September 22, 2019

2019 Sept22

Proper 20 - Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


Dirty money. There is plenty of it in the world. In today’s Gospel, entitled the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (or the Dishonest Steward), Jesus appears to be promoting dishonesty and dirty money. By contrast, in the Old Testament lesson, the Prophet Amos certainly has stern words for dishonest and corrupt wealth.


Can corrupt money do good? Should those in need, those who do good, charities, those who are struggling accept ill-gotten gains? Are there limits to the mechanisms of capitalism? Those are some of the questions which arise from the Prophet Amos and the Gospel.


The Prophet Amos is rebuking the grain sellers for profiting at the expense of the poor, and by selling inferior products. “The sweepings of the wheat” reminded me of how we used to describe Wonder Bread. But it is not far-fetched. The mass food market uses every scrap they possibly can in order to make a profit. I’ll simply drop into the conversation mechanically-separated meat. You can look it up when you get home, but I commend to you: not too close to the beginning or the end of a meal.


It is commonly understood by scholars that this parable ends halfway through v8:


“his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”


If the parable included v9, Jesus would be encouraging us to use our dirty money to our own benefit, and that isn’t Jesus’ way. The rest of v8 is thought to be Jesus’ own commentary on the main parable, and the remainder up to verse 13 is thought to be further sayings by Jesus, but not necessarily related to the main parable.


Usury, or charging interest at ridiculously high rates, was prohibited by Jewish law. So, the rich man was receiving dirty money. The dishonest steward fixed the system so that, not only would the debtors be paying a fair price to the rich man, they would find favor with the dishonest steward when he himself would be without a job or an income. The dirty money was diverted to those who could benefit from it.


Dirty money has been around as long as humans have been exchanging goods and services. There have been 2 very high-profile examples of dirty money in the news recently.


Working with today’s Gospel reading has made me reconsider Jeffrey Epstein’s contributions to prestigious universities, like the $800,000 to the MIT Media Lab and the $8.9M to Harvard. Epstein made his money as a hedge fund manager, which some view as legitimate and some don’t. Regardless, many feel that these institutions have dirty money in their possessions due to Epstein’s predatory predilections.


There is no doubt that both the MIT Media Lab and Harvard could use that money toward activities which foster education, research and the general well-being of the world. We hope that they have. But what if they were to give it back to the estate of the late Jeffrey Epstein? The Presidents of these institutions are now in the position of the Dishonest Steward. Do they bend to public pressure and give the money back, or do they take the flack and use the money for good? Just to note: Harvard is in a slightly different position than MIT. Epstein’s donations to Harvard ended before he was convicted of sex crimes; the donations to MIT started after the conviction.


If the money were given back, what would it be used for? Would it be used to make the rich richer? Would it be used for further dubious activities? Will it eventually be seized by the State and used in whatever way seized assets are? Who will benefit from that money if it is returned?


Money is a tricky subject, and we will continue to hear about it in our Sunday readings for a couple more weeks. Here Jesus is suggesting that the Dishonest Steward did the right thing by reducing the contracts of the debtors because that money could be better put to use for the debtors’ needs than it could have been used by the rich man. The rich man was a non-resident landlord who hired the steward to make him money; he did no work of his own as it relates to this parable.


So, if MIT and Harvard can make use of the Epstein donations for the good of the education of young minds or the academic world, then perhaps that is far better than what the Epstein estate would do with it.


An example of dirty money doing good was also in the news recently. Virginia Theological Seminary, and Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria has established a reparation funds with $1.7M. In the press release, the seminary states that it:


…recognizes that enslaved persons worked on the campus, and that even after slavery ended, VTS participated in segregation. VTS recognizes that we must start to repair the material consequences of our sin in the past.


The income from the endowment will fund:


  • the needs emerging from local congregations linked with VTS;
  • the particular needs of any descendants of enslaved persons that worked at the Seminary;
  • the work of African American alumni/ae, especially in historic Black congregations; the raising up of African American clergy in The Episcopal Church;
  • other activities and programs that promote justice and inclusion.

