Debt. We all have at least a passing familiarity with it. Most of us have in the past, or currently have, socially and morally respectable debt like a mortgage. Many of us have other forms of debt—credit card debt, the loans we owe on our vehicles. Some of us have experience with more crushing forms of it—student loans, for example, which have skyrocketed and put many millennials in difficult circumstances. Then there is medical debt, which in too many cases can lead to bankruptcy.
Even if we don’t have direct experience with the sort of debt that can only lead to bankruptcy, it’s very likely that we know people who are deeply affected by it, in many cases through no fault of their own, except perhaps by deciding to get a college education or going to grad or professional school, or having the bad luck of becoming seriously ill. The amounts are mind-boggling: Forbes recently estimated that there is more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, owed by some 45 million people. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that more than 1 in 4 Americans struggled to pay a recent medical bill.
So we know about debt. It’s not something we like to talk about. Many of us are ashamed of it, even if, as in medical debt, it accumulated through no fault of our own.
In today’s gospel reading we are introduced to an aspect of the ancient economy that is unfamiliar to us. The parable we heard, usually called the Parable of the Unjust Steward, is perhaps the one that is most difficult to understand or make sense of. Jesus seems to praise the immoral actions of the steward who, when confronted with his own malfeasance, writes off the debts of his master’s debtors in order to ingratiate himself with them. When learning of his actions, the master praises him.
There are several things to note here. First of all, it’s likely that the master was fabulously wealthy. He was certainly an absentee landowner, and the steward or manager was supposed to act on his behalf in his absence. The debts owed him are quite substantial as well and reflect the key cash crops of the Roman economy—olives and wheat. We don’t know whether the manager was a slave or a free man, although his plan to find a new place to live in one of the debtors’ households suggests he may have been a free man. The debts may not actually be debts in the traditional sense but rather more like rent that would come due at harvest time. The manager was responsible for extracting as much wealth as possible from the land, and then passing it up the system. But of course he would take his cut of it along the way.
It was profoundly unjust and inequitable system, in which those at or near the bottom were very much at the mercy of the ones above them. Debt was apparently almost ubiquitous in the Roman Empire. There’s a story from Egypt in the late second century in which a woman inherited her father’s debts upon his death, and in order to pay them off, had to essentially sell herself into servitude to another woman. In a world where crushing debt like that was a reality, it’s worth considering how this parable might have been received.
We might imagine what the listeners of this parable thought as they were hearing it. No doubt most of them were themselves in debt and probably not very fond of either absentee landlords or their local administrators or managers. We can imagine that they took a bit of guilty pleasure in the manager’s plight when his master received word of the charges against him. In such a system, to bring charges of corruption was one of the few ways poor people had of defending themselves. But they likely also were somewhat impressed by the way the manager dealt with the situation and would have been delighted that the debts were reduced.
There are other points to consider. This parable appears immediately after that of the Prodigal Son, and the two share some similarities. In each, we have a character who faces a significant loss of status. In the Prodigal son, the son squanders his inheritance and finds himself feeding pigs. Here, the manager is at risk of losing his position and power. In each, the main character speaks to himself, considers his options, and takes action. In each, Luke uses the phrase “he squandered the property” to describe the actions of the younger son and as the master’s description of the manager’s behavior.
The master and manager occupied an economy in which worth was calculated solely in financial terms. The relationships among landowner, steward, and debtors were strictly economic. The master and manager had similar goals—to extract as much wealth as possible from the land and from those who owed him. Sound familiar?
But suddenly, the manager is expelled from that economy. He has no place and no prospects. He doesn’t have the skills or strength to dig, and he is ashamed to beg. So he sets out to transform himself and his value. With a goal of being welcomed in people’s homes after he loses his job, he builds social capital by subverting the wealth economy. His actions create new relationships. No longer is he a steward and they debtors. Now they are united by mutual relationship.
We are going to be hearing a great deal about money as we continue to move through Luke’s gospel, it’s not just that we are about to begin stewardship season here at Grace and that we will be inviting you to reflect on how you might use your financial resources to support our ministry and mission. Luke’s gospel has a particular focus on the dynamics of wealth and poverty, and a concern for the poor. It’s expressed from the very beginning of the gospel and continues right through Jesus’ public ministry.
Our Gospel concludes with the stark challenge: “You cannot serve God and Mammon (wealth).” There’s a sense here that money can become our god, that our pursuit or desire for wealth and the trappings of luxury that it provides can become our ultimate concern, surpassing our devotion to God or desire to follow Jesus. And in this culture of social media influencers, conspicuous consumption, and a global economic elite that lives in a world vastly different than that in which most humans find themselves, our desires to share some small part of that wealth and luxury can be overwhelming.
But in that world, status is defined by wealth and possessions and our relationships with others are purely transactional—what’s in it for me? In the new community that Jesus is calling into existence, our relationships are based on mutual concern and sharing. The manager hoped through his actions to be welcomed, indeed incorporated into one of the households of the debtors whom he was helping. He was building social capital, building relationship.
How do we as a community and congregation witness to a reality different than the cruel economic system which surrounds us. I’ve learned of churches that are buying off people’s medical debts—people who are not members of their congregations, but live in their communities and have experienced costly illnesses, with no hope of paying off the astronomic bills. There’s a church in North Carolina that pays off the regular debts of its members—student loans, credit cards. These churches are taking concrete action to assist people who find themselves, often through no fault of their own, with crushing debt.
Whether or not we take drastic action like this, it’s important that we reflect on how we think about status, how we construct community here at Grace. Are some people worth more than others, because of the size of their bank accounts, or the positions they hold in the larger community, or because of their possessions? Do we allow secular standards of honor and status shape the way we relate to each other? And for those who struggle with debt among us, do we suspect that they are living in shame and hiding the reality from the rest of us? Are there ways we might come to their assistance?
There are so many ways that the values of the world in which we live pervade our whole lives, our relationships, and shape our values. Jesus calls us to examine where we stand, whether we serve God or mammon, and invites to imagine and create a community in which different values reign, where mutual support, self-giving love, and that honors the dignity of all persons. May we have the courage, and may God give us the grace, to bring such community into being.