Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dirty Money

The Gospel for today was Luke 16:1-13.

I was intrigued by a story I found online. Ron Shaich, the millionaire founder and CEO of the Panera Bread restaurant franchise, was taking the SNAP challenge. That is, he was going to try to live on the $4.50 that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program gives as the average daily benefit per person. In shopping for the week, he realized how hard the choices are for those on this government program. Less desirable but filling carbs cost less than fruits, vegetables and meat. And covering your meals for a week with just $31.50 is daunting. By midweek, the man who confessed never knowing real hunger said thoughts of food had become all-consuming, making it hard to concentrate on anything else. Why is he doing this? It might have something to do with his Panera Foundation and its efforts to create non-profit “pay what you can” community cafes that address the problem of hunger. He points out that 1 in 6 Americans do not know where their next meal is coming from. 1 in 4 of those are children. 35% of those people are working. They just don't make enough to be able to eat regularly and pay other bills as well.

Another reason Shaich is taking the SNAP challenge, along with 26 members of Congress, is that the House of Representatives voted this week to cut $40 billion from SNAP, which only goes for food. It will remove 4 million people from SNAP. This is hard to understand in a nation which is both the third richest country in the world and yet where just last month a Gallup survey found that 20% of Americans struggled to afford food in the last year. And, mind you, the benefit only comes to $4.50 per person per day.

September is Hunger Action Month. It is an effort to draw attention to the fact that 49 million people, including 16 million children, are food insecure. That's a term for those who don't starve every single day but must skip meals often for financial reasons. Shaich knows of one gentleman who comes regularly to one of his Panera Cares community cafes wearing a full suit. He goes to the “pay what you can” cafe before job interviews so he can be alert and so he doesn't take food away from his family. A lot of people are now on SNAP (formerly the food stamp program) because of the recession. Losing their jobs due to cutbacks, or even the failure of the company they worked for, put millions of folks in situations where they could not get food regularly. Food pantries have been inundated by a surge in demand that has outstripped their resources. The food pantry on Big Pine has seen an uptick in the working homeless they help, including families where both parents work but the family is living in their car. Meanwhile 95% of the income gains of the so-called economic recovery have gone to the wealthiest 1% of the population, who make an average of just over $1 million and who have seen their incomes rise by 215% since 1999 and 31% since the recovery. Some say the the real winners are the top 1/10th of 1%, 315,000 individuals who own one quarter of this nation's wealth, most of it made in the stock market.

The Bible doesn't condemn wealth per se. It is OK to be rich, provided one's wealth comes from honest, hard work and the person recognizes his wealth as a blessing from God and so is generous to the poor. In the Bible national provisions were made for the poor. It was mandated that ancient Israel collect a special tithe every 3 years of the increase of the produce so the poor may eat it. Every 7 years fields are to be let go fallow so the poor may eat from them. And at every harvest a corner was to be left for the poor to harvest. All debts were canceled every 7 years. These commands are all found in Deuteronomy, which also says, “There will be no poor among you, however, because the Lord is certain to bless you in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance—if only you obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow every one of these commands I am giving you today.” (Deut 15:4-5) It's a big “if” and of course, Israel failed miserably to follow God's commands. God acknowledges this just a few verses later, saying, “If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates of the land the Lord your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has. Be careful that there isn't this wicked thought in your heart, 'The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,' and you are stingy toward your your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you and you will be guilty. Give to him and don't have a stingy heart when you give, and because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, 'You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.'” (Deut. 15:7-11)

As we said, Israel wasn't too good at obeying these laws. So the prophets, such as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Micah, called God's people on the carpet for not only neglecting but actually exploiting and oppressing the poor. The courts were rigged against them. According to the prophets, these sins go hand in hand with having the wrong attitude toward God. After all, human beings are made in God's image. If you worship something other than God or if your heart really isn't in your worship of God, it's likely to come out in the way you treat those created in his image. And, sure enough, the peoples surrounding Israel who worshiped fertility gods practiced human sacrifice, especially offering children as burnt offerings to Molech. Also they tended to stratify their laws. In the famed Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, punishment for crimes varied with the class of the person aggrieved. If a nobleman injures a lowborn person his punishment was a fine; if a lowborn person injures a nobleman, he could be executed. God's law does not differentiate between classes. The laws apply to all, even the king.

Let's face it: some people are poor because they made poor decisions. And certainly the Bible doesn't defend people who are poor through their own foolishness or laziness. But there are a lot of other factors that can make you poor, even when you do all the right things, stuff over which you have no control.