The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of VTS, stated:


“This is a start. As we seek to mark Seminary’s milestone of 200 years, we do so conscious that our past is a mixture of sin as well as grace. This is the Seminary recognizing that along with repentance for past sins, there is also a need for action.”


At its foundation, VTS received dirty money through slave labor. The reparations fund is their way of turning dirty money into good works. They recognize their past as a mixture of sin and of grace. That is what dirty money is:


a mixture of sin and grace
– the grace of a generous gift
out of the sin of dirty money.


In the Gospel, we don’t know if the steward will lose his own commission through his actions. It is only clear that he intends to get even with the rich man through the only way he knows how: eliminating the unfair interest, the dirty money, with the supposition that the debtors will ensure his welfare once he is jobless. He himself creates the paradigm of a mixture of sin and of grace.


Though the rich man was cheated by the steward, he gives credit for the initiative, supposedly realizing that his own business practices were technically illegal. There is a modicum of integrity in his reaction.


Does this mean that Jesus is teaching His Disciples to be unjust for the good of the people, to be what we now would consider Robin Hoods? Doubtful. What Jesus expects from His Disciples is for them to be shrewd like the steward as they begin to bring their possessions into common use. They are not to be like the wealthy who are being rebuked by the Prophet Amos.


They are to distribute wealth so
that all God’s people may have
the opportunity to reach their potential.


Jesus goes on to make some statements about wealth, which are now famous. We usually refer to wealth as mammon, and mammon is, by definition, dirty money; it’s not a synonym for general currency; it’s money and wealth that becomes an idol, an addiction, a distraction from God and from the care of others. When the definition of mammon is understood, be can better understand how we cannot serve God and mammon.


To begin to turn away from mammon, from dirty money, and back toward God, Jesus, in this parable, suggests to the tax-collectors and sinners He has gathered as His Disciples that there may be a right use of mammon, the dirty money that their previous lives have gained them. Use it to serve the poor, to do God’s work, and to free oneself from the chains that dirty money weighs one down with.


The last part of this passage which doesn’t really belong to the parable suggests that sharing possessions and releasing oneself from the captivity that mammon ensnares one into will bring about a reorientation toward Heaven. The use of the word “steward” instead of “manager” is significant, because to be a steward is to care for something that is not one’s own. Why? Because whether clean money or dirty money, our possessions are not our own:


All good gifts come from God
our true treasure is in Heaven.


Today, we live in a society in which the rich are gaining wealth at the expense of the poor. The gap between the rich and the poor is the greatest it has been since Victorian times. The quality of physical health between the rich and the poor is widening. The evidence of serving mammon is all around us. As the Prophet Amos warns in our first reading:


“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…”


If the wealthy, any person who has more material wealth than they need, were to truly serve God, then there would be no need among the poor.


We were told last week at the CLI Conference that Americans live a culture of scarcity:


no matter how much wealth we
have, we fear that it is not
enough, and that it could
simply disappear.


The fact is, we are the wealthiest nation on the planet with more than enough money to go around. That attitude of scarcity leads us to mammon, wealth as idol, a distraction from God, dirty money, which we serve, falsely believing that it serves us.


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 – “you cannot serve God and mammon”


The Collect is our prayer to not serve two masters:


Grant us…not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly…


There is no need to be anxious, because most of us can still live a comfortable life AND address our concern for the poor, because we have much more than we actually need. And when we amass far more material wealth than we need, it becomes mammon; it becomes dirty money.


One commentator states of Luke ch16,


“The unifying theme of this apparently disunified chapter [which we will finish next week] is that of using possessions to benefit others, especially the needy.”


Our Offering of the Gifts on p13 that we acclaim at the 8 o’clock service underscores this, and is the beginning of our charge to share God’s wealth:


Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power,
the glory, the splendor, and the majesty;
for everything in heaven and on earth is Yours.
All things come from You, and of Your own do we give You.


The Eucharist itself is the full charge to serve God by serving God’s people. Let us serve one another in Christ. Let us stop serving mammon and serve the Heavenly manna as we share in the Holy Sacrament – Jesus in Bread and Wine – which can lead us out to share God’s wealth with all of God’s people!

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