Thursday, January 19, 2012

Shrewd or Unjust?

I don’t have a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. blog this year as I have in years past. However, I will make a comparison before I get started. Not the usual, obvious comparisons of what is similar between his life and Jesus’ but how we treat the two differently.

You can’t tell the story of Martin Luther King Jr. without mentioning churches. You could skip the details of his career as a pastor but if you are telling the story with any detail at all, you would have to mention that he used the structure of the Southern Baptist church to do much of his organizing. You would not however need to stress these details or explain them. Churches and organizing just go together. When telling the story of Jesus, the context of his Jewish community is commonly left out, everything is fit into what his legacy eventually became. That is, the theology we humans have created.

Another set of details is normally left out and is not required to understand Rev. King’s part in the civil rights movement. That is, he liked to party on occasion. And he had some marital problems. There are websites dedicated to this. There are people that believe it defines the man and the movement and negates the progress that was made. Fortunately those people are few and far between. For most people, a simple examination of life in 1950’s America compared to life in the 1970’s is enough to understand the importance of what was accomplished in the 1960’s.

That is not to say that the movement was simple. Forces were at play for centuries leading to those momentous years. The individual actions of the Freedom Riders and people who did seemingly simple things like sitting at a “Whites Only” café were profound and heroic. We are getting far enough away from those actions that it is necessary to not only tell the story of those heroes, it is necessary to explain why it was heroic, why there was a “Whites Only” café in the first place. We are not so far away that the full contexts of the stories are inaccessible or the meaning of the details of actions and words are indecipherable.

When we tell the story of Martin Luther King Jr. we don’t need to embellish the man. Some may object that his role as pastor is not highlighted enough, others that his influence from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hhan is rarely mentioned. Once these things are mentioned, what else is there to say? If his title as Reverend was the factor that made him great, then why didn’t a different Reverend accomplish what he did? If it was the influence of Christianity, why was such a Christian nation so slow in dealing with its civil rights problems in the first place? When we examine how the movement took hold, we only need to examine the words that were spoken, the deals that were made, the strategies that were applied, the causes and the affects.

We can examine those things in great detail. When King started his “I Have a Dream” speech, he talked about coming to Washington to “cash a check”. We know what that means. We can view the video from that day and see that that phrase was not very inspiring; the crowd was not reacting to it. We know his speech writer and he tells us that King had alternative scripts that he could use to improvise. When he moves on to drawing from the My Country Tis of Thee and the Old Testament, we know where he got those lines and we can see that his audience ate it up. We know why he choose those words and can marvel at his genius at being able to pull them up at that moment and inspire 250,000 people that day as well as generations to come.

We can only scratch the surface when attempting to do that with the Bible. When the New Testament talks of the “New Covenant”, we don’t know when exactly that started, or what changes to the laws of Moses it actually covered. The Old Testament refers to earlier books that we only know of because of those passages. We don’t know if they are quoted accurately or who wrote them. When Jesus tells the Parable of the Unjust Steward, we don’t know how his audience reacted.  That of course doesn’t stop people from claiming that they do know. Many people are quite sure they do know exactly what Jesus meant. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this is written on their heart, and we can’t read that.  

When we look at the life of Martin Luther King Jr. we don’t need to first create a mythology and then fit his life into it. His accomplishments stand on their own. We know what he was trying to do and how well he did it. When looking at the words of a small group of Jews in Palestine 2,000 years ago, we can’t be sure what they were trying to do. When we try to figure it out, we are stymied by ancient languages and symbolism that was already becoming arcane at the time. Records were not made until decades after the event. Enough of it was timeless, universal and powerful that it survived, but its original form has been lost.

Very few books, articles or sermons even attempt to examine the details of the words attributed to Jesus without first presupposing a theology. One that I just started is “Parables as Subversive Speech” by William Herzog. He draws heavily the history scholarship of Gerhard Lenski and compares the scriptures to the teaching work of Paulo Freire He takes a line by line analysis of several parables and tests them against his hypothesis. He synthesizes, compares and contrasts his conclusions with those of several theologians in the last century as he goes. I’ll spare you most of those details but supply enough of them to give you an idea of what this reveals.

The parable I’ll use as an example comes from Luke 16 and is sometimes called “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager” or sometimes “The Parable of the Unjust Steward”. The naming problem indicates the difficulty theologians have had. Later we’ll see how Luke himself may have been wrestling with what was meant. The parable begins:
 1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

The first problem is determining who the characters are intended to represent. Many assume the rich man is a representation of God. This becomes a problem later as we shall see. Herzog sees these characters as representing exactly what the story says they are. What is missing, what is not supplied in the Bible, is an understanding of the roles these people would have played. More on that as the story unfolds.

