Heaven Doesn’t Matter

Yellow (gold) Brick Road, heaven doesn't have one of these, but I'm sure you'll need the high heels to dress for the occassion

Yellow (gold) Brick Road, heaven doesn’t have one of these, but I’m sure you’ll need the high heels to dress for the occassion

I mean who does care about heaven?

We care so much about heaven we speak of it as often as we speak about hell. (see my previous post Why the Hell does Hell Matter? wherein I describe the banality of this idea more academically than my approach here to heaven)

Equally we spend as much time trying to keep people out of hell as we do get them into heaven…makes me wonder if we really believe in either one. We spend precious little time doing either.

At least I’m honest about this. Why keep giving attention to irrelevant concepts that don’t help me love, live and embrace beauty around me?

These are theological buzz words that define your camp. They are not words that mean a damn thing for any of us when we start each morning.

Heaven, and its corollary hell, are nice ideas in church on Sunday, but when I’m running my business, playing with my kids, talking with my wife or hanging out with my band of brothers, heaven and hell might as well be the man on the moon. Is he there and if he is do any of us care?

A friend of mine likes to say that most Christians are practical atheists and Christian only by confession. I think he’s right. Heaven and Hell are ideas we feel the need to acknowledge but nothing that constitutes our attention daily.

By practical atheism he means that we do not really embrace, or incarnate, a theocentric worldview, one that would rely on the deity for our very sustenance.

To the contrary, most of us live very secular lives for very secular reasons. We just participate in religion because we are scared of the man upstairs. We are scared of the opposite of heaven…and because there is a “hell to shun, there is a heaven to gain.”

Yet this idea of shun and gain, has little import on how our worldviews are constructed or how we attempt to orchestrate divine responses from the heavens.

We no longer NEED it.

We know God doesn’t really supply our food. Dirt, water and agro-manipulation allow us to eat. God doesn’t shelter us from the heavens. Our air conditioned and heated homes do that. God doesn’t bring the rain. Weather patterns of the globe bring us rain. Etc.

I could continue the list, but generally speaking we are all practical atheists because we can be, and when our atheism runs dry or hits a space of unknown geography, our God comes in handy. We then give him control by saying he’s in control, but in reality, we will practically live into tomorrow as we have lived into today: very independently, ideologically and self-sufficiently.

We believe in Moses and manna from above, but not that much.

Our lives are NOT centered on these grandiose eschatological schemes any more than our lives are centered on other solar systems. They simply do not matter. And neither does heaven or hell.

Just because we think we have to believe in something, doesn’t make believing in that something a constitutional priority over how we regulate our daily activities.

If this were the case, then all the Christians who are consequently good capitalists would quit their jobs and invest in “eternal” matters because the “matter” of matter really doesn’t matter. Right?

At least until Monday morning when heaven doesn’t matter and the material world is more valuable than any hymn we hypocritically sung the previous Sunday morning.

Heaven doesn’t matter, and neither does hell, at least not as much as we think it does.
But they do matter as much as we act upon them, which means never.

As the psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Zizek is quick to point out, we are not the sum total of our beliefs. We are the sum total of our actions because our actions embody what we really believe, even if you want the preacher and fellow cultural Christians to think otherwise.

Heaven doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter, affect, how we live in the world. Maybe we can be good Platonists, or Neo-Platonists, and adopt a bizarre dualism that history challenges with each passing day, but otherwise, heaven doesn’t matter.

(And if it did matter, even a little, I bet it matters to you for wholly different reasons than it mattered to Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t worried about what happened to him.  He was crucified.  Us?  We like our bodies and our souls a little too much than to volunteer them for a cross or the great unknown of the grave.  Buncha Christian narcissists confusing heaven with ideal ego.  I digress.)

But we should take heart. We can be honest about this and not fret the hell fire of a God that lives to be right. We need not worry about a God that longs to be holy and can’t wait to tempt us with neat little things such as trees and gardens, all the while knowing what we will do, so that he can then provide a way of redemption for us, you know, so God can feel good about being God. A prearranged ideal foreordained for the faithful. We need not worry about this or that heaven doesn’t matter.

Why?

