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Posts tagged ‘money’

For…Give.

Luke 16:1-13

forgive
In life, we sometimes encounter confusing and difficult situations. Maybe you are in one of those situations right now. Regardless of the advice that people give you, or conventional wisdom, nothing seems to fit or work. You feel stuck. You are not sure how to move forward. There are no easy answers.

This kind of life narrative needs to be told. We need to share with others [and ourselves] that it’s okay to feel stuck sometimes and that there are situations without answers or solutions. For me, it has been a comfort throughout my life to hear these stories—to discover that many, many others struggle with some of the same things I do, and that I don’t always have to resolve things. This gives me peace.

So maybe that’s why I appreciate the so-called “hard parables” of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels. These parables are the stories that Bible commentators, preachers, and teachers struggle to decipher. These are the parables that they avoid. They don’t have easy answers and they leave you hanging.

The parable of the unjust steward is one of those difficult stories. What does it mean? I don’t know, you tell me! But maybe that’s the beauty of it. It’s left open, and it also seems to contradict some of the things we assume about the Bible, God, and Jesus. So let’s explore a bit and see what happens.

First off, one thing we do know is that this story can be connected to the story of the prodigal son. In both stories, a character squanders the wealth he has been given. Also, the audience would have been Jesus’ followers and the Pharisees. The story is pretty straightforward, as a guy wriggles himself out of trouble by doing something pretty dishonest, but at the same time is shrewd enough to put his boss in a tough situation where he cannot fire him. So basically, the boss chooses to save face and thus “saves” the dishonest, shrewd guy. Yes, this is a parable about money. Duh. It’s Luke. Luke’s Gospel is all about money and maybe that’s why many Western Christians avoid it. Oh snap, did I say that?

oh-snap-this-is-getting-good-meme-35315
Anyhoo, Many Western Christians know what is called “The Lord’s Prayer.” But do they know that this prayer is about money? Yep. In Luke, the Lord’s Prayer is about forgiving debts—monetary debts. It’s literally saying that we should forgive the money that people owe us, therefore “releasing” them from the debt.

Okay, wow.

In terms of life application, I need to quote Sarah Dylan Breuer,[1] who has a wonderful blog that interprets various “difficult” Gospel texts. Ms. Breuer asserts that most commentators ask the standard questions like “Who is the steward?” and “Who is the master” but she asks a more pointed question: What does the steward actually do, without permission and dishonestly? 

The answer: the steward forgives debts. This is about forgiveness. So what’s the point of this supposedly confusing story?

Just forgive.

Forgive everything, forgive it today, forgive for any reason whatsoever and for no reason at all. Forgive. This applies to you and me, first of all. Forgive yourself. Just forgive yourself. For the things you regret, for the moments when you feel you failed, just forgive yourself. And then forgive others. That doesn’t mean forget any form of abuse or violence of oppression—but forgive means release the debt that exists between you and that person, because it is bringing YOU down. And it means forgive in the community, the nations, the world. Communities and nations should not be in debt to others. This is part of why the world is so screwed up. Forgive.

There is no bad reason to forgive, says the story, because keeping score is meant for sports and not for life. What does keeping score do for us anyway?

So what do you think?

Teaser for next week: Story of Lazarus and the rich man. What is it that causes some people to have someone in their line of vision and yet not really see them?

SHOUT OUT TO CHARLOTTE AND TULSA AND ALL WHO MOURN.

BLACK LIVES MATTER.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/09/proper_20_year_.html

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What Would You Do with a Bag of Money?

Matthew 25:14-30

Let’s keep it simple. This Matthew parable is often talked about in Christian circles, but very rarely understood. So let’s keep it simple:

What would you do with a bag of money?

Does that sound like a weird question to be asking?
Actually, it isn’t all that strange.
I’m sure at one point you have been asked this hypothetical question:

What would you do if you had a million dollars?
It’s a fun question to answer; it’s like a game.
What would you do with a million dollars?

Dr.-Evil-One-Million-Dollars

Of course, a million dollars gets our attention and also is an amount that 99% of the people in the world will never see. So we know that when we answer such a question we are just imagining a fantasy that will never actually happen.

But this Matthew parable is not asking us what we would do with a million dollars. It’s not a hypothetical, fantasy-type question. This parable story is a follow-up to the other parables and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

The lead-in is: Here is the story of a man going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted all his material wealth to them while he was gone.

