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Politics of Scripture

Subverting the “Justice of This Earth”—Luke 16:1–13

We must learn to subvert the economic model of our rulers by reconnecting with older models based on reciprocity, hospitality, and love.

1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

3 “Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’

5 “So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’

8 “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Luke 16:1–13 (NRSV)

German writer Heinrich Böll tells the story of how wealthy landowners somewhere in Europe during the 19th century exploited poor peasants. While the adults go to work in the flax sheds owned by the wealthy Balek family, the children gather wild mushrooms, truffles, and herbs from the forest. As they take their produce to a weighing station at the château owned by the Baleks, the children receive a few pennies for the items depending on the bulk weight, determined by an ornate and beautiful set of balance scales; for generations, people have been told that anyone acquiring their own set of scales will not be permitted to work for the Baleks or anyone else ever again.

One evening, while Frau Balek is in another room, one of the poor children begins playing with the scales’ weights and accidentally discovers that they are off in the favor of the Baleks. Once the news spreads that the peasants have been cheated for generations, they turn against the Balek family and shun them in public. Confronting Frau Balek in church, the peasant boy tells her, “This much, two ounces, is short in every pound of your justice,” and before she can respond, the church choir launches into the hymn, “The justice of this earth, O Lord, hath put Thee to death.…” From that time, whenever the Balek family enters the church, the people sing that hymn—enraging the rich landowners so much that the town council bans the singing of “The justice of this earth” in all the villages.

Eventually, the peasants confiscate the ornate scales and calculate what they are owed for several generations—and all hell breaks loose.  What might be a public scandal today, in the world of these peasants ends in a blood bath: The mighty Baleks send the police who, on their mission to retrieve the scales, shoot several adults and kill one of the children. The rebellion is quelled, and many peasants are forced to leave.

Böll’s story revolves around the fact that when the peasants are exploited and deceived, they’re also left short of justice. When Scripture states, “The Lord abhors dishonest scales, but an accurate weight is his delight” (Proverbs 11:1), the Hebrew word rendered as “accurate weight” is shalem, “a perfect stone.” Stones were used for measuring amounts of silver on the scales; the stone that pleases the Lord is the one that provides a measurement that is honest and just.

The difference between “the justice of this earth” and God’s kind of justice is a central theme in the Gospel assigned to the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in which Jesus tells the parable often called “The Unjust Steward.”

A landowner fires his manager for mismanaging his wealth. In turn, the manager reduces the amount each debtor owes, knowing that he needs friends now that he is without a job; he saves himself by giving away what is not his to give. The rich man, however, instead of punishing him, praises the manager for his shrewdness. It is a story that has made congregations and pastors and scholars scratch their heads ever since it was written down. 

As we are still reeling from the parable, Luke abruptly begins Jesus’ explanation: “… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (verse 8b). Ched Myers states that “this age” and “their generation” are apocalyptic phrases that “convey an indictment of the entire system of exploitation.” It is clear, however, that during “this age” shrewd compromises will be necessary. Myers describes the action of the manager as a “cross-over” from “the economy ruled by (and for) the rich to the remnant village economy of mutual aid.” 

In the verses following the parable, three times Jesus personifies wealth using the word “Mammon” (the NRSV renders it as “dishonest wealth”), to warn about the danger wealth poses as a god or idol. The last reference to mammon ends in an apocalyptic dualism: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (verse 13). Only one of the two economies leads to life, yet like the manager in Jesus’ story, we are caught between both. Ched Myers views our parable as an invitation for “persons of privilege” who “have been disenfranchised by the dominant economic system” to imitate the “unjust” manager: “Only conscious, critical and creative practices will begin to change the economic narrative that is killing us, and animate our political imaginations to embody ever more radical alternatives to the Mammon system.”

Even as the relationship between President and nation has recently been called “abusive” by Ibram X. Kendi, the capitalist economic narrative of the Trump administration (“the justice of this earth”) seems to make sense for fewer and fewer people. We remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s words, “We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together.”  

In the Prophet Amos, we read: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land … The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds” (Amos 8:4, 7)Much like the Balek family forbade the singing of the hymn that cut to the core of their injustice, the Trump administration seems to know that Biblical values can be brought to bear against it and thus attempts to silence people like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represent such values.  

On a day to day basis, we must learn to subvert the economic model of our rulers by reconnecting with older models based on reciprocity, hospitality, and love. As Ched Myers puts it, “We have the response-ability to act—however improvisationally and partially—to use capital to rebuild community and justice.” One way of doing that is to give away or share what we own. Japanese Zen master Ryokan shows the way (my paraphrase):

Ryokan lived in abject poverty. His little hut was empty, he slept on the ground and spent his days meditating on a rock. One evening a thief crawled through the window (unaware that the door, as always, was unlocked), but discovered that there was absolutely nothing to steal. At this point Ryokan returned from his walk and caught the thief. He warmly shook his hand and told him, “You must have come a long way to visit me, and you shouldn’t leave empty handed.” Ryokan looked around the empty room, but he too couldn’t find anything to give him, so he took off his only robe and handed it to the robber. “Please, take my clothes as a gift,” Ryokan said. The thief was too astonished to say anything, and he took the robe and slunk away into the cold night. Ryokan sat naked and gazed at the full moon through the window. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.

We pray. O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

6 thoughts on “Subverting the “Justice of This Earth”—Luke 16:1–13

  1. Thank you for your article, Fritz. I am in agreement with you that “one way to rebuild community and justice is to give away or share what we own” but I don’t trust the government to tell me how to do it. The great story about the Ryokan illustrates that nicely. The thief breaking into Ryokan’s house is the government coming to take what doesn’t belong to it in order to give it to someone who didn’t earn it.

    Also, could you explain what are the “older models based on reciprocity, hospitality, and love” that you mention which we must use to subvert the economic model of our masters?

    1. Darren, thanks for your comment. When I hint at older models, I am referring to a passage in the Ched Myers article I referenced:

      From Jesus’ perspective, the question is not whether the unsustainable Mammon system will fail (Gk eklipē); only when. Significantly, the eschatological resting place for those displaced by the Mammon system is the hospitality of “eternal tents” (Gk aiōnious skēnas), suggesting that redemption lies in a return to Israel’s primal wilderness traditions. This stands to reason, given that the vision of Sabbath Economics was the people’s first lesson in freedom after their Exodus from empire (Ex 16).

      Jesus’ here seems to be an urgent appeal for improvisational “monkeywrenching.” Like the manager being squeezed out, disciples caught and complicit in the “Mammon” system must figure out ways to defect from it, while trying to rehabilitate traditional ways of “Manna” sharing. If we so dare, we will be dismissed by the dominant system as “defect-ive,” but according to Jesus, this is the only way people like us can become “trustworthy”.

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