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“Imagine No Debt”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 20, September 22, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke 16:1-13

And here ends not just a reading, but a really odd reading. A very difficult reading. This is a parable that scholars and theologians and ministers have tried to figure out the last couple thousand years. Not that parables are problems to be solved, so much, but this is a very odd Jesus and people have not known quite what to do with this parable. There have been arguments and frustration, because it seems to be that Jesus is approving a behavior that he condemns the rest of the time. It is an odd thing that he says here, to approve the behavior of this dishonest manager, saying, “Oh, but he was faithful dishonestly and that’s a good thing!” and then later Jesus seems to change his mind and he says, “Don’t serve money, serve God.”

So there are a lot of ways to interpret this, and a lot of things that could be done with it. But one way I am going to suggest is that we look at it in the context of where it is and where Jesus is. Jesus’ audience here is a group of Pharisees. You may remember from last week’s reading, Jesus has been eating with sinners and tax collectors and that really annoys the Pharisees and other religious leaders because Jesus isn’t supposed to be doing that. It was at their criticism of him (last week) that he gave them the parable of the lost coin and the lost sheep. And so his audience is partly Pharisees and religious leaders – the people who have money, who have power, who have influence within their community and over a lot of the population. And the other part of his audience is poor. It is made of the regular people, like his disciples. People who had little money, little power, and little influence. Who lived under the yoke of the Pharisees and the religious leaders, and under the yoke of Rome and the Governor and others. Others who taxed them and kept them in perpetual debt, or at least kept many of them in a state of perpetual debt, having bills to pay.

And I would think that a story like this, a parable like this, to a people who are poor, this story of wiping away debt would be a story of liberation to them. It would be a story of Good News. A message that maybe there is a path out of this debt. Or just a sense of, “Yeah, this dishonest manager is sticking it to the man!” Maybe what he is doing is dishonest, but at least it is dishonest on behalf of the poor, or those who have the debts. Sticking it to the rich guy. The banker is not going to get back everything he expected to get. This manager’s boss will not get back everything he expected.

And I would think that for the Pharisees hearing this, and those who control the financial and economic strings of a community, it might not be a story of Good News. It might be a story that frustrates them, annoys them, makes them squirm a little bit. Not what they want to hear about debt forgiveness.

Jesus is a bit subversive. Sometimes he’s a lot subversive, trying to turn the tables on society and the structure of how things are. To turn the tables to make them more like God’s realm, how God wants us to be. And when Jesus tells a parable, they are often images of what the Kingdom of God, the Realm of God, looks like. And what our world ought to look like to be in conformity with God’s vision. And so he has told them the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the parable of the Prodigal Son (the son who takes his inheritance and squanders it, then comes back to his father to beg a job, but instead when he comes back his father greets him with a ring, a robe, a fatted lamb for a big celebration. The father does what he is not supposed to do.) and then he goes into this parable: “God’s realm, God’s way, is not like our way. God’s way is to place relationships over money. To place justice and mercy above profit. To place love above money.

And so imagine for the poor of today, those who are enslaved to debt. Many of us go into debt, but not in an enslaved way, in order to get a home or a car. But many of the poor, especially, who become slaves to debt because they have a bull they can’t pay or something coming up they need money for, and so they go to one of these payday loan places. You may have seem them on TV. Or the places that will offer a loan against a car title. Not a huge amount of money. Maybe enough to get you through the month. But what they don’t advertize so boldly, so you have to look on their website or the fine print, is that they might be charging 30%, 40%, 50%. There was an ad that Gary Coleman did a few years. Remember Gary Coleman from Different Strokes, the “What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” guy? I checked it out online, and it was 99% interest. Others charge 200% interest. You just don’t know what you are getting in to. And they aren’t regulated, because they aren’t banks. I remember a couple years ago, JONAH (the social justice group here in Eau Claire), as part of WISDOM (the statewide organization that JONAH is part of) tried to get some legislation passed to regulate these pay day loan and car titkle loan places to limit the amount of interest they could charge. They wanted something to regulate them like banks. But that law did not pass, so these places are out there.

Imagine you have a bill to pay, and you don’t have the money, but the only place that will offer you a loan is a place that will charge you 30%, 50%, or 100%. But you likely won’t be able to pay that loan off, so you get a loan from somewhere else to pay that. And soon you are locked into a cycle of debt and poverty that is almost impossible to get out of. Unfortunately, there is a lot of that going around. I’m seeing more of those places here in Eau Claire. I remember going to Janesville, my hometown, about the time that GM shut down their factory there. These loan places popped up everywhere. We never had them in town, and now one of the main streets, Milton Ave. that used to be all restaurants and stores, ended up with a loan place just about every block in order to prey on the poor.

Or folks who have no medical insurance and get sick, or have an accident, and can’t afford their hospital bills then spend their lives having money deducted out of their paychecks to pay those bills off. Or they lose their car. And people who have lost their car have incredible difficulty getting to work.

So people in those situations, this parable might be a burst of liberating news to hear about forgiveness of debts. To know that the current system is broken. Jesus is, in many ways, talking about the system of his time and our time. There is brokenness in that system that benefits the few at the expense of the many. That is not what God intends for us. The vision that Jesus is offering in this parable is to say that this is not a healthy way for a society to run and it is not the system in God’s realm. And to the people in Jesus’ audience who might identify that the others owe money to, they might find some difficulty in this and be challenged to rethink how they are doing their business.

And for us, we are probably a bit on both sides. Most everyone in here has had a car loan or a home mortgage, so you know what it is like to be in debt. And which one of us would not really love to have someone come knocking on your door some day and say, “Hey, we’ve wiped away 20% of your loan!” Or 50%, or 80%. We’re not going to say no to that. And we have probably all been in situation in which pepole have owed us something. WE have loaned money to a friend or a family member, and we want it back. Or we think we are owed a certain level of thankfulness for something we did, or we did a favor for someone and so think they owe us one. Then imagine if someone else went to those people and said, “Those debts are forgiven!” We might be upset that someone else forgave the debts we are owed.

But Jesus’ parables are not about providing answers or offering solutions. They’re pictures. He is painting word pictures of what God’s realm looks like set up against our own, in order to inspire us and get us to think about what God’s realm might look like. And I think that as difficult as this parable is (and this is an incomplete picture what I am about to say), but what Jesus is offering here is a vision that people are more important than money. That relationships are more important than profit. The way we live together as a community is more important than how we can make us other people in our lives.

I think also in the context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem – remember, at this point in the Gospel of Luke, he is on the journey to Jerusalem to be killed and to be raised – everything that happens is part of that mission. He knows what he is going to do. He is, in a sense, if you think in the sense of his earthly ministry, Jesus knows that he is kind of being fired from that job to go do something else: to be crucified and be raised from the dead. And now we can think of Jesus, in some ways, as the manager who is running around recklessly forgiving all of these debts. As we forgive our debtors.

Part of what Jesus is up to here is to place relationships above money. He is refusing to see people as just tools. To see people as people. That is the world that Jesus shows us in the picture that he is painting for us here. To say to us, “Live into this. Live into this image. Let this be what guides you. Live into this. And if you serve me, if you serve God, if you follow me, it can be done.”


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