One person gets five bags of money.
Another gets three.
The last person gets one.

Each bag of money, in this case, was equivalent to a whole year’s salary.
So the master has given away eight years’ worth of salary.

The first two people invest and put the money to use; they double it.
The third person buries his money in the ground and gets nothing.
Then the master returns.

The first two who double their money celebrate, are joyful, and are entrusted with more.
The third person is full anxiety, fear, and sadness and is left empty.

Like I said, let’s keep it simple. Let’s avoid jumping to common conclusions and status quo interpretations.

Let’s not make the master God or Jesus without blinking. Let’s not change the Greek word in the story to the English word talent. The master gives away his material possessions. The reason we get confused is because our English word talent [that means skill or gift] was derived from the Greek language. But in Greek, talent is an amount of money. So let’s keep the original meaning; this is about material wealth.

A man entrusted three people with a fortune.
Two of them did something with what they were given; one did not.
As a consequence, two people ended up joyful and fulfilled.
The other ended up sad, fearful, and empty.

Another thing to keep in mind.

The story right before this one is the parable of the 10 bridesmaids and the business with the oil. Just like in this story, a person goes away and people have to wait; in the meantime they are supposed to do something with what they have. The bridesmaids had oil; the servants has bags of money.

The parable of the bags of money is a sequel to the parable of the bridesmaids with oil.
And the parable that follows in Matthew is the well-known one about the king of the least of these, which says:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Keeping this context in mind will truly help us understand.
In all of these Matthew stories, people are entrusted with doing something in an in-between time. Bridesmaids wait for a groom to return; servants wait for their master; a community waits for its king.

How they live during that waiting—in that in-between time—makes all the difference.

In this story about bags of money, notice that only the third servant thinks that the master is cruel; he’s the only one with fear; he refuses to take a risk. It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also keep in mind that none of the three servants know what the others get. There is no envy or jealousy. Each person is given something to work with. They all have a choice.

They can choose to see what they have been given as generosity.
They can choose to take a risk and to put their resources to work.
They can choose to be out in the open.

This is not about judgment—who is better or worse, who is left out or let in, or who gets more and who gets less.

This is about how we see what we’ve given as individuals in this life and what we do with it.

If you imagine God as some keeper of rules who rewards and punishes people, well, then you will most likely live in fear and take very few risks. Religion will be nothing more than a legalistic dogma or doctrine full of cosmic causes and effects. Whatever you feel you have–you will bury it in the ground and keep it to yourself. You will pay way too much attention to other people and what they have; you will think that everyone has it better than you do; and you will feel pretty empty. Anything bad that happens in life you will blame God for it. If anything good happens to others, you will assume that God is favoring them and not you.

But I hope that is not the choice you will make.

Instead, I hope that you will consider a more compassionate choice for yourself. What if God is inherently compassionate, full of grace and mercy, and anxious to love you? What if this God has given you enough to live and to love and to share this with others?

Don’t get me wrong—I am not downplaying those in this world who do not have enough to eat, are homeless, or who live in unsafe conditions. I am not saying that they will “be fine” if they just change their attitude. People who are in those type of desperate and awful situations are there because they have been pushed there. Everything we do on this planet affects others. Jesus, even so long ago, recognized this and that is what the king of the least of these parable is about. We are supposed to take risks with what we have been given; we are called to put our resources to use; we are entrusted with resources so that we can help others who are truly in need.

So friends, as individuals, I challenge you to recognize what you have been given. I challenge you to take risks. I encourage you to see mercy and grace before you see judgment and rules.

And in the midst of the Advent season of waiting, an in-between time, let’s not look at all that is happening in the world and choose to bury what we have in the ground. Let’s not ignore the cries of oppressed, the mothers and fathers mourning the loss of their child shot dead, the families torn apart by someone else’s war, the forgotten, marginalized, the lonely.

We should not fear losing what has been given to us.

Let’s not bury it in the ground or keep it to ourselves. Let’s take risks and spread generosity and justice and mercy, because we have confidence in our God who loves us and entrusts us with what we need to do good in this world.

Respond with confidence, joy, enthusiasm, generosity, honesty, and love!

Money, Religion, and Politics—Oh My!

Matthew 22:15-22

Lions and tigers and bears—oh my!

But in this case, it’s money and religion and politics—oh my!

Yes, that’s right. It’s time to talk about these SCARY things. It IS almost Halloween, after all.
Let’s talk about money, first, which leads to politics, which leads to religion!