Losing your job, for instance. The middle class has shrunk and the lower class has expanded largely due to the people who lost the jobs they had going into the recession. If your company lays off a lot of people including you, or if your company goes under, you just as unemployed as someone who never went for a job. And you are often treated the same. It's a dirty little secret that many personnel departments prefer to hire people away from other companies rather than hire those who are out of work. During the boom years, they may have reasoned that if you weren't working, there must be something wrong with you. But in view of the train wreck that the economy has gone through, you may be no more responsible for being unemployed than the passengers of a real train wreck are for being stranded and wounded. But the thinking in a lot of companies hasn't arrived at that epiphany yet.

And there are a lot of people who have graduated with nice shiny knowledge and skills who can't find a job. They find themselves competing for entry level jobs with more experienced people who lost good jobs, had to lower their expectations and go for less-well-paying jobs. Sometimes that's all they can get especially if they were laid off in their 50s, too close to retirement for many companies' tastes. Other people retired, saw their 401Ks evaporate and had to re-enter the workforce just to survive their so-called golden years. And the low-paying job they took may, ironically, have been one their grandchild otherwise might have gotten.

And that's for people not originally poor. How hard is it to climb out of poverty when you're born into it? When you're dealing with hunger, dangerous neighborhoods, poor schools, bad health, a broken home, a chaotic family life, a lack of good role models, no influential friends or family members to give you a recommendation or a loan? Those who succeed in spite of these factors are rare. They are justly praised for beating the odds. But they are the exception. We can't expect everyone to be extraordinary.

God knows that the world is not fair, nor is it a meritocracy. Jeremiah asks, “Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jer 12:1b) The question is asked in Psalm 73 and Job 21 as well. God himself says in Jeremiah 5:27b and following, “...they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord. And shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?”

Some people have always been greedy and sought to ignore the needs of the less fortunate. But until recently, the Christian ethic of stewardship or some form of it has been accepted by the general public. The idea is that your money and your possessions are not really yours but gifts from God of which you are the steward. They are not for you to hoard but to share.

But for the past several decades a form of intellectually-defended selfishness has arisen to challenge the idea of stewardship. The most influential person to develop and spread this idea was Ayn Rand. A refugee from Communist Russia, she brought with her only its atheism and a bitterness from seeing her father lose his business. Like a lot of people who suffered under one extreme, she was drawn to the other extreme. Though she claimed to be influenced by Aristotle, she rejected his idea of the golden mean, that truth and virtue lie between 2 opposite errors or vices, as courage lies between cowardice and foolhardiness. Instead she said, “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” No compromise then. And if the forced sharing of Communism is bad, then selfishness must be good. She actually wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness and declared, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” Everyone in the world is either a maker or a taker, according to Rand. And the makers have the right to do whatever is necessary to keep what is theirs.

Like the communism she despised, Ayn Rand based her ideas on a grossly simplified concept of how the economic world works. As Marx had tunnel vision in regards to the worker, Rand had tunnel vision in regards to the business owner. Karl Marx wrote as if the owner of a business had no major costs other than paying his workers, as if there were no such thing as overhead, for instance. Thus everything he makes over payroll was profit and therefore suspect in Marx's mind. Rand wrote as if the business owner owed none of his success to anyone or anything else, as if public education, government grants, and a massive public infrastructure did not greatly help the individual entrepreneur. She had no use for the government. Instead we should rely on the rational self-interest of the wealthy makers to build roads, hospitals, and the things that government usually does. It's not like they, the private owners of what are usually public utilities, would gouge us for using such things, is it?

This is a badly flawed, dichotomous and rigid view of the world but one which has captured the imagination of some influential people in politics. They may not be brave enough to embrace her more outrageous views on religion or morality but they like the idea that, as Rand said, “Money is the barometer of a society's virtue.” They like the idea that those who succeed financially are automatically virtuous. The unspoken corollary is that those don't make lots of money are somehow immoral. And if altruism and sacrifice are evil, then one needn't go out of one's way to help others. The only way to succeed is entirely on one's own without the aid of others.

But we as Christians recognize that not only are we helped by others but that our primary help comes from God. All we have is gift and grace. For instance, how many successful people are there with a congenital disability? So your basic health is a gift, not an achievement. How many hideously ugly people are successful? Today even singers, whose voice not appearance should be all that matters, look like supermodels. No popular singer today looks like Kate Smith or Ethel Merman or Mama Cass Elliot. It's all about marketing. But having good looks is a gift, not an achievement.

