November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
February 3, 2010
What Went Wrong?
We are over a year into the current economic crisis, and it is still not clear what happened. Even as the same folks who did not see the meltdown coming are trying to convince us that the inevitable recovery has begun, there is little or no consensus about what led the celebrated global economy to the brink of collapse.
Was it the consequence of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s holding the Federal funds rate down, thereby fueling both an explosion of debt-driven consumption, particularly in the housing market, and a frenzied search for and creation of higher-yield financial instruments, such as “No income, no asset” (NINA) loans, mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and eventually credit default swaps?1 Was it the result of the Wall Street investment banks “getting drunk,” as ex-president Bush so eloquently put it, foregoing “long-term greedy” in favor of obscene short-term profits?2 Was it the product of the U.S. government’s abandonment of its regulatory responsibilities as the Congress weakened oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, repealed part of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, and the Fed, Treasury, and SEC all actively opposed the regulation of the “shadow banking system,” that is, the investment banks and their exotic financial products, which have been likened to “financial weapons of mass destruction”?3 Perhaps the economic crisis was engineered by “the great American bubble machine,” Goldman Sachs, for its own benefit twice over—once as it profited from inflating the housing bubble and then a second time as it profited from the shuttering of its chief competitor, Bear Stearns, as well as the government bailout of AIG.4 Perhaps the origin of the economic meltdown lay in the rating agencies, like Standard and Poor’s, Fitch, and Moody’s, who through greed, incompetence, or over-reliance upon David Li’s Gaussian cupola function,5 rated bundles of subprime loans as “AAA,” thereby misleading millions of investors and pension and municipal fund managers into doomed investments.
Did Anything Go Wrong?
No doubt the experts and pundits will be sorting this out and arguing over it for years. But there is another explanation. Perhaps nothing went wrong. Perhaps these kinds of periodic adjustments in the market and economic environment are just, as they say, “the cost of doing business.”
For instance, Deirdre McCloskey, a Christian proponent of capitalism, sees this as part of the normal, jagged rise of innovation, and so it requires “no special Christian alarm.”6 She assures us that this recession will soon be over and that we will all be better off for it. After all, such recessions are born not of greed but of hope and courage. They are the product of over-building, over-founding, over-innovating. Too much of a good thing, in other words. And when the dust settles, average incomes will be higher.
She does not mean that we should be unconcerned for those hurt by the current downturn; we should. But we should not be anxious and let a “social gospel” crowd out the spiritual gospel that God loves us. Indeed, we should not lose sight of Christianity’s proper and appropriate celebration of our God-given creativity and free will, which entails risk and recession.7
At first glance, McCloskey’s appraisal of recent economic developments may sound a bit Pollyannaish. One will have to search long and hard through the commentary on the economic events of the last year to find these events linked to words like courage, hope, and innovative (especially in a positive sense). Even ordinarily staunch Christian defenders of capitalism such as Dennis McCann see in the current economic downturn “egregious levels of deception, recklessness, and indifference to the common good” and declare that “Greed run amok, chafing against the slightest impulse toward restraint [. . .] can no longer be viewed as mere irrational exuberance; it is a cancer that threatens to destroy the very system that sustains it.”8
An Unpopulist Parable
But if McCloskey cannot find many contemporary supporters for her optimistic view of things, she might find a surprising ally in Jesus, or more specifically, in Jesus’s parable of the dishonest manager in Luke 16:1–9.
The scenario presented in that parable bears some striking resemblances to the current situation. There is a crisis precipitated apparently by (the suspicion of) fiscal mismanagement by a financial manager, the steward of the parable (v. 1). The anticipated consequences are severe—unemployment and eviction from housing (vv. 2, 4)—so the financial manager hedges his situation by offering to reduce his soon-to-be-former clients’ leveraged positions by renegotiating their loans (vv. 5-7). Not exactly mezzanine tranches and credit default swaps, but close enough for our purposes.
Now, those who are particularly enamored of what McCloskey calls “a social gospel” would expect Jesus, someone with a bit of a populist streak in him and a reputation for defending the downtrodden against the depredations of the unscrupulous rich, to go after this financial manager and the system he inhabits. After all, the economic circumstance of the rural peasant in first-century Palestine would certainly qualify as one of “structural injustice” or “systemic violence and oppression,” to use concepts popularized by Latin American liberationists, among others. Invoking a situation that his hearers would know only too well, Jesus uses as the setting for this teaching the plantation of an absentee landlord, whose land and wealth are lent out to tenants by a manager, who then charges exorbitant interest or “commission” on those loans—fifty jugs of olive oil on a loan of fifty jugs or twenty containers of wheat on a loan of eighty.
