Taking Care of Business

Reference: Luke 16:1-15

If there is one accusation made about church people that seems more or less permanent, it is that we are hypocrites. It is an accusation that Jesus also levels at the Pharisees. The story that he tells, referenced above from Luke, addresses the root causes. Jesus begins by telling the story of a smart, if slippery, manager who, in a crisis, knew how to network and deal in such a way to succeed. Human nature doesn’t change much, and we can find many examples of such people today in the corporate and political worlds.

For those who see “religious” people as being self-quarantined away from the “secular” world, and being both very naive about how the latter works and reluctant to participate in it, Jesus’ story is startling and even disturbing. He is telling Christians to be as strategic and active in the world as possible, and to network and build alliances in order to achieve their own stewardship. We are not directed to shy away from the affairs of the world. Quite the opposite. We are mandated to be ourselves the stewards (managers) of the world on behalf of the owner/ruler of it, just as the crooked steward was manager of the owner’s business in the story. In so doing, we are challenged to be as clever and resourceful as the “children of the world” in the process of leading the world to a vision of how to run things on behalf of the owner of the earth, who is the Lord (note, among other references, Psalm 24).

As the story continues, Jesus then notes that the key to this active strategy is integrity. While the steward in the story is very shrewd, he lacks this quality. Jesus suggests, as with the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), that integrity is a fixed quality, so if you show integrity in handling small matters, you can be trusted to handle great matters the same way. Ultimately, it is a question of loyalty, of being faithful to whoever you serve. As Jesus concludes, you cannot serve two masters with integrity. And to have ultimate loyalty as a Christian is to serve only one master, even if that service is expressed partly in serving others on behalf of the Lord, at his direction. Any service apart from that is a lack of loyalty to the Lord. In short, it is idolatry.

The accusation of hypocrisy comes from two sources. The first is a misunderstanding of basic Christian belief. Christians believe that we are all flawed sinners, not just occasionally, but at the root of our existence. We must rely totally on the grace of God for our salvation. Thus, Christians are as flawed as others. You do not need to take my word for any of this. It is clearly stated in numerous authoritative statements of Christian belief, nor are examples of flawed Christians hard to find. If you think Christian belief is that Christians are better or holier than others, you will interpret their sinful behavior as hypocrisy. If you find some church people who believe they are in fact holier than others, this is actually an expression of their sinfulness in holding such a patently false belief. In a hospital, it is the patients who are sick and the doctor who is charged with healing them. In the church, it is the congregants who are sick and the Lord who heals. It is not at all like a hospital where the patients are all healthy and look out on the rest of the community with disdain. That would be ridiculous. The same is true of Christians. They share the sickness of sin with the rest of the community. The advantage they have is that they are in a place where they can receive healing.

The second source involves people who believe they can in fact serve both God and money, or God and anything else. That is indeed hypocrisy. It is also widespread, which means the accusation of hypocrisy often is based on an accurate view of church people’s behavior. It is not uncommon for many to separate a Sunday existence from a “secular” behavior followed the rest of the week. Nor is it uncommon to hold a “pro-life” position about abortion as an axiom of Christian belief, but to be cold and uncaring about people in need otherwise, and oppose efforts to improve public education, health care and the justice system in particular for poor people who need it the most. And many American Christians are negative in helping others who are not American, even when these, as is often the case, are their brothers and sisters in the Faith. As a reading of Jesus in Matthew 25 or his story of the Good Samaritan makes clear, to serve God means serving and caring about others. Nor can you serve them one day and bomb them the next.

As this passage from Luke sinks in, and we realize Jesus intends not only for us to be the stewards of the world, but to do it with skill, a review of Christian public behavior in America is not comforting. Neither the Gospel message of absolute grace for complete sinners nor a consistent Christ-like compassion for others is being communicated. Compare those two basics with the statements you hear from “Christians” who have the public ear and are assumed to represent us.

It is part of our stewardship to refute this behavior whenever possible and never to enable it. The best refutation is the positive one of living a Eucharistic, Gospel life as a sinner who has received life-giving grace. If we have opportunity to express it in words, all the better.

This blog started three years ago this month, and has continued except for the break this spring caused by the electronic collapse of the system supporting it. It is time for a sabbatical and hopefully a new start in a few months. In the meantime, the site at winmott.com will remain available, with access to the past posts, of which there are well over a hundred. Thank you for following this for the past few years and for the many astute and supportive comments along the way. The earth will continue to be the Lord’s. I hope we can continue to be his faithful stewards in this challenging time.