Psalm 79: 1-9, Jeremiah 8: 18-9:1, and Luke 16: 1-13
As with most of Jesus’ parables, this one can be pretty unsettling. The seemingly disparate segments in the text can startle and maybe even confuse us. Really, are we to make friends for ourselves by dishonest wealth? And what does it mean for Jesus to commend the shrewd manager on the one hand, then contrast children who are shrewd with children of the light? Some scholars say that these pieces are compiled in an almost irreconcilable fashion because Luke took a core fragment of Jesus’ sayings then added commentary of his own to make Christ’s teachings even more relevant to his audience. Clearly, one of the teachings Luke wanted us to grapple with again this time is the gap between the haves and have-nots. Luke wanted Jesus’ followers then like he wants Jesus’ followers today to consider how this gap affects a chasm between ourselves and God. He grounds this lesson in the context of something we all are forced to think about every day: money and property.
With this text in front of me, the Washington Post headline-exposé of home foreclosures began to press upon my thoughts. I’ll bet that at least 85% of us read some portion of this series by investigative reporter Michael Williamson. For the rest of us, I’ll do my best to bring you up to speed on a series of articles from a couple of weeks ago that continues to trouble the waters of Washington today.
Here is an excerpt from the Post online: “For decades, the District has placed liens on properties when homeowners failed to pay their tax bills. Then they sold those liens to investors who could take the homes through foreclosure if the owners didn’t repay the debt with interest. …The program has morphed into an often predatory system of debt collection for aggressive, out-of-town investors who foreclosed on houses over debts as small as $44, then sold them for large profits. (Retired Marine Bennie Coleman lost his house over a $134 property tax bill.) One 65-year-old flower shop owner lost his home of 40 years after a company from Florida paid his back taxes — $1,025 — and then took the house through foreclosure while he was in hospice, dying of cancer. A 95-year-old church choir leader lost her family home to a Maryland investor over a tax debt of $44.79 while she was struggling with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home.”
As if this isn’t flummoxing enough, here’s another one of the quotes that’ll hit your stomach. “Officials at the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue said that without tax sales, property owners wouldn’t feel compelled to pay their bills. (Quote) ‘(t)he tax sale is the last resort. It’s also the first resort — it’s the only way in the statute to collect debt…” A woman whose elderly aunt lost her home in Northeast Washington asked, “Where is the justice? They’re taking people’s lives,” she said. “It’s just not right.’”
I don’t know about you, but when I saw the headline to the Bennie Coleman story on the front page of the September 8th paper, it made my heart hurt to a point that I had to stop reading. I got it together a few days later and started to make my way through the news unfolding. What I eventually learned was that soon after the initial Post report, Mayor Gray immediately stopped all DC foreclosure auctions and demanded further investigation. Thanks be to God.
Now, I haven’t been back in Washington long enough to’ve fully formed my opinion of the current political leadership so please excuse me if I’m stepping on your toes, but as much as I was relieved to learn the District’s mayor had been spurred to action by the Post reports, I wondered where City Hall had been for tens of years? What good does the Mayor’s investigation do for Bennie Coleman, whose stuff was out on the street in July after not paying $134 in taxes on a DC Duplex he purchased with cash over 20 years ago?
Yet I also know that it is a faithless response to something that’s been exposed to you to just get angry and stew. Generally speaking, I believe that the reason Jesus spoke in parables like the one we heard today is not so we feel puzzled by the confusing details of the text and lose sight of the tremendously valuable truth that unfolds. I believe that the reason Jesus spoke in parables is so over time we will come to learn how to extrapolate the core truth from each parable and apply that truth onto similar situations and be mobilized to act. We will know how to interpret theological arguments and be emboldened to not simply rest upon the work of another or send an “I’m sorry that this happened” note to the guy who lost his house. Upon discerning a difficult parable like this one, we won’t just sit around and rant about the injustices of the world – those injustices in progress or those injustices being addressed by others. We will consider a more faithful response to think theologically through the issues of our day to know that just as the property manager reversed a great injustice in his world, you and I can work to reverse the great injustices in our own.
