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The Way Things Really Work
In the best-selling book, Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the authors examine several interesting economic problems, like “Why do drug dealers live with their mothers?” The conventional wisdom is that drug dealers make a lot of money and drive pimped out luxury cars with 17″ chrome wheels and a sound system that produces more decibels than a 747 taking off. At least that’s the picture the media presents, and the one that’s in our community consciousness.
But, as the authors discovered, most drug dealers are on the bottom of the underworld food chain. And, large gangs, like the Crips and Bloods and Black Disciples are really organized like a McDonald’s franchise. There are owners, managers, and the hired help. And, you guessed it, most drug dealers — those who sell directly on the street — are the hired help. And, guess what they “earn” per hour. About $3.30. Which, after you buy your guns, your low-rider baggy jeans, and the other accroutrements of the drug trade, doesn’t leave you much for rent. Hence the reason most drug dealers live with their mothers.1
Steven Leavitt, one of the authors and an economist who teaches at the University of Chicago and recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal for best American economist under 40, wrote the book because — “Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work — whereas economics represents how it actually does work.”2
Which is exactly the story that we find in Luke 16:1-13 today. Jesus is telling a rather strange story about a dishonest servant who uses his dishonesty wisely. And, if we’re not careful, we’ll miss the point Jesus is making. So, let’s look at the situation in the first century.
According to John Howard Yoder in his book The Politics of Jesus, this story tells us a lot about the economics of first century Israel. Herod, in his complicity with the Roman occupation, had implemented taxes that were so high “most of the former rural property owners had lost their independence.”3 Farmers were forced to mortgage the future crop to pay their taxes. When the harvests came in, it was not uncommon for over half the crop, or more, to go to pay their indebtedness. To make matters worse, middlemen like our dishonest manager in Luke 16, were charged with collecting the taxes and payments due. They acted on behalf of the dishonest lenders who had fronted the money for the tax payments.
These middlemen made their fortunes by adding a “commission” onto the amount of debt the farmers owed. So, in actuality, if a farmer owed 50-bushels of wheat, the middleman would present the farmer with a bill for 100-bushels of wheat. Yoder says, “They extorted from the sharecroppers arbitrary sums which widely exceeded the rent and debt and taxes which were really due.”4 And of course, the poor sharecropper had no one to appeal to, no recourse to get justice. All he could do was pay the debt, otherwise the manager was empowered to seize the sharecropper and his family and sell them into slavery. Not a good system.
So, with that backdrop, the story of the dishonest manager makes a lot of sense. Apparently this manager was not content to cheat the sharecroppers — he also cheated his employer. So, he was making money both ways — skimming off his employer’s income, and extorting the poor sharecroppers, who hated him.
But the dishonest manager gets caught. The owner is going to fire him, but in the interim the dishonest manager decides that he needs some friends. By his own admission, he’s not strong enough to dig, and ashamed to beg. What to do? Make friends with those who can help you in the future.
So, he calls in all his master’s debtors. He asks them how much they owe, and then cuts their debt dramatically. Some more than others, but perhaps he knows human nature and knows who will be more grateful for his help.
Amazingly, the owner finds out, but actually commends the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. So, as Stephen Leavitt says, morality is the way we want things to work, but economics is they way they really work. At least in this world.
Jesus Proclaims Jubilee
What is the point of this strange story that seems to commend dishonesty and shrewdness? For that answer, we have to look back at the Old Testament and the concept of the year of jubilee.
Luke, in chapter 4, has already told us that Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor” — the year of jubilee. In the jubilee year, all debts were cancelled, the land lay fallow, property reverted back to the family that owned it, and slaves were freed. So, when Jesus reads Isaiah 61 to begin his ministry, his hearers listened to a familiar proclamation of jubilee —
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners, [a]
2to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
Jubilee, or sabbath year, had two versions. The simpler of the versions occurred every 7-years. The 7th year or sabbath year, involved letting farming land lie fallow — not farming it — for a year. God had promised to provide for his people during this 7th year. As you can imagine, the common question as Israel approached a sabbath year was, “How are we going to eat, if we let the land lie fallow?” Part of the purpose of jubilee was to cultivate trust in God’s provision. Jesus addressed this concern in Matthew 6:31, when he says, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”
In our modern jargon, a jubilee has come to mean a celebration, a time of merriment and festivity, which is not hard to understand. If you had debts, they were cancelled. If you were a slave, you were freed. If you had sold or mortgaged property, it was returned to you. Plus, you got a year off from farming. I’d have a party, too, if all those things had happened to me. Jubilee was a time of rejoicing, celebration, rest, relaxation, and the return to a life of freedom under God’s provision.
But, as you can imagine, not everyone was happy with the jubilee year. If you were a creditor, as year 7 approached, you either tried to collect on the debts you were owed, or you quit lending money. To get around the whole idea of debts being cancelled, Jews came up with an ingenious plan. Before jubilee, you could go to a tribunal and have the amount you were owed turned over to the tribunal to collect for you. So, as a creditor you could keep the letter of the law — you no longer held “the paper” as they say in banking circles. But, you violated the spirit of the law by using a surrogate to collect for you. Remember: Leavitt said that morality is the way we want the world to work, but economics is the way it really works. This clever dodge is another example of that.
A Shift in the Basis for Economics
But, back to our parable of the dishonest manager. What’s the point? The dishonest manager realizes that for him personally the rules have changed. Everything about the way he conducted his life and business had ended. Now, he has to play by new rules and create wealth in an area where he is poor — friendships. He reduces the debts he is supposed to collect, making friends in the process.
Why does Jesus, not to mention the manager’s boss, commend him? Because the dishonest manager realizes that things have changed. He practices jubilee — at least his version of it — by reducing the debts of those whose lives he controlled. But, why was he commended? As a lesson to us so that we might realize that things have changed. Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming jubilee. We are to understand that the reign of money — the old economy — has passed and that the reign of the kingdom of God has begun. There is a new economy now and here it is:
- Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Luke 6:38
- “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, give him your cloak as well.” Matt 5:40
- “But I tell you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matt 5:44-45
- “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, youwill have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Matt 6:1
- “Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matt 6:11-12
- “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matt 6:33
In the new economy — the eternal economy — debtors are freed from their debts, slaves are freed from their shackles, land is restored so that everyone has a place, and creation is cared for by good stewardship of resources.
Our Challenge: Living in the Eternal Economy
Our challenge, as followers of Christ, is to learn the lesson of the dishonest manager. The lesson is not “dishonesty pays.” The lesson is, with the coming of Christ and his announcement of the Kingdom of God, everything has changed. We live now with the assurance that God in Christ has cancelled our debt, restored us to our intended place in his kingdom, renewed his creation, and freed us from the slavery of our own making.
Our decisions about how we live, what we buy, how we treat the environment, how we treat others, all are tied up in this eternal economy. We are no longer slaves to the economic wisdom that says “more is better” and “greed is good.” We are citizens of a new kingdom where there is enough for all, if all realize that everything has changed. We are inhabitants of God’s good creation, and rather than practicing a “dominion of destruction” over it, we are to care for it by letting some our own concerns go so that we can focus on the provision of God for us.
In the aftermath of 9/11, our government gave us some very strange advice — “Travel and shop.” That was not the advice the government of Franklin Roosevelt had given our nation in the throes of World War II. The government then made sure — through rationing and an appeal to patriotism — that there would be enough gasoline, rubber, silk, meat, food, and clothing for all Americans, with the first of all those things going to the war effort. But, that was before our economic philosophy was one of continuous economic growth. Indeed, until World War II, it was not assumed that the national economy could continue to grow and expand forever. But, all that changed in our society and the mantra of the economics of money became “Growth is good.”
So, during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, we polluted our natural resources, fouled our air, bombarded ourselves with advertising which grew ever more sophisticated, expanded our wish lists, moved to bigger houses, bought bigger cars, and established a standard of living higher than the rest of the world. Now Americans consume 6-times more energy than the rest of the world. So rapid and pervasive has the American model for economic growth become that Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat , lamented this week in the New York Times that Dohar and Dalian look like little Manhattans, and that the emerging growth of the third world is wiping out the belated conservation efforts of the first world. This is the old economy — we created, we support it, we feed it. We are the dishonest managers — looking after our own interests over the interests of those under us socially and economically.
The New Bottom Line: Use Money to Make Friends for The Kingdom of God
If you ask people who are not involved in church, “What should churches be doing in this world?”, the answer will be along the lines of “Feed the hungry” or “take care of the homeless” or “help little children.” Which is amazingly what Jesus said we should be doing. But, if morality is the way we want things to be and economics is the way things really are, when you ask members of a local church what they’re going to do with the church’s money, the reply will often be “Pay the light bill.” or “Build a building.” or “Hire staff.”
So, we have a disconnect between the realities of running a church, and the expectation of the world about what churches should be doing. Which is where this parable comes in. Suppose churches and church members — whom we are assuming are followers of Christ — decided to intentionally use our money, our resources, to make friends for God.
