Based on Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1, 1Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
While I learned a bit about the American Civil War growing up in Minnesota, I really had a very different perspective than those whose families were divided by that conflict. It wasn’t until I came to live below the Mason-Dixon Line, first in Alabama and then in Virginia, that I began to hear another side of that tragic story. In Alabama, though it had been more than 125 years since the end of the conflict, they still celebrated Confederate Memorial Day and Jefferson Davis’ birthday. One dear soul that I met in Selma referred to that time in history either as the “Great Unpleasantry” or the “War of Northern Aggression”.
I met a man who was quite the Civil War scholar when I came to Arlington. He had written a couple of books on different battles and generals, and he taught me a lot about what happened during those terrible years here in the Old Dominion. We toured the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg, and I read some more about General Robert E. Lee, head of the Confederate Army. I have always been impressed by his staunch loyalty to Virginia over his loyalty and oath to the Federal Government as a soldier in the Union. He was clear in his refusal to become a general in the rapidly forming Army of the Republic that while he was against secession he would never take up arms against the south; against his neighbors or his kin. While General Lee had been raised up among a very strong Federalist ideal, and idolized George Washington, he felt strongly that the U.S. government had in his words “aggrieved” the slave holding southerners. Lee was conflicted, but ultimately chose his loyalty of region, State and new nationalism over his loyalty to the Federal government and his commission in its armed forces.
Divided loyalties are a very common human condition – and not just around huge issues like war. We all struggle with what we choose to honor and have many loyalties competing at any given time (like R.E. Lee). Our modern-day struggles with this have led to the mythology of the “superhuman” who can get everything done and still have the perfect home and family. Our scriptures today speak to us about how we manage our time, talents and treasures based upon where our loyalty lies. Are we giving our allegiance to God, or do we pledge our fealty to lesser worldly idols? Let us go to God from whom all our blessings flow, asking for wisdom and courage to be loyal children…
The LORD has been speaking to the prophet Jeremiah listing all the wrongs that the people of Judah have done against God. Not only have they divided their loyalties to God and the world, but they have not repented for their deceit and wickedness. God tells the prophet, “…from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; (i.e., mammon) from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace….” In our reading today, Jeremiah responds to God’s litany of grievances by saying, “…My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick…Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?…” Jeremiah knows that unless the people repent and give their full loyalty back to God that God will destroy them.
The writer of 1Timothy is encouraging the faithful to pray fully for kings and leaders – including supplications, intercessions and thanksgivings, so that all may live quietly and peaceably. The writer reminds Timothy that God’s one great desire is for “everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”. There can be no divided loyalties in this life. As is written in the letter to James, we are to pray for one another for healing because “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective….” We cannot be righteous and effective pray-ers if we try to intercede while hedging our bets with hearts divided by world versus God.
The parable that Jesus tells today is nothing short of confusing! How is it that a dishonest manager – one who has been “squandering” his employer’s property, can actually get “commended” by his former boss for acting “shrewdly” as he was being sacked? I mean, don’t we all learn that when we find ourselves deep in a hole that the first thing to do is to stop digging? What does this parable have to teach us about how to live in the world? How do we understand this in light of the idea of not having divided loyalties?
You ask a lot of very good questions – let me try to give some insight and a possible explanation. The manager is dishonest – and he knows it; owns every bit of it in fact. He is very self-aware saying, “…I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg….” In saying that, he has bounded his decision. He acknowledges that he is losing his livelihood, so how can he make the best of a bad situation? He shrewdly decides to cheat his boss even more and ingratiate himself with those that owe his boss a debt. He talks with each of the debtors and renegotiates a lower payment – in this way, he earns some good will in the community so that “…people may welcome me into their homes….” His loyalty is only to himself and so he brazenly looks out for only himself as he leaves the rich man’s employment. Interestingly, he also may have made it possible for the debtors to be able to pay off their debts – further solidifying his place among the people.
The dishonest manager is thus “faithful with the dishonest wealth” (aka mammon) and thus might be entrusted with true riches. We don’t like the way that this parable makes us feel ethically or morally, but the point of the story from Jesus’ perspective seems to be that the dishonest manager was actually being self-aware and seeking to be loyal to neighbor as self. He was making friends for himself through the use of dishonest wealth (aka mammon) because he needs strong relationships now that his wealth is gone.
Divided loyalties make us appear deceitful, don’t they? As the scripture tells us, we cannot be enslaved to God and to unjust wealth for we will hate or despise the One and be devoted and loving to the other. This is true in our current times. The explosive growth of “nones”, agnostics and atheists seems to have come from those who choose to be loyal to themselves alone and dismiss the reality of God. Howard Thurman in his “Meditations of the Heart” has this comment about our many layered loyalties. He wrote, “…There are at least two areas of need in which all people [sic men] are involved. One is the insistence upon finding something to worship. It is not optional…There is also the need of being part of the family, the human family, the human race…I am not a thing apart, I am not a separate unit; I am deeply involved in the collective experience of aliveness and of human aliveness….”
Dr. Thurman asks us all, “…to what do you bring the most precious increments of your spirit, your mind, your possessions? The need is ever present. Whatever it is that holds so central a place in your reaction to living, that is your god!…” Friends…to what are you most loyal; what do you worship? – be self-aware like the manager. How about those that you know who never darken the door of a church? Have you ever thought about what they worship?
Howard Thurman writes about the other need of being part of the human family that “…I must somehow manage to keep the lines of communication open between me and the human family. (think of the dishonest manager) How wonderful it is if I can do this by love, by warmth, by kindling flame of abiding fellowship! Often, if it cannot be done that way, there is resort to hate…If a person [sic man] cannot become the center of an increasing affection, then in desperation that person [sic he] becomes the core of a great rejection….”
This is what we see in Jeremiah and in Luke, and in the life of Robert E. Lee. When we have not taken the time to really get inside ourselves to wrestle with our level of loyalty to God – then, as Howard Thurman and scripture tell us, we will replace God with something else to worship. When we don’t understand ourselves to be part of a seamless whole of human-kind, then we do only those things that make sense in our little corners of the world and the rest of creation be damned! This is why Jesus talked to us plainly about the two greatest commandments to love God with all that we are and all that we have and our neighbor as ourselves. When we unify our many loyalties in those two things to the exclusion of all other worldly distractions, then we will find God’s salvation. Amen and amen!