Archives For Mammon

38681_1409539809500_674056_nIn most Methodist churches the mere uttering of the syllables that come together to form the word ‘money’ gets people’s panties in a bunch to an extent no partisan disputes over sex and politics can. Some may want to “Make America Great Again” and others may want to “Lean Forward” but all agree that our Adjusted Gross Income is our own damn business.

Like it or not (usually not unless you’re unembarrassed by your giving) ‘giving’ calls us to the mat of whether we really believe all we have belongs to God. Or not.

As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues: rp_faith4.jpg

If you give Christians the choice to turn to their neighbor in the pew and tell them who they’re screwing or how much they earn in salary…almost everyone will opt for Door #1 to the boudoir.

We’re even more reticent to be called out for our recalcitrance regarding Door #2.

Recently, my friend and apprentice-turned-colleague Rev. Taylor Mertins wrote a blog post (you should subscribe) on Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 6: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith…” In the post, Taylor asserted, with a blandness necessitated by the obviousness of the observation, that clergy are not immune from being captivated by and captive to the Mammon. As an example, Taylor cited the “Appointment Workbook.” It’s available for viewing on the website devoted to the United Methodist Church in Virginia.

Said Taylor:

“If you click on the link you will have access to a list of all the pastors in the Virginia Conference, how long they served, how many new people are attending their churches, how much their churches are required to pay in apportionments, what percentage of the apportionments have they paid, AND their annual compensation. This is good and important information for the life of the church, but the fact that the entire list of pastors is not organized by name, or region, or new disciples, but by salary, shows how we have wandered away from the faith.”

Taylor promptly was bombarded with complaints that clergy are immune to the idolatry scripture says is at root in all of us and that, regardless, he should never criticize or cast aspersions upon the capital C Church.

To channel Stanley Hauerwas, I call bulls#$% on such bulls@#$.

One would think the Gospels themselves, where the clergymen-called-Pharisees plot Jesus’ undoing and one of his disciples betray him to that end for a bag full of cash, should be sufficient corroboration of Taylor’s point. After all, if Jesus was fully human it stands to reason Jesus’ people, preachers included, are less human than Jesus and, so, susceptible to sin. Indeed since in those same Gospels Satan shows himself most acutely wherever Jesus is at work, it stands to reason that the Church especially, where Jesus is at work, more so than any other place or institution in the world, would be ground zero for the Enemy’s infections.

Never mind how the refusal to criticize the Church, honestly and in love, smacks of the very institutional inauthenticity for which so many of Taylor’s generation (and mine) have written off the Church.

There is a problem with Taylor’s post, however, deserving of a rejoinder, but the problem with his argument is not his assertion that clergy can be captive to idolatry of Mammon (we are) or that the Church is sinful (it is). We are, all of us, sinners who apart from Paul’s mighty “yet” of Christ’s cruciform love deserve God’s wrath. Of course, our s#$% stinks.

The lack and error in Taylor’s argument, vis a vis the Appointment Workbook, is not in accusing Christ’s clergy and Christ’s Church of being comprised of sinners. Not only is that not news it’s the freaking good news! No, the strike against Taylor is that he doesn’t go full monty on the Hauerwas. He doesn’t connect how odd and dysfunctional it is that clergy salaries in the United Methodist Church are available to the public but the salaries of laypeople in the United Methodist Church, who determine the salaries of their pastors, are a secret not even Donald Trump’s Russian Hackers can ferret out. Taylor’s correct that our Appointment Workbook betrays a captivity but he doesn’t go far enough in smashing the idols.

The problem isn’t (simply) that pastors measure themselves and their future appointments according to pay; the problem is that those whom the pastors serve in those appointments do not have to make themselves accountable in like fashion.

What Taylor’s post missed is the lack of mutual vulnerability in our congregations when it comes to money. Pastors’ salaries and the appointment process are but the rattling chains of a deeper captivity. Christians in the Church think that how much they make and what they give should be “between them and God” which is to say “It’s none of your damn business. It’s mine.”

Every fall United Methodist clergy gather in “Charge Conferences” where their clergy’s salary is discussed, debated, and voted upon by a committee of (not necessarily informed) lay people. Even in the best of church settings (like my own, for example) it’s an awkward experience, having your worth sized up in front of everyone like you’re a 4-H cow or the #2 pitcher who might not be worth ace money next hot stove league.

Considering the circumstances- even making modest salaries- clergy feel compelled (if only in their head) to justify their pay and prove their usefulness. But no other church persons gathered there for such conferences ever get asked to stand, a la Hauerwas, and reveal their own income. And that’s the problem Taylor missed.

The red-faced shame among clergy about the Appointment Workbook is but a symptom of the larger secrecy which exists in our churches around money.

