Scripture Luke 16:1–13
I love questions. Questions are how we can make meaning out of the complicated aspects of our lives, and they are the fertile ground of curiosity, wonder and transformation. That being said, there are times in which an answer is probably necessary, welcome and helpful. And so, as a preview of the end of this sermon, I will answer the question that this sermon title asks upfront: What are you worth? You are worth everything.
Each of you is loved endlessly, boundlessly, unequivocally, unrelentingly and with great hopefulness. This God that exists inside and around everything, this God that fills you and wraps you and resides in the spaces around you finds you completely and totally full of worth. To God, our worth is not measured in amounts but in abundance and eternity. What are you worth? You are worth everything. There is no calculation.
Our worth is never in question to God, but it is a completely different story for the rest of us. We judge each other’s worth constantly. We do this as individuals, as groups, as a society. The structures we have built for ourselves are full of determinations of worthiness. We have done it throughout history, we do it now and we will sadly likely continue to do it into the future. We assign worth to others and allow others to calculate our worth in return. We calculate worth based on just about anything: how much melanin is in our skin, how long or short a time we have been alive, in what place we happened to have been born, what hormones are most dominant in our body, how many objects we possess and what kind of objects they are. We assign worth on the fickle premises of geography, education, employment, attractiveness, coolness, body shape, political leanings. We may be loved so fully by God that our worth is never in question, but oftentimes to each other we are the arbitrary sum of parts that are beyond our control. We are constantly participating in systems that calculate a person’s or a group of people’s worthiness.
And with that initial answer, let’s step back into one of these short stories of Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples a parable about an employer who finds that one of his employees, a manager, is not good at his job and tells him so. That never feels good, so the manager decides to create some contingency plans for his own safety and well-being. He knows that he is not a laborer and is too proud to beg, so he decides to go behind his almost-ex-boss’s back. He meets with some people who are in debt to his boss. He unilaterally reduces their debt without permission in hope that when he needs new employment very soon they will be friendly to him. The story seems at first that the manager cheats his boss for his own gain, but then the story takes an unexpected turn: the landowner commends the manager for his manipulation!
I have been wrestling with this for a while now (we chose these parables back in the summer). I couldn’t see how these behind-the-back dealings would be something that Jesus would be lifting up in a parable. Why would the landowner approve of the manager’s actions that led to less income from his debtors? So, I paused and tried to take a second listen with new ears. And I realized that I was looking at this parable from the viewpoint of a human that calculates the worth of people by their wealth and possessions.
Instead, what if I used my imagination and tried to see it from a place of abundance and God’s love? What if I looked at it from a viewpoint in which possessions are not the point and the owner’s worth is not defined by wealth? If the landowner boss is God, then that means that we are likely the manager. That means that the reduction of debt, the release of our hold on wealth and possessions, the sharing of abundance is what is being celebrated. We are asked to share the abundance of God, not hold onto it at the expense of others.
We see this spelled out more plainly in the author of Luke’s post-parable commentary. Here it is said that we cannot serve two sovereigns. We will inevitably love one and despise the other. We cannot love both God and money. Or, more literally in the Greek, we cannot love both God and mamona, which means wealth, possessions, property or things. We are given this dichotomy here of either loving God or of loving things. We either place our love and devotion into the abundance of God or the scarcity of wealth. We either serve the permanence of God or we serve the impermanence of objects. We choose either the boundless worth that we receive from God or the calculated worth that we assign to others and to ourselves. This binary reveals the spectrum that lies between them. Rarely are any of us exclusively on the end of serving God or of serving money, but rather somewhere along the way leaning towards either God or wealth.
If we live into one end of this spectrum and love money and things more than God, then we are right to question our worth. Our society (and possibly all human societies) assign more worth to some people than to others. It is because of this that we have rich or poor and dominant or marginalized groups. Here we have walls and fences and red lines that mark the boundaries of worthiness and worthlessness. Here we hold onto things: money and status because without them we have no way to measure our worth.
For us, this side of the spectrum is a system that calculates that the worthiness of white skin is inherent, but has allowed the worth of black, brown and native bodies to be assessed—and this calculation is usually based on their utility to the needs and wants of the dominant. The worthiness of white woman’s tears and white men’s anger unspooled the ropes that determined the worthlessness of innocent black bodies hanging from trees. The worthiness of European and North American Christianity led to the worthlessness of Jewish lives. The worthiness of heterosexuality has led to the worthlessness of gay, bi and trans children. Men’s worth diminishes the worth of women and folks outside of this binary. The scales are constantly being used to weigh the worth of one against another in a system that is arbitrary and has been put together by the dominant culture.
When we let wealth and possessions determine worth, then there are haves and have-nots. If we base worthiness on our human calculations, then some bodies, some lives, become worth more than others. Oftentimes the very decision of who gets to live and who is left to die is based on this calculation of worth. On this side of the spectrum—this attachment to money and possessions—human life and worth becomes commodified and everything is a transaction. Everything becomes a negotiation and a justification. If we choose wealth over God, then the worth of everything becomes calculated.
This pain is not only felt by others either. If we live into a system in which our worth is based on these calculations, then we can give into feelings of shame and worthlessness. If I serve wealth and participate in a calculation of others’ worth, then these same calculations apply to me. Then we can easily begin to believe our worth is based on objects, status and wealth. How can I feel worthy if I am told that I am not? How can I feel worthy if I do not have the requisite wealth, possessions, status, power or position? What happens when I lose the things that feed my worthiness and I am left alone with myself?
While this the human side of the spectrum, it is not God’s answer. We are given another option! The other side of this is that we can choose to love and serve God. To do this, we find ourselves with no calculations of worth. All creation, all human and nonhuman lives are loved equally and boundlessly on this side of the spectrum. No calculations are needed when we live into the abundance of God’s love. We never even need to ask the question of what we are worth because we know the answer is that we are worth everything—and so is everybody else.
I don’t need to remind you of how difficult it is to serve God instead of wealth . . . but I will anyway: It is super hard! Our very society, our daily lives are based on the commodification of things and people and the worthiness of those who possesses them. We are not to blame that we default to this position because we are human, and this is the world of our making. But we do hold the responsibility of our choices, and we are given the option of serving God. Just because we cannot change everything doesn’t mean that we do nothing. We have been told again and again that we don’t have to serve wealth. We can choose to serve God, and it is here that our worth is never in question.
Since we are imperfect and the world is always changing, we will fail at this time and time again. But, no matter how often we participate in the systems that serve wealth, God will always be present. God is ever-present and unchanging, while wealth and possessions are fleeting and impermanent. The promise of God is that God has eternal hope for us (!) in our ability to turn away from calculations of wealth and towards the unceasing love of God. And we do this by living into questions. For any given decision in our lives, who or what are we serving? God or wealth? How am I inadvertently assigning worth to a person or people? How am I letting the calculations of other people define my own worth?
What is your worth? To God, we are all worth everything and loved boundlessly, relentlessly and endlessly. To money we are worth only what an arbitrary system calculates that we are worth. May we make the choice to love one and not the other.