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The Parable and the Planet

Lesson: Luke 16:1-13


If you’re sitting there scratching your head after hearing this parable, take heart. Commentators are all over the map in their interpretations, but they agree about one thing: that it’s confusing, and maybe the most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables. Which is saying a lot, because all his parables have an element of strangeness. Jesus uses parables to teach about the Kingdom of God, which is a strange concept. Some parables are strange because we don’t understand the cultural context of words or actions, but even so, this parable takes the cake. I take a bit of consolation in remembering that the disciples rarely understood Jesus’ parables either.


It’s a story of a rich owner and his manager or steward. It’s often referred to as the Parable of the Unjust Steward. The owner discovers that his manager has been dishonest. Fearing he’s going to be fired, the manager decides to do some quick dealing. He goes to a few of the owner’s clients and settles their debts at much lower rates. Collecting about half as much as they owe, the manager figures that the clients will be grateful to him, and treat him well in the future. The owner finds out about this strategy, and this is where it gets strange.


The owner commends the manager for acting “shrewdly” as our pew Bible, the NRSV, puts it; “cleverly” in other translations. What? Commends him? One of the challenges of this parable is figuring out whose side we’re supposed to be on. And another challenge is that it’s followed by four sayings offered as interpretations that sound as though Luke had a handful of random and inscrutable sayings of Jesus and decided to tack them on here. “Just put them here; no one knows what this parable means anyway.”


In order to understand this parable and these attached sayings in the context of Luke’s world, we need a mini-course on the economics of Roman-occupied Galilee in the first century. Rich landlords were like loan-sharks. They charged exorbitant interest rates, and when the peasants couldn’t pay up, they’d lose the family farm. In fact, that was precisely the rich landlord’s plan – to increase and consolidate his holdings.[1] The whole enterprise violated Torah, the biblical law. Both the rich man[2] and his manager were exploiting desperate peasants.


Jesus’ hearers would know that the typical debt contracts hid these exorbitant interest rates from illiterate peasants. Today, we might compare this to high-interest student loans or predatory pay-day loans.[3] Scholars say the hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25 percent for money and 50 percent for goods.[4] The manager was probably extracting his own cut of the profits, as well, and on top of that, Rome would take a share. When he reduced the payments, the manager may simply have forgiven his own cut of the interest. Or he may have been doing what the law of Torah commands by forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts. He might even have been switching sides; it could be he’s decided to stop working for the wealthy landowner and to start working with the oppressed poor – which would explain why Jesus seems to commend him.[5] If the rich landlord was a Jew rather than a Gentile (the parable doesn’t tell us), he’d know that Torah forbids interest. Maybe the rich man recognizes that he needs at least to appear to be following Torah, and so he commends his manager.


Okay, so that’s one possible explanation for what’s going on here. It still doesn’t tell us whose side we’re supposed to be on or why Jesus is telling his disciples this story. Here are a couple of thoughts: One thing for certain, the rich man is not the good guy here. In Luke and elsewhere, Jesus makes it very clear: No one can serve God and wealth – other translations use the word “Mammon,” a personification of wealth that makes it more obvious that wealth really can take the place of God in people’s lives.


In the Luke’s context, if you were rich, it meant you exploited others to get that way. On the one hand, we might reasonably say that being rich isn’t bad, after all. It’s exploitation that’s bad. We can look at our own economy, and see exploitation in the wide gap between what CEO’s and workers earn,[6] for example, or the fact that when billionaire Jeff Bezos cut health benefits for part-time workers at Whole Foods a couple of weeks ago, the richest man in the world saved the equivalent of what he makes from his vast fortune in just 6 hours.


On the other hand, isn’t it incredibly easy for all of us to ignore the way our economic system exploits people, especially if we’re benefitting from it? It’s easy to enjoy cheap goods, and ignore the actual cost of the manufacturing process on the workers. U.S.-made goods cost more because we have minimum wage laws and laws that protect workers’ health and safety. Places like Bangladesh or Guatemala[7] that don’t have these protections put the costs of industrial accidents or chronic work-related ailments on the worker, instead of passing it on to us, the consumers.


It’s easy to ignore the way that the earnings of plantation owners increased the bottom line of the entire economy of our country, especially the banks. Wealth grew because of slave labor. Inheritances grew; for white people, that is. It’s easy to ignore the way systemic racism worked through the GI Bill and redlining neighborhoods to build the white middle class after World War II, but leaving African Americans behind yet again. This is not ancient history: to this day, African Americans have less wealth to pass on to future generations.


And it’s easy to ignore the exorbitant cost to Planet Earth, God’s gift of Creation. It’s easy to ignore the cost to future generations of an economy and a culture built around getting rich quick and using fossil fuels.


Perhaps the real difference between the rich man and his manager and us, then, is intention. The rich man and his manager meant to cheat the debtors. They knew what they were doing. I don’t know any average consumer who wants to cheat the workers in Bangladesh or the Philippines of a decent living or safe workplace, or who wants part time workers at Whole Foods to have less access to health care. We don’t intend to exploit the planet by investing in companies that make gas-guzzling cars or burn coal. But at some point, when we know the impact, we’ve crossed the line from “I didn’t know any better” to, “Now I know, but I’m going to ignore it because it’s inconvenient” or because I want to spend less for my stuff or whatever reason we tell ourselves so we don’t have to change.


Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”


But here’s the thing: We may do better when we know better; we may practice every single Creation Care Note from the Sunday bulletin. We may eat less meat, drive an electric car, carry our own reusable bags, plant natives, fly less or not at all, use solar power and it still doesn’t result in the huge change needed to turn climate disruption around. By changing consumption patterns on a large scale, we just might be able to influence companies to change their production patterns to more sustainable and humane methods. This may be working to some degree, and so some experts argue that everyone has a responsibility to do what we can to reduce our carbon footprint, especially those of us who can afford electric cars and canvas bags, even if each individual action is insufficient in itself to make a difference.[8]


Others point out that making it the duty of individuals to limit global warming is misguided. Climate change is a planetary-scale threat and, as such, requires planetary-scale reforms that can only be implemented by the world’s governments. Although the power of consumers is strong, it pales in comparison to that of international corporations, and only governments have the power to keep corporations in check. A recent report found that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions since 1988. A mere 25 corporations and state-owned entities were responsible for more than half of global industrial emissions in that same period. Maybe these corporations don’t intentionally want global warming, either. What they want is a quick profit, a high return on their investment. Global warming is just the unintended consequence. But now, we all know the consequence.


So, where does this put us with regard to the parable? What would Jesus do about climate disruption? Luke’s Jesus consistently speaks up for the poor and marginalized. He consistently calls the wealthy on the carpet. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. Perhaps Jesus would tell a parable exposing how individuals living in poorer countries who have contributed almost nothing to climate change deserve the most support and the least guilt. They are neither the cause of global warming nor the ones who have the power make the changes necessary to limit global warming, which would have to involve holding powerful industries responsible.


But most importantly, what Jesus does in the Gospels is invite people to change the world by disbelieving, by no longer believing in the stories that we currently allow to shape our lives, the stories that end up destroying people and the planet. Stories like “Being successful means being rich.” Stories like, “There isn’t enough to go around so I’d better get what I can.” Stories like, “If I win, someone else has to lose;” or, “Progress means economic growth;” or “People love me for my car, my house, my clothes, my shoes, my stuff;” or “Corporations can’t be held accountable.” Instead, Jesus points to a new story, the story he calls the Kingdom of God. It’s a story about a loving God who, like a benevolent king, calls all people – all people – to live life in a new way, the way of love.[9]


It is not easy, or simple, to extract ourselves from the destructive stories. It never has been. In Jesus’ day, people disagreed about how to respond to Caesar, but they agreed Caesar was the reality they had to live with. No wonder Jesus was killed; he defected from the whole system, saying we should define ourselves in relation to God and God’s kingdom, not Caesar and his empire. Instead, Jesus chose to live in relation to the God who cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field,[10] the God who welcomes runaway children home,[11] the God who cares about the worst of us the way a good shepherd cares for a wandering sheep.[12]


September 20th through the 27th is the Global Climate Strike – last Friday through this Friday. Millions of people plan to walk out of workplaces and homes to join young climate strikers on the streets and demand an end to the age of fossil fuels. Their invitation to us is, “Our house is on fire – let’s act like it. We demand climate justice for everyone.”


Jesus’ invitation to his original disciples was to begin living in the Kingdom of God, in this new way, the way of love, now. That is still his invitation to us today. It is our calling, and our call to action, individually, as a community, publically and globally. It sounds hard; it is seriously hard. That’s why we are in community – in church – to help each other, support each other, encourage each other. Brian McLaren writes, “It’s interesting – astonishing, really – that Jesus didn’t say, ‘Nothing will be impossible for me,’ or ‘Nothing will be impossible for God.’ Instead, he says, ‘Nothing will be impossible for you.’ … Yes, change is impossible through human effort alone. But faith brings God’s power into our global crises, so the impossible first becomes possible and then inevitable for those who believe.”[13]


Nothing will be impossible for you. Nothing will be impossible for us. This is not only our hope, but our call to action. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.

[1] Latifundialization, which, in social scientific literature is generally defined as the process of land accumulation (large estates, hence latifundia) in the hands of a few wealthy landowners to the deprivation of the peasantry. See Isaiah 5:8: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!”


[2] Or “master.” Luke 16:3, 8.


[3] Barbara Rossing, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13,” September 18, 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2982.


[4] William Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 246.


[5] Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 97.


[6] The average chief executive of an S&P 500 company earned 287 times more than their median employee last year. Alexia Fernandez Campbell, “CEOs Made 287 Times More Money Last Year Than Their Workers Did,” June 26, 2019, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/6/26/18744304/ceo-pay-ratio-disclosure-2018.


[7] https://www.ethicaltrade.org/blog/top-10-worst-countries-workers-rights.


[8] Morton Fiebieger Biskov, “Focusing on How Individuals Can Stop Climate Change Is Very Convenient for Corporations,” January 11, 2019, https://www.fastcompany.com/90290795/focusing-on-how-individuals-can-stop-climate-change-is-very-convenient-for-corporations.


[9] McLaren, 274.


[10] Luke 12:27-40; Matthew 6:25-30.


[11] Luke 15:11-32.


[12] Luke 15:3-7.


[13] McLaren, 300-301.

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