But much to our surprise and chagrin, Jesus does not unleash a blast of populist wrath and indignation against the economic system and its unscrupulous managers who manipulate it for their gain. We look in vain for a “preferential option for the poor.” We find no stump speech for a tea party revolt. No call to join Michael Moore in unwinding crime scene tape around the offices of this wealthy landlord and his manager.
Quite to the contrary, Jesus does a very unpopulist thing. He praises the dishonest financial manager! The steward is praised for his shrewdness (“his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly” v. 8). Then to make matters worse, Jesus lifts up the dishonest steward as someone to be emulated, imitated! Indeed, he goes on to encourage the disciples to use dishonest wealth to get ahead (“I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” v. 9).
How can this be? How can this unscrupulous financial manager be praised? How can the disciples be encouraged to take advantage of dishonest wealth? Especially when just a few verses later, they are warned about the dangers of mammon, of dishonest wealth, and how one cannot serve both mammon and God (“You cannot serve God and wealth” v.13).
Perhaps the parable makes perfectly good sense, and the problem is that we religious types—especially us serious, professional religious types, those of us who who are committed laypersons, religion majors, pastors, and academics—simply do not want to admit it. Perhaps the text is clear, and we just do not like what it says.
Perhaps it is true, what advocates of free market economics say, that we religious types are simply irrationally antagonistic toward the world of money, business, and economics. Perhaps the problem is not with the text but rather with our knee-jerk prejudice against things monetary. And maybe here, in this text, much to our discomfort and dismay, Jesus is setting us straight. Maybe he is telling us to embrace the world of money, business, and economics. Sure, the world of business and economics is not pure, he says, but what matters is that you get out there and play the game well—shrewdly, not naively or idealistically.
Play the game well, so long as you do not let it dominate your life. Don’t put your trust in riches. Don’t make it your master. Don’t let monetary gain become the end all and be all of your life.
Maybe he is telling us that economic life is not pure, but that is OK as long as you use the dishonest wealth for good purposes. It is OK to get your hands a little dirty with dishonest wealth, with mammon, so long as you do so for a good end, for the right reasons.
A Visitation of the Lord
The claims of McCloskey as well as such an interpretation of the parable would hold if Donald Trump were God. Only if The Apprentice really is reality and the Gospel is false can such claims and interpretations be correct. But, of course, Trump and what he represents is a fraud and the Gospel is true.
In this parable, Jesus is not blessing Wall Street and the financial wheeling and dealing that has characterized the early twenty-first-century global economy and for which Bernie Madoff may end up being not an aberration but an icon.9 Jesus is not blessing dishonesty. The Greek word translated “dishonest” in this parable also means “sin,” “evil,” “injustice,” and “wickedness.” In this parable, Jesus does not praise the steward for his clever wickedness, and he does not instruct the disciples to be as cleverly wicked as the steward. And in spite of what our culture tells us, Jesus is not suggesting that the ends justify the means, that immorality is OK if it is done for a good reason, if it is done in pursuit of a greater good. Jesus is not assuring us that economic dirty hands are unavoidable and that instead of worrying about it, we ought to make the best of it.
The interpretive fulcrum of the parable is verse 8, a particularly difficult verse because it blends two distinct moral voices: “his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” The first half of this sentence represents the judgment not of Jesus but of the dishonest manager’s master. Thus it reads, “His master commended the dishonest manager [. . .].” And the second half of the sentence articulates the point Jesus draws from the example of the dishonest manager. Specifically, Jesus is encouraging his disciples, the children of light, to be as shrewd or wise as are the children of “this age.” Here we might recall Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 10:16, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Jesus lifts up the steward not as a moral example in the sense that those who would follow Jesus should be as dishonest and wicked as the manager in the parable when it comes to matters of business and finance but as an example of a child of this world who responded wisely when visited by his lord, his master. What Jesus is telling his disciples is that they should be just as wise when they are visited by their Lord.
The Wise Use of Mammon
But what does it mean to use mammon wisely? It is not uncommon for the well-known conclusion to this passage, the statement that one cannot serve both God and mammon, to be interpreted in one of two ways. On one hand, there is what we might call the rigorist reading, which sees in this verse a simple and straightforward condemnation of all wealth, property, and riches. Not only does this interpretation ignore the decidedly more complex treatment of wealth in the passage,10 but its logical conclusion would entail adopting something like the posture of the medieval mendicants who would not even touch money, much less own anything, with all the problems that attend such a position.11 On the other hand, there is the lax reading, which reduces this passage to a psychological exercise of sorts, to a warning against placing one’s trust and hope in riches, whatever that might mean. This is to say, the passage is reduced to a reminder to mentally reassure ourselves that no matter what we accumulate or how we use it, we are not relying on it for our eternal standing, that God is still most important in our hearts and minds.