The problem exposed by the Appointment Workbook isn’t that it reveals the Church’s possible idolatry; it’s that it reinforces the extent to which, in every other part of the Church’s life, clergy aid and abet their congregations’ secrecy about money.

The “wandering away” Taylor points out isn’t that we know this about clergy and their income; it’s that very often this is the only thing we know about money and income in our churches.

What I mean is –

In most mainline churches, congregations convey and clergy uncritically receive the mandate that pastors should not know what their parishioners give to the church.

The thinking always goes…If I know who gives what then I might not minister to people equitably.

This is a rationale whose obtuseness, I think, could only be produced by a latent idolatry to Mammon. Having served in the same place for 12 years, I know, for example, the parishioners who’ve cheated on their spouses, who’re alcoholics and drug addicts, who don’t talk to their kids or whose kids don’t talk to them, who suffer from PTSD or who inflicted it. I know the Democrats and the Republicans, the abused and the abusers, and who thumps their bible to keep their doubts at bay. I recognize the hand-writing on anonymous notes and I’ve trimmed the grape vine so it’s as fast as my iPhone.

I minister to all of them. It doesn’t even occur to me to triage them according to merit.

No one would ever suggest I shouldn’t know the addicts in my congregation because then I might treat them differently. Why should addiction to Mammon be any different? The many pastors who espouse a “see no evil” attitude over their congregants’ giving would never likewise argue that they should remain ignorant of all of their congregants’ other imperfections and particularities for fear of ministering to them inequitably. So what does it say about us our relationship to money that we don’t believe our pastor should know how much we’ve got and how much we’ve given? If learning every other secret about our flock makes us better shepherds, what does it reveal about us that we think money is the one secret better left alone?

The problem with Taylor’s post then is that he didn’t go far enough. The problem with the Appointment Workbook isn’t that it reveals a secret; it’s that it helps perpetuate a different one.

lightstock_138474_small_user_2741517-2We concluded our month-long look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 this weekend. My intern and Wesley Seminary student, Jimmy Owsley, (aka: Mini-Me) preached and preached well.

Here it is:

Did you all notice any differences between these two readings? What differences did you notice? And I’m sure you noticed the similarities. These two readings from the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are parallel passages of what I will call the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke are referring the same original story which Jesus told. Maybe the writers each remember it differently. Or maybe it was one of Jesus’ old standbys, and he told it differently each time.

What’s important though, in interpreting them, is that each of the 2 passages fills us in on information left out by the other.

They reinforce each other and bring out nuances.

The last couple weeks we have focused on The Parable of the Lazy Servant as it occurs in Matthew. I think looking at the passage in Luke will help us come to a better understanding of what Jesus is getting at. For example, in Luke, we hear that the reason Jesus tells this parable “because [his hearers] supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” And if we look at the rest of Luke 19, we see that Jesus is speaking to a crowd in the presence of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who, instead of gaining more wealth for himself or for the empire, gives away half his earnings to the poor.

Now, the last couple weeks, Jason has interpreted this parable along a pretty traditional line, as parables go: his interpretations have worked on the assumption that we are to understand the master as a God figure, while we human beings are God’s servants.

I want to offer you a different interpretation.

Let me make my case. If the master represents God, then we should expect him to have some pretty godly qualities. For example, we might expect the master in this parable to be similar to the God we hear about in Luke 1 who ‘has brought down the proud from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich empty away.

Or we might think the master in the parable would remind us of Jesus’ exemplary teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, such as “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and the pure in heart.”

Not exactly. Let me just rehash some of the characteristics of the master that we have just heard in these two readings.

  1. He is harsh man–and dishonest too. He takes what he does not deposit and reaps where he does not sow.
  2. In regard to earning interest, he acts like a Gentile, having no respect for the Torah’s restrictions.
  3. He does not have a good reputation with his people. The people of the country hate him, and do not want him to rule.
  4. He takes what little the poor have and gives it to the rich.
  5. And, as ruler he has his enemies, the delegates of his very own people, slaughtered in his presence.

So my question to you is,

Does this sound like the God we see revealed to us in Christ?

And if the master is not like the Jesus we know, then who could the master represent in this story?

Context

Well, let me offer you an alternative. In order to do that, let’s take a look at the historical context of these parables.

In 4 BC, shortly before the birth of Jesus, a Judean man named Archelaus took a journey to Rome, hoping to be appointed by Caesar as the king of the Jews. You might recognize Archelaus as the man mentioned in the Lukan birth story of Jesus in which he orders the killing of all the baby boys in the land. Archelaus was a son of the previous king, Herod the Great, so he was himself a wealthy and powerful man.

