by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by the way you use unjust wealth so that, when that wealth is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal tents.” Luke 16:9
Imagine this: Sam works for an investment company, managing a portfolio of repackaged debt (CDOs). They sell packages of medical debt, mortgages, credit card debt, etc. for pennies on the dollar to investors who then either continue to collect debt payments (with obscene amounts of interest) or attempt to collect on the debt. Now imagine that Sam’s boss hears through the grapevine that their performance is less than spectacular. Sam is asked to come to a meeting and give an account for everything bought, sold, and earned. Facing the prospect of termination, Sam comes up with a plan to make some friends in case of unemployment: they go into the system and reduce the amount owed by hundreds of people. Sam emails those people to let them know that their debts—under which many were drowning—have now been cut by at least half. The recipients of Sam’s debt forgiveness are now more able to pay off their debts, and more able to do other things: like pay rent and buy food. Sam gets fired, but not before the story goes viral: grateful people have posted all over social media about the generous stranger who erased their debt. Someone starts a GoFundMe for Sam. Sam’s boss, though angry, is also quietly impressed at the moves Sam made. “Well played. You’re fired,” the executive texts the now former employee. A master of screwing people over for money, the executive recognizes and appreciates the way Sam used the system to screw the business and gain from it. Sam’s shrewdness (not to mention the opportunity for the company to take credit for the debt relief, and thereby lure more borrowers to the company) gets Sam a promotion instead of a firing.
“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by the way you use unjust wealth so that, when that wealth is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal tents.”
Every English translation I look at for this verse uses the word “dishonest,” as in dishonest manager and dishonest wealth. But according to Strong’s, adikos means unjust, unrighteous or wicked. How does your reading of this parable change when you replace dishonest with unjust?
What if we realized that all of our wealth is somehow unjust—that all of our money has blood on it? Even if our source of income is 100% altruistic, our salary still probably depends on money donated to our organization, which may be earned in unjust ways. And some of the dollars in our account have absolutely been filtered through unjust systems: our money filters through the global economy; and even if our investment portfolios are free from investments in private prisons, gun manufacturers and companies that pollute, somewhere along the way our money has been run through the hands of some person or business that is unjust.
So what do we do with this unjust wealth? Well, according to verse 9, we’re supposed to Robin Hood that stuff, so that we will be welcomed into the eternal tents. After all, earthly wealth (mammon) is temporary, a repeated theme in scripture. Is it just me, or is Jesus suggesting that redistributing this earthly, unjust wealth to relieve the pain of another is the pathway to heaven?
If we interpret this parable of Jesus as an example of the faithful use of unjust wealth, verse 11 might read as follows:
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is unjust in a very little is unjust in very much. If then you have not faithfully redistributed the unjust wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches?”
And this may be too far for some, but how about this for verse 12: “If you have not faithfully redistributed what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”
We are told, over and over again, that “he who dies with the most toys, wins.” Does this story tell us that whoever redistributes the most toys wins?
Now, admittedly, the idea of redistribution is often met with fear that looks like rage. The idea that what we feel we have earned might be taken from us is terrifying to most people. For some this is a legitimate fear: many people who have very little have had their belongings taken from them by unjust means, like predatory lending practices, police seizures, & Medicaid repayment taking their homes. However, that’s not what is happening in Jesus’ story. A landowner, a rich man in Jesus’ time, is having *some* of his wealth redistributed by the lessening of others’ debts.
Some people in your congregation might burst into flames outright if you say the words “income redistribution.” It might be worthwhile to consider the example of billionaire Jeff Bezos, who just cut the healthcare of part-time workers at Whole Foods. Without the money he “saved” on his employees’ healthcare, he would still have more money than he could possibly use in his lifetime. Here’s a fun game to see what could be done with his wealth: https://direkris.itch.io/you-are-jeff-bezos
We live in a society that reveres wealth far more than it does God. Who are our celebrities and heroes? Who is placed on the covers of our magazines? Who do we want to be like? Hell, a ton of people voted for Donald Trump because he *looks* rich, and therefore he must be good at all the things.
We set our hope on wealth. We set our salvation on wealth. We put our trust in wealth. And that’s why so many of us freak out when there is any conversation about redistribution. If we set our hopes on God, wouldn’t we be more comfortable just giving stuff away? Wouldn’t we be less afraid of what we have being taken from us?
A few other notes about this Lukan text:
This commentary is written for predominantly white audiences. People of color live in daily threat of what they have being taken by the system, and I am not in the business of telling people who have consistently had things actually taken from them how they should feel about redistribution. Luke was likely speaking to an audience that was primarily economically comfortable; this commentary also has in mind those with greater privilege.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.