Well, because the Bible doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about heaven either.

Heaven is not the reason Jesus came. The coming of God into creation was the reason Jesus came. This seems to be at least a little what Jesus might have meant about the Kingdom of God arriving with him, in him, through him, and remaining after him.

Jesus didn’t spend any time talking about heaven the way preachers today talk about heaven. Sure, go read the Gospels. There are some cryptic sayings one might deduce to be the heaven we all know and love, the same heaven that matters very little on a daily basis, but that is only because we are reading the Gospels through the Book of Revelation.

Guess what? Jesus never read the Book of Revelation and his view of heaven was not redacted with images of Johns Revelation.

Jesus’ idea of heaven was not hijacked by the scariest book of the Bible, one so scary that not even the scariest of Reformation theologians, John Calvin, could write a commentary on it.

Jesus used Jewish eschatological concepts in his preaching and there is very little Jewish theology that would look anything like disembodied spirits floating at the feet of Jesus.

I think of this and I’m reminded of that scene in the Little Mermaid with all the damned souls floating in Ursella’s abyss…only our idea of heaven is the opposite. That’s just weird and if your Christianity makes you believe something like that, go right ahead but it’s not what Jesus came preaching and it’s not consistent with St. Paul either.

But it would make you a good heretic in the early church and that’s pretty cool.

And check this, not only did Jesus not read Revelation for a clue about heaven but Revelation isn’t even about going to heaven!

Seriously, it’s not.

Revelation is about God restoring justice in the world and bringing redemption to the nations. That’s why in this apocalyptic letter the New Jerusalem (the place where God is) comes to us and dwells with us.

We don’t go to it.

Sound familiar? Well it is. Jesus. Incarnation. Gospel of John. Jesus came and dwelt among us.

Revelation is not interested in a literal picture of heaven anymore than heaven matters to us on any given day. Revelation is using metaphor, simile and symbolism to create an apocalyptic vision of what the dwelling of God looks like through the lens of a finite creation.

The Streets are not literal Gold. The gates do not have real gems. The measurement of heaven is not an exact geometric line with plane and circumference.

That’s why phrases such as, “And I saw something LIKE…” or “and it APPEARED AS…” I mean come on people! We get this all the time in movies and books and never take it literal, but when these words are used for the Bible they becomes EXACT?!?

All of these things are simply portrayals of the place where God is and how fantastic that place is when all that is good comes into the realm of all that is wrong, God taking up permanent residence with us in this vision.

John in the Book of Revelation is not interested in talking to us about heaven and hell or the devil or Rosemary’s Baby.

John is interested in giving us the story of God via a unique apocalyptic literary genre that employs Old Testament imagery to tell the story of God in Christ as such unfolds in the face of Empire and anti-christological forces.

Therefore, it is not a map, a literal description or a future prediction. It is a letter to Christians that lived 2000 years ago and needed a good word from their preacher. Revelation is that letter.

I’m sorry you’re reading someone else’s mail and misunderstanding it.

No, I’m not surprised.

So heaven doesn’t matter for us. If it doesn’t help us organize and structure our daily lives or cast us into the world unabated by financial necessities, than it doesn’t matter. It’s a belief we hold out of obligation and guilt, not one we hold because it matters one iota.

If it doesn’t matter for Jesus, at least not the way we like to think of it as evangelicals, than the idea of heaven we hold certainly doesn’t matter because it didn’t even matter to Jesus.

And it doesn’t matter to the writer of the Book of Revelation, chapter 21 being the chapter that tells us EXACTLY what heaven is like. If even the chapter on heaven doesn’t think heaven literally matters…then I guess we are in good company.

It’s OK to be practical atheists and have a faith that doesn’t shape how we live, at least its eschatological contours and end doesn’t enjoin us to act as if it did.

It’s OK to continue living like practical atheists when it comes to heaven. We are in good company. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor the Book of Revelation seems to care much about either.

That’s an abbreviated reason I don’t believe in heaven. The Bible doesn’t ask me to believe it and it wouldn’t matter even if it did because it’s never a matter that mattered anyhow.

