Working It Out


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

July 9, 2017

Text: Luke 16: 1-13

     It may not appear so, but the meeting of the G-20 this week in Hamburg, Germany, ties into the text we just read. Organized originally by Hans Eichel, the chair of the G7 finance group and U.S.Treasury Secretary Larry Summers in 1999, the G20 was supposed to develop global policies on trade, economic development, and domestic economic reforms to create what they called “sustained growth” to weather economic downturns and storms.

     Many nations want to be included as part of the G20. It means you are powerful and have a place at the table of decision making, much like the rich man in today’s parable. Who is richer than the other? Spain is the world’s fourteenth largest economy but it is that country’s policy not to request a place at the coveted table but to wait for an invitation. Poland, however, ranking eighteen, has been making a pitch for membership for years. It is a symbol of national pride.

There are, of course, serious problems with the idea of 20 nations—really only about ten of them—deciding global monetary and economic policy, not to mention, which nations are “forgiven” their development debts. Look, for instance, at Mozambique. This small former Portuguese colony in Africa, is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, but is also among the most corrupt.

     Nearly $2 billion was secured in loans but hidden from not only the public but its own Parliament. The United Nations Development Programme ranks this country as 181 out of 188 in terms of development. One of the G20 economists stated that it appeared that the leaders of Mozambique conspired to steal from their own people. Its debt is considered to be “unsustainable,” a nice euphemism for saying the country is going to hell in a hand basket.

What will the little crafty Mozambique leaders do? Will it sell off its debt or collect from its weaker neighbors—believe it or not, there are weaker countries. It is too weak to dig, to rid itself of its corrupt leaders. Let’s just say that the colonial rulers rarely, very rarely, taught the subjugated peoples how to grow and develop.

     Thus, according to Jubilee USA, Mozambique’s corrupt leaders and creditors “conspired to steal from the world’s poorest people.” Because so much of the development money came from the world’s wealthiest nations, they now are in the very midst of the nation’s corruption.

     However, Mozambique’s leaders are much like the shrewd steward, who, suddenly realizing that they would be deprived of their livelihood, are scrambling to produce “successes,” as it were: schoolhouses and water filtration systems. They hope to endear themselves to others, just as did the wicked manager.

     The text we read this morning contains more than a parable of a disgraced manager who finds himself too old to work in the fields and too proud to beg. In many ways, this manager is not unlike many Wall Street executives who after the economic collapse in 2008 needed to save themselves from ruin. Other employees in their various insurance and hedge fund companies were not so fortunate. Some of those executives like the manager or steward in this morning’s reading tried to secure their positions by writing off part of the debt owed.

     Looking at the parable in the first century context, a steward usually made his own living by collecting interest or a commission on debts owed a master. What the master then saw was that the steward eliminated his own commission in order to ingratiate himself with the debtors; in that was shrewd to the point that the master commended him.

For many commentators, both ancient and modern, verse 9 is troubling. Why would Jesus tell his listeners to make friends by means of dishonest wealth “so that when it is gone,” the ones he calls the “children of light” are welcomed into eternal homes?

     As far back as Origen in the second century and Augustine in the fourth, commentators have said that Jesus was telling his disciples “we ought not take the whole [parable] for our imitation” but should tie it into the verses that follow. “On the other hand,” wrote Augustine, “if the steward who acted deceitfully could be praised by his lord,” that is by the rich man who had fired him, “how much more they please God who do their works according to his commandment.”

     Other, more modern theologian and commentators have tried to explain what seems to be a troubling statement by connecting it to the verses that follow, ending with the familiar:,You cannot serve God and mammon. Writing in the late 1950s, the German theologian Helmut Thielicke, stated that the dishonest steward used money and possessions for something, they were not an end in themselves, noting that many people hold wealth and possessions as a god—mammon—so that rather than owning their possessions, their possessions actually own them. The verse, other commentators write, taking their cue from Origen and Augustine, state that Jesus exhorted his disciples to be generous with any wealth they might possess. 

     Other modern commentators state that the meaning of this verse is to “win souls” through caring for others by material means but there comes a point “when it fails,” that is, when material possessions no longer have an effect on people.

     The last part of the reading moves into the more familiar and less troubling exhortation to our ears that we cannot serve God and our material possessions, for clearly we will love one and hate the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. Preachers in our own day and as well as in the time of robber barons in the past have wrestled with this part of the Gospel rather than the troubling verse 9. In the nineteenth century the parable was used to justify ill-gotten wealth which, of course, would be used for the benefit of society. Now we hear the parable used to justify what is called the “prosperity gospel,” that God rewards faith with riches.

     The use of wealth is a major theme in Luke’s gospel. Our material resources can be used as a benefit or as a curse; we can own our possessions or they can own us. The same can be said of power. As the G20 meets to discuss how to order the world in their image, competing interests arise. Some nations want to use their power to gain better trading advantages; other nations see the agreements to be made as a way of spreading the wealth to all.

     Some nations which support development programs stand outside of this kind of brokering. Norway is a good example. Not a member of the EU but the second largest contributor to the UN Development Programme, Norway has used its North Sea oil exploration profits in an interesting way. A country of about only 5.2 million, it increased its development aid by more than 2.4 billion—with a b—Norwegian kronor. With an exchange rate of about 10 kronor to the dollar, that means the Norwegian government increased aid by 2.4 million dollars. Not bad for a country with so few people, and that amount does not include private aid.

     The 30 percent drop in oil and gas prices plummeted was a wake-up call for Norway, which now has North Sea floating solar farms. The solar power gained in the summer—like Finland, a land of the midnight sun in the summer—will be stored for the long dark days of winter. Sweden and Finland have similar kinds of solar and/or wind powered energy programs as well. As a country, Norway will be fossil fuel free by 2025 when cars will no longer run on petrol.

     Back to where we began, with Mozambique, that country now deep in both debt and corruption, is trying to bargain its way out of its massive mess. Perhaps its leadership which has squandered the aid given should act a bit more like the shrewd manager and cough up the graft to save the country from losing all aid programs run by the government.

The closing verses attached to the parable should be plastered on the walls of the meeting hall in Hamburg. Unfortunately, the anger of some who claim to speak for the have-nots became violent as stores were looted and cars were burned. In other parts of Hamburg, the protests against the G20 took on the air of a music festival. So what are they protesting? The fact that this group of 20 nations that have two-thirds of the world’s population and 85 percent of its gross world product set standards for the other one-third.

But more than that, some protesters, organized through a group known as DiEM25, composed primarily of European intellectuals who oppose capitalism on principle as dehumanizing and destroying the environment, a humanistic approach to the European Union, look to a new world order where money does not rule the day. Shades of Luke’s gospel!

     Violence is what we see on the screen, of course, but that is not the sum and total of groups opposing the G20 summit. Just as for the writer of Luke’s gospel, we who call ourselves Christians need to consider how we use our wealth. No easy answers here. The questions and answers involve more than the use of our personal income and resources. Here DiEM25 is correct in that our response must be societal and governmental. We must move beyond our society’s reliance on possessions as the measure of success. It should involve the creation of a society open to all with society’s benefits extended to all.

     Let us pray: renewing God, be with us as we struggle with our possessions and our power. Help us to use our resources for the benefit of all, not just for some. In the name of him who opened his life to all, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.