Money, Manna, Marriage, Mercy

Money, Manna, Marriage, Mercy September 14, 2014

Pentecost 14  parable of compassionate employerIf the government declared that the leaves of the trees were money, wrote Frederick Buechner in Whistling in the Dark, so there would be enough for everybody, money would be worthless.  It has worth only if there is not enough for everybody.  It has worth only because the government declares that it has worth and because people trust the government in that one particular although, in every other particular, they wouldn’t trust the government around the corner.

Pentecost 14  The Help PosterJesus’ story about money says there was an employer who cared about everybody having enough.  This employer hired workers at dawn for what they agreed was quite a fair wage, and then he kept on hiring more workers all day long, even late into the afternoon.  At dusk he paid them all the same.  And the ones who had worked all day, instead of feeling proud that they had earned good wages, were furious because everybody got as much as they did.  Everybody didn’t deserve this much money, they said.  And the employer said this argument wasn’t about worth, it was about generosity, his generosity.  And I’ve yet to meet anyone who was convinced by this argument.

Frederick Buechner is correct, money has value when there isn’t enough for everyone.  And that’s what the all-day workers felt:  devalued.  From the employer’s point of view, this abundance was about his generosity.  From the worker’s point of view, it should have been about what they had done.

Pentecost 14  Manna in the wilderness iconThe lectionary pairs this reading with the story of manna in the wilderness, which the people following Moses were given in response to their complaining, their grumbling that they longed for the food they had had in Egypt, when they were slaves.  There they worked morning till night in misery, and they had been happy to leave.  But now they remembered the food had been plentiful.  In the wilderness, it was hard times, and uncertain meals.

The manna came, morning and evening, in answer to their prayers and pangs.  At first they were grateful.  But then some wanted to have more. They got up earlier and worked faster at gathering it.  And they tried to hoard it, but they couldn’t.  Everyone got the same share, when it came to eating.  The stored up manna rotted, and the emptiest jars were full.  Not being able to control the manna made people angry.  So food became a form of money.  Poor people have always known that.  But this was holy food, so no one got rich.

And we tend to do this with almost everything.  Monetizing everything.  Who’s got the bigger car, better house, nicer clothes, etc.  And we tell ourselves we’ve earned what we have, and if we have more we can be proud of our hard work.  And if we have less, it shows we didn’t work hard enough.

SPentecost 14  marriageome men value women and children in this way, monetizing them as assets – valued in the getting, then devalued when no longer prized.  We’ve spent the week watching replays of football player Ray Rice punching his woman on an elevator, and hearing about football player Adrian Peterson switch whipping his child.  The details of their personal situations are not, to me, as relevant as the statistics that, in the US, 30% of women and 10% of men are subjected to physical abuse in intimate relationships.   And 12 out of every 1000 children under 18 suffer some form of physical abuse.  Abuse occurs in every social category and all races.

Pentecost 13 Could Silence Protect Us 2007 vanderbilt UNot long ago plenty of Christian preachers argued that marriages should be preserved no matter what was going on in them.   Physical abuse was hidden, no one spoke about such things, except perhaps to sigh and say, Poor woman.   Now we ask, in horror, why does anyone stay in such a relationship?   But we still don’t address the question Jesus raises:  why are we ungenerous toward one another? Why do we look away from one another’s suffering and lacks?  Why do we want to have more than our neighbors?  Why do we hate the people we love?

Our culture evaluates marriages in the same way the workers in Jesus’ parable evaluated their pay, and the manna hoarders their supplies:  who has the most?  who worked hardest?   who gets the prize?  In marriages, the most and the hardest working are seen in how many years you’ve been married; how many children you have;  how much prosperity you enjoy; how the kids turn out.  And the prize is the Trophy Wife or the Rich Husband.  All of these are forms of hoarding, really, and they become the basis of awarding marriage value.  None of these standards were held up by Jesus, who spent most of his time with people who were not married, or had left their families (Peter), or were afflicted with disease or had ill children.Pentecost 14  manna bread

Of marriage, Jesus said, in the kingdom it doesn’t exist.  Of money, he said why not pay everyone the same?  Of manna (bread) he said, this is my body broken for you, remember that every time you eat it.  And of abuse he said, The Samaritan, who tended to the beaten man’s wounds, did what God wants.

Why are we wanting the stories to end differently?   Why do we want it to be that the one who has the most things, wins?  Or that love belongs to one group and not another?  Or that some marriages are shameful while others are honorable?  Why are we so cocksure in our pieties, saying, in Jesus’ name, that winners deserve their prizes?

