Discount Religion

“Money is the root of all evil.”

You sophisticated Presbyterians know that this is a misquote of a biblical text which actually warns that LOVE of money is the root of all evil.

Well, whew!

Because money is the root of a lot of good. Money financed this church, and the most recent fabulous renovations that enhance our ability to serve our neighbors and fulfill Christ’s mission.  Money paid for our excellent educations, allowing us to find meaningful work and create good livelihoods. Money builds homes and businesses and rec centers and infrastructure; it underwrites medical research and development of vaccines and medications that save lives. Money in the form of expanded wage subsidies (the earned-income and child tax credits) has reduced child poverty rates in the United States by a whopping 59% since 1993.

So you’re not going to hear a sermon screed on the evil of riches from me. I’m the one who regularly reminds us that even though Central is our spiritual home, it’s also a business, and requires capital to run effectively or at all; capital that you and I provide in the form of contributions. Give lots of money, my friends, and see what great good it will do!

The Bible is obsessed with money. There are innumerable verses from Genesis onward discussing it and its righteous use. There are exhortations in the Old Testament to present “first fruits” to the Lord–which grew into the “tithe”–contributing fully 10% of earnings right off the top.

Jesus spoke about money more often than he did about heaven–surely a reflection of his priority on this life rather than the next. So it’s not surprising that our text on this late summer Sunday concerns money. What IS surprising is its confusing and contradictory messaging. Here Jesus seems to praise decidedly unfair loan forgiveness, and questionable money management. The parable subverts accepted business accounting standards by praising the manager who discounts debt, forgives it, and then gets commended for his shrewd practice.

As if the story isn’t confusing enough, Jesus ends it with a stark comment:  You cannot serve God and wealth.

Uh oh.

A reading from the good news according to Luke, in the 16th chapter, verses one through thirteen.  Listen for God’s Word to the Church–and to you and me–whose own attitudes and practices may obscure accountability for our wealth and prompt us to discount religion as a trustworthy guide for its use.

[Luke 16:1-13]

What the faith?!?!?!?

A little context may be helpful.

In God’s original covenant with the Israelites, interest on loans was forbidden because it exploited the poor. (Our Protestant ancestors forbade this practice as well if you read the 17th century Westminster Confession which nobody does). And maybe because of skepticism that humans could ever avoid this proven money-maker, the concept of “jubilee” was commanded right alongside it.

Jubilee: the Divine covenant called for regular seasons of debt forgiveness; when loan accounts would be zeroed out; acquired land returned to its original owners; and crushing debt forgiven.  Jubilee was an expression of God’s intent that human communities do justice and show kindness to all their residents, especially the most vulnerable ones. Jubilee was a celebration of God’s providence and liberation from enslavement (which is why enslaved Black people in the US often used “Jubilee” as code for escape to the North and freedom).

But humans being as we are, by Jesus’ time, jubilee had all but disappeared from the nation’s life.

Even under the thumb of Imperial Rome, some citizens became rich landlords who used exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and disinherit peasants from land that had been held in their family for years.  Does it shift our perspective a bit to realize that the “rich man” in the story was essentially a loan shark, a calculating and greedy person?

This shift suggests the manager, far from being a lazy cheater, was in fact resisting from within, disrupting his boss’s cruel stranglehold on those who owed him money. Some commentators have suggested that cutting the people’s debts by 20-50% may have returned them to the original amount without outrageous accrued interest. Others conclude that the manager was cutting out his own percentage, sacrificing potential income for community goodwill and support.

I wonder if the complexity of this parable invites us to serious consideration of economic practices in our own time. I was surprised, for example, by the strong backlash against the administration’s student loan forgiveness. I had loans for both college and graduate school and paid them back.  But I rejoice in this jubilee as I’ve learned of people who have made repayments and owe more now than the original loan; people whose jobs have not kept pace with changing economic conditions; people who have struggled to overcome systemic barriers to home ownership.

