Friday, October 31, 2008

Is the Bible Socialist? Luke-Acts (Part 3)

Today's readings of Luke are a bit less clear. It may contravene the earlier statements by Jesus to sell everything and give to the poor, or, perhaps, the ambiguity in the passage itself may be illuminated or clarified by these earlier principles.

First we begin with the story of the bad steward in Luke 16:1-13.

"There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that htis man was wasting his goods. And he called him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.' And the steward said to himself, 'What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, 'How mcuh do you owe my master?' He said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' And he said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' He said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' He said to him, "Take yoiur bill, and write eighty.' The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; fo rhte sons of theis world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations." (Luke 16:1-9)

First, I fully admit bafflement with this story. The steward goes from bad to dishonest. In short, he is doing the opposite of interest by forgiving part of the loan in order to have a place to go, to have some popularity among these debtors, after he is fired. The master, evidently realizing what the dishonest steward has done, commends him for it. That is odd. He recognized the shrewdness of his actions and commends him for the shrewdness (even though the master is getting the short end of the stick). But, all of this involves the actions of "the sons of this world" as opposed to the non-shrewdness of the "sons of light." So, sons of this world=shrewd; sons of light=not shrewd. In some ways, perhaps all this makes sense, showing people of this world to be slick money-dealing folk only out for their own self-interest. BUT the last sentence interrupts such an interpretation: "make friends by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations." What does that mean?

The labeling of "mammon" consistently as "unrighteous" may be a clue. Money is unrighteous. It is inextricably related to unrighteous. Unrighteous is one of its qualities. But Jesus is telling this story to his disciples, but, at the same time, is being overheard by the Pharisees. How might this dual-audience affect our interpretation? I think a key is the assumption that the money, the mammon, will fail. It is evanescent. It will not sustain itself. So, if mammon is unrighteous and it fails, why would Jesus tell his disciples to make friends by it? Perhaps they are in parallel to the bad, but shrewd, steward, oddly enough. He made money through mammon by forgiving part of debt. Instead of repaying everything or even adding interest, now they only have to pay a portion back. This costs the rich man, who nonetheless recognizes its shrewdness, while it helps the poor. Is this socialist? Not really. Not even close. But its complete distaste of money and riches is still evident.

I have a feeling I am missing something--perhaps an element of lost sarcasm? It just is so odd, and the next section is also unclear:

"He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and desipise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." (Luke 16:10-13)

After telling the disciples to make friends by unrighteous mammon, which, based upon the story, seems to mean to make friends by mammon by relinquishing mammon owed to you or your master, to then have this section seems contradictory. The steward was, in fact, dishonest in the way he acted shrewdly. But commended as well. Was he faithful? Or unfaithful? I would think his dishonesty would demonstrate him being unfaithful with the little, unfaithful with the unrighteous mammon. So, what does this have to do with that? Moreover, the last portion seems to undermine the entire conversation: "No servant can serve two masters." But perhaps this undermining IS the point of the story and the subsequent explanation. When stuck in the story and in the interrelationships developed by money, of owing, debt, and lending, you will be judged by how well you maintain that money. You should be honest, yes, but shrewdness is definitely what is valued. But even though you are being honest with unrighteous mammon, or perhaps dishonest and shrewd (which are evidently prized as well), you are serving unrighteous mammon. You cannot serve two masters. As a steward you cannot serve both your master and his debtors. You will always be stuck in between them and will never win. But you also cannot serve mammon and God. Indeed, as a child of light, you may not be shrewd with money, but that is because you are not a servant of mammon at all. You extricate yourself from the system of lending and borrowing, of debt and credit.

Why do I think this is the case? The result:

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him. (Luke 16:14).

Pharisees, of course, are just straw men to provide the antithesis of Luke's point. But, if you are someone who serves money, you should, evidently, be appalled by what Jesus is saying. In fact, the story and all else are meant to make this final point: it is not just a matter of being a good or bad steward with your money (or someone else's money), it is a matter of being a part of the monetary system at all. The system will fail, and if you have given your portion away, you will have friends in the eternal habitations.

No comments: