“…if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another,
who will give you what is your own?” (Luke 16:12)
Could anything be clearer than the difference between what belongs to another person and what is one’s own? Our global and local economy depends upon this principle. We learn it as children. In a pre-school classroom, “Give that back, please, it belongs to Madeleine”; or on the sidewalk with the toddler I heard the other day screaming, “No! Mine!” when his nanny dared to try and touch the handlebars of his little scooter. Clear?
Well, maybe not. Did you follow the news a couple of weeks ago about Georgetown University and a proposal to address its complicity in the slave trade? Back before the civil war, the Jesuit province which operates Georgetown also owned plantations in Maryland worked by African slaves. There were slaves on campus and slave labor built several buildings. Most troubling of all, in 1838 the university sold 272 slaves to a trader in Louisiana for the equivalent today of $3.3 million to get out of debt. Slave families were broken up. Georgetown now proposes, among other things, renaming two campus buildings after slaves sold in 1838 and treating the descendants of all 272 as “legacy students, applicants whose family members attended [the university],” with preference in admission and maybe financial aid.
What belongs to another and what is one’s own gets reversed in this news story. The task force responsible for Georgetown’s proposal confesses the difficulty of knowing “how persons two centuries after the events could adopt for themselves a personal responsibility for the perpetrators and the victims that makes the seeking and offering of forgiveness authentic and appropriate to the outrage and disillusionment caused by the misdeeds.” The university’s president hopes “that the descendants, as they become closer and closer to the Georgetown community, will find the resources that will enable them to reconnect their families and to find ways the university can empower them.” One of those descendants, Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, herself a Roman Catholic, says in an interview: “We were just shocked. You know, here’s people – I mean, the priests – who were in charge of our salvation, who were involved in slavery. It was beyond a shock.” She reflects on how her life might have been different if Georgetown had taken such steps fifty or a hundred years earlier. “I’ve been stifled in where I could have gone. I wanted to be a physician when I grew up, when I graduated from college. And I did apply to a school, but I was turned down. And I will never know if it was because of my race. So I feel that I probably have not been able to go as far as I could have.” Yet Bayonne-Johnson also acknowledges how the discovery of the sale of the 272 slaves brought their dispersed descendants together. “It is a strange thing. And I guess I really haven’t thought very much about it. It’s just that – I’m just so excited to have more cousins that I didn’t know.”
To whom does Georgetown belong and who belongs at Georgetown? Who is family? Who takes responsibility for what or for whom? Whose salvation is at stake? Choosing words carefully, the university describes its efforts only as “an apology looking toward reconciliation.” For, ultimately, “reconciliation requires relationship.” *
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The parable in this morning’s gospel reading hints at the alternate economy operative within God’s household, one that reverses our usual expectations around what is our own and what belongs to another (Luke 16:1-13). Most commentators claim this is one of Jesus’ most puzzling parables. For starters, what should we call it? The parable of the dishonest manager or of the shrewd manager? Let’s lean a little into Luke’s vocabulary and storytelling, as well as the social and economic realities of Galilee in the time of Jesus, to unpack the parable.
There was an absentee land owner who hired a local agent to manage the finances of his agricultural estate. The manager turns out to be a thief – squandering (diaskorpizon) the rich man’s property – exactly the same word Jesus uses to describe the prodigal son in the parable immediately preceding today’s in Luke’s gospel (Luke 15:11-32). Literally, in Greek, the manager (oikonomos) is an economist, one who oversees and enforces the house rules (oikonomia), the economy, of a household (oikos). Instead, he has taken advantage of the land owner’s absence. He has been living in luxury at the rich man’s expense, treating what belongs to another, the landowner’s wealth, as if it were the manager’s own. He deserves to be called the dishonest or unjust (adikias) manager, because unlike the goddess of justice (dike) with her balanced scales, his faithlessness with what belongs to another is completely out of balance. In a traditional honor culture, the fact that everyone around knew that the manager was stealing from the rich man casts shame on the absentee land owner and forces him to take action.