The master in Jesus’ story could be a stand-in for impersonal economic realities now, in a time when our capitalist system has resulted in a tiny few with unimaginable wealth, a declining middle class, and growing underclass. Those who act shrewdly do seem to get rewarded. While it’s true money can’t buy love, it does get you access and power and as least transactional exchange.    People pay attention to those who have amassed wealth.

Maybe Jesus is being sarcastic with his take on the rich man’s praise: “Yeah, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it’s gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. . . how’s that workin’ for you?”

In this reading, the “dishonest” manager may be the one we’re to emulate: forgiving debt, and promoting a different use of wealth, one that actually strengthens the whole community; and being as shrewd about those innovations as we are about those that only benefit our own self interest.

You’ve no doubt read about the billionaire owner of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, who decided to give his company away. He and his wife and two adult children have irrevocably transferred ownership of Patagonia, valued at around three billion dollars, to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land the world over. While they received tax benefit for some of the transfer, over 98% was donated to a nonprofit that will make political contributions toward causes to which the family is committed to improve the environment, reduce greenhouse gases, and preserve and conserve land for the indeterminate future. This latter donation yielded no tax advantage whatever.

Mr. Chouinard sounded not unlike the manager in Jesus’ story when he commented in an interview, “I didn’t know what to do with the company. . . now I could die tomorrow and the company is going to continue doing the right thing for the next 50 years, and I don’t have to be around.” [New York Times, September 14, 2022]


What Mr. Chouinard did on an unprecedented scale may offer insight nonetheless on our faithful management of the far fewer riches with which we have been blessed. He and his family hewed to their core principle of earth–care and reflected that principle in their economic decisions. His Buddhist religion commands respect for all creation and he put his money where his mouth was.

Christians hold a core principle that God is the sole owner of creation, and has called us to the role of stewards, managers. All our money, all our wealth, is held in sacred trust for God and the purposes of God’s Kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven. Our decisions about how to spend it are to be based on Jesus’ declaration of those two best ways to live: Loving God with our whole heart and strength and mind (and money) and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

The rich man in the text would probably discount those commandments as impractical, unrealistic, and even dangerous.  And they probably are, if evaluated solely on the basis of wealth preservation.

But what if instead our family financial plan and our congregation’s annual budget were developed with the goals of God’s Kin-dom first: justice, mercy, peacemaking, opportunity for every one of God’s beloved children to thrive?

What if those goals–rather than fear or the quest for security–prevailed?

I’ll tell you honestly, friends, as the pastor of a church seeking financial faithfulness and smart use of our resources, and as an individual nearing retirement, it makes me squirm uncomfortably when Jesus utters the final words of this text. You simply can’t serve God and wealth. One of them is going to dominate the other. One of them is going to determine your priorities and choices and ultimately your life.

A proposed state statute that will appear on the November ballot may give us opportunity to stretch our faith-based muscles. The measure will set aside a portion of annual state income tax revenue for affordable housing programs–and exempt that money from the state’s revenue limit, thereby reducing the amount of money collected above the limit that is returned to taxpayers through TABOR. If approved, an estimated $400 million dollars will be available over the next two fiscal years to address the crying need for affordable housing across our State.  I urge you to read more about this proposal, but it has been endorsed by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Habitat for Humanity, two organizations whose work and advocacy we have valued as partners in serving our unhoused neighbors, as God calls us to do.

Who will entrust to us true riches?

In one way I’m thankful for this confusing parable. Its layers and twists and turns compel us to keep turning it over in our minds. Maybe that’s what Jesus intended about a matter so important, so much a part of daily life, with so much at stake.

Because Jesus knows how easily we are distracted by gold and glittering things.

Because Jesus knows our hearts, and how scared we get about an unknown future, how anxious we are about money matters and having “enough” (well, actually more than enough, so we can factor in the rainy days and blown boilers).

Friends, Jesus was hell-bent on liberating us from those fears, by reminding us that money is an inadequate substitute for trust in the God of heaven and earth who rules over it all with love– unconditional, abundant, and eternal.

Discount religion?

Not on your life!

Thanks be to God.