By that I don’t mean, buying converts. Years ago I heard a missionary speak at our church about the problem of creating “rice Christians” in poor Asian countries. Meaning, the hungry would say they were converting just to get a meal. No, that’s not what I mean by using money to make friends for God.
In jubilee, four aspects were important —
- Free those in slavery.
- Caring for creation by letting the land lie fallow.
- Cancelling debts.
- Returning property.
Now, here’s what each of these aspects of jubilee meant —
- Freeing slaves, even bond slaves, restored individuals and families to freedom — the state that God created mankind in. Freedom to choose, to worship, to work, to love, to give glory to God. The repeated history of God with Israel is freeing them from slavery to idols, greed, political systems, and their own sin.
- Letting the land lie fallow. In other words, caring for God’s creation. Good farming practices that assured the land would continue to be fruitful in future years. Of course, now this makes sense to us, but history is full of stories of entire civilizations that vanished because the land and environment was abused. Haiti, one of the poorest and most desparate countries on earth, was less than 200 years ago forested with magnificent mahagony trees. Greed led to the felling of all of the mahagony forests, without a plan for replacing them. Haiti is now a desolate, poverty-ridden country as a result.
- Cancelling debts. This really requires no explanation, because we all know what a blessing to be debt-free is. And, of course, this is a major metaphor for what God in Christ has done for us. As the familiar saying goes, “Jesus paid a debt he did not owe, because we owed a debt we could not pay.”
- Returning property. God had given Israel all its land, apportioning to each tribe vast amounts of territory that were more than adequate for their needs. The loss of property, through necessity or carelessness, was not God’s plan for Israel originally. God was restoring what Israel’s carelessness had lost.
Our challenge is to do what the dishonest manager did — use a “jubilee approach to economics” to make friends for God. And, I’m not suggesting that we all become radial environmentalists. But, we can do very real things to indicate that we live in a new economy, an economy that is dependent upon God for its capital.
So, when we buy products we can determine if those products are made on the backs of “economic slaves” in the two-thirds world. Our concern is always price, but behind low prices are poorly paid workers. I recently heard a story of a young man in India, whose grandparents had borrowed money against his ability to work. Of course, the usury system was such that to pay off a small sum, this child would have had to work from the time he was 12 until he was 20 years old. And, I don’t mean work after school. I mean work 7 days a week, 10-12 hours a day, in backbreaking, mind-numbing conditions. Slavery is officially illegal in India, but if economics is the way things really work, there are economic slaves.
We can take small steps to give greater care for the environment, because this is God’s creation. It is alarming to me that Richard Cizik, vice president for the National Association of Evangelicals, has come under intense criticism for wanting evangelicals to show concern for the environment. We have the opportunity to lead the way in environmental concerns because this is God’s creation. By doing so, we would make friends for God and his kingdom.
You and I may not be able to cancel debts or return land to its previous owners, but we can support fair trade, economic opportunity, education, and other efforts that enable all people to come to the bountiful table of God’s blessing. Do you know why we have an immigration issue? Because our nation has wealth and opportunity that others want desperately to get in on. For followers of Jesus, the question we must ask ourselves is how can we help others have access to the same blessings that we enjoy?
We do all of these things in the name of Jesus, with the express intention of making friends for God. What better way to create credibility with those who do not know Christ, than to demonstrate that following Jesus makes a tangible difference in the way we live economically.
Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, embodies what I am trying to say here. Mortenson nearly died after a failed attempt to climb one of the world’s tallest peaks, K2 in Pakistan. Emaciated and weak from the attempt, Shia Pakistani villagers nursed Mortenson back to health. Their kindness and generosity so impressed Mortenson that in an area where Americans are assumed to be hated, Mortenson has started over 60 schools for girls. This is the same region that gave rise to the Taliban and Islamic extremism. Mortenson believes that if girls in these remote villages can be educated and given hope, that the desperation that led to world-wide terrorism can be eliminated. That’s using economics to make friends. But you and I have an even higher calling. To do make friends for God by making friends using the resources God has given us.
So, this lesson is an important lesson for us to learn. What does a Christian do in this world with this economy? We must realize that with the coming of Jesus, everything changed. And, we must use the mechanism of the old economy to make friends for God, preparing this creation for eternal economics.
This eternal economy has an ethic and that ethic is love. This eternal economy has a currency and that currency is faith. This eternal economy has a place of safe-keeping, and that place is God’s storehouse. Everything has changed. God is making all things new. And, the new economy — God’s economy — is how things really work.