09/23/07 - Nickel and Dimed
The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
September 23, 2007
Amos 8: 4-7, Luke 16: 1-13
Nickel and Dimed
We have for our lectionary readings for today two passages about financial honesty. They would seem to be completely at odds with one another. The prophet Amos excoriates the businessmen of his day for nickel and diming the people. These proprietors are not honest in their accountings. Meanwhile, Jesus approvingly tells the story of a steward – an accountant – who fleeces his boss, passing on unearned profits to those who’ve borrowed from the man. Amos’ message is a lot easier to digest, and to understand. We don’t want to be cheated – cheating can’t be ok. We might wonder if these tasks testify to a similar situation several thousand years ago as we have now – if you rob a convenience store of a few hundred bucks you go to jail for years (Amos’ story), but if you divert a few million from your company’s bank account into your own you get 12 months (Jesus’ story). How can Jesus’ managerial criminal be justified in this? These texts do indeed say opposing things about financial honesty, but they are talking about two very different economies.
Amos is talking about ours, and about the way we do business with one another. He writes at a time when the literal economy is booming. For those who are placed to do so, there is so so much money to be made. Amos is sickened by what he sees as the insatiable greed in businessmen. They think about making money always. It is always on their mind. They go through the paces of closing their doors on the Sabbath and on regular holidays. They play the part of being pious and morally upright. But they can’t wait to open for business again. They do it the first second they can. They can not wait to make more money. I think of the Wall Street manager notorious for telling his staff, “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t think of coming in on Sunday.”
These businessmen reduce the size of the bushels they sell and toss a little more – a few shekels – into the other pan so that the scales are rigged and the people get nickel and dimed on the grain that they buy. Those who are poor get sold into slavery to pay off their debts when they owe as little as the cost of a pair of sandals. These businessmen have no mercy for the many who are not making money hand over fist. They’re out of the pages of Dickens, throwing people into the poor house when they’re down on their luck. Meanwhile they scoop up the scraps from their wheat right off the floor. They mix the sweepings right back into the bushel to weigh it down. Caveat emptor! When you get home with your purchase to make your daily bread you’ll untie your new bundle of wheat and a lot of junk will fall out that you can’t eat. Then you realize you’ve been nickel and dimed again. It’s not grand theft, it’s the constant, small needling losses that hurt your pride more that your wallet. It’s the small ways in which you feel your dignity diminished.
Throughout his book, Amos’ focus is the trampling and oppression of the poor and needy. Humans are bought and sold and treated like trash. His great appeal to any who hear or read his words in any time is to integrate our lives. If we lived out the faith we claim to profess we could never treat people this way. We’d respect their humanity; we’d commit ourselves to honesty and transparency in all our dealings. We couldn’t cheat a soul. Amos implores us, for our own sake and for others’, not to compartmentalize religion in our lives – to shutter it off to certain days of the week or places we go – but to let our faith inform all that we do, how we treat every person we meet. We have all we need in order to live in a just and faithful society – we only lack the determination to do it. Our greed gets in the way.
We identify with the rich and famous but not with the poor and needy. Can you imagine a show called “Lifestyles of the Poor and Needy,” and can you imagine anyone tuning in? The Gospel teaches us without mincing words that we cannot get into heaven if we identify with the rich. We certainly vote like we do. We vote our aspirations for ourselves. We vote for fiscal platforms as if we were wealthy because that’s what we aspire to. We’re brought down to earth when someone suggests modifying a real-world program that we need, like Social Security.
So what is Jesus himself doing ostensibly identifying with the rich, the greedy, the dishonest? This parable is incongruous and even scandalous. People have worked hard to reconcile its message to the ethics of Judaism and of Christianity regarding honesty and integrity. Some say, well – this just teaches us that how we handle our property has eternal consequences. We must use our possessions to gain, not lose, our future. This is about being wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Or, here the employer is praising the manager’s cleverness in solving his problem. The manager had been fired, remember, for being inept. So here’s the shrewd, gutsy attitude the steward had been lacking and the employer had been wanting. He made his intelligence match the needs of the situation. Or, sometimes you have to play hardball; the times demand it. Others are going to do it to you, and you’re not wrong to do something so you don’t get stepped all over. These are interesting perspectives on the parable, but they pussyfoot unconvincingly around the fact that the central ethic of this story fundamentally contradicts the ethics of the whole of the Gospel.