Fortunately, a careful reading of the passage does not leave us at the mercy of either of these misinterpretations. For Jesus is actually quite explicit regarding what disciples should do with mammon, with wealth and material possessions. He says disciples are to use mammon to make friends (v. 9).
Now, at first glance this might strike us as a rather trite suggestion. It seems rather superficial advice because the wealthy rarely have to make friends. Rather, wealth seems to attract friends. Moreover, the suggestion that we use wealth to make friends seems, well, too easy. We cannot help but think that this just does not sound like the Jesus who said, “Give all that you have to the poor” (Mark 10:21; cf. Lk.14:23). Spending money with friends is not nearly as difficult; stewardship never seemed so easy or enjoyable.
There is some truth to this last objection. It is, however, a truth that Jesus himself acknowledged in the parable of the prodigal son, which immediately precedes Luke 16. Recall that the prodigal son took his inheritance and essentially partied it away. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that he spent his mammon making friends. And yet as that parable makes clear, this was not regarded as a good thing; the text says he “squandered” his inheritance. Not incidentally, this is the same thing that has brought the dishonest manager in our parable under judgment, namely, “squandering” his lord’s property (16:1). In other words, when Jesus says, “make friends,” he means something other than squandering material resources hanging out with our friends.
In a world where economic dirty hands seem unavoidable, where profit-maximization and rational self-interest seem to be veritable laws of nature, it is unsurprising that this parable would prove so difficult to get a handle on, appearing as it does simultaneously to praise and condemn mammon. However, when read in light of the church’s long tradition and teaching on the use of material resources, the passage is not so puzzling. Indeed, when so read, even the seemingly trite call to “make friends” with mammon takes on heftier theological significance.
In a nutshell, this parable is of a piece with the church’s longstanding practice of almsgiving. By almsgiving I do not mean the modern practice of voluntary, private philanthropy, whereby individuals who feel like it contribute a little of their disposable income to panhandlers or charitable organizations. Rather, I mean a much more robust, demanding practice suggested in the following voices, who are representative of the apostolic tradition.
What is a miser? One who is not content with what is needful. What is a thief? One who takes what belongs to others. Why do you not consider yourself a miser and thief when you claim as your own what you received in trust? If one who takes the clothing off another is called a thief, why give any other name to one who can clothe the naked and refuses to do so? The bread that you withhold belongs to the poor; the cape that you hide in your chest belongs to the naked; the shoes rotting in your house belong to those who must go unshod.
A similar sentiment is expressed by the great preacher of the early church, John Chrysostom (d. 407), when he proclaimed:
For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, or fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need. [. . . T]he rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor. He is directed to distribute it to his fellow servants who are in want. So if he spends more on himself than his need requires, he will pay the harshest penalty hereafter. For his own goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow servants. [. . .] For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it on yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.13
And lest we think this was but a fad that did not endure the passing of time or the development of the church, hear the words of John Wesley (d. 1791):
Do you not know that God entrusted you with the money (all above what buys necessaries for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind. How can you, how dare you, defraud your Lord by applying it to any other purpose?14
These and similar passages found throughout the Christian tradition are markers of a way of life; this is to say, the theological vision that gives rise to them is not reducible to a few simple rules or something a couple of people on a church committee could take care of by organizing a volunteer opportunity on a weekend every once in a while. Rather what these voices give expression to is the way of life of a people, a community called church, whose entire life is properly ordered toward sharing God’s material gifts with others.
The shape of this way of life is perhaps best represented by the rich tradition of what are known as the Works of Mercy. The Works of Mercy consist of seven corporal practices and seven spiritual practices, encompassing such things as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, harboring the stranger, admonishing the sinner, and comforting the afflicted. In the history of the church, the Works of Mercy have taken a variety of forms, from medieval monasteries, hospitals, almonries, confraternities, and guilds to contemporary forms like the Catholic Worker movement, parish-based alternative markets, cooperatives, hospitality and sanctuary networks, and so forth.15
So, when we are visited by our Lord, the shrewd response, the wise response, the faithful response is to acknowledge that all that we have and all that we are is a gift, that we are stewards of what does not belong to us (vv. 11-2), and that we are to use these gifts to succor those in need.