And so the rich man relieves the manager of his position. No debate, no negotiation, just termination. What a crisis! The custodian of house rules now without a home of his own. Not strong enough to dig, like the workers in his master’s olive groves and wheat fields, too ashamed to beg like impoverished tenant farmers thrown off the land completely, the manager’s livelihood, his very life, is at risk. What he needs most is not money or land or crops, but relationships of solidarity with other people who might welcome him into their homes. So calling on the rich man’s debtors, the manager asks, how much do you owe? A hundred jugs of olive oil; quick, make your bill fifty. One hundred containers of wheat; reduce it to eighty. For, you see, the manager earned his livelihood on commission. As he enforced the house rules of the rich man’s estate, he would add a percentage for himself on top of each debt owed to his master. Dishonest as he might once have been, the manager now chooses to give up the commission that is rightfully his own, in order to acquire something more valuable, something that belongs to another, the good will and life-saving hospitality of the debtors.
And about those debtors. Tenant farmers working on land that belonged to the rich man and receiving for their labor a portion of the produce on which to live and feed their families. They were little better than slaves. Imagine, for every jug of olive oil or every container of wheat the tenant farmer raises, he and his family consumes two. And then the manager gets his commission on top, as much as 100%. The debtor has no way to get ahead. Every day, every year he digs, the farther behind he gets, until he owes a hundred jugs or containers. Until he is thrown off the land unable to pay his debt and must start begging. Unless, unexpectedly, the manager reduces the debt by a quarter or a half of the total and gives the tenant farmer a chance to start over. The homeless former manager, thereby, finds a welcome in the homes of those grateful debtors. And because the debtors could only assume the cancelling of a portion of their debt was done with the land owner’s permission, his honor is restored within the community as well.
It is less puzzling, then, why the rich man in the parable commends the manager. Not for squandering the property of another, but for sharing what was his own in order to gain something more lasting. The shrewd (phronimos) manager. The very same word Jesus uses to describe the man who built his house on rock instead of sand (Matthew 7:24) and the five bridesmaids who thought to bring extra oil for their lamps (Matthew 25:1-13). Shrewd. Wise. Awake. Attentive. Decisive. Able to set aside business as usual in a time of crisis, in order to survive.
What of the lesson Jesus intends his hearers to take away from this parable? “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” (Luke 16:10-12) Here Jesus adopts an old Jewish teaching strategy. If even a dishonest manager can make a wise choice, then how much more you who know something of God’s ways? All of the characters in the parable are caught in the same, unjust economic system. The consequences may be different for each one, but they are all webbed together. The rich man possesses land, but he cannot control his own honor. It belongs to others: granted, or not, by the local population; damaged and then restored by the manager. The livelihoods, the very lives of the poor tenant farmers, hang in the balance – and as the prophet Amos warns in our first reading, the balances are false – people sold for silver, for a pair of shoes (Amos 8:5-6). Human beings belonging not to themselves, but to the rich. And into this out of balance economy, the manger’s shrewd act, an act of generosity and solidarity looking toward justice, anticipating the vision of this morning’s psalm where God “takes up the weak out of the dust, and lifts up the poor out of the ashes”; “sets them with the princes,” and “makes the woman of a childless house, to be a joyful mother of children” (Psalm 113:6-8).
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I wonder of that which is your own – according to our culture’s usual economy –what might more truly belong to another? What of your own belongs to another? Money? Maybe. Land or food? Yes, perhaps. What if my smile belongs to another person? My attention. My respect. My compassion. My memory of the past and my anticipation of the future. A phone call from me, could that belong to someone else? A text message; a vote cast on behalf of the welfare of another. An extenuating explanation. My courageous intervention. My forbearance. My loving speech or my loving silence.
And I wonder if all that is one’s own belongs to another. Everything? If so, then this other can only be God and God’s grace orchestrates the greatest reversal. All that is mine and yours belongs to God, but our God is no hoarder and so everything comes back toward us as gift without limit or condition, to be embraced and enjoyed and treasured as it is shared with others; all those who are equally gifted, which, in God’s economy, means all.
Over the past week, two women connected to this parish gave me the gift of imagining more clearly what it might mean to live in accord with the alternate house rules of God’s economy. The paraphrasing is my own. But the insights belong to them, which is to say, to me and to you. The Rev. Alissa Newton, priest at St. Columba’s Church in Kent, texted me about this morning’s gospel reading: True and full justice is impossible in an unjust system, but we can prioritize relationships with others. And Lynn Adams, junior warden here at St. Paul’s, said during a vestry conversation about God’s dream for us: less fearful; more grateful; able to rest in God’s presence and at the same time act from it.
* Quotes taken from National Public Radio stories: Georgetown Will Offer An Edge In Admissions To Descendants Of Slaves and Georgetown University Works To Amend Involvement In Slavery (accessed September 15, 2016).