Jesus Unmasked: God’s Economy and How to Cheat the System Ethically

Jesus Unmasked: God’s Economy and How to Cheat the System Ethically September 19, 2019

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.

…Huh?

This parable is bewildering. Jesus praises shrewdness and, while he doesn’t exactly endorse dishonesty, he at least encourages his disciples to make the most of it. Is there a place for shrewdness – which implies a sort of trickery – in (or at least on the way to) the Kingdom of God? What is dishonest wealth, and can it be used honestly and justly? What are the “true riches?” And what would the world look like if we truly served God and not money?

The more I contemplate these verses, the more I marvel at Jesus’ shrewdness, at his world-reorienting wisdom. In addition to giving us a glimpse into God’s economy, Jesus is also teaching us – in a cleverly disguised parable – how to cheat our unjust worldly system ethically. That’s as subversive as it gets.

What’s Going On?

Let’s locate this parable in both its literary and historical contexts. Reading the story of the Unjust Steward alongside the Prodigal Son highlights striking parallels, as the Girardian Lectionary points out. The steward, like the prodigal son, was reckless with money. But, like the son, he receives unexpected mercy, even after an act of betrayal. The son dishonored his father by working with pigs; the steward took it upon himself to forgive debts that he presumably had no right to forgive. And while a father may seem more naturally inclined to kindness than a boss, in Jesus’s culture, the father had ultimate authority and could be a foreboding figure indeed. So the fear with which the son returned to the father was probably comparable to the fear of the steward toward his master. Squandering of wealth, descent into shame, a plan for coping, and surprising grace. Parallel parables.

The story of the Unjust Steward also follows shortly after Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, declaring that the Sabbath is meant to serve humanity and not the other way around. The reference to the Sabbath is significant, for it highlights the fact that for generations, the Sabbath had been interpreted through a lens of sacrifice rather than mercy and had only been enforced selectively as an identity marker and a tool of control. The concept of the Sabbath, a time of rest and rejuvenation, was meant to nurture humanity and all of creation, encompassing far more than a weekly respite from work. Every seven years, the land was to be given a rest and lie fallow, but all could share in the produce that naturally grew, sustaining the land and providing for all. Every fifty years (a Sabbath of Sabbaths plus one), the Law called for a year of Jubilee, which included the forgiveness of debts and the return of land to original families who may have had to lease it in order to pay their debts.

God intended rhythms and cycles within our lives to nourish us, rejuvenate us, and protect us from excesses of greed and poverty. But through generations of exile, occupation, and corruption, much of the practice of Sabbath had been lost, along with the generous spirit that interpreted Sabbath as a blessing rather than a burden. On top of that, the Roman Empire taxed exorbitantly. God’s provision for the forgiveness of debts and mitigation of poverty had mostly fallen by the wayside, many faced great hardship imposed from afar, power accumulated in few hands at the expense of the poor, and authority was feared. This is some of the context in which Jesus relates the parable of the Unjust Steward.

What Does It Mean?

Others (including Adam in the video) draw different conclusions, but, given the parallels to the parable of the Prodigal Son, I envision God in the role of the rich man in this parable. But does that mean that God commands this system that leaves people in poverty and debt? No! Rather, I think this story is meant to evoke images of the unjust system in which Jesus and his disciples lived – a system similar to our own today – but then turn these images completely upside-down.

We owe our lives and all that we have to God. God forms us in the image of Love and gives us this rich and bountiful earth as a home. Out of the abundance we are given, God calls us to live in responsibility to one another. Tithes and offerings commanded in the Law were meant to express gratitude but also to distribute the fruits of one’s labor to the poor, including widows, orphans, the sick and injured, etc. God calls us to live generously and mercifully, giving our talent, time and treasure for the well-being of one-another.

Yet when God is interpreted through a lens of sacrifice, a lens of wrath and fear that commands obedience… well, this intimidating God can be wielded by the powerful against the powerless. It is part of human nature to see ultimate power as strength, force, and the ability to bend others to your will. The rich could wield that control over the poor, so the association of God with the rich, with systems of wealth and power, is not uncommon. But it is unChristian, as Jesus embodies the God who stands in solidarity with the poor. So, I don’t see God as a rich man, per se. But one who is feared, misrepresented, and misunderstood? Yes… in a world of injustice and corruption, that sounds very much like God to me.

So a rich man discovers that his middleman, his representative, has been squandering what is his, and he says, “You can’t do that anymore.” What is precious to God? That which is made in God’s image… us! What if we read, “You can no longer be my manger,” as, “You can no longer harm my children?” What if what the unjust steward perceives and what his boss – God – is telling him are different things? What if he is interpreting a message of protection for the vulnerable as wrath or dismissal, especially in the wake of his own loss of privilege? What if the fear through which he sees his master, fear through which he represented his master, is clouding his own understanding?

The unjust steward, realizing he can no longer work for his master, decides to try to get into the good graces of those who owe his master a debt. He arbitrarily – and seemingly against all authority – reduces the debt that they owe. It is unclear whether the rich man actually demanded the price that the steward is reducing, or if the steward, in his corruption (or possibly his confusion), had charged more than his master required in the first place. Is the steward simply knocking off the extra money he would have kept for himself, in which case his actions are not especially generous, or is he reducing debts that are not his to reduce, in which case he is being dishonest? In other words, did his dishonesty come before or while he was putting “Operation Soft Landing” into action? (Maybe he was just incompetent but not deceitful before?) Regardless, he lifted a burden from the people. Impact > intent.