On Being Welcomed into Eternal Homes
There is one question that remains as well as one more twist in this parable. The question that remains concerns why, if this parable is about giving to those in need, Christ speaks of “making friends.” After all, this is a rather odd way of making a straightforward point. The answer to this question brings us to the final twist.
Upon reaching this point in the argument, one could be forgiven for thinking that all Jesus is really about in this parable is fostering an aristocratic sense of noblesse oblige, the notion that with wealth and privilege come responsibility. Although this is certainly not a bad idea—an echo of it can be found in Luke 12:47—and it is unquestionably better than the alternative that would disavow any connection between material wealth and public responsibility, Jesus’s moral exhortation in this parable exceeds this sensibility, and it does so precisely on this point of making friends.
The twist comes in verse 9, where Jesus explains why disciples are to use mammon to make friends: “So that [. . .] they [i.e., the new friends] may welcome you into their eternal homes.” Jesus tells disciples to make friends with wealth so that they might be welcomed into eternal homes.
Who are these friends who have eternal homes? Luke tells us throughout his gospel that they are the lowly, the hungry, the poor and outcast, the despised. Think of Mary’s Magnificat: “Praise the Lord who lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud and mighty” (1:46-55). Think of the Sermon on the Plain: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (6:20-25). Or the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus: the rich man has the home in this world as Lazarus starves, whereas in heaven, it is Lazarus who has an eternal home as the rich man languishes in hell (16:19-30).
What are we to make of this? In this parable, Jesus is telling those of us who are full now that if we wish to be welcomed into their eternal home, we will welcome these folks into our homes here and now. We will share the gifts God has given us for the purpose of befriending those in need; we will share with the welfare mom, the jobless dad, the homeless vet, the migrant worker, the foreigner, the AIDs victim, the drug addict, the battered woman, and so on. As the Latin American liberationists never tire of reminding us, it is not sufficient to do for the poor and downtrodden. It is not sufficient to be a church for the poor. Rather, Christ’s call is to be a church of the poor. As this parable makes clear, the wise response to the Lord’s visitation is to draw near to, to befriend, the poor.
It is as Peter Maurin, a close associate of Dorothy Day, used to say, “That is what the poor are for, to give the rich the occasion to do good for Christ’s sake.”16 In this regard, we might recall Matthew 25:31-46, where aiding those in need is but an opportunity for those who give aid to receive Christ. Or we might recall the words of wisdom often shared with those who are preparing to set out on a mission trip or to serve at the local homeless shelter: you will receive a great deal more than you give. Or think of the beggar on the roadside with the tattered cardboard sign that reads, “God bless you.” Even as we share resources with the poor, the poor can pray for us, which is an immeasurable treasure since we know that God hears the cry of the afflicted (Ps. 34; Job 34:28).
In other words, when Christ calls his followers to use mammon to make friends, he is calling for more than volunteerism and philanthropy. He is calling his followers into a relationship of mutuality, of reciprocity. He is renewing the communion of humanity that was shattered in the fall. As Ephesians reminds us, Christ is our peace, the one who has broken down the dividing walls of hostility that rend community (Eph. 2:14; cf. Gal. 3:28). The same sentiment fuels Paul’s warning to the church in Corinth regarding the danger of receiving communion where there is economic division (1 Cor. 11:17-22); such a practice amounts to a denial of the communion that Christ fosters in and through his body.
Thus, Christ’s call to use mammon to make friends is anything but trite. To the contrary, it is nothing less than an invitation to salvation. This call to renewed communion between peoples is not secondary to the Gospel but its very heart and soul. As Thomas Aquinas observed, our eternal end is friendship with God. Salvation is the renewal of the friendship of humanity in God. And as Scripture makes crystal clear, our friendship with God is inextricably bound up in our friendship with one another and even with all of creation. This interconnection is evident in Genesis 3, where human estrangement from God results in antagonism between people, with critters, and even with the land. It is also manifest in the scriptural reminder that we cannot love God if we hate our sisters and brothers (1 Jn. 4:20-1) as well as in the prophets’ vision of the Kingdom, where lions and lambs feed together in peace while children play among the serpents (Isa. 11:6-9).
Conclusion: The Economic Crisis Once More
In the midst of the current economic crisis, dare we ponder how circumstances might be different if the church had sustained the Works of Mercy as a way of life, if Christ’s call to use our material resources to make friends, to foster communion, were heard and heeded more often? More specifically, in light of the particularly financial character of the current agony, dare we consider how the situation might change if we heeded Paul’s call to “owe no one anything, except to love one another” (Rom. 13:8) or Jesus’s injunction, “lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35)?
