Message Manuscript for “What Are We Doing to for with the Poor?” Luke 16:1-3
Delivered to Church for the Highlands John Henson
Sunday, September 18, 2016
It was like a bad flashback to the 80’s. Bono, Bob Geldof, Boy George, George Michael, Michael Jackson, Cindi Lauper, Duran Duran swayed on the silver screen at the Robinson Film Center as they sang “Feed the World.” In case you weren’t around in the 80’s or in case you were and can’t remember much from then, “Feed the World” was a response to the widespread food shortage and starvation in Africa. The video I was seeing was the intro to a documentary, Poverty Inc, about the damage well-intentioned people with money do to the poor. Interviews with community leaders in places like Kibera, Kenya revealed, for example, how people see naked, bloated children on TV and think everyone in Africa is like that. As a result, they collect and ship container loads of clothing there, hurting local economies and clothing businesses. Another interviewee was a local business person who made solar panels for street lights and other needs to provide energy in a nation with a devastated infrastructure after hurricanes and earthquakes. He told of what happened to his business when well-intentioned people and agencies gave away what he was trying to sell. The same kind of thing happened with relief agencies donating free rice, an act of charity with a devastating effect on local rice farmers and markets. In short, the documentary shined a light on the complexities and challenges of not only poverty; but also of having wealth.
The issues addressed in the documentary are nothing new. The Scripture we’ve heard this morning reminds us that poverty and the people affected by it is a perennial problem in our world. Poor people, more specifically, are to be of concern for the people of God. Our Gospel reading for today is a prime example. It is a story Jesus told to change minds and hearts about economic injustice to the poor. It is a story with a point: no one can serve two masters.
Jesus tells about a wealthy man who finds out one of his workers who, instead of managing his business, was squandering his property. The rich man calls him in and confronts him with his dishonesty and mismanagement. Seeing that he has no skills to make a living and fearing homelessness and poverty, the manager comes up with a plan. He will call in all of the rich man’s debtors and cut their debts considerably. This way the debtors will think he’s a great guy and true friend and will then take care of him now that he has lost his job. The rich man finds out about what he has done and commends him for acting shrewdly. As Jesus finishes the story, he tells the crowd that if the shrewd manager can come up with a plan like that to save his tail, then shouldn’t they, the people of God—be as shrewd and responsible with what God had entrusted to them.
This was a story intended for them, for them to hear in their context and to understand their economic realities. I wonder what story Jesus would tell us today, here in our context as Christians in a capitalist economy, living in the richest country in the world. You just know it would be a good story. Perhaps Jesus would even do a little digital storytelling to make his point. However he would tell the story, it is one we certainly would need to hear, for we are still people who tend to bow to the idol of Mammon with more discipline and devotion than to God. The worship of money is not only a problem in our secular society; it is one Christians and churches have as well. So what would Jesus have us do as a result of hearing the story he would tell us? The same thing he wanted people to know in his time: be mindful of the power money has on you and other people.
The first part of that is about you. To be mindful of the power money has on you. Are you? Do you have possessions or do your possessions have you? Is your money your servant or are you serving it? Are your priorities centered around your money (how to make it, keep it, spend it) or is your money centered around your priorities? These are just a few of the questions we need to ask ourselves on a regular—if not daily–basis. I’m pretty sure we all know how powerful money is in our lives, whether we have it or whether we are trying to get it. The words of Jesus leave no room for confusion: No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (v.13)
The second part of what Jesus would want us to know is about money’s power on other people. As we heard from Amos earlier in the service, God had an unwavering concern for what happened to the poor. Even more, God was angry with how religious leaders were taking advantage of the poor or, at the very least, turning a blind eye to the people who were doing so. Amos warned Israel and the nations that God was holding them responsible for their actions or indifference.
The poor face similar challenges today. There are people, institutions, corporations here in this community whose sole business model is to trap people in debt. Payday loan companies are by far the most flagrant, but many other forms of predatory lending exist all around us. We see them and may even say, “Well, they aren’t good, but that’s the only option for poor people. They are a necessary evil.” If that’s what we say, shame on us for giving a free pass to injustice to the poor. Surely we hear from Amos and Jesus today that we will be held accountable for our actions and inactions related to the poor. Yes, we’ve made a start—providing an ATM, free tax preparation, Hand Up Loans, and credit counseling. But there is so much more we can do, just right here in Highland.
Our work begins with realizing that the poor among us are the people of God too. Doing nothing for them is doing them harm. Doing just anything for them is also doing the harm. We must do something with them, with the creativity and shrewdness God provides to expands beyond our almsgiving and assistance to the level of ensuring and developing fair and just economic systems and access for all people, but especially for the poor. As Gustavo Gutierrez, a champion for the poor, stated, “the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.”[i]
And that’s where we come in. Builders of a new order, a new reality for our world that addresses how we manage what God has given us and how we treat those among us with little as a true measure of how we practice our faith.