Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Ends and Means
The term "home economics" is redundant. Who knew? The word "economics" comes from the Greek word "οἰκονομία," which is literally the combination of the words "οἶκος" (home) and "νόμος" (law). Effectively, it means "household management" or "stewardship." Economics, therefore, are about the home. It's about managing what you have on hand. When politicians talk about "the economy," what they're really talking about is stewardship. How are we managing what we have at our disposal? This concept of stewardship runs through Sunday's parable of the dishonest manager, and the teaching Jesus offers through it depends upon our ability to see that thread.
Most modern English translations (ESV, NRSV, NIV, CEV, CEB) of Luke 16:1-13 use the words "manager" and "management" to describe what is going on. If you go back to the KJV, however, you see that the issue is one of stewardship: "And [the rich man] called [the steward], and said unto him, 'How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.'" I think that we implicitly understand that managing something is being a steward of it, but, once that is made explicit, this confusing parable begins to take shape.
Facing his termination, the steward/manager calls in his master's debtors and gives them a deep under-the-table discount on their bills, hoping that they would return the favor and receive him into their homes. Notice, of course, that the Greek word for home is "οἶκος," so the thread continues. There's irony here. The man was a poor manager of his master's house so that he could be accepted into the houses of others.
The part of the parable that surprised the hearers came next. The master found the dishonest steward and praised him for his shrewdness--his prudence or practical wisdom. Like so many parables (e.g. the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Wedding banquet), the surprise draws the audience into the teaching. No master would praise his steward for lining his own pockets. So what's Jesus' point? What's the real teaching of this passage?
Jesus says to his disciples, "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes." As Seth Olson pointed out earlier this week, these "eternal homes" are not "οἶκος." They are "αἰωνίους σκηνή" or "everlasting booths." The NRSV does us a great disservice by translating it as if it were the same sort of dwelling that the steward is hoping to enter. It's not. these tents or booths or tabernacles are the dwellings that Peter hoped to build for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus on the Transfiguration mount. It is the true dwelling place for God that the author of Hebrews uses to contrast the earthly tabernacle of the Temple and the heavenly tabernacle that Christ makes accessible to us. We may not want to camp out in a tent for all eternity, but, when it comes to imagining a heavenly dwelling, that's what we are invited to see.
So what does all of this mean? The house-manager failed in his house-management of his master's house. So he cut a dishonest deal to get himself a new house. Jesus urges his disciples to act likewise, but he tells them to use that same dishonest wealth to make friends not with the hopes of attaining an earthly house but a heavenly dwelling. This is a stewardship of earthly resources with a heavenly goal--a different end. In certain circumstances, we say that the ends justify the means, and, in this case, the goal of the kingdom is the only thing that matters.
The gospel lesson concludes with Jesus' most famous exhortation about money: "You cannot serve God and wealth." The dishonest steward used his master's resources to achieve an earthly goal. And, given his master's commendation, it would seem that he was successful. Jesus tells us to use those same resources to achieve a heavenly goal. If we're going to be successful, we have to be just as shrewd--just as practically wise. Stewardship is about serving a master. It's about planning for a future home. Will it be one on earth or one in heaven? The wealth is described as "dishonest" or, literally, "unrighteous." Will the "unrighteous Mammon" becomes a means for the kingdom, or will the "unrighteous Mammon" become the end in itself? It's one or the other. Which will it be?