I actually like that heaven, and hell, doesn’t matter because now I can be Christian for a plethora of reasons that doesn’t involve saving my own soulish ass.

Why in the Hell does Hell Matter? Moltmann helps us think the bad place

hell

Christianity is a religion of hope, unless of course your hope is in hell, in which case hell is your hope as the binary opposite of its cohort heaven. Hell is necessary because heaven is; one is not intelligible without the other.

But what is that really animates this our idea of hell and why do we hold onto it so tightly, a refined idea of the “afterlife” or “punishment” handed down to us via the logic of ancient peoples who lived in a 3 tiered universe?
Hell is currently such a flippant idea for so many. Millions believe in it, yet they do not live as if it’s a pending reality. But this is the incredible thing about belief: We can believe and that belief makes it real, even if the idea of the belief makes no material difference in our daily lives. Or perhaps, our actions discloses our true belief and we should learn what in the hell we believe in at all, as our mind says one thing and our hands say another.

Because lets be real. If people, millions of Christians, really believed in an “eternal” torment known as hell and they really really really wanted their loved ones to avoid it, how could we not quit our jobs and make a full time effort of warning others? If this was a firm belief, one of which we were thoroughly convinced, then surely we could not continue to meander through the distractions of modern society with all those going to hell without rushing toward them in great fear and trembling at the destruction and eternal pain that awaits all those that do not make the right choice of belief!

Seems to me, if Hell were a reality, then we would have no time to spare or energy to waste but in convincing everyone we can of this horrible horrible place.

Fact is, we don’t. 

We shake hands and nod at one another at church. We believe what the “bible says” (whatever that means) and we carry on, as if hell is this distant land that will never matter in the here and now.

So what animates our obsession with hell and our fantastic ideas of it? Why do we NEED this logic, a logic of separation, punishment, a peculiar idea of the character of God? Why in the hell is hell so important and is our logic of it illogical at best?

For many ancient peoples, Hell was a means of talking about destruction, particularly to the fiery elements that would eventually destroy creation.  The early church picked up on this wonderful usage of fire and used fire to burn heretics, returning the elements of the body very literally into the elements of the earth.  This process purging creation and punishing the victim simultaneously.  Hell, at its end, contained the idea of final separation from God, a reality that was somehow conscious to those without a consciousness at that point.

Yet, all the ideas of hell that we seem to possess and the flippant way in which we praise or ponder over this opposite of where none of us are headed, are really only possible because of our historical amnesia. We talk about hell like children and pissed off preachers because we have never lived it, so we have to contrive it to be what we “think” it to be and somehow buttress those ideas with our religious language and quotes of Jesus. But for people that actually live hell, like Christians in Mosul, Iraq, they have no need to invent wide eyed galleries of fire, men and women screaming in torment as they suffer burns from the bodies they don’t have and ponder endlessly how they did not make the right “choice.”

These Christians live hell; they have no need to imagine it.

As Moltmann suggests in his brief discourse on hell, there is no denying the reality of hell. Hell is understood as a total annihilation. In ancient times, fire was the ultimate annihilator from which nothing returned; in modern times, we have found hells in gas ovens in Europe, Christians in Rwanda having their children chopped up and tossed into rivers and Christians in Chile being tortured under the regime of Pinochet in the 70’s.

 Hell is…but it is so conveniently full of hope for many of us who believe in its opposite, for no hope in hell means no heaven to gain.

We hear sermons on hell and we are so calloused against all the hells on this earth because of our misunderstanding of some greater hell that even those experiencing hell today should consider as greater than being decapitated, their wives raped and their houses burned.

That’s a hell of a way to make the point that we care nothing about what hell really is, only what we want it to be during our benign bible studies.

For People who are awaiting the Hell of a tribulation period in the Book of Revelation, they have never known hell, seen it, and have no business talking about tribulation. Just because it hasn’t happened to us doesn’t mean we can confiscate this idea and doctor it up with the fanciful opposite of the Roman Road to salvation. Give me a break people…what the hell are we doing? This is Gospel?

At its end, Hell is illogical. It makes no sense because at its bottom, as Moltmann tells us, hell is not the logical end of the end; it is the logical end of human free will.

