Portfolio Performance

Week of Monday September 13, 2004

           Lectionary Readings
           Jeremiah 8:18–9:1
           Psalm 79:1–9 or Amos 8:4–7
           Psalm 113
           1 Timothy 2:1–7
           Luke 16:1–13

           One of my favorite cartoons comes from the Chronicle of Philanthropy (January 25, 1996). It pictures a man who has died and now stands before the pearly gates. The celestial gatekeeper who sports wings and a halo stares down at the supplicant and informs him, "Charitable giving isn't the ultimate test of one's humanity, but it gives us some numbers to play with." In one of the strangest stories with one of the hardest-hitting punch lines in all of Scripture, Jesus says something like this, that how we relate to money is one barometer of our Christian maturity.

           The Gospel reading from Luke 16:1–13 begins, "there was a rich man," and ends with a stark warning to people who, Jesus said, "loved money." The next story in Luke 16:19 begins exactly the same way, "there was a rich man." Jesus did not hesitate to use money as a yardstick to measure our spiritual health.

           Luke's parable sounds strange because the rich man commends the dishonesty of his money manager, even though he fired him for poor performance. Knowing he would be fired, the manager cooked the books of his boss's clients to their advantage so that they would owe him favors when he was unemployed. The commendation, it seems, is directed not toward the manager's dishonesty per se, but for acting shrewdly in regards to what he cared most about (in this case, money), and for averting a future catastrophe. Jesus continues by drawing a parallel to the effect that if worldly people are so shrewd in regards to something as insignificant as money (note Jesus's irony), should not believers be even more shrewd about the "true riches" of life in the kingdom of God? Then, in a final twist, Jesus joins the two strands and concludes with an unvarnished warning: "No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money" (Luke 16:13).

           The story could have ended there, but Luke includes the audience response. "The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus." That Jesus characterizes the Pharisees as "lovers of money" is revealing, because by outward standards they were the most religiously scrupulous and zealous people of their day. They fasted, tithed and observed the Sabbath with impeccable rigor. Their deeper problem with money, said Jesus, revealed itself in a subtle but telling trait—self-justification: "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your heart. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight." However much the Pharisees related to money with a sort of external religious righteousness, their efforts to justify themselves indicated that something deeper, something more corrosive and pernicious, infected their hearts. How so? Like many people, they "highly valued" money; it was their "master" whom they loved and served, whereas in the upside down kingdom of God Jesus suggests that at best money is insignificant, and at worst it is "highly detestable" (16:15).

           Two other texts for this week draw parallels between wealth and spirituality, but they do so from the perspective of the poor rather than the rich. The Scriptures from Amos 8:4–7 and Psalm 113 both speak of the poor, the needy and the barren. How we treat money and how we treat the poor are two sides of the same coin. The poor are poor for many reasons—laziness, poor skills, bad luck, economic downturns, and so on. But Amos employs extraordinarily graphic and harsh language to remind us that some people are poor because rich people exploit them:

Hear this, you who trample the needy
     and do away with the poor of the land,
     "When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain,
     and the Sabbath ended that we may market wheat?"—
     skimping the measure, boosting the price, and cheating with dishonest scales,
     buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,
     selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

In contrast, the Psalmist describes the high and mighty God as one who "stoops down" from the heavens to tenderly care for the poor. He longs to "raise the poor from the dust, and lift the needy from the ash heap." He would reverse their fortunes, and "seat them with princes" (Psalm 113:5-8).

           About a month ago the Census Bureau reported that the number of Americans living in poverty rose by 1.3 million people in 2003, to 35.9 million or 12.5% of our population. The figures for children were worse, with about 17.6% of children under the age of 18 living in poverty. Poverty indices vary, but for the Census Bureau a family of four lives in poverty if their incomes dips below ,810; for two people the figure is ,015. The number of people without health insurance also climbed by 1.4 million to 45 million or about 15.6% of our nation. This was the third year in a row that both indices increased. One of the more tragic aspects for some of these people living in poverty is that they are hardworking people.

           Fine economists with honorable intentions and distinguished credentials disagree about how to help the poor. I have no choice but to leave matters of policy, legislation and structure to the experts, even though I might try to add my two cents. But all believers can do at least two things.

           While I am not an economist, as a theologian and a Christian I know beyond any doubt that there is a tender spot in the heart of God for the poor, the weak, the peripheral, the vulnerable and the disenfranchised. I also know that Jesus warns me about the pernicious power of money. He asks me for undivided loyalty ("you cannot serve two masters"). He cautions me about smug self-justifications as I relate to money. Maybe wealth is not a reward for piety or a spiritual blessing; maybe it is a curse, even if it results from hard work. However much society values wealth, in His eyes money is detestable if it soils my heart or deafens me to the voice of the poor. Relating rightly to money, and advocating care for the poor as a public priority, reflect the cares and character of a compassionate God.

           In the public arena I can also do my part to tone down the partisan rhetoric about the poor, which rhetoric is often another form of self-justification by politicians on all sides. Here is an odd example. I loved Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 911, but in one scene he shows a clip of Bush speaking at the Alfred E. Smith memorial dinner in New York City on October 20, 2000: "This is an impressive crowd. The haves and the have mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base!" The clip makes Bush seem calloused toward the poor and a lackey of the rich. In fact, the dinner was a Catholic charity fund raiser which most presidents attend, and at which presidents routinely poke fun at themselves (as Gore who was also there did). I want to believe that Bush was lampooning himself. At any rate, Moore's caricature was inflammatory if not misleading, and perhaps Bush's joke sailed a little too close to the truth. Passion for the poor should be part of our public rhetoric, but exploiting them—yet again!—for partisan gain should not. Christians, with their bias for the poor, can lend a civil tone to an often uncivil debate.