Jesus of Nazareth probably wouldn’t be invited to anyone’s Thanksgiving dinner, because apparently he really liked talking about money. He talked about it a LOT. A whole lot more, in fact, than he ever talked about sexual orientation—or sex in general.

Oh wait—he didn’t talk about sex.

But money—well…

Money and taxes were reality in the 1st and 2nd Century for the people of Israel and Palestine. Some may argue that things have not changed much. Well, I will beg to differ, because it was different back then and over there in that part of the world. Let’s give culture and history it’s due here; let’s look at money and taxes in this particular context.

Jews like Jesus in first century Palestine paid numerous taxes: They paid temple taxes, land taxes, customs taxes, and even more. But the “tax” that Jesus is asked about in this particular story is the Imperial tax paid as tribute to Rome. This tax supported the Roman occupation of Israel.

Um, sad, no? The Romans occupied Israel [not their land], but Israelis had to pay taxes to their oppressors.

But of course, as in every situation, some sided with the oppressors.

There were Jewish folk put in power by the Romans and they benefited from the occupation. So obviously, they supported the tax.

One more layer to it: those who were religiously devout [think about the Pharisees] had to pay this Imperial tax with a coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius; this picture was a proclamation of his divinity; having the coin itself would mean breaking the first two Commandments of Mosaic Law. So by paying this tax, the religious leaders were in fact honoring Caesar as a god. Obviously, the temple authorities were ultra-sensitive about this issue. And then Jesus started making them more sensitive about, it because…

Jesus taught that the Roman imperial system left out certain people.

Jesus said that the last should actually be first in God’s world. He told a story just before this episode about a wedding reception hosted by a king. Many rich people and dignitaries were invited, but they ignored the invitation. In the end, the king ended up inviting anyone he could find even from the streets, and they filled his banquet hall.

The injustice of the social systems mixed with the apathy of the religious leaders had put things out of balance.

But the Pharisees could not see that in Jesus’ message, for they were far too worried about, you guessed it—

Money, religion, and politics…oh my!

So they asked Jesus a trap question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? No good way to answer that.

So Jesus asked them a question.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.
Whose face is on the coin, and whose title?

How quickly the Pharisees produced said coin which was a symbol of Roman oppression and a sure sign that these very religious leaders were actually compliant in this unjust system. They eagerly showed Jesus the coin and told him that it was the Emperor’s face on it.

And while they considered the sad irony of all this and held tightly to the Emperor’s coin, Jesus quipped:

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s.

This was Jesus asking them to wake up and notice that they were contributing to the injustice. None of their religious piety mattered, because it was empty. They cared more about the coin with the face on it; they cared more about their precious religious laws than they cared about the poor, the lonely, the oppressed, the forgotten.

So who were they? Were they Caesar’s subjects, or God’s children?

It’s a sharp question—and one we often avoid.

Because political affiliations [or lack thereof] tend to be very personal; we don’t like to talk about it. But many remain very loyal to said affiliations. And the way we spend and earn money is nobody’s business, we say. But meanwhile, we often measure ourselves [and others] by how much money we have or how many material possessions we own.

And then there’s religion. We say we don’t want politics or money mixed in with religion. But sadly, many churches are full of poisonous politics and gossip and people vying for control; churches even favor certain people who have more money and listen less to those with very little money.

So like the Pharisees, we often miss the point.

We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about money, religion, and politics. They are part of life. We should not fear such things.

But they cannot be how we define ourselves.

Who are we? Are we subjects in an empire, loyalists to faces on a coin? Are we limited by our material wealth and boxed in by politics?

Or, are we children, created equally with the capacity to love and to show mercy, and to be impartial as the Creator is?

I’ve always felt that faith communities ought to inspire this kind of positive identity in people. Faith communities should be teaching and telling people that they are created in the image of God and all equal—with gifts to share, with purpose and potential; with the tools to love and to make a difference.

Churches [and people in general, for that matter] should never define people by their politics, religion, or how much money they have.

Instead, what if the coins with the faces on them did not matter so much to us? What if our religious and political affiliations also mattered less?

What if our behavior—how we live our lives and how we treat people, mattered the most?

The Pharisees are meant to be examples. We are supposed to walk in their shoes. Because like them, many of us have found ourselves getting too caught up in the politics of power, the pursuit of material wealth, and the imperialism of religion.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are members of churches only because their parents forced them to go or because it’s the status quo or merely because a particular church aligns with their political or social worldviews.