The logic is as follows. God who is love, preserves our human free will as a loving act. God has also, via love, went to the furthest ends to save humanity (from ourselves presumably) and give us the choice to save ourselves from destruction via Jesus the Christ. Even though God wants all people to be saved, there is a chance that our free will can reject God. Thus, the loving thing for God to do is to offer rescue, continue to maintain our free will to choose God, or we choose our own destruction in the place we have never seen but seem to know so much about.

Yet Moltmann presses us. He asks, “Does God’s love preserve our free will or does it free our enslaved will, which has become un-free through the power of sin? Does God free men and women, or does he seek the men and women who have become lost?”

For people who believe in an uber depraved nature of humanity, it is surprising we have so positive a view of free will, as if our depraved selves know a good “decision” when we see one, especially a decision of eternal consequences.

For Moltmann this logic of hell crumbles under two pressing points, which also open up a more biblical and theologically responsible way of considering the origination of the idea and necessity of hell.

First, for Moltmann, this logic of hell is inhumane and illogical. Inhumane because there are too many universal contingencies that seem to remove free will from the equation of folks being able to save themselves with their “choice.” Think handicapped people, jungle tribes, babies who die early (yes I know evangelicals have domesticated these answers with the mysterious “age of accountability” but the church historically took it seriously, making sure to baptize people who clearly could not make a choice like dying folks, physically impaired folks and babies). Also think God’s “chosen people” who are unable to choose Christ yet are bearers of the promise of God. How is this problem solved without tumbling into supercessionism?

The logic is illogical because as Moltmann points out, “there are not many people who can enjoy free will where their eternal fate in heaven or hell is concerned.” In others words, it’s not really a choice. It’s the choiceless choice that we mask as a choice to feel good about the choice we made and excuse all the sinners to be damned for their bad choice.

Really, those of who live by a logic of hell suspend two ideals in balance that are contradictory.

We want to hold in the balance God’s power, providence, love and desire to save us because we are depraved and cannot save ourselves. By grace we are saved through faith. Yet we hold to the idea that we are not really deprived as badly as we would like because we can really make a good decision concerning our salvation, so there is an element that is not “corrupt” known as a our will, that can affect our reason to supersede our deprivation. Thus we are doomed to God’s provision, but God’s provision is held hostage to our unfallen will and the ability we have to enact it. How strange for a people that believe in sin and the total otherness that is the reality of God.

Or in Moltmann’s questioning it sounds like this, “How firm must our own decision of faith be if it is to preserve us from total non-being? Anyone who faces men and women with the choice of heaven and hell, does not merely expect too much of them. It leaves them in uncertainty because we cannot base the assurance of our own salvation on the shaky ground of our own decisions. If we think about these questions, we have to come to the conclusion that in the end not many will be with God in heaven…or is the presupposition of the logic of hell an illusion- the presupposition that it all depends on human free will?”

In other words, how resolute must our decision be if it is so monumental that it carries with it such metaphysical implications? Is there any human anywhere with that kind of resoluteness? And if not, then the idea of salvation is not necessarily negated but is it thoroughly rested in the idea of God and God’s salvific purposes which are too heavy for the weight of human will but perfectly comfortable in the relation of God in Christ that negates free will in a later descent into hell, a descent that does not ask our will to participate in it and a descent that properly orders our idea of hell.

Second, the logic of hell is incredibly atheistic accordingly to Moltmann. For in this idea and transaction of hell, the human is her own Lord or God because only in using that will is God’s power enacted, making God subject to the depraved nature of a human will. God has no power here. God is impotent; here God is merely the genie in the lamp that is powerless unless we rub its side and tell him our wills desires. “If I decide for heaven, God must put me there; If I decide for hell, then God will put me there.”

God, who is providential and almighty, is bound to our decisions, impotent in the face of the human mind. We create our own reality or we make our own hell, all through a singular cognitive process. As Moltmann writes, “Humans do not just dispose over their lives here; they decide on their eternal destinies as well…after God created us free as we are, he leaves us to our own decisions. Carried to this ultimate conclusion, the logic of hell is secular humanism, as Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche already perceived a long time ago.”