How many of the most successful persons truly started at the bottom? Bill Gates, who just reclaimed the title of richest person in the world, having been merely the richest person in America for the past 10 years, had wealthy parents. His father was a prominent lawyer and his mother, the daughter of a national bank president, was on the board of First Interstate Bancsystem. This enabled him to drop out of Harvard to start his computer company. Warren Buffet's father was a 4-term Congressman who had a brokerage firm. Carlos Slim, who was the world's richest man during the years that Bill Gates wasn't, is the son of a man with a successful real estate company. I'm not putting these men down but neither are they Horatio Alger stories. All of them had a head start toward success. They did not arrange their birth into wealthy families. It was a gift.

And as I said, God is not opposed to wealth. But it is a gift from God. And as such God expects us to be good stewards of those gifts and that means being generous to those whose gifts do not garner them worldly wealth. And based on the Bible I don't think God is happy with a country where the top 5% have 62% of the wealth, and the the bottom 95% must divide up the remaining 38% of the nation's wealth. In fact, the top 20% of Americans own 80% of the wealth leaving the other 80% of our countrymen to live on just 20%. And remember, 49 million Americans don't know where their next meal is coming from.

Which is another reason why I think Jesus was being sarcastic when he gave mock praise to the dishonest steward in today's gospel. Every commentary twists itself in knots trying to explain why Jesus admires this crook. I don't think he did. Verse 14 says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and sneering at him.” I think they knew they were the target of this parable. Jesus in other places accused them not only of loving money but of coming up with loopholes for rules that said you had to support your aged parents or which put money ahead of people. And he calls the money in the moral of the story “dishonest.” It would be legitimate to translate it “dirty money.” And Jesus is saying we should use it to make friends? Furthermore, your friends can't welcome you into the eternal habitations of heaven, no matter how much dirty money you use to bribe them. Only God can. Considering that what he says after the supposed moral of the parable totally contradicts it, I think it's safe to say Jesus is satirizing the way the Pharisees act as custodians of God's law, making exceptions to make friends. This parable appears to run contrary to everything else Jesus says because he is being ironic. He's showing how absurd it is to think God will reward you for cheating.

And will God be happy if we discount the hundreds of references to caring for the poor found in his Word? Does he prefer that we have all the latest electronic gadgets and fastest internet and hottest fashions and coolest cars and most awesome video games when that money could have been used to help someone who needs a meal or a place to stay or decent medical attention? Not by what we see in Matthew 25:31-46 where it says when we neglect the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned and the immigrant, we are neglecting Jesus himself.

Which shouldn't surprise us because Jesus was poor. How do we know that? Because when Mary and Joseph presented him at the Temple, they offered two turtledoves or pigeons, which according to Leviticus 12:8 was the offering of those too poor to afford a lamb. He didn't support himself by working while spreading the gospel and healing people. We learn in Luke 8:1-3 that his ministry was supported by women of means. At the cross he arranges for his beloved disciple to care for his mother. Why couldn't his brothers support her? Because they were poor? 

Jesus knew what it was like to suffer the kinds of things that happen only to the poor and he suffered them for our sake. He knew what it was like to be hungry and thirsty. He knew what it was like to be an immigrant, having lived in Egypt in his early childhood. He knew what it was like to be unjustly imprisoned. He knew what it was like to be naked, for he was stripped of his garments at the cross. And when we see people in these states we need to look at them as if they were Jesus suffering and respond appropriately.

Bill Gates has stepped down as CEO of Microsoft and runs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which is the largest transparently operated charitable foundation in the world. He has vowed to give away 95% of his wealth over his lifetime. Warren Buffett has said that he doesn't believe in dynastic wealth, or as he calls it, “the lucky sperm club.” He announced he will give 83% of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, starting with 10 million shares of his Berkshire Hathaway Inc, worth at the time $30.7 billion, the largest charitable donation in history. J.K. Rowling, a faithful member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, has set up a charity that fights poverty, helps children and one parent families, and funds research into multiple sclerosis. She has given so much to charity that she is no longer a billionaire.

None of us is in danger of claiming the same. But all of us are richer than half the population of the world who live on less than $2.50 a day. And 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. What can we do about that? We needn't be billionaires or millionaires to help people out. We merely need a will and a way. And we have ways. Our denomination ministers to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the neglected, all over the world. Do we donate what we can to those ministries? Our church supports the local food pantry at the Methodist church. Do we buy something for it every time we shop?

We cannot go back in time and clothe or feed or comfort Jesus when he needed it in his earthly life. But we can feed and clothe and visit and welcome those in our midst who were created in God's image and for whom Christ died. They are all about us. And what we do to the least significant of them, we do to Jesus. 

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