Demetri Martin, in a standup comedy routine, delivers one-liners and brief stories about ways he sees the world differently. And one of his jokes goes something like this:
When I trip and fall, I feel like it’s the earth telling me, Psst, come here for a second. I have something important to tell you: you will never outrun me. That’s right. Okay, you can go now. See you again in fifty years.
Ooh, he’s referencing humility and also death, becoming part of the earth. Kinda depressing, kinda hilarious, possibly both at the same time. But his viewpoint raises interesting questions, like: if the earth really could speak, what might it say? And, can we change our relationship to the earth? And, given the advance of climate change and all of the complicating factors multiplying all over the world, must we change our relationship with the earth?
In this Season of Creation, we are taking these few weeks to give thanks for all that God has created, and to look at Scripture in light of our relationship with God’s creation. And today’s readings might not seem especially creation-focused, but what can we learn when we read these through the lens of asking, what can this part of Scripture tell me about how God relates to creation?
In the Hebrew Scripture we just read, the prophet Amos speaks against the unfair treatment of people who are poor. Amos lets the people of God know that God is very much aware what the wealthy people are doing, how poor people are treated and cheated out of their wages or sold goods that had less value—and God will not forget the deceitful deeds of those people who cheat others.
The psalm notices the relationship of God, whose glory is high above the heavens, with the earth, where God stoops to behold even people who are weak. For those without the strength to even lift themselves up from the dust, God enthrones them alongside the rulers of the people. God is very much aware what is going on, in the way people treat each other.
Then in the second reading, from the first letter to Timothy, the writer of that letter affirms that society is complex, but believers in God should pray for people who have political power, kings and whatnot, and pray for peace. And also there is only one God, and the mediator is Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all. God is paying such close attention to what’s going on in all the created world that God became human and walked among us in Jesus Christ.
And perhaps that’s how Jesus gets at this complicated parable that we’ve just read, which comes from Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’s typical teaching methods involve parables, which are stories with characters and plotlines, and frequently, stories with multiple viewpoints. Jesus explains some of his own parables, but most of them are left up to us to interpret. Some parables have clear interpretations, and we can easily figure out who’s the hero and who’s the villain.
But then there are parables like this one—a rich man who wants to fire his manager for squandering his property. Okay already, whose side are we supposed to be on? And the manager further complicates the issue by writing off parts of his master’s debts—is he forgiving what isn’t his to forgive? And then, to make matters even weirder, the rich man, who has just been cheated out of a lot of money, commends the manager for his shrewdness.
What is Jesus even saying here? We’re supposed to be righteous, share our wealth with the poor and make sure everyone is cared for, and care for the earth, and now it’s okay to be shrewd, which means crafty and maybe even sneaky, like it’s okay to cheat people but only if it’s for the right reasons? And how do we know when it’s right? How are we even supposed to be righteous in the first place in a system as complex and convoluted as this one?
“If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,” Jesus says, “who will entrust to you the true riches?” So, uh, Jesus knows that sometimes humans hold dishonest wealth? And Jesus knows how managers do their work, which involves the collection and payment of various types of debts? Was all of this common knowledge in the time when Jesus lived, or did Jesus have some kind of unpaid internship that we don’t know about? What else does God know about? What is dishonest wealth? And what kind of wealth do I have?
Harvey Cox, a Christian theologian, conceived the idea of The Market as a god, something that is worshipped, whether people really want to worship that god or not. Cox notices how religion acknowledges the power to take something ordinary and make it sacred, the way Christians do in the celebration of Holy Communion—ordinary bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ—but in the Market, “a reverse process occurs.” He writes:
“Things that have been held sacred transmute into interchangeable items for sale. Land is a good example. For millennia it has held various meanings, many of them numinous. It has been Mother Earth, ancestral resting place, holy mountain, enchanted forest, tribal homeland, aesthetic inspiration, sacred turf, and much more. But when…the elements are elevated, all these complex meanings of land melt into one: real estate. At the right price no land is not for sale…This radical desacralization dramatically alters the human relationship to land; the same happens with water, air, space, and soon (it is predicted) the heavenly bodies. …In the Market religion, however, human beings, more particularly those with money, own anything they buy and—within certain limits—can dispose of anything as they choose.”
Some of us here “own” land, I feel like we should put air quotes around that, because we acknowledge, as people of faith, that the earth belongs to God. The thing is, God is aware what we are up to on this earth. God knows how we buy and sell what isn’t actually ours to buy and sell. God knows how we humans tend to cheat one another when we think we can get away with it. God has tried to help us out by giving us rules to live by so that we don’t damage our relationships with one another and damage our souls in the process, but we repeatedly break those rules.
Kendra Mohn, a pastor and theologian, referencing this parable, writes,
“It is tempting to think that our only options for living within complex and troubling systems are accommodation or resistance. But the reality for most people, whether in the Roman Empire or the United States in the twenty-first century, is more akin to negotiation, weighing options and choosing who or what to prioritize in the next decision with less-than-ideal options.”
Jesus tells this complicated parable and lets us know God knows what we are up to, even with our unethical behavior, and we are still loved. Jesus isn’t telling us that to live holy lives, we must live “off the grid” and exit society; instead, Jesus is encouraging us, as faithful followers, to get involved, even in the messy and unfair systems. Our economic system is what it is, same as in the days when Jesus lived—play the game, or the game plays you.
The real question is: how do we play the game with God’s priorities in mind? Can we really reimagine our relationship with wealth, instead of treating people as tools for creating more wealth, can we think of wealth itself as a tool to be used to help people? Can we treat land as not just a commodity, but as sacred? Can we understand the earth as an enduring and loving resource that we have a responsibility to care for and protect? How can we, as Jesus said, make friends for ourselves “by means of dishonest wealth?”
And what will be your next step? What is one way you can commit yourself to caring for people and caring for land? Can you pay someone else’s debts or cancel their debts if that’s within your power? How can you be more free and less entangled in an economic system that is created to serve wealth? But we are created to serve God.
The thing is, we are set free to ask these questions because we trust in a God whose love for us is so big, so boundless. We can exercise our freedom to wonder about these things for which there aren’t easy answers. God knows how things work on this earth, and God still has not abandoned us. Indeed, God is present with us, begging us to notice the beauty of the land. By God’s grace, let us not fall all the way to the ground before we notice our relationship with the land, too.
 The writer of that letter is identified as “Paul,” but scholars are not convinced it’s truly the same Paul the evangelist who wrote other letters that became what we call the New Testament.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/03/the-market-as-god/306397/  https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25-3/commentary-on-luke-161-13-5