John Donders was a Dutch priest who spent much of his ministry in Kenya. I’ve long appreciated his biblical interpretations. He says that this parable announces that business as usual is over. It is time to be like that steward, to shift gears right away and adapt to what is new. The current situation, the current world, is one of total corruption. It is not fair. We should never adapt to this status quo but adapt ourselves in ways that funnel the most resources to the in breaking realm of God. We can’t retire from this mucky world – that would leave it to the greediest who would then trash it the worst. “We cannot keep our hands clean,” wrote Donders, “but we are not allowed to keep them in our pockets, either. We have to take the risks he took in order to change us all.” I appreciate Donders’ gritty realism and his attempt to make this parable fit with his (and my) notions of the in breaking realm of God. But I think he misses the point. He wedges this parable into our reality and looks for liberating meaning in it there. He tries to make it credible within our human paradigm. The parable isn’t about human behavior; it’s about Christ’s behavior. It isn’t about our economy; it’s about God’s economy.
Parables were meant to be interpreted more allegorically than literally. Jesus told this parable while squared off against a roomful of indignant scribes and Pharisees; it was his answer to their demand that he toe the line in matters of the law. He tells them that the master commends the law-breaking servant for acting shrewdly! Jesus himself is the shrewd steward. He was repeatedly cited by the religious authorities for his breaches not just of the law but of decent behavior – eating with despicable people, healing on the Sabbath, ignoring rules of ritual cleanness. None of this strikes us as particularly offensive today, so we might do well to imagine what indecent behavior and immoral people would scandalize our sensibilities. Is it terrorists, gang members, white-collar criminals? Is it pedophiles or rapists? You know what speaks to your own imagination; and how you might recover the shocking, radically new way of being in the world that was authored by Jesus Christ. Through this story Jesus tells his listeners that he also is commended by his master for these “unrighteous” acts. The great question of divine judgment is the most difficult stumbling block for his critics – for in his dealings with sinners and tax collectors he pronounces to them, “go, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus has been cooking the books of divine judgment, and the folks who’ve staked their lives on following the Law to the letter do not appreciate having the rulebook revised. Christ is God’s steward, and he is busy forgiving debts – canceling indebtedness. His message to the religious leaders is that God is the eternal creditor and not themselves. Jesus is cancelling debts owed not to them, but to God, and God commends him for it.
Through Christ, God has accomplished some very creative bookkeeping indeed. It is grace. And grace is something that the religious authorities of Jesus’ day could not grasp – it is hard today. The Pharisees pushed Jesus to answer the question, “Is the ultimate standard of measure – is truth – the law, or is it love?” Jesus says boldly that truth is love. All other standards of measure are thrown away. That is thrilling. That is terrifying. That is grace.
In grace we discover that we do not know what we deserve. We get more than we give and somehow we give more than we’ve got. All our spiritual math implodes – one plus one does not equal two but at least three and perhaps three thousand. In God’s economy we are not nickel and dimed but the opposite – Christ the shrewd steward gives us the nickels and dimes we never earned; he cooks the books in our favor.
As our awareness of this grows, so does our own understanding of our inability to control. Here is where the Pharisees and I are very wrong. We are not in control; we are neither scorekeepers nor standards committees, and we should not want to be. Someone else does that, someone so different from me and them and us; someone with a very different idea of who I am, who we are, of what is goodness and what is justice. Surrendering to God’s gracious economy turns out to be a wonderful alternative to getting God to surrender to mine. “To give in to grace is to surrender our ideas about who God should be in order to embrace God’s idea of who we are, and to have the good sense (simply) to say thank you.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Living Pulpit, Jan. – March 1995)
Luke, Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation Series, WJKP.
Joseph G. Donders, Praying and Preaching the Sunday Gospel, Orbis Books
James Limburg, Hosea–Micah, Interpretation Series, WJKP