As we consider the systems of which we are a part – those capitalist systems that are inherently created to help some expand while others become less, complicated and challenging texts like this one can leave us feeling a little raw. It’s been suggested that Jesus lifted up the dishonest manager not simply because he shrewdly transformed a bad situation within a capitalist system into a situation that benefited himself and others, but that in his shrewdness he models certain behaviors the disciples can emulate. Specifically, the shrewd manager interrupts the capitalist system not only to reduce other people’s debts, but to create a new set of relationships. These relationships are not vertical relationships between lenders and debtors but have been labeled by theologians as more “reciprocal and egalitarian relationships of friends. What this dishonest manager sets in play (is analogous) with what happens when the reign of God emerges among us. Old hierarchies are overturned and new friendships are established. Indeed, outsiders and those lower down on hierarchies now become the very ones we depend upon to welcome us — not only in their homes in this life, but even in our “eternal home.”
Within our capitalist structures, we have injustices of every kind. Not only do we have systems in place that embolden dishonest property owners in and around Washington, DC to exploit the sick and elderly and infirmed in order to accumulate great wealth, but we have systems that bar the doors to affordable housing just as we have systems that inhibit all people from receiving affordable healthcare.
But you do not need me to stand up here and read you the newspaper. You do not need me to stand up here and tell you which letter to write, picket to populate, march to attend, shelter to staff, soup kitchen to support. You don’t need me to give you a formula for how to act. An engaged, justice-minded congregation – an intellectual church – doesn’t come to worship on a Sunday morning or tune in to a podcast on a Monday might to hear someone give them formula for making the world right. An engaged church of Jesus Christ seeks to understand the core principles of what it means to be a Christian in order to apply those core principles in any encounter of life. When we study the parables and learn how to think theologically we are all able to apply theological thinking to every newspaper article we read. – Such that reading about the fiscal budget becomes our moral obligation to act. And reading about the lack of water in Malawi becomes our moral obligation to act. And reading about the beheading of the West Virginia mountains becomes our moral obligation to act. And witnessing a young woman prostitute herself becomes our moral obligation to act. Just like witnessing a small time drug deal becomes our moral obligation to act. And hearing about child trafficking becomes our moral obligation to act. Because somewhere between the pages of the Washington Post or a tricky DC neighborhood or a remote village or a Congressional Budget hearing and our Christian principles lies the truth.
And the truth of Jesus’ parable that challenges us today is that we are called to act. Our parable today is one that calls us to act to bring justice to the oppressed and downtrodden out of a Christian desire to be in reciprocal relationship with all people.
I would hate for a church to be known one day as a church of good intentions. I would hate that any one of us would one day read the newspaper, or witness any sort of injustice, and think to ourselves, “What a shame” but not act for the least of these in community among us. We are not called to be a congregation that makes Western Presbyterian Church our destination for social relationships and a pat on the back. We are not ones to rest upon the hard work of those who’ve gone before us. We are called to be an action-oriented congregation who collect our consciences to expose the horrible truths that bludgeon the most vulnerable in the world and provide sutures on their wounds. We are called to be a congregation that shines our collective light upon the moral imperatives of our day so that our outrage doesn’t end with a hospitality hour rant. – It ends with acts of faith that expose and bring to justice dishonest wealth of every sort. Those acts of faith might sometimes take the form of financial contributions but just as often take the form of side–by-side support for the ones who need us most. These acts of support become the balm of Gilead that is slathered onto the wounded right here at Miriam’s Kitchen. This is the balm of Gilead that stands on the Presbytery floor and demands full inclusion rights for all of God’s dearly beloved. This is the balm of Gilead that visits jail cells of immigrants, and teaches aged-out foster children how to apply for a job, and pickets stores that market assault weapons to vulnerable children, and shouts-out at a DC housing hearing when it is clear that new sandboxes in wealthy neighborhood parks are taking priority over low income housing. These acts of support become the balm of Gilead that works hard for the day when all people have access to quality medical care without worry about the cost.
The good news is that when we get tired of the work and we begin to rant – when we let go of acts of love – our God of love will hold on tight. Because while we can be a faithless lot, our God is faithful still. And so we ask that God grant each one of us new courage to venture out into the world with conviction for reversing the great injustices all around us, giving glory to God through our friendships with people of every time and place who so depend upon our sacrificial faith in action now and forevermore.
Thanks be to God. Amen