We are also limited by the English language with the word “accused”. It doesn’t tell us if the accusation is false, verified, or groundless. According to some, the verb diaballo from the original text could imply a slanderous accusation. From history, we can know the manager is in a tenuous position. Neither the rich man nor his debtors completely trust him. He has to please both of them while attempting to gain profits from them.

Many interpreters also apply a capitalist’s viewpoint to these opening statements. Assumptions are made that the manager has failed in his ability to extract the correct amount of interest, or was accused of the type of banking malfeasance that we have seen in recent decades. If the setting of the story is a Jewish community, that analysis could not apply. The laws of Moses were clear on the subject of usury. That is not to say that there weren’t ways around those laws. Rather than looking for who is corrupt and who is just in this parable, it may make more sense if we see the whole corrupt system; the oppressors have found ways to hide the interest they are charging and the oppressed find it necessary to lie just to survive.
Some highlight the fact that the steward is not immediately dismissed, saying this is an act of Godly forgiveness. Instead he is told to get his books in order and explain his accounting. Some also note that the steward does not put up a protest, a seeming admission of guilt. It could be that he knows he is in a position of low power and a public display would only make matters worse for him.

Next we hear the thoughts of the manager, who has been accused of cheating the rich man,
   3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
A simple reading of this, with 21st century eyes, might sound like this manager is weak, not willing to do some hard work. What he would have known that isn’t explained to us here is that the demotion he is looking at, to beggar or laborer, is closer to a death sentence. Laborers did not enjoy long healthy lives. They worked hard because of the threat of becoming beggars. Once a beggar, his life may only last a few more years. Managers such as he were motivated by this threat and rich men made sure to maintain the pool of beggars through arbitrary firings.
   5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
   6 “‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
   “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
A fifty percent cut. Anyone can easily understand this was good for the debtors. Who are these debtors? There were not very many middle men in this system. Most likely these are the people who worked the land. They might have been some type of merchant, the power relationships change little if they were.  If they were tenants, they would keep some of the produce for themselves, but must give much of it to the manager. The manager is probably taking a small cut of his own, off the books, and the land owner gets the lion’s share, but he in turn he is taxed by the Romans and is in constant competition with those of his class.
   7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
   “‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
   “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
The rich man is telling his tenants (the debtors) to grow olive oil and wheat.  From the perspective of our culture where all produce is a commodity, this doesn’t tell us much. A little understanding of agriculture at that time tells us much. The audience hearing these words would know that the rich man had used Roman law to force the peasants from their land and turned it from land that provided food for them to land that produced a commodity. Where once they could live off that land with their own labor, they now had to work for the rich man for whatever meager wage he would supply. The manager’s job was not only to handle the books and run the errands; he needed to know just how much he could squeeze out of the peasants. The master is careful to keep his hands clean of this and no matter how the manager explains his accounting; he will end up being blamed for some kind of wrongdoing.

Note also that the steward deals with each debtor individually. The debtors are not aware the he is about to be let go. They are all aware of the inherent corruption of the system and recognize that the amounts of the reductions are equivalent to the hidden interest. This paints the rich man into a corner and provides an explanation for the punch line of the parable.
   8a “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.
This is the difficult line, actually half line, that anyone who has equated the rich man, now referred to as the master, with God or Jesus or anything good. That good character is now praising the manager for cutting deals that significantly reduce his profits. If up to now you have painted the manager as lazy or corrupt, why is the master suddenly praising him? If the riches of the oil and wheat are equated with riches in heaven, why is it good that he reduced their value?

Herzog and others assume that the manager has brought the debtors and master together, back in the public light, putting the master in a position of refusing to honor the negotiations of the lowered prices, thus hurting his relationship with the debtors, or honoring them and saving face. If he protested, he would have to argue that he deserved the interest payment that was kept secret by silent agreement. His loss will only be short term. The debtors know they have got away with a deal this time but it won’t happen again soon. So the rich man has lost this hand, but new cards have been dealt for him.

In the end, all parties, normally at odds with each other, are happy with the current outcome and praising each other. The steward, although weak, has used one of the few weapons at his disposal to demonstrate his value. Briefly, the distinction of mine and thine was erased, giving all a glimpse of a more just world.
The following verses may or may not be from the original parable. This post is longer than usual and you may qualify for canonization if you have read this far. I won’t bore you with more details about when the book of Luke was written, who the actual author might have been, what his style was or any of the four or more theories about where this parable actually ends. Suffice it to say that these verses appear to be attempts to make sense of the parable, just as we are doing now.
8b For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
   10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
   13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
 14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
*** Footnotes and references should be provided to clarify the reliability of statements in this article. I decided to forego them and refer you to Herzog’s work, a thorough and scholarly thesis. 

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