Money as a Means to an End

The Power of Imagination

The human capacity for imagination is one of the most important assets of the life of faith. Our ability to enter a story, to identify with characters, to contemplate potential outcomes is key. What we imagine, where we put ourselves in the story can tell us a lot. Jesus regularly used parables, stories, like this one to open the imaginations of his readers. Jesus wanted his followers to use their minds, to dive in, to consider possibilities. The parable we hear today is perhaps one of the most discussed, debated, and confounding stories Jesus told, the story of the unjust steward, as it is called, or the story of the dishonest manager, as the story itself calls him. This is a story that does not easily lend itself to a single interpretation.

I want to ask you today, to think back just a few minutes. As Chester read the story, in what role did you imagine yourself? Were you a bystander on the road, listening in to the tale? Were you the manager, wheeling and dealing? Were you one of the indebted people, who owed olive oil or grain? Or were you the rich man?

When you encounter a story of Jesus, the decision about how you enter, the characters you identify with, matters, particularly in a complicated story like this one. If you imagine yourself as the rich man, and I haven’t run a study on this, I’m not a statistician, I haven’t run a double blind study, but I have a hunch that MOST of us who live in North America, most of us who are Episcopalians, enter the story imagining ourselves as the rich person. That’s where we identify, or that’s where we aspire to identify. If you identify as the rich man, this story can be really difficult. Why is this steward wasting money? How can this guy just cancel these debts? How will the economy continue to function? Also, why is he seemingly rewarded by the rich man, why is he called wise?

The story changes entirely if you imagine yourself as one of the indebted. This becomes a story of forgiveness, of generosity, of grace. When it comes to the stories of Jesus, I think it’s worth our time to come a little hungry, to be honest and to say, we could all use a little grace.

But I want to make a case for you, that in 2022, living in North America, seeking to follow Jesus, we need to learn to identify a little more with the character who has been called the “dishonest manager” or the “unjust steward.” I know, it sounds a strange thing for your pastor to tell you to identify with the words “dishonest” and “unjust.” Hear me out.

A lot of what is tricky about this story are the gaps. We are lacking some critical information in the story we are left to fill in with our imaginations, but let me play with this a bit with you. We don’t actually know what Jesus means when he says the rich man has heard the manager was wasting his estate. We don’t ever get the report the rich man asks for of what is going on. I imagine that detail could have really mattered. Maybe there was a drought, and there was no olive oil to collect, no grain to harvest. Maybe, while the master was away, the manager had to make a decision about how to treat the longterm residents of the region. Maybe what was reported as “wasting” might have also been called “compassion.” What reasons could you imagine for the manager to have acted this way?

If we imagine there is more to the story, it helps make sense of what happens next. The manager is nervous not just for his own loss of a job, but for the folks he has been working with. He uses the last moments of his employments to lighten the burden on his neighbors formally, changing the contracts.

This is where we often get caught up in the story, this is where the economics really frustrated good capitalists, right?

An Experiment in Economics: Medical Debt Forgiveness

Let’s take a break for a moment then from the Biblical text. I want to share with you a little adventure Episcopal Churches in our region, including Holy Communion, are undertaking. This year there was a bit of a windfall from our wider church body, just a little bit. The Bishop sent every parish $1000 that wasn’t needed higher up. There was only one string attached: the bishop said we had to use the money for justice or outreach ministries.

My colleague Jon Stratton, who got his start as a youth minister here at Holy Communion and has gone on to be the rector at Trinity Church in the Central West End organized the churches in the St. Louis metro region to pool our money. I tossed in a little extra from our outreach funds. To date, we have raised just over $23,000 of our $26,000 goal. All of the money will go to canceling medical debt in our region.

Medical debt is a fascinating conversation to have alongside a story like the one today, because neither one make economic sense. If you’ve ever opened one of those “explanation of benefits” from your insurance companies after a medical procedure, or a hospital stay, but I can never make the math add up. What’s worse, if I don’t have an insurance company negotiating for me, I would owe thousands of dollars more, or tens of thousands more than someone who is insured.

Over time the hospital accumulates a huge amount of debt from people who can’t pay. Hospitals sell the debt. The hospital gets pennies on the dollar for their debt, it’s part of why that hospital bill is so big in the first place. What happens next is really awful though. The bill collectors charge high interest, sometimes they even bring folks to court. It is estimated that 41% of working age people, 72 million of us in America, have medical bill problems. Unsurprisingly higher percentages of households of color and other historically and systemically disadvantaged communities are more likely to carry medical debt.

So, as Episcopalians in Missouri, we are stepping into the role of debt collectors. With the $26,000 we seek to raise, we will be able to buy about $2.6 million worth of medical debt, but we won’t collect. We will forgive the debt. If you want to make a donation, you can right on our website.

This might feel a bit like a cheat. Buying debt this way doesn’t fix the inequities in the system, it participates in the crazy economics game the hospitals are forced to play with insurance companies. It doesn’t cover folks for future care.

But imagine the moment when a letter arrives, and instead of listing the new interest rate it says simply, “The Episcopal Church in Missouri bought and forgave your debt. You owe $0.” Can you imagine what it would be like to receive that letter? Imagine if suddenly you had one less bill to juggle.

I think what Jon Stratton has lead our church to do rhymes with the actions of the so-called “dishonest manager” in today’s parable. This approach puts people first, not money. This is a way of putting God ahead of money, as Jesus asks us to do at the end of today’s story.

We are getting ready for stewardship season around here at Holy Communion. We’ll soon be asking you to give us some of your hard-earned money. I had a mentor in ministry, the Rev. Luis Leon who used to always preach at this time of year a simple line. “Money is a powerful tool. If you can give away your money, you have power over the tool. If you can’t give away your money, it has power over you.” It’s simple and it’s true, and I want to add a bit.

There are churches out there that will tell you if you give money to the church, you’ll get more money in return. God will bless you. You might be surprised, I half agree. I don’t think God will magically give you a raise if you give Holy Communion money every month. God doesn’t work like that. But I’ve never met someone who regretted giving money away. Sure I have met people who regretted supporting a particular charity or cause, sure, but never the act of giving money away. Generosity is a spiritual practice.

Money and Power

Money is a powerful tool, if you have money, you have the power to make a difference. If you are economically secure, as a Christian you have a chance to make a difference for your neighbor. God wants us to use our imaginations. Did you see that the founder of Patagonia just gave away $3 billion of his company so that proceeds will fund work against climate change? That is the kind of imagination I am talking about. What can you imagine? 

I know a number of us are getting ready to watch the funeral tomorrow for Queen Elizabeth. I wonder if that impulse to imagine ourselves as the rich man in today’s Gospel story is related to our fascination with the royals. Do we like to pretend we could all be the queen? As a priest in the Anglican tradition, it’s like watching the super bowl for me. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been on TV more lately than any time I can remember, outside of Royal Weddings. Surely tomorrow I will have commentary on liturgical, musical, and vestment choices. So far, as I’ve watched the services and prayers. But so far, I wish there was more Christian imagination at play.

I wish, instead of being wrapped in all that velvet, the queen had, for instance, decided to be buried in a plain pine box. She could have directed that half of those feather be-decked guards were all that was necessary. They could have taken the budget for all this pageantry, cut it in half, cut back on all the expense, and given the money to help feed or house the poor. The could have paid into reparations funds for the former colonies, and helped South Africans or Jamaicans to afford college.

As Christians, I think today’s story invites us to use our money imaginatively for the repair of our broken world. How do we give our money creatively. How do we use our wealth to lighten the loads of our neighbors? How can we serve God by holding onto our money a little less tightly? It will take some imagination. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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