But I think that more and more people in this world want to commit only to things that make a real social impact in the world. More and more people of all ages and backgrounds want to find something like a spark or a light within themselves. And they want to join their light with others to make an even brighter one.

So friends, let money, religion, and politics, be what they are. Don’t let them define you.

Instead, be defined by the beauty and light given to all living creatures. Be defined by how you love and care for others.

An Economics of Caring

Mark 12:38-44

Stewardship of Each Other

Many Christian churches, on a particular Sunday in November, call it stewardship Sunday. So right from the start, I have to explain what the heck that means. Stewardship? Are we going somewhere, like, on a boat? And what’s a steward? Well, according to Webster’s Dictionary, a steward is:

 1] One employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns (as the supervision of servants, collection of rents, and keeping of accounts)

2] An employee on a ship, airplane, bus, or train who manages the provisioning of food and attends passengers

3] One appointed to supervise the provision and distribution of food and drink in an institution

4] One who actively directs affairs: manager[1]

 Okay, so put steward together with ship and what do you have? No, not bippity-boppity-boo…

Image

Stewardship, remember? A word defined as:

 The conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.[2]

Apparently, it is all about focusing on all of our roles as managers or supervisors of something—maybe a house, maybe money; perhaps boats, cars, or trains; maybe food and drink; or maybe even…people.

 Typically, on a stewardship Sunday, though, a church would focus on one thing: money. Oh yes—sometimes we do talk about money in the church! Well, at least we try to once a year. Look, I don’t blame you if you don’t want to hear someone preach at you about money. I’m with you. Maybe you’re thinking, Man, I do NOT want to hear another sermon about money. I am constantly bombarded with people selling me things and asking me for my hard-earned money. And besides, my money is my own business. Preacher Man, just preach on Jesus and leave my money alone.

 Okay, will do. Let’s talk about Jesus today. But, I’m a little nervous about that, because uh-oh, it seems like Jesus didn’t follow our rules of avoiding money in sermons. But I guess we’ll make an exception. After all, he is Jesus, right? Okay, I’m being a little funny, but I’m also being truthful. Clearly, at times we have an avoidance issue in the church as it relates to money. But I think this particular story in Mark will help us. Really, I do. Because Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t ambiguous about this concept of stewardship–of being managers or caretakers of something. So let’s dive in.

 Our passage begins with the word beware. So right away, we know that Jesus has experienced something earlier that rubbed him the wrong way. What was it? Well, it’s pretty clear. Remember the scene when Jesus enters the Jerusalem temple and starts tossing tables around like a WWE cagematch?

Image

 

Well, this story is also about the temple. Scribes [named here] and priests were the ones in charge of the temple. But they weren’t just religious leaders or theology teachers and preachers. They were in the business of money, too. Scribes and priests got a cut from every temple sacrifice that people offered and collected five shekels of tax for every first-born child.[3] Temple scribes and priests made it rain. And because they had money and charged taxes, eventually the temple scribes and priests figured out that they could also lend money to people. Of course, that meant that if someone borrowed money to pay for his home, the scribes and priests could foreclose his property.

Beware indeed.

 So Jesus was not pleased. These religious leaders, who were supposed to be lifting up the poor, standing up for God’s justice, and showing mercy to people — were playing the exploitation game. And religion is a perfect tool to use for exploitation. So they went about exploiting, in their long robes, accepting with pleasure all the respect and compliments of people in the marketplace. They were honored, exalted, and praised.

 Of course, in order to get wealthy and gain this high status, they had to step on a few people. I’m sure they devoured more than just widows, but Jesus chose to mention only widows here.The temple scribes and priests were exploiting their poverty, lending them money, charging them taxes, and bleeding them dry. And if ever anyone questioned their religious authority or started to smell a rat, they knew what to do. They stood up and prayed long, proud prayers. They schooled people in religious doctrine. That way, the people would all forget about the exploitation. That way, the scribes would get the best seats in the house and all the praise. Jesus was ticked off.