But all of this was not the originary nature of the idea of hell. Neither must we be content to live with a full blown humanism nor an illogical idea of faith that believes contradictions and calls them biblical.

Christian ideas of hell are intimately linked to the separation of reality from God, but not as we would like. Hell is important because Christ descended into it; it is not important because of our bastardization of the concept in modern times. Hell has no need to fill it with our ideas of it, for hell is. It is not there, or far; it is here and near. We can marshall all the metaphysical arguments we want against hell and the pagan ideas that germinated alongside Christianity, and we may be correct in our arguments, yet reality tells hell is still felt by many today. It is experienced. It is real. It is the place into which Christ goes.

Hell needs Christ, and Christ needs hell, not because Christ needs a destination for our bad choices, but because Christ passes over the gulf of fire and annihilation to dwell with us there as long as necessary, emerging victorious.

Moltmann accentuates this activity when he writes, “it is pointless to deny hell. It is a possibility that is constantly around us and within us. In this situation, the gospel about Christ’s descent into hell is particularly relevant: Christ suffered the inescapable remoteness from God and the God-forsakeness that knows no way out, so that he could bring God to the God-forsaken. He comes to seek that which is lost.”

Christ, therefore, brought hope where there was none. Christ came to the place where all hope has been abandoned and made it hopeful, providing a means of overcoming its isolation.

Hell is not some place in the netherworld where bad people go when they die and it defies reason to think that God needs binary rewards to give to his good kids while he tosses his bad kids out to pasture. For those of us who have kids, we understand how dangerous it would be to allow them to make choices of such import and consequence. Hell matters because Christ experienced it and brought hope into it, destroying its finality, ensuring that is it no longer the final word that so many Christians wish it to be.

God’s graceful act toward the world is not dependent on the efficacious acts of our choosing. In a world of rampant consumerism, surely the banality of choice can make sense to us. No, God’s universal grace is not grounded in hell, or heaven, or the grounding of both of those in humanism (even if it’s a humanism affirmed by your local preacher).

God’s grace is grounded in the cross that eclipses hell, rather than firmly establish its possibility.

While I mourn that so many of us want the final last words of God to be those of condemnation and judgment, feeling that our right choice should be rewarded (think older son in the prodigal narrative here), scripture tells us a different story. In the Bible, judgment is not the final word. Hell is not the final abode of the world. The earth does not burn and turn to a cosmic bowling ball being hurled by God across the Milky Way.

No, the final word is not Hell and God doesn’t need your choice to make it happen.

Get over yourself.

The final word is, “Behold I make all things new”…and from this the Bible exempts no one.

*Source for the Moltmann material for this blog is: “The Logic of Hell” in God Will Be All in All, ed. Richard Bauckham (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 43-47.

Stealing Your Way Into Heaven

thou shalt not steal 1 edit

 

GOSPEL OF LUKE 16.1-13

 

Couched in between two of Jesus’ most famous parables, The Prodigal Son and the Rich Man and Lazarus, we discover one of Jesus’ most unassuming and most difficult parables throughout the pages of the Gospel. I suppose this parable, the parable of the Unjust Steward…did you hear that…the parable of the UNJUST steward, not the good steward, but an UNJUST steward, gets squeezed from both sides of the text. This parable gets flattened beside its more famous friends.

Like the 3 three famous Kardashian sisters who constantly in the news: a famous one, a pretty one and an ugly one…this parable is the ugly sister that doesn’t get much attention. And rightfully so. It’s not a very helpful parable on our first reading.

Here Jesus’ 4 points in this parable:
1. Manage your money shrewdly like non-believers manager their money and Jesus will praise you for it. Jesus exact words, “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.”
2. Make friends with others by means of unrighteous wealth, dishonest wealth.
3. If you can’t use dishonest wealth, how can you use true riches?
4. You can’t serve two masters. You can’t live to make money and also live to serve God.

Talk about a confusing sermon. Jesus just outdid himself here.

As I come to this parable, the entire scene makes sense to me…at first.
The characters in this parable are not far removed from the characters and narratives I have encountered in the business world these past 7 years.