If God is the “rich man,” then his commendation of the steward makes sense, because God places greater value on the people than on property. God’s desire for us is abundant life. And humans have burdened one another with crushing debts imposed by force and mercilessness, often in the name of God or another allegiance like country. Does the steward represent all the corruption throughout humanity that has misrepresented God, that has built a world order of force and violence that eventually swallows us all, including that steward? Are we meant to see him as just one man caught up in the systemic injustice that greed and dishonesty and dehumanization have built up over time, spreading through humanity like a contagion? For in so many ways, we are participants in injustice and vulnerable to it at the same time. At the crux of an unjust system is a belief that power, wealth, and prestige must come at the expense of others – that for some to rise to the top, they must hold down others at the bottom. And nobody comes to this belief in a vacuum; people influence one another, compete with one another, and together create an environment that breeds this over-and-againstness. And the god of this system, whether perceived as a supernatural being or the power structure itself, is a ruthless tyrant, ruling over a world of fear.

In that world, the steward fears his master, does what he can to get ahead, and helps the people only when he perceives doing so as necessary to help himself. He forgives debts out of self-preservation, and rather than scold him for giving away what is his, the rich man commends the steward’s “shrewdness.” It would be less than honest to praise his generosity. But the rich man sees that the steward has discerned that he can best help himself by helping others, and that is the beginning of understanding our interconnection. True value lies not in accumulation of riches, but in relationship.

If the rich man is “God,” then his desire all along has been for people to care for one another. Yet people who represent God may claim that God demands our treasure, our time, our talent. This may be true, but as long as we are looking at this through a lens of sacrifice, we will get it wrong. God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and mercy calls us to give of our time, talent, and treasure in service to one another, which means in service to Love, which means in service to God.

In this world, where people and resources are exploited and riches are accumulated at the expense of people, in this world where individuals and nations seek to build themselves over and against others, there may be no such thing as “honest wealth.” But what does Jesus tell us to do with our money? Make friends. Friendship cannot be bought, but wealth can be used to act in friendship and love. I’m talking about much more than charity. I’m talking about recognizing the infinite, sacred value of knowing that we belong to each other and to this planet and to Love, and living in joyful gratitude, responsibility and care. In doing so, we transform not only the “dishonest” wealth, but the world in which we live. When the dishonest wealth is gone, what remains are the true riches. As Paul Neuchterlein of the Girardian Lectionary tells us, the phrase “eternal homes” meant not mansions in heaven, but dwelling places in a new age, an era of justice, restoration, and wholeness. This passage is about taking what we have now and transforming it from a world of greed and brokenness into God’s Kingdom, the Fellowship of Love.

You cannot serve God and wealth. The building up of riches at the expense of others is idolatry, and any god that rules over this kind of system of power is an obstacle to the true God. This parable is about the disconnect between human perception of a God of power and the true God who breaks through our fears and expectations with surprising generosity, mercy, and love.

What Connections Can We Make?

It’s too simple, really. We are immersed in a world of unjust wealth. And the particular corner in which I live, the United States, is a nation built on stolen land by stolen labor. It pours the wealth of the people into weapons of destruction rather than programs for the well-being of communities, and then spreads its military tentacles across the globe.  The voice of the people has long been drowned by an oligarchy. And even if we work as hard and as ethically as we can to earn our pay, the wealth we accumulate is saturated in injustice.

Our instincts may tell us that we can only afford to be generous when we are sure we have enough for ourselves. But Jesus is flipping the script, showing us that we can’t afford not to be generous. A world in which each person puts self first at the expense of others will drown us in greed. But a world in which we take care of one another and find our true wealth in the connection we build by serving one another… this world would not only sustain us, but nurture us to become more than we can now imagine in this world of artificial isolation.

To what extent does this involve shrewdness and breaking of rules? It certainly requires thinking outside of the parameters of conventional wisdom. At a time when very few of our representatives even bat an eye at increasing the spending of our military budget by billions of dollars, proposals to care for people are always met with questions of “Where is the money coming from?” But I am beginning to see leaders – in the halls of Congress, the media, the streets – breaking through these limits of imagination and compassion. I see war tax resisters refusing in the name of Love to give more money to the violence of Caesar. I see a long history of civil resistance that includes both divestment from injustice and investment in the very people who have been crushed under the weight of injustice and poverty. Within and alongside empire, I see the Body of Christ, children of Love who call God by many names or no name at all, playing by a different set of rules to make a different world.

What Am I Called To Do?

First, on a very practical level, this scripture is calling me to learn. This is a confusing passage, and even as I make sense of it, I recognize that there must be layers upon layers that I cannot yet see.

I am convinced that this parable is about a transformation of this world, starting in our brokenness and making room for God to use our imperfect intentions and methods and means in order to open our eyes to Love and steer us into God’s Kingdom. I am struck by how falling away from God’s guidance – as all of us do – played a role in the accumulation of debt and growing poverty and inequality, and how the forgiveness of debts in this parable calls to mind the Sabbath rhythms that God had provided for restoration, rejuvenation, and debt forgiveness. I want to learn more about Sabbath and Jubilee, and what those systems, at their best, could do for our economy and our ecology.

But above all, Jesus’s shrewd wisdom is calling me to see that true wealth is found and multiplied when we live in connection to each other. How does that affect how I choose to spend my time, talents, and treasures? How does living by that truth reorient my life? As I ponder these questions, the words from Micah 6:8 come to mind: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” I pray for God to open me to new and creative ways to fulfill this calling.

How does this scripture speak to you? What are you called to do?

Image: Image of money via Unsplash.

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