The Jewish people, for obvious reasons, were not huge fans of Archelaus. We are told by the Roman historian Josephus that only weeks before sailing for Rome, Archelaus had placed a golden eagle upon the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was regarded by many as a sacrilegious act, and in response two rabbis and dozens of youth chopped it down with axes. He also reported to have burned these youth and rabbis alive and to have murdered 3,000 Jews who protested his actions.

In reaction to his bid for kingship, a large delegation was sent out to Rome from Judea to argue before Caesar why Archelaus should not be made king.

They were unsuccessful, however, and Archelaus returned, in the words of our text, “with royal power.” Upon his return, it is reported, he “did not forget old feuds, but treated not only the Jews but even the Samaritans with great brutality” (Josephus).

Interpretation

Does this sound anything like our text?

This history was relatively recent in the day that Jesus’ was preaching, even probably within the memories of many of his hearers. Understandably then, when telling his own parable, Jesus alludes to this journey of Archelaus. Jesus utilizes the familiar story of this despised ruler and adds in the characters of the 3 servants to make his social and spiritual points.

Indeed, the role of the servants are crucial. And who would Jesus’ hearers have thought of as the servants of Archelaus? I would say that if Jesus is labeling anyone in the story as “servants of Archelaus,” it is likely the religious and political leaders who cooperated with him, who were his good and faithful servants who helped him maintain control over an unwilling populace. And when I say religious and political leaders, think Pharisees, Sadducees, and tax collectors–some of whom very well may have been present for Jesus’ telling of the parable. Well now we have a dramatic story.

Returning to the parable itself, the people in Jesus’ fictional story had good reason not to want this guy to be their king. So the question that stuck with me was:

Why should the ruler’s servants, who were likely Jews themselves, work to bolster his (future) kingdom while he’s away?

What is their incentive to garner more money and power for this disreputable man who lives like Gentile and oppresses the Jewish people and their faith? The answer is given in the parable itself–if their master gains more wealth, well, so do they.

This completely flips what it means to be good and faithful.

And it shows that being good and faithful isn’t always a compliment. As Jesus has said earlier on in Luke, it really depends on who you are serving.

So what then is a servant to do??

In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus tells another parable that contrasts with the Parable of the Lazy Servant. This Luke 16 passage is often called “The Parable of the Shrewd Servant.” The shrewd servant is not deemed “good and faithful” to his master as were the servants in the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Rather, in this story, a servant who knows his master is planning to get rid of him for “squandering his [master’s] property.” And what does he do? He gives away his master’s money more recklessly than ever before, relieving the debts of all his master’s clients. In so doing he makes for himself friends who will welcome him into their homes and show him grace when he loses his job. This servant is anything but good and faithful, yet in the end he is commended by both his master and by Jesus. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

“No slave can serve two masters,” he says, “for a servant 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.”

In giving away his master’s money, the shrewd servant upends the monetary system and embodies kingdom of different priorities, what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”

Unlike the ruler in this story or like the historical Archelaus, Jesus, the true King of the Jews, as we learn in the Gospels, is calling his people into a new kingdom. He challenges our addiction to money and power. As I mentioned earlier, Luke points out that this particular parable is told because his Jewish hearers thought the kingdom of God would come very soon. And this wasn’t some ethereal, spiritual kingdom they were expecting: they were hoping for the Messiah to come and free them from their real political situation–Roman rule in a land intended to be ruled by God alone. Jesus indicts their leaders for expecting this coming kingdom of God while also working for the kingdom of Caesar.

Thus they, in their compliance with and active support of the Caesar’s kingdom, were actually resisting the very kingdom of God they were hoping for.

And Jesus’ parables lay this contradiction at their feet.

Back to our servants, though. In our parable, the Parable of the Lazy Servant, we have two good and faithful servants who help their oppressive master gain national power. We also have a “lazy servant” who is the focus of the story. While other interpretations would have us believe he is called lazy because he does not gain his master more money, I suggest that based on Luke 16, he is called lazy because he does not actively resist his master. Maybe he has hesitations because of who his master is or what he has done. Maybe doesn’t personally believe in collecting interest. Whatever the case may be, he doesn’t really participate in the system of oppression, but he also doesn’t actively resist it. In doing so he is what Revelation calls “lukewarm,” which is the worst of all. In the Parable of the Lazy Servant, the third servant is the one who’s not sold on either kingdom, and he is the worst off of all.

As the story goes, when his earthly master does return and finds out that his servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his kingdom, he throws the lazy servant out of his household and into the land where the rest of the people dwell. For the shrewd servant in Luke 16, the world outside his master’s house was a welcoming place. For this servant, however, the world outside his master’s house is a truly dark and dismal place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is so precisely because he has made no friends to comfort him there. He has neither his earthly kingdom nor the kingdom of God to turn to.

The argument could be made that he gets exactly what he deserves. For, as Jesus says not long before this tale, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.”