For a business to be successful it must have managers that manage resources. It must have supervisors to oversee their management of those resources. And it must have people that the managers can manage to procure the good or product that is consistent with the mission of the business. When the managers or supervisor doesn’t do their part of the job…the LORD, the master of the house, is quick to hold them accountable as we see in this parable. Businesses and estates exist to make money and to solidify their status as deposits of wealth. This must be carefully guarded and the Lord in this parable is simply looking out for what best for his own business or estate. When he knew he was being cheated he cannot continue to support this Stewards behavior. This parable is a reflection of how the steward responded to that act accountability.

Several years ago, in our own business, we experimented with whether or not to include Asst. Managers in our bonus program. As a business, we felt that it was in the best interest of our customers, our future growth and our profit margins, to give the Asst. manager position a greater sense of ownership in how well the business does. Up until this point, the General Managers of our stores had been the principal beneficiaries of the profit of our business through means of a bonus program that we had structured around various goals. But we wanted to give the General Managers of our stores the benefit of a manager that would work hard at helping them accomplish store goals and really function as a 2 person team inside each local store.

To this end, we experimented with involving Asst. Managers in the bonus program.
We pulled our lone asst manager into our office, disclosed to her our plans and she was excited about the opportunity. She thanked us for the job, the potential earnings, and the sense of appreciation we had for her. We thought we had made a smart move and encouraged good stewardship with our business by extended an added benefit that wouldn’t really require much additional work.

We were wrong.

The next morning as I was going through our old school paperwork, the kind of paper work that is produced by type key registers and detail tape, I noticed we were short $450 from the night before. I was shocked. More than half this money, as I could tell, was missing from the shift that was run by our asst manager, the same one whom we had just included into our manager bonus program for performance. After we had announced to her our plans, she drove to our store, shook our hands and thanked us again for the opportunity…then she drove to work and over saw a major shortage for which she had no explanation.

You see, she had intentionally cancelled orders from our registers and taken the money for her own personal use…so the store didn’t even look like it was short because those funds had already been deducted from the day’s totals. I wouldn’t have found this out if I hadn’t actually dug through register transaction tape and seen canceled orders without justification. I called other ownership, told him finding, and he said he’d get back to me.

Needless to say, we eventually called her into our office, shook her hand and congratulated her on trying to trick us out of money. We knew she had been hard up for cash and was really struggling and she had figured out a loophole that would almost allow her to steal money without getting caught…and we saw the genius in her attempt and commended her for this shrewdness, we actually promoted her to a store manager and she went on to make huge bonus checks.

And that makes absolutely no sense, Right?

Well something similar is what Jesus is asking us to believe about this parable.

Jesus commends a dishonest manager, who after he is caught stealing, continues to be shrewd and outwit the Lord of the house, or business, in order to secure to him his own future after he is officially fired for stealing. The master of the house learns of this plan also, and rather than demanding he be thrown in jail, he praises his shrewdness, perhaps the same type of shrewdness that put him in hot water to begin with, and he commends him for what he was just firing him for…and then Jesus goes on to say…

“His Master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly, for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness so that when it fails, they will receive you into eternal dwellings.”

So we get Jesus’ first two points: Be shrewd managers when handling money. Don’t be gullible. And use dishonest money to make friends for yourself so that you will inherent heaven or eternal dwelling places.
What is going on here?

This parable is utterly ridiculous. It makes us as hearers of it want to recoil and argue with Jesus. Jesus stands up in the midst of his disciples, after just having told to us the parable of the Prodigal son…a parable that is the epitome of bad stewardship, and then tells us some nonsense about how being unjust and using dishonest money can be to our benefit and should offer us an example how we should relate to money and wealth.

If it sounds ridiculous to us, we are in good company. The early church wasn’t sure how to handle it either. Even St. Augustine, one of the churches greatest preachers and theologians, didn’t want a real piece of this parable as he interpreted it in a purely allegorical fashion.

The ancient church wasn’t much clearer on what to do with this parable. If you’ll notice verses 9-13…these are all answers by Jesus, to account for this difficult parable originally told by Jesus, answers or interpretations that had been remembered in the church. Luke gives us answer after answer beginning in v9 and then he concludes with v13 to basically summarize that regardless of the tensions in this parable, the end game, is that we cannot serve two masters.

