Materialism vs. morality

GOO_093013_materialismLuke 16:1-13, commonly referred to as the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, is taken from a section in the Gospel of Luke that includes a series of parables. In the text immediately preceding this passage, for example, we had the Parable of the Lost Sheep,  the Parable of the Lost Coin  and the Parable of the Lost (or Prodigal) Son.

It may help us to briefly consider the nature and function of a parable. The word, “parable,” comes from the Greek, parabolē, meaning “comparison, illustration or analogy.” A parable is a short, simple story that often involves a character facing a moral dilemma  or making a questionable decision and then suffering the consequences.  The meaning of a parable is not usually intended to be hidden or secret but straightforward and obvious. It is intended to suggest how a person should think, believe or behave.

Indeed,  the story in this reading is relatively straight forward. We have an individual who has enjoyed a position of status and relative material comfort as the steward, or servant, of a wealthy land owner.  The land owner has discovered that the steward has mismanaged funds entrusted to him, and as a result,  he will be relieved of his position. He faces the prospect of loss of position, loss of social status, loss of comfortable residence, and the probable outcome that the only options for his sustenance will be manual labor or begging. He quickly adjusts the accounts of several of his master’s debtors in the hopes that these individuals will reciprocate by welcoming him into their homes, perhaps help him find work, etc. Interestingly, when his master learns of this, the master commends him for his prudence in business affairs (although not for his honesty!). This begins to lead us to consider the differences in values between the culture and the kingdom of God.  And the parable ends with a brief explanation:  No one can serve two masters; you cannot serve both God and mammon (or money).

This reading and similar readings are often interpreted as equating material wealth with evil, and implying criticism of those with material possessions. However, that seems to be a misreading of story. Biblical scholars tell us that in Jewish tradition (the tradition in which Jesus lived, learned and taught), wealth (or mammon) was not inherently evil. The question — and perhaps it is a more challenging one for us — is how we use our relative wealth. Material possessions and money are morally neutral. They are neither good nor bad.

The question becomes, how do we live in relationship to our material possessions? How do our material possessions effect the way that we treat others?  Do we use our material possessions (no matter how little or how much we may have) in service of the values of this world and this culture; do we ‘serve’ the masters of materialism and consumerism? Do our choices and our behaviors include subtle exploitation, competition for money and status, conspicuous consumption and a general disregard for outsiders or persons in need? Or do we use our material possessions in service of the values of the kingdom of God? Do our choices and behaviors reflect, in practical ways, the universal compassion and love of God?  Do we seek ways to welcome and be in solidarity with outsiders or persons in need? Do we share our time, our talent and our treasure with the marginalized and those in need, freely, with no strings attached, without expectation of return, recognition or honor?

I invite you to consider the simple fact that we either live in relation to our material possessions and wealth in a way that reflects the values of our culture or in a way that reflects the values of the kingdom of God —that is, in service of God, and therefore in solidarity with and on behalf of those in need.

Join us at 10 a.m., Oct. 5 for our next Coffee Talk for a conversation on Money and Ethics. The discussion will take place at Chairs Coffee.  

About Thomas Altepeter

  Rev. Thomas Altepeter is an Ecumenical Catholic priest and pastor of St. Clare Ecumenical Catholic Community in Spokane.

He is also a licensed psychologist and has previously served as pastor of an ECC community in Wisconsin, been employed as a university professor, served as a director of a large behavioral health department, and worked in private practice as a psychologist.

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One comment

  1. I really think that Mr. Altepeter is asking some great questions in this article: “The question becomes, how do we live in relationship to our material possessions? How do our material possessions effect the way that we treat others?”

    Given these questions I want to offer my own insights on this topic. In attempting to answer these questions, I would like to do what I always do (I can’t seem to turn it off in fact), and get down to the some of the assumptions inherent in the question.

    First off, what does ownership mean? What is wealth and what is money?

    I recently took an economics class and was surprised to find that there really wasn’t a coherent theory of what wealth and money are. I offered this theory to the class, and people seemed to agree that I was on to something so I’ll repeat it here:

    Wealth – the stuff that we own – is a form of authority and social privilege. If I own something I get to decide how it gets to be used, and I get to decide if and when it gets destroyed, and my fellow humans will largely agree that I have this priviledge. Wealth is the name that we have for an implicit social agreement that I have the authority to decide what happens to this item, object or idea.

    Money – is different from wealth. Money is a symbolic representation of SOMETHING. This is clear enough – after all, the paper in your wallet has no intrinsic value, it’s value is purely a matter of social convention. So what makes money valuable? What does money allow you to buy? I think that the answer is LABOR. Think about the computer you are looking at right now. The Oil, metal and electrons that go into making the computer are just sitting around on the planet. What makes them valuable to you is that human beings have put labor into them and turned them into a piece of technology. So if Money buys you labor (stored in the form of commodities), then the ability to access the labor of others is another name for STATUS. High status people access more labor and low status people access less labor.
    So wealth is AUTHORITY and money is STATUS.

    Pretty cool huh?

    OK, so back to Mr. Altepeter’s questions: “The question becomes, how do we live in relationship to our material possessions? How do our material possessions effect the way that we treat others?”

    Our relationship with our material possessions is a relationship based on AUTHORITY. This is the social contract that makes them OURS. So you can’t escape social relationships when it comes to ownership. Ownership is a social agreement by its nature. Given that we cannot escape this relationship without taking vows of poverty, we always wield our authority in claiming ownership. Awareness of this allows us to re-frame the question:

    How can I apply my authority in a compassionate and ethical manner? Clearly we sometimes let our authority and status go to our heads. How can we help each other avoid this pitfall?

    I think that one strategy that theists use is their relationship with God. God is a symbol of ethics and virtue, but he is also an authority figure that trumps the authority of men. As an atheist, that technique doesn’t really work for me. What I have to do is to surround myself with people who call BS on my BS. It is these loving challenges that help to keep me on track. This is true for all kinds of authority, not just financial ones.

    Mr. Altepeter said: “I invite you to consider the simple fact that we either live in relation to our material possessions and wealth in a way that reflects the values of our culture or in a way that reflects the values of the kingdom of God”

    I do feel that I need to point out that this is another false duality. “the values of the kingdom of God” ARE a cultural value. You were not born with the idea of the “kingdom of God” in your head. Some grown-up taught you to think this way as a kid. Religious values are ALL culturally learned values. Our capitalist system incentivizes consumption. Religions can and do offer a countervailing set of incentives. What I think you are doing here is creating a false duality that ignores that there are MANY other ways to deal with wealth and status issues. You are linmiting your thinking to “capitalist culture VS religious culture.” Philosophies, loving communities and counter-cultures abound which are all working on the same project. Try to look past dualistic assumptions.

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