In view of the current domestic circumstances of the U.S., and specifically, the gridlock in the U.S. Congress in recent weeks, the Scripture readings from Jeremiah, 1st Timothy and Luke are most timely. The Greek word used for "steward/manager" in the NRSV translation is oikonómos: a rich word which can mean house-distributor; manager; overseer; fiscal agent; treasurer; figuratively, a preacher (of the Gospel); chamberlain. Webster defines the Old English stiweord as keeper of a household. I'm pretty sure our English word economist derives from this, although it has obviously lost most of the root meanings, in this country at least. In my humble opinion, it's far past time to be "charitable", to put the best face on, to use euphemisms, and, as a nation, to call to account the majority of the members of the U.S. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, but specifically the ultra-conservative and Tea Party-inspired Republicans who are leading this country to an inevitable collapse through their willful, mean spirited mismanagement and lack of stewardship!
Jeremiah's words today echo in the hearts of all those who seek simple justice for all: "My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: 'Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?' ("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?") For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?..." (8:18-9:1) And Paul's message to Timothy: "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for...all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth..." (2:1-7)
Luke's Gospel passage (16:1-13) is one of the toughest in Scripture to either understand fully or to preach on. He begins with a Donald Trump-type rich man, summoning an underling who's been "squandering his property". We can visualize a figure no less imperious than "The Donald", demanding an accounting from the employee and informing him: "You're fired!"
There ensues a inner monologue by the unfortunate steward, weighing his options and figuring out how he can get through this unforeseen turn of events, still landing on his feet. He lines up appointments with the boss' debtors, "one by one", says Luke. 100 jugs of olive oil was equivalent to c. 600 gallons: the yield of 150 olive trees, and worth 1000 denarii which was equal to one's income for three years, working 6 days per week! The steward knocks the bill in half. 100 containers of wheat was roughly 650 bushels, worth some 2500 denarii. The debt is reduced to 80 containers.
What was the steward up to? A couple of possibilities come to mind. 1) He cheated the master by reducing the debt, which was illegal. 2) He, perhaps, subtracted the exorbitant interest (prohibited, incidentally, by Exodus 22:25). It still cost the master, but made both the master and the steward look gracious in the debtors' eyes. 3) It could be that the steward even subtracted his own commission, thereby upping his esteem with the debtors (useful for calling in some chips later!), and displaying his shrewdness and prudence. Whatever the real reason, the story gets curiouser and curiouser because the parable characters don't behave as we'd expect. The master, Luke says, "commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly..." Then Jesus continues with the shocking statement: "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."
I, for one, can't believe that Jesus is urging you and me to form new alliances or to hang with the likes of the Koch brothers, the Goldman Sachs crowd, or the other sleazy Wall Street scammers whose love for one thing -- money and the power that accompanies it -- immunizes them from any real understanding of or compassion for the "little people" in American society. Jesus clearly doesn't condone evil or hold up "unrighteous mammon" as an ideal. On the other hand, neither does Jesus condemn a proper and judicious use of resources, including money, to realize a reasonable increase on one's legitimate investment. What he and Scripture do condemn is the love, the idolization, of money, or of any other human gift, for that matter. The alternative which Jesus suggests is: 1) that we make bold, decisive, prudent choices which favor others, especially the needy and the oppressed; and 2) that we use all our human resources and gifts (money, possessions, talents, etc.) faithfully and wisely, as practice for real wealth, i.e., the essential things we need for following Christ. "The reign of God is within you...Wherever your treasure is, there your heart is also..."
Some questions to ponder throughout the coming week: Who is my lord, my master: Jesus the Christ or mammon? You can't have the best of both. What is it that I'm most anxious about? or most grasping for? How faithfully do I live what I've committed to in the baptismal covenant? Am I a good manager/steward of my relationships: with myself? with others? with God? or do I give them only my second-best?