Luke picks up on Matthew 6.24 where this saying is the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is busy teaching his disciples about how they should relate to wealth and things.

But Luke’s summary statement still doesn’t help us resolve the tensions of this parable. It doesn’t help us make sense of its dense content and seemingly contradictory advice. It is precisely the tension that Luke wants to evoke in us…Luke is intentional in placing this parable here, right before one of the parables that commands our imaginations about death and how it relates to our relationship to wealth.

He wants us to stand up after hearing this parable, those of us who are disciples, and say, “No, Jesus! That’s not right!” He wants those of us who have made our livings working for banks and owning our own businesses to react against this parable and say “no”! Us, the group of disciples, are many and different. We have come from many different backgrounds and made our livings in many different ways…we can relate to this usual set of circumstances. What we can’t relate to is Jesus’ handling of these circumstances and his lessons from them.

It’s like Mark Twain’s famous quote regarding scripture. “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts that I do understand.”

And here we almost see too clearly what Jesus is doing and what Luke is doing by crafting this vision of Jesus through these parables.

One of the themes that Luke has been working on in this Gospel is wealth. Not just a proper use of wealth, but understanding our relationship to wealth. Luke hammers the theme of wealth, its proper place, our use of it and he condemns on multiple occasions visions of wealth offered by the world that are not consistent with the kingdom of God.

In Luke, Jesus hammers wealth over and over…one is left asking the question, “Is Jesus really opposed to wealth, is it evil, or is Jesus warning of its dangers for some other reason?” And in this particular parable, “Is Jesus telling us to obtain wealth dishonestly and makes friends with ill gotten means to save our own skin?”
What this parable epitomizes is the breakdown of social barriers and the construal of wealth as an object to be used as a part of God’s sovereign kingdom…it is a means, not an ends. Notice, Jesus does not praise the unjust steward for his relationship with God; Jesus praises him for his use of money and shrewdness…his relationship with God and the Master (who may be the same in this parable) is withstanding.

For Luke’s Jesus, wealth is a problem (the very immediate context of this passage being the prodigal that uses wealth for pleasure, and the rich man after this parable that dresses and lives in comfort while the world and people Like Lazarus suffer immeasurably) because “it presents itself as a temptation to prestige and security apart from God and for this reason it is suspect” (NTT, Joel Green, 113).

And if we will look at our world and ourselves…and be honest, it is surely the case that wealth does tempt us and it does estrange us from God and one another. Who needs the Kingdom of God when you have your own perfect kingdom on your acre of land, money in the bank and closets overflowing with stuff?
Our wealth determines our social customs and interactions.

In the ancient world, giving and sharing to the poor is not the same as writing a check to a non-profit or doing good works through Nazarene Compassionate Ministry. When you shared your wealth you were very literally engaging with those to whom it was being given, bringing them into your active social sphere. To share with someone, or to relieve someone of debt, was to treat them as family or kin. They were no longer an object from which you extracted wealth, they were partakers in it.

Now if we understand this parable from this lens, then what the unjust steward is doing is extremely shrewd and to be emulated.

Think of this manager as the tax collector Levi, aka Matthew, that we find in this Gospel chapter 5. He was hated and despised because of his job. Jesus was accused of being a sinner because he had an entourage of people like this around him. Levi was in a position of authority as a Roman tax collector because of what he could extract and give to Rome. He was given the assignment of collecting polls for an occupying military force and then given the freedom to expend more for his own use.

Do you suppose Levi ate with people whom owed him taxes? Do you suppose Levi ever cut their bill in half or told them to take half of it off? Well, if he did, he was a rare tax collector and that certainly wasn’t the reputation of tax collectors. It would have been a shock to the system, a vision of a new kind of kingdom or authority, if Levi had ever acted that way prior to becoming a disciple of Jesus.