 So Jesus broke another one of our rules. We’re not supposed to watch people as they give money to the church, right? I mean, I’m a pastor, and I don’t even know what people give to the church. It’s private. But Jesus was nosy. He sat down opposite the treasury of the temple and with eagle eyes looked at the people giving their offerings. Rich people put in some nice sums of moolah. But then one of those aforementioned widows came in. Jesus was already fuming, so you can imagine his angst when the widow [the word for widow in Greek means a person poor enough that she has to beg] plopped in her two copper coins. Seeing this as a teachable moment, Jesus called his disciples to him and said: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on. The phrase truly I tell you is one you always have to pay attention to. When Jesus says that, it means that what is to follow is an important teaching. So the widow, according to Jesus, was all in. She gave her whole life, literally all she had to live on. Meanwhile, the others were putting in larger sums of money, but it didn’t really put a dent in their lifestyle.

 The story ends like that and the sermon usually ends with this interpretation:

The widow gave all that she had and so should we. We should be inspired by her generosity to give more than just a little bit of what we have. We should be all in. We should be more generous. Happy stewardship Sunday, everyone! Cue 1-800-GIVE-MORE-TO-MY-CHURCH and hear scratching of pens on checks.

 But the classic interpretation isn’t all that true to the actual story. Remember what happened before the widow dropped her coins in the treasury? Remember the temple’s system of exploitation, greed, taxation and a little religion mixed in for good measure? No, in Jesus’ book, the widow is no hero. She’s an anti-hero at best. Jesus doesn’t necessarily exalt the widow for the amount of money she gave. She puts in, according to Jesus, “more.” What is that more? Is it her devotion? Her faith? Her unselfishness? We don’t find out. But what Jesus does tell us is that he was upset–mostly that the woman had to give anything at all. Isn’t the church supposed to give TO the poor, not bleed them dry? Maybe it’s not the widow’s mite or her giving of money [money she desperately needed, by the way] that we should be applauding. Perhaps this story is not to be applauded at all.

 I think this story is about Jesus economics, or as I like to think—the economics of caring. You see, in our society, we tend to think about economics in this way: if you have money, you are blessed. If you’re poor, you are cursed. We start to equate wealth with God’s favor and poverty with God’s absence. And yet, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] and in Jesus’ NT teachings, God is a God of justice and stands with the poor. Wealth is equated with exploitation instead. Poverty is equated with being exploited. This is of course placing the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of humanity. If you are rich, don’t think you are somehow more blessed by God than someone who is not. Likewise, if someone is poor, remember how the majority of people become poor in the first place—someone exploits them.

 In short, I shouldn’t have to remind us all, but we’ve bought into this idea of looking out for number one. As individuals, we protect what we have with every ounce of our strength. During this time when we’re told again and again that we live in an age of scarcity; when we’re bombarded with negative messages about the economy; when we’re seduced by the lure of wealth at any cost. Beware, says Jesus. Beware of such thinking. We are not isolated individuals pushing our way to the top and exploiting and praying at the same time. We’re meant to be neighbor-focused. We’re made to be community—a group of people connected because each person shares a mutual need and a mutual desire to care for the other.

 In such a community, we don’t ask the widow to give all she has. Instead, we ask what we can do for her. In the economics of caring, we say on this stewardship Sunday, if you don’t have a lot of money, your gifts are just as important. So come, be part of this community, offer your gifts and talents; your time; your laughter; your honesty; your love; your wisdom; and that will be more than enough to bless. And then for those of us who can give, we give in order to love our neighbors—both here and out there. We give to lift up the single mom with two kids and no health insurance who needs to make a rent payment or she and the kids will be out on the street; we give so that all people—those who have never been to a church out of fear or discrimination or prejudice or abuse will feel welcome; we give to show hospitality to the stranger; to embrace the rejected; to share our whole selves with the needy world. And we don’t do it in a long prayer or with a long robe.

 Friends, any temple, any church institution–is part of the widow’s story, relived today. We too walk this line. We have to pay the bills. We want to keep the lights on, so to speak. We want to pay salaries for staff so they can share their gifts of leadership and special skills and so they can make a living, too. We want to make repairs to the roof and keep the building from falling apart. We want to offer dynamic programs for learning, faith growth, and enlightening education. In and of themselves, none of these things are bad. But none of that supersedes our economics of caring. This community, all of you, is meant to be connected in love and care for each other and for the world. So how will we be good stewards of people? How will we love and care for our neighbors, the marginalized, the left out and forgotten, the pushed down, the exploited?

This is the more that we have to offer. This will bring renewal, life, blessing, justice, and love. Amen.


[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

[2] Ibid.

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