The last shall be first, Jesus said.  May it be so.

_________________________________________________________

Illustrations:

1.  Parable of the Compassionate Employer.  Poster. Google Images.

2.  The Help movie poster.  Google Images.

3.  Manna in the Wilderness icon.  Google Images.

4.  Marriage egg photo.  Google Images.

5.  Could Silence Protect Us?  Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition

6.  Manna Loaves.  Google Images.

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  • Bob Scharf

    Interesting questions, but far too utopian to be taken seriously.

    I think of my parents, who were both scarred by poverty during the Depressioin, and worked very hard to wrest some sense of economic security for our family. This was made all the more urgent by my mother’s heart condition and by my physical disability.

    While our wider family and the community expressed great sympathy towards our family, my Dad knew that our ultimate well-being rested on his shoulders.

    So he worked diligently to pay off the mortgage on our farm, and saved and invested his savings. At his death a decade ago, he left an estate worth over a million dollars.

    I don’t think he died thinking that because at the end he had more wealth than some that he had somehow ‘won’. I think he felt that he had fought the good fight against an indifferent universe and wanted to pass that wealth on, to insure that his heirs wouldn’t have to struggle as much as he and my mother had had to.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, and for emphasizing that life is hard, indeed. I think the Depression etched many hearts, in different ways. My mother remained unwilling to spend a cent, and my father continually had to cajole her, coax her, or just go out and get things without telling her, then help her accept it, which she did. After his death, we struggled to get her to spend some of her money on things to make her own life easier. It was always an uphill battle. And in her case, though she did want to leave something to us, it was that she lived in fear of not having enough. It sounds like your father won the battle of his own self-confidence and trust in life, and good for him. My mother lost hers. I really was thinking of those who amass fortunes for the pleasure of doing that, and love the thrill of besting others in doing that, not those who have real need to provide for people they love, people who depend on them and who may have great need. In our consumer-driven culture, wanting more is an attitude we all learn every day, from ads, from each other. Greed has become a virtue in America. Jay Leno has over 100 cars. Many have multiple homes, while many more live in squalor. How are we Christians, if we ignore this? I am most interested in your comment about your father’s belief (and perhaps yours) in an indifferent universe. For Christians, the fundamental force at work in this universe is love. That does not obviate the need to work for our living. But changes the focus of what we are working for. Your father worked, you write, for love. Whatever he thought of the universe, he anchored his life in you and your mom.

  • Don’t really know where to start here….but I will go with the marriage question. After motherhood, I would say marriage is probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to deal with and I am not very good at it. I frequently point out what I see as “perfect” married couples to my husband and wonder how they do it and he always responds, “you have no idea what goes on behind closed doors”. Overall, I feel hostile to anyone who seems to think they are a superior parent or superior couple. It is just not that simple. As far as money is concerned, as part of my work, I have spent years watching migrants with nothing, risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean from northern Africa and searching a better future in Europe, thousands of them dying in the attempt. In sharp contrast next weekend I will go to Venice to cover George Clooney’s wedding to the beautiful Lebanese lawyer Amal Alamuddin which is going to be a glittery, glamourous extravaganza with who knows how many millions being spent. For starters they are occupying two 7-star hotel in Venice for 4 days. Is that wrong? I know both Clooney and his future wife have done work and contributed to good causes. The other night I heard a talk about the billions of dollars — both from the right and the left — from the Koch brothers to Hollywood Moguls – that go into political election campaigns. That seems wrong to me. One wants to make a difference but feels helpless. This week I gave 85 euros each for two school girls — roughly the age of my daughters– to go to school for one year in Burkina Faso. I wanted to do something to give someone a chance. It made me feel better, but it won’t make that much of a difference.

