In the village where I grew up and in the communities of the Tlingit and Haida people who dot the coast of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, it is not uncommon to espy a totem pole with a human figure near the top wearing what appears to be a stovepipe hat. These poles are usually in honor of or to commemorate a particularly generous person or family, and the hats appear as they do because of the addition of what are called potlatch rings. For every potlatch a family has given, a ring is added to the hat, until over time, these can begin to look rather unwieldy and tall, a sign of one’s abundance and generosity. You see, a potlatch, in Northwest coastal tradition, is a celebration or feast wherein the host empties the caches and stores, gives away all that they have in order to mark the end of hostilities, to celebrate a marriage, or another festive occasion in the life of the community. The rings stand to this day as an alternative economics, lifting up the people who placed the good of the community, the flow of resources outward from one to many. However, the profligate spending by these hosts led western missionaries and leaders to outlaw the practice in many places because it was believed that such a practice was imprudent and out of keeping with the wisdom of western economics of thrift, saving, and wealth accumulation. But, according to indigenous practice and wisdom, wealth is intended to be communal. What one gave away in one potlatch was a gift of reciprocity for the things one knew would come their way in times of need, from the land, from the spiritual realm, and from their community. Like a healthy river, the belief was fundamental that the flow of goods could not be held back. What one had was a gift in trust that was only seen as wealth when it was released and shared. But, as we know, more often than not in our culture today, the flow of wealth is less a flow than a pooling of resources among the privileged and elite. The gap between rich and poor grows more and more with each passing year, and in our church, we struggle to ask the hard questions that might help us not only work for justice and the healing of a broken world, we struggle to ask what part our own practices have played in the brokenness we can so easily see. This is, in part, why our faith forum series this season focuses on decolonizing so much of what we do, starting with Stewardship.
In his new book The Unjust Steward: Wealth, Poverty and the Church Today, which I picked up in preparation for this series on decolonizing stewardship, Miguel Escobar, describes leading a stewardship workshop, about a decade ago, at a conference for Latino Episcopalians. The workshop like the conference was conducted almost exclusively in Spanish, and he recalls dutifully arriving ready to discuss what it means for leaders in Christian churches to be faithful and prudent managers of the monetary abundance gifted them by God. As he spoke, he recalled using the Spanish equivalent term for “stewardship”, mayordormia until he began to notice perplexed and even skeptical looks from his audience. One attendee finally explained that the term mayordomo “had profoundly negative associations where he was from”. He would never want to be considered a mayordomo, a steward, in any context, anywhere, even the church. Escobar relates,
“Mayordomos were the people who had exploited people like him and his family, the property/business manager-in-charge who squeezed out every cent they could from the blood and sweat of their workers. There were nods around the room as people recognized that ‘stewardship’ was a very strange term for me to use as it was so closely associated with exploitation and injustice”.
It was with this problematic understanding of stewardship that I came to today’s gospel lesson and the subject of Escobar’s book, Luke’s telling of Jesus’ parable about a wealthy landowner, a steward, and the release of debts. This is an incredibly challenging parable to interpret, with scholars uncharacteristically all over the theological and theoretical map. Who is the landowner? Who is the steward? And, why does Jesus seem to praise ill-gotten wealth and uplift the desperate and deceptive actions of the steward as commendable and worthy of emulating? Indeed, himself a slave or an emancipated slave working on behalf of the landowner, perhaps indentured or otherwise caught in the cycles of economic injustice, the titular character of the parable is less the “Unjust Steward” so much as the steward caught in an unjust system of exploitation and oppression. And, far from releasing individual debts, the amounts of the debts being described in the gospel that are being remitted and relieved are likely to represent the debt of whole communities, households, and even villages. So it is that Escobar’s somewhat novel interpretation of the parable is compelling in that he finds the meaning not so much first in the characters, but in the money itself. While the steward’s role is to “extract wealth from the land and those who work it it in order to maximize returns and profit…[he] finds his safety and salvation only when the money begins to flow in reverse, an act of economic jubilee.” In order to understand this parable, says Escobar, we must “follow the money.”
Here we strike upon a common theme and motif in the gospels – especially in Luke – of the reversal of fortunes. In Luke’s gospel in particular the stories are abundant of how God’s action and activity do what Mary says in her profound and powerful song, the Magnificat – that God casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the humble and meek, that God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Contrary to the received and celebrated economic wisdom of our day, which uplifts scrupulous saving, the squirreling away of resources for me and mine, the gospel again and again promotes an almost “anti-stewardship”, the extravagant and promiscuous giving away of wealth for the release of debts and the freeing of people and communities caught in economic slavery. Whatever the political and economic motivations behind the recent release of college debts, the overwhelmingly negative response by so many underscores how fundamentally at odds the gospel’s economic vision is with our lived economic realities today. It bothers so many of us to see money being given away so frivolously and without seeming to be earned.
In her profound collection of essays, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer draws on “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” to draw a contrast to the often destructive economic and social habits of our dominant culture. She writes,
“Inadequacy of economic means is the first principle of the world’s wealthiest peoples. The shortage is due not to how much material wealth there actually is, but to the way in which it is exchanged or circulated. The market system artificially creates scarcity by blocking the flow between the source and the consumer. Grain may rot in the warehouse while hungry people starve because they cannot pay for it. The result is famine for some and diseases of excess for others.”
Around the world as here at home, the flow of goods, means, monies, and resources, is stopped up and held in stagnant pools. And, while there are exceptions that prove the rule, the church has largely left this process unquestioned and unchecked, benefiting and profiting from it as we have over the millennia. We have ignored the very teachings of Jesus which envisions and hopes for a world where resources and money are not accumulated but distributed. Where the flow of health and wealth isn’t directed at the followers of Jesus and the church that purports to follow in his name, but rather passes through us and out to a world desperately in need of healing and hope.
There is a sentiment in the church, prevalent in western culture, that our giving, our money, is ours, and we should only use it in ways that make us feel good. But, the gospel resists this commodification – after all, not every gift will feel good when we give it, and sometimes the challenge of giving is to meet the need in front of us whether we want to or not, because it is the right thing to do and we have the means to do it. What’s more, as the indigenous wisdom with which we began this morning points, and the gospel affirms, what we have is a gift to be held in common, for the good of the whole. All of that being said, when I reread today’s parable, and noted the ways in which the steward’s action, based as it was at first, understandably, in fear for his own wellbeing, leads to an emotional shift in the story, and I couldn’t help noticing how the reversal of fortunes prompted a reversal of feeling and of being. Quite apart from being angry and vengeful when he learns what his manager has done, giving away his money and wealth to the poor and needy, instead the landowner commends his actions, reflecting what appears to be a complete change of heart – almost as if he feels good about this reversal of fortunes. Could it be that the reversal of the flow of wealth resulted not only in the healing of communities caught in economic bondage, it also resulted in the healing of the heart of the landowner? To borrow Kimmerer’s words, unblocking the flow might cure famine as much as it might heal the disease of excess. The interconnection between individual healing and the health of communities cannot be ignored. There is tremendous power, not only in what can be accomplished out there, in the world, when we release what we have for the purposes which God intends, there is also tremendous power in the healing of our own hearts and minds, when the gifts and treasures we so carefully guard and keep, like stagnant pools of blocked waters, are released outward, flowing like the love of Jesus, who himself came as a ransom, to set us free.