costs now only cover 33%.[i] Meanwhile, I have heard critics say, “I had to pay all my student loans back myself. So should they!”
What has struck me in this debate, and quite frankly any debate about money these days, is we tend to take a very individualist view of the issue. We debate and argue about what is fair to me personally, why one individual should be privileged over another, or why he or she gets more or less than me. But what we rarely question is the financial system within which we operate, the very structure surrounding and shaping our relationships that gives no regard for you, or me, or her, or him, or them.
That is what our tantalizing gospel lesson is all about. A wealthy man’s manager is accused of mismanaging funds and is facing termination. In the face of the threat, the manager sneakily collaborates with the rich man’s debtors to reduce their debts – anywhere from 25-50% of what they owed.[ii] And when the boss finds out, we all hold our breath, waiting for the wealthy man’s wrath. But the story goes sideways. The owner compliments the manager for his shrewdness – instead of anger, he has the owner’s admiration. And then, as if to keep us disoriented, Jesus says the enigmatic: make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.
When we tell stories in Godly Play, like our kids are hearing today in the Narthex, the last thing we imagine is a lesson where the teacher says, “Okay, kids, today I want to teach about how to be manipulative and sneaky in case you get into trouble.” So, what is going on in this parable? Our first problem seems to be in the title of the parable, “The parable of the dishonest steward.”[iii] Perhaps if this parable was called, “The parable of the corrupting power of money,” we might be in a better place to understand what Jesus is trying to teach us. You see, Jesus is living in “…Roman-occupied Galilee in the first century. Rich landlords and rulers [are] loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man…along with his steward or debt collector, [are] both exploiting desperate peasants.”[iv] To Jesus, this is not a story about an individual behaving badly, but about a system that is failing to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.[v]
So, what is this “make friends with dishonest wealth” stuff? What Jesus is saying is wealth has the power to corrupt and shape an unjust system for all. Our primary responsibility as followers of Christ is to love our neighbors. We are not likely to be able to dismantle entire economic systems. But we can tend to relationships with others, not seeing that I get fairness personally, or even that I get testy about what one person has over what I have, but seeing that we are responsible for one another. In our relationships with one another – the wealthy, the poor, and everyone in between – and for that matter, those who go to college, those who do not, and everyone in between – our relationships with one another and our ability to see one another’s humanity and beloved status before God is our work.
Now, loving each other (even those people we do not particularly like) does not mean that we suddenly get to wipe our hands free of money. In fact, one scholar argues this, “We not only are entrusted with the vision of the kingdom of heaven; we are given the treasures of the King! Even in the present age, with the imperfect treasures of this world, we are stewards of God.”[vi] We cannot escape the power of money. But we can prioritize our care for one another, carefully and shrewdly showing the world how we can use the sometimes-corrupting power of money for good. Our invitation this week is to hold on to the disorientation of this parable, examining how our relationships with others are being pushed and pulled by the power of money – and how we might more shrewdly use that power of money for good – for you, for me, and for everyone in between. Amen.
[i] “FACT SHEET: President Biden Announces Student Loan Relief for Borrowers Who Need It Most,” The White House, August 24, 2022, as found at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/08/24/fact-sheet-president-biden-announces-student-loan-relief-for-borrowers-who-need-it-most/ on September 17, 2022.
[ii] Barbara Rossing, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13,” Working Preacher, September 18, 2016, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25-3/commentary-on-luke-161-13-2 on September 17, 2022.
[iii] The idea of renaming this parable comes from Matt Skinner on the podcast, “#862: 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 25C) – September 18, 2022,” September 5, 2022 as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/862-15th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-25c-september-18-2022 on September 17, 2022.
[v] Micah 6.8
[vi] Helen Montgomery Debevoise, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 96.