    • Thanks for this reflection on genuine experience, which all of us can echo, in one way or another. It is certainly true that we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors – I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ series on the Roosevelts, and Eleanor and Franklin’s marriage was a mystery, I think remains so now, as I am not ready to accept the explanation the series offers as the whole truth about this couple. I think there are a lot of possiblities left unexplored, and that is because we could only guess, there is no evidence. Yet, as a couple, they changed this country for the better, and reshaped American thinking about the roles of women, and the leadership of men who used wheelchairs and who had never fought in a war. I bless them for their progressive work, which they did together despite their unconventional marriage.
      As for George Clooney’s marriage, you are right in questioning the expense, yet it is not in the same category as the employer in Jesus’ tale – that story is about distributing money fairly. Something Clooney has concerns about politically. In Jesus’ story, the employer is God, and our consternation about this equality, this generosity, is because we think differently. Clooney’s wedding costs actually represent a lot of employment for many, many people, waiters, chamber maids, hotel owners, designers, etc. And yes, it will be the ultimate in everything. Then knock-off gowns will be made for ordinary women. It is public worship of money, beauty, unattainability, extravagance . . . and the world will watch fascinated. I’ll watch, too, though I my self would prefer a small, private wedding in a less posh place. But they almost have no choice – they live in a world of big money and function in it as icons of wealth. I doubt they really have the option to get married in, say, the London Town Hall.
      I’ve been thinking of you this week, with news here about refugees fleeing Egypt, Libya, so many places, and many drowning at sea in unsafe boats. I’ve been wondering if they are all aiming for Lampedusa, and what the news about all this is in Italy. But now Scotland has driven that news away from the airwaves. That’s where I would like to be today, to hear and see and feel the atmosphere, which is openly about money and its distribution, tax dollars and how they are spent, liberal values under David Cameron’s rule. I am fascinated, and cheering, not for an outcome, I find myself straddling the fence, but for the excellent conversation it has raised, and for the embarrassment to political conservatives it is creating.
      Your financial gift to the girls in Burkina Faso will make a HUGE difference in their lives, getting them a year of education, and preventing them from being put to work as slave labor, at least this year, and hopefully encouraging them to stay in school and dare to dream about a different life than their mothers have known. But I know the feeling of futility, I have it in relation to political donations, what difference can my small donations make? One of the things I am learning about the Roosevelts is how frequently all three of them had to deal with defeats, and big ones, and had to pick themselves up and get back in the fray. Thank God they did. And you, too, make a huge difference, bringing your spirit and values into everything you do –

  • dee

    I am watching The Help now… (after church). It is so good…but I had to take an emotional break. The movie– it’s powerful– rises in your gourge (sp) and …well, there is so much… Marriage, to me, has always been something very, very special…not in a guy/girl meets girl kind of way and he/she rescues her, or she makes him look good kind- of- way (that illusion died a long time ago) but in the way of a true partnership…In the way of a witness… I watched this movie one time about some man who wanted to learn how to dance and took lessons…One of the quotes was about why people stay together…It was “we need a witness.” Susan Sarandon says in the film: “We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.” I love that. I love that there is a witness (flesh and blood) to our lives. It doesn’t even have to be a married partner. Maybe it’s your best friend. Maybe it’s your enemy! Maybe it’s the shopkeeper who opens her store to you everyday after school where you buy strawberry flavored gummy fish and fill your pockets until you return from some faraway place. We need a witness. Jesus, yes. But also flesh-and-blood. A witness who won’t run away. A witness who understands the ugly and the beautiful and doesn’t tell you which is which. A witness who blesses you with their belief that you are worth their witnessing. That is what marriage is to me. And even when the marriage is broken, some witnessing continues. But the best witnesses are those who are filled with love…totally unconditionally.

    • So well said, Dee. And so true, this is what we all long for, that witness. And perhaps only God can witness us with the unconditional love and acceptance we long for. After all, we fail in our witnessing . . . but we love each other for trying . . . but I think in our culture we too often look for, and fall for, social masks that hold iconic meanings for us, and we offer that as well. Take the Kardashians, who are the current models of love’s longings in our culture. And take the couples who are abusing one another, because the mask turned into a real person, warts and all, and they didn’t want that, weren’t ready for that. Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s movie a year ago, told the story of a woman who had been a trophy wife, and her husband was a trophy husband. And she invested her whole self in that marriage, and was shattered when that pseudo life fell apart, and tried to find a way back . . .
      A good marriage is a gift. Yes, it is work. But work alone cannot make it happen. And yes it is hard, but not crushingly hard. Many people don’t get this, and I am not sure we can expect it, though we can pray for it. We tend to ignore the gift part of life, in favor of the achievement model. We live in the midst of thousands of models of marriage, some like old, dented cars, some like limos, and very occasionally, some beauties.

      • dee

        Thank you. I wish I could respond more. But the children are up from a very long nap, (and crying) and I can’t get through that Help movie without wiping tears. I am STILL not done watching it..it’s been start, stop, start, stop….sorry need to sign off

        • No need to be sorry – you are doing two difficult things: mothering small children, and watching an intense movie, one that makes most people cry the first time they see it. And when you get to the end, you may find yourself cheering, so don’t give up till you get there!