thinking theology

An Ethic of Dishonesty

In a world where many starve, others have more than they need. In a world where lies are accepted, what is truth? In a world where the elite can do as they please and govern those with less status, what power can the poor claim? In Luke 16:1-13, we hear what was probably a common story about a person of affluence who grinds the poor for their meagre goods. This person does not, of course, do his own business, but appoints others to commit his shameful, but legal, economic abuse.

The middle man, the manager, either squanders what he takes or simply does not bother to collect. This person at some point, probably belonged to the same group of people he is now expected to gouge. Eventually, somebody informs on him, perhaps someone who wanted the job. He is fired, but realizes that he no longer belongs to a community that might welcome him. As well, he would be reduced to working in the mines or begging, work that was punitive and socially degrading.

After some thought, he calls in the debts that were owed but reduces the amount so that they are perhaps more manageable. The rich man is impressed with his shrewdness and his community is impressed that he is giving them a break.

Why does Jesus tell this story? I think it is a story about how people are caught in systemic sin and abuse. The manager has no power to change the system but he creatively figures out how to bend the system to minimize its effect. The Roman system of taxation and social hierarchy would not change in his lifetime, but it could be adapted and its harm moderated. It is not the wealth that is evil. The sin lies in its acquisition and management. So if a person is caught in the mesh of social and economic inequity, he might use the system against itself. Intentionality is key here. What does the manager learn? He learns that he cannot turn his back on his community of origin. He learns that the rich can be manipulated, He learns to have some self respect and confidence in his ability to manage. He learns that the money itself is neither a goal or a safeguard. The money is merely a means to an end.

Bob Dylan wrote a song called, “You Gotta Serve Somebody”. The question for the manager and each of us is always, “Who do you serve; who/what do you love?” Elsewhere, Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” At the clergy day, Bishop Mark MacDonald reminded us that we are all caught in the structural sins of colonialism. We can try to hide and deny, or we can be shrewd and use the very tools that created a system of injustice, to dismantle that very system. If our hearts are set on a different ideology, one founded on mercy and generosity, then the mechanisms of our lives will be the seeds of change.

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