Today’s parable is easily one of the most perplexing of all of Jesus’ stories. It sounds like Jesus is recommending that managers rip off their bosses by allowing tenants to pay less than they owe. At the end, Jesus appears to be saying that God will reward people who are dishonest. But the parable does make sense, but only if we remember how parables work.
Jesus tells many parables because they work. Our brains evolved to remember a good story or joke more easily than we remember facts and figures. Most of us remember the Good Samaritan story, or the parable of the prodigal son. A good story sinks into our minds and stays there. But parables aren’t just good stories, they are weird stories. They usually contain at least one detail that is strange, a departure from what we would expect.
Christ’s challenge is to help his listeners, back then and now, see the world in a different way. He wants his listeners to break free from their common sense ideas about God and life, so they can reach a new and higher level of understanding. So, he compares God to everyday situations, but with a twist. That twist, that quirk in the story, is our clue that this tale is not really about everyday life, but about the spiritual life. If a parable makes perfect sense the first time you hear it, it probably means you have misunderstood it.
In today’s story, we hear of a business owner who owns an estate. He has a manager who he was entrusted to run the place – to hire and fire people, and to collect what they owe when they go into debt. The owner gets wind that the manager has been squandering the estate – probably skimming some off the top for himself. The manager is explicitly identified as dishonest. When he senses he has been found out, he worries about what he’ll do next. No one likes him since he has been the owner’s enforcer. He doesn’t want to work for a living or beg. So, he conceives of a scheme to survive. When he loses his job, he will need the support of the people who he has been dealing with for the owner. So, he pays them each a visit, and encourages them to lie about how much they owe to the owner. This should make them more disposed to help the corrupt manager when he gets fired.
So far, the story makes sense. A selfish, dishonest manager tries to get in good with the tenants to save his own neck. Ok. But then Jesus tells us that the owner approves of what the corrupt manager has been doing. He admires his shrewdness. Huh? How can that be? God has told us in the ten commandments that telling the truth is critical, and we shouldn’t steal, either. But this manager has stolen from the owner, and now is encouraging others to lie about how much they owe. How can Jesus or God possibly agree with what’s going on?
The key to this story is that it is a parable, not a morality tale. It isn’t trying to teach a moral lesson, but to shift our minds into a spiritual headspace. The key is to ask ourselves, if this is about God’s kingdom, what does the story mean? The story tells us about a man who for selfish motives helps people, people who are poor. In the act of trying to save his own skin, he befriends people by giving them the owner’s wealth. All of them owe the owner, but now they get to keep more of what they have. The story is an example of unintentional generosity.
In Christ’s understanding, God is the source of all wealth. That wealth is shared with every creature, every day. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says, look at the birds, they neither sow nor reap, but God feeds them. God is the source of wealth for everyone. What is missing in our world is a desire to share this wealth. We hoard it. We equate the good life with having as much wealth as possible for each individual. The wealth that is hoarded corrupts, and that’s why Jesus calls it mammon here. There is nothing wrong with a jug of olive oil, but if the rich rob the poor to accumulate material wealth, it becomes mammon, a corrupting influence on the rich, and for society as a whole.
Over the past few years, we have all been shocked at the growing polarization that has emerged within society. All over the west, politics has become more antagonistic; extreme views that were once only heard in fringe groups are now mainstream. People and groups who openly want to destroy democratic institutions are elected. We’ve seen this in the United States, but also all over Europe as extreme right-wing parties get closer to power, and in places like Hungary, become the government. Russia has become a de facto dictatorship, with devastating consequences for Ukraine and the world. In Britain, the Tory government morphed into a xenophobic nationalist party that withdrew from the European Union. It is in a state of constant crisis, where just this week the new Prime Minister has resigned.
How did we get here? Before politics became so scary, something else was slowly building which was fracturing society. In the 1980s, the Reagan and Thatcher governments, with the help of Hollywood, told the world that “greed is good.” If taxes were kept low, the wealthiest members of society would re-invest in their nations’ economies, and this would benefit everyone. This “trickle down” economics was called voodoo economics even at the time, for there was no guarantee that the rich would keep their money local. Indeed, many decided to ship their money to offshore bank accounts to escape taxation, and many decided not to reinvest in their national economies.
I remember visiting Washington D.C. for work during this period. Despite being the capitol of America, the city has a very European layout, with large traffic circles. One of those is Dupont Circle, which has a large park in the middle of the circle. I vividly remember being shocked by seeing a tent encampment for the first time. Dozens of tents for people who were experiencing homelessness had been set up not far from the white house. I had never seen that before, but of course now, it has become commonplace.
What we have learnt since then is that societies suffer when wealth is considered a good in and of itself. The logic goes that happiness comes from wealth, which means that more wealth must lead to more happiness. By that reasoning, it makes sense to hang onto wealth so we can ensure that we are happy and that our loved ones are happy. This philosophy turns material wealth into what Jesus calls mammon. It is like an idol, something that is worshipped with the expectation that our lives will benefit.
But what we see in practice is that the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands leads to a more generalized misery. Those tent encampments I first saw in Washington were the side effect of Reagan’s pro-wealth policies. Lower taxes did not prime the economy as expected. To pay for the lower taxes, governments cut back on social services to keep the deficit down. Real estate became an investment, rather than a place to live. Homes are bought, left empty, flipped, then sold at a higher price. This is a great way to make money, but also a way to ensure that housing becomes less affordable, and more people end up in shelters, and in tents. Wealth for wealth’s sake does not bring general happiness, but it can increase hardship.