Returning to this parable, the manager was being reprimanded because he had already shown that he was squandering resources from his master. He was being unjust. He was taking advantage of his position. As a manager in charge of collecting debts, he most likely did not have those whom were indebted to his master within his inner circles. They were debtors…he was a collector. The two didn’t mix, yet when the master finds out his sin, he has to act shrewdly and act kindly toward those from whom he usually collected dues and he needed to do so quickly. There was no time to waste.

So he frantically devises a plan to extend forgiveness to them, yes, his wiping away of their debt before he was fired was his way of forgiving them. It’s reminiscent of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lord forgive us our trespasses , as we forgive those who trespass against us…”may also be translated “Lord forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us.”

He has now brought himself into a new kind of relationship with these debtors through his shrewd and even sinful activity. He has created a relationship where there was originally no relationship and rather than taking their money and squandering it…he has finally done something good with money. He has decided to not squander it, but to restore people to a sense of wholeness by forgiving them of that which kept them bound to their toils. He uses his shrewdness to forgive debt rather than squander its abundances and usury charges.

Yes, he stands to benefit from the forgiveness (just like those who received his forgiveness), but in so doing he is changing the shape of the world, especially the world of those who find themselves receiving forgiveness.

This time of crisis in his life evoked a radical response from this once complacent and deceitful manager…and rather than use his deceit for selfishness he uses it for restorative purposes, both to restore himself and those that were beneficiaries of his act.

And here is where Luke really reinforces a proper understanding of wealth. Wealth has the reputation of creating boundaries and separating people, yet in this parable, boundaries are broken down as the manager creates a new social class with his debtors and even Jesus advises us based on his actions to make friends with wealth of the world, to use unrighteous wealth for the benefit of becoming friends with others, so that when we are dead, we will be able to find entrance into the dwelling place of God, essentially saying we can steal our way into heaven.

But what is the crisis, the imminent crisis that evokes our radical response to the way we use money as a means rather than an ends? It is a means whereby we are shown to be faithful to God and his creation, rather than becoming an end for which we strive to give ourselves more things…things that we see will later put us on the side of the Rich Man who stares at Lazarus in paradise.

What is this crisis moment and why does the parable take place in this context of suddenness and light footed expectation?

For the steward, the crisis was his pending job loss and he needed to prepare for the result of that final judgment.

Luke has couched this parable, this ugly sister of the three, in the middle of parables that capture our imaginations about the end of the world and the kingdom of God.

The crisis moment for Luke and for Jesus is the pending expectation and threats that they will have to handle courageously, wisely and resolutely to prepare for the future. The Christian mission has fell on deaf ears at the time of Luke’s Gospel and now the mission is pushing into pagan Greek areas as resistance makes itself known in Jerusalem and from the people of the original promise. The future is breaking into our present; the Master has found creation wanting in its squandering of love and goodness. The Kingdom of God is upon Jesus, Luke and their hearers.

Jesus is preparing us for living in the shadow of the crises that is the image of the risen Jesus overtaking creation as he emerges from his earthen tomb…a crises that requires prudent action and the extension of forgiveness to those who have done nothing to deserve it…even if forgiving them is also beneficial for us…in other words, even if we make friends…cause at the end of the day, when the money is spent, it is the relationships we have built that will last beyond our own lives.

The ministry, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ is the crises moment that requires we not sit idly back, but that we act prudently as sons and daughters of this world and begin extending forgiveness to others who will soon stand in the shadow of Jesus the resurrected one.

And for this reason, Jesus can say, the sons of this world are more prudent than the sons of light.
You see, as sons and daughters of light…we are complacent. We don’t always act prudently and for the future. We expect God to be the one that shapes the future and we’re just along for the ride. We want to be like John the Baptist or the Essenes at Qumran and await God’s final vindication as we remove ourselves from the fray, from being shrewd, from making friends with the wealth of unrighteousness.

That’s one way to go about it.

The other is to see our mundane daily activities with Money and others…as caught in the constant expectation that God is busy about recreating the world through us and to act with the same sense of urgency and haste that even unjust stewards possess.

In the end, it may not be the sons of light that offer us examples on how to live, it may be the ones that we’ve often called sinner that can teach us the greatest lessons about the kingdom…cause it’s the sinner who usually find themselves most closely standing in the shadow of one that has become sin for us all.