But, alas, the church has long forgotten the prohibition on taking interest, watering it down to a vague and ineffectual ban on “usury.” Furthermore, we expect returns, and strong ones at that, at least in line with leading market indices, on our investments. And as the tremendous expansion of consumer debt in recent decades suggests, we are more than happy to owe one another a lot more than love.
As a consequence, we find ourselves in thrall to dishonest wealth, notwithstanding the myriad of mental gymnastics we attempt in order to persuade ourselves that money is not our master. We are entangled in a web of predatory lending practices, mortgage fraud, and liars’ loans. From Wall Street to Main Street, it seems that “drunkenness” is the order of the day. Whether it is a matter of peddling toxic assets with “AAA” ratings, flipping homes, or purchasing McMansions we neither need nor can afford, it seems there is greed enough to go around. And through the parable of the dishonest manager, Jesus graciously reminds us, we will not find our way to eternal homes on this path.
Yet all is not lost, for the Lord continues to visit his people. The good news is that the current economic crisis is dwarfed by the perpetual crisis that is effected by the Lord’s visitation. This is to say, where the Word is proclaimed and the sacraments received, and even where they are not—because the Spirit blows where it will (Jn. 3:8)—the iron cage of the current economic order is broken open and new possibilities for life, including new economic life, emerge.
Christ continues to visit his people through Word and water, bread and wine, in the face of the hungry and homeless, in the cry of the sick and the financially ruined. The wise response to that visitation, the shrewd response, is to reach out and make friends, to reach across the cultural and socioeconomic differences that divide no more because Christ has healed them and share the eternal, extravagant hospitality of the Lord, who forgives our debts (Mt. 6:12), fills our cups to overflowing (Ps. 23:5), and gathers us all at his banquet table. Then we shall all have homes, both here and hereafter.
2. Matt Taibbi, “The Great American Bubble Machine,” Rolling Stone, July 13, 2009, 1-7, available at http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/29127316/the_great_american_bubble_machine; Michael Lewis, “The End,” Portfolio, November 11, 2008, http://www.portfolio.com/news-markets/national-news/portfolio/2008/11/11/The-End-of-Wall-Streets-Boom/?print=true%22.
3. Warren Buffett cited in “Derivatives: A nuclear winter?” Economist 950 (2008), http://www.economist.com/businessfinance/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_TNNSQTTN. See also William Greider, “Dismantling the Temple,” Nation, July 15, 2009, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090803/greider.
4. Taibbi, “The Great American Bubble Machine.”
5. Felix Salmon, “Recipe for Disaster: The Formula that Killed Wall Street,” Wired 17.3 (2009), http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/17-03/wp_quant?currentPage=all.
6. Dennis P. McCann, Jon P. Gunnemann, Deirdre McCloskey, and D. Stephen Long, “Lessons of the Economic Downturn,” Christian Century 126.15 (2009): 24.
7. McCann et al., “Lessons,” 24.
8. Ibid., 22.
9. See Schiff, “Why the Meltdown Should Have Surprised No One.” For a fine commentary on this parable see Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991).
10. The complexity is admittedly difficult to discern to the extent that some translations use “mammon,” which means money, wealth, and property, interchangeably with “dishonest wealth.” For more on the complex understanding of the use of wealth and material possessions in the New Testament, see Luke Timothy Johnson, Sharing Possessions (London, UK: SCM Press, 1981) and Sondra Ely Wheeler, Wealth as Peril and Obligation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).
11. See David Burr, Olivi and Franciscan Poverty: The Origins of the Usus Pauper Controversy (Philadelphia, PN: University of Pennsylvania, 1989); see also Kelly S. Johnson, The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).
14. Cited in Justo González, Faith and Wealthy: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1990), 178.
15. John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 49-50.
16. John Wesley, “The Danger of Increasing Riches,” The Works of John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol. 4 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1987), §12.
17. For a more accessible contemporary treatment of the Works of Mercy, see James F. Keenan, The Works of Mercy (New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005). The history of the Works of Mercy remains relatively unexplored. Several books that begin this important work are Michel Mollat, The Poor in the Middle Ages (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1986); John Henderson, Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1987); James William Brodman, Charity and Welfare (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1998) and Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe (Washington DC: CUA Press, 2009). See also Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999); Amy Oden, And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2001); and Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2007).
18. Peter Maurin, Easy Essays (Chicago, IL: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977), 167-8.
Daniel M. Bell Jr.
Daniel M. Bell Jr. is a professor of theology and ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.