In the years preceding Trump’s election, the proportion of Americans living in poverty had been steadily increasing. Black Americans had always been more likely to be poor, victims of discriminatory practices at the workplace, and often refused loans and mortgages. There was nothing new about their poverty. But what did change was that white middle-class Americans were edging downward. Food stamp use became essential for 13 percent of the population. There was also a spike in opioid addiction among workers. Some had been injured on the job, prescribed painkillers, then cut off while they were addicted. So, they sought the drugs on the black market. Others were simply depressed about their inability to afford a house or get good work.
This graph shows the falling death rates for white people ages 45-54 for most of the Western world. Since 1990, the chances if a white person dying in this age group has gone down, down, down. The lower the number, the better. Canada does quite well in this regard – only Sweden and Australia did better. This makes sense: better health care, exercise, public services, and education lead to fewer deaths in the prime of a person’s working life among white people.
There is one exception, however. White people in the United States. Their death rate among middle aged people actually rose. Before the election in 2016, the average lifespan of white middle- and working-class Americans had dropped for the first time ever.
Their deaths are called “deaths of despair” by sociologists. They were mainly caused by suicide and drug addiction related deaths. Ina. Country so dedicated to wealth accumulation, these deaths were occurring in counties where jobs and opportunities had dried up for many white Americans.
The anger over their economic losses was one of the factors that propelled Trump into power. Studies have found that the counties where deaths of despair were highest, most voted for Trump. When people are made poor, misery begins, but it is often followed by anger. Frustrations with wage stagnation fuelled the anti-immigrant fervour in the United States. In Britain, that same anger led to Brexit. Anger at a system that used to work for them, but now appears to have left them behind.
This is Peace Sunday, when we pray for peace for the world. Peace comes in many forms, of course. The end of war, the end of violence in the streets and in our homes. Inner peace. But all of those forms of peace are difficult to achieve as long as people are worried about how they will pay the rent or feed their children.
The people who run political parties like to transmute economic inequality into ideology. Your job is in danger because of a tide of immigrants. The real problem in America is about trans kids competing in high school sports. Or the only thing that matters is stopping abortion. These sleights of hand channel anger fuelled by poverty and lost opportunity into issues which politicians can talk about without endangering their own wealth or the wealth of the billionaires who pay for their campaigns. Anger can be very useful politically, but few politicians are willing to address its roots. Few want to give up on the mammon their system keeps hoarding for the few.
In today’s parable, Jesus surprises us by having the owner of the estate congratulate the manager for ripping him off. The owner is happy that the manager has written down the debts of the tenants so they can keep more wealth for themselves. Jesus says that:
Quote: "I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of mammon so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."
Jesus is saying, God gives you material wealth. If you hoard it, it becomes mammon, an idol. But if you give away what was mammon, something good happens. Those who share the wealth will receive a home in heaven among those who they benefitted. This perspective inspired a view in Christianity that when we help the poor, they intercede with God for their benefactors. *
The idea was that the rich need the help of the poor to get into heaven. The way they get there is by distributing their wealth to the poor.
That way of seeing this issue was common among Christians at a time when there was no social welfare system. Today, the gulf between rich and poor is not as extreme. We have governments that set tax rates and can use other methods to make sure that those who are at risk of poverty receive funds from the government. Canada has been good at this. We have universal health care, paid for by all. Unlike in the US, a cancer diagnosis does not mean we need to sell the house to afford chemo. For decades, we have had tax policies like family allowances and now the child tax benefit which funnels money from taxes back to families with children. 7% of the federal budget before the pandemic was devoted to giving money back to families in greatest economic need.
We live in a country with a tradition of concern for everyone, a form of collective compassion. That has helped us reduce the degree of economic polarization which had led to political extremism in other countries. If we have peace here, it is in large part because we have not created the economic conditions for extremism. Our system is not perfect, as the invasion of Ottawa this winter proved. There is discontent here. But the political dissatisfaction here is not as extreme, nor is the gulf between the rich and poor as extreme. In the G7, Britain and the United States are the two countries with the high-income inequality, and both nations are being rocked by political instability. 
We have the benefit of seeing what happens to other societies when the gulf between the poorest and the richest grows too wide. What is happening to them could happen here if we are not careful. It is up to us to choose wisely and compassionately which way we want to go. To others, a policy of spreading the wealth may sound irrational. But we know from our parables that the best policy doesn’t always make sense the first time you hear it.
 Sally McFague, Speaking in Parables.  https://www.britannica.com/topic/mammon  A famous line from the film Wallstreet (1987), directed by Oliver Stone.  44 million: https://frac.org/research/resource-library/snap-monthly-data-2016; US population in 2016 was 323 million:  https://www.pnas.org/doi/pdf/10.1073/pnas.1518393112  https://www.npr.org/2016/12/17/505965420/study-communities-most-affected-by-opioid-epidemic-also-voted-for-trump  https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-pros-and-cons-of-canadas-child-benefit  https://www.newstatesman.com/chart-of-the-day/2022/09/uk-second-most-unequal-g7-country