Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Luke 16:1-13
“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land.”
Well, the language is a little poetic -- but is this sentiment not all around us these days? Turn on the television. Listen to the political discourse. Listen to the feelings that drive that discourse. There is widespread discontent. There is widespread anger. There is widespread fear.
Now some of that is a general sense of dis-ease, perhaps perpetuated by the rapid change in the landscape of our culture and the inability to cope with that change. Yet, there are also real reasons for discontent, for anger and for fear.
Just this week a report came out that talked about the rise in income for the middle class. Yet, that report also indicated that the rise was not across the board. People in cities are better off. Yet rural areas continue to see and experience decline. There is poverty that is hidden because it is scattered in less densely populated areas. When I worked in a small town in New York State, we struggled to get the county government/social services to acknowledge the need for services that came out to where the people were. “We’ll provide space for you to enroll people in food stamps,” our group said. The county refused. Anyone who wanted help had to get themselves to the city where appointments were on a first come, first serve basis. Those without transportation had to find someone who would/could drive them and was then willing to wait – usually all day. The despair in rural areas is growing. Addiction problems are as extensive in the country as they are in the city. Someone told me of a small New York town that has found, finally, an industry. It is making Meth.
I thought, as I looked at the passage from Jeremiah, that we seem to be in a season of mourning in the lectionary. And, Jesus’ parable isn’t much help. It’s a very strange story! What’s going on?
Professor Barbara Rossing says that it’s not clear how we are to judge the characters in this story. But we do need to know about the culture to which Jesus spoke. It too was marked by injustice and the pain that such injustice brings.
“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.” That sounds fairly straightforward. Yet, Jesus’ hearers would have understood a lot that is not readily apparent to us. Rossing says we have to know something about the economic structures of the day. Rossing writes, “Rich landlords and rulers were 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 or "lord" (kyrios, v. 3, 8), along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants.”
We often forget that the Biblical mandate was that interest was not to be charged, because it exploited the poor. Those who heard this parable would have known that although the rich man didn’t charge interest directly, he probably had hidden fees. New Testament scholar William Herzegovina said, “The hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25 percent for money and 50 percent for goods.”
We might look with disdain at such practices. But, can we?
There are many ways we exploit the poor in our own society. Human slavery is not just a TV plot, it is a reality for many who have been brought into this country for various reasons. Some are “in debt” to those who brought them – a debt which they are told can be paid for with work -- farm workers, domestics, sex trade workers. Yet, the debt is never repaid because the “interest” is exorbitant. I was astounded when I moved to Florida at the fee I was charged to get license plates for our cars. For two cars it was over $800. How does a poor person who might need a car to be able to work afford such a great expense? Fees disproportionately impact the poor. Or, our society complains about the poor and demands that they work. Yet affordable child care is not easily found. So, the poor work and spend all they earn to care for their children.
There is pain that comes from economic injustice in our own society. We are, as well, tied to the economies of other countries and cultures. Where was what you are wearing today made? Who produced the food that you will eat? What about the furniture in your house?
“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land.” Perhaps it is God’s call to us, to ask us to look at our world realistically and see its pain, mourn the ways in which it is broken and hurting. God’s good news does not deny the realities of this world. It wades into the midst of its pain, its suffering, its brokenness and brings hope, transformation, and healing. The prophets tell us again and again that closing our eyes and speaking easily and glibly of God’s love and of hope will not do. We need to look deeper than the façade, deeper than empty promises. We are the people who know that God has promised a new heart, a new creation.
Some scholars muse that what happened in the parable is that the manager cut out the interest and reduced the amount owed to the original debt. We don’t know if the rich man was a Jew or Gentile. If he was Jewish, he may have felt compelled to act according to the Torah and forgive the debt. Or, it may be that the steward reduced the debt by his own cut. We don’t know!
In the verses following the parable, Jesus personifies wealth, calling it Mammon. (Although the New Revised Standard just uses the word wealth. We may lose something in that translation.) “If then you have not been faithful with dishonest Mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?” It is a strange statement. Rossing wonders if the idea Jesus is presenting is “to use the master's tools (unrighteous Mammon) to dismantle the master's house (the unjust debt structure).”
Such an interpretation might drive us to consider the ways that debt enslaves so many in our world. She cites the crippling debt that many third world nations have – debt accepted by leaders without regard to the impact it has on the general population. Again, in our own country we can talk about the ways that those who are struggling are often faced with debt that becomes burdensome. Those who have little often pay much higher interest rates than those who have resources. Or, one of the issues that has come to the forefront this campaign year is student debt. I heard an NPR program that talked about the ways that debt became a source of income for businesses, so interest rates surged. I can see the burden in my own daughter’s life.
Rossing goes on to note another difficult verse. “And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” Our hearing of that tends to side with the rich man. It was his wealth. We think that the steward cheated him out of what was rightfully his. But, Rossing says, we could as easily hear it the other way. “Jesus might be talking about being faithful to what rightfully belonged to the peasants who were being disinherited of their land.”
I remember when Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream first became nationally known, the founders of the company decided that they would make sure that their salary would be limited so that the employees of the company could fully share in the company’s success. They saw, they recognized, they supported the idea that the company could exist only with good, well-paid employees. Now, I don’t know what happened in later years – especially when it was sold to a parent company and the founders left. Because we know that, too often, corporate heads are paid exorbitant salaries and bonuses while employees struggle. The gap between rich and poor – even the working poor—has grown in our country.
It is a season for mourning. But, we, God’s people, do not mourn without hope. We know that there is a balm in Gilead. We face the ills of this world, of our own nation, of our own communities, of our own lives because we know that God is present in the midst of them, calling and inviting us to move forward in ways that seek God’s good intent anew. We do so not just for ourselves, but for this world, this world that God created in love. The balm is truly God’s presence. But that balm is spread in and through the lives of God’s faithful – who dream of better days, of fuller justice, of God’s intent revealed to those who despair and who work and speak on behalf of that vision.