Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
February 20, 2022
Jesus said, “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” A lot of times we’ll hear Jesus say something about money, and we’ll pretend it’s not about money. We’ll twist his words into metaphor, images, rhetorical devices. Jesus talking about money feels tacky. It’s hard to get around here, though. Jesus may have been a carpenter, but he understood money. This passage reads like the index in an economics textbook. Credit. Lend. Receive. Return. Make no mistake. Jesus is talking about money. And what Jesus thinks about money makes me awfully nervous.
Lend, and not expect anything in return? This is opposite to how we function in twenty-first century America. Our whole system is based upon lending money and expecting that money in return plus interest. Think about this – American car companies usually make more money from financing the cars they sell than from actually selling cars. Financing and interest, not pick up trucks, is how they make a profit (Kathryn Tanner, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism, 11). Kathryn Tanner, an ethicist and theologian, points out that while companies like GE, Sears, Ford, and so on once offered financing to help them sell more things, the things they sell are now the method by which they offer financing. It’s not cars, ovens, and refrigerators for sale; interest is what’s for sale.
That’s why Jesus’ words seem so out of place. Next time you get your mortgage statement or monthly car payment, you try telling them, “I’m sorry, but are you familiar with the Gospel of Luke?” Or flip it around. When it comes time to retire, can you imagine saying to your broker, “oh, it’s okay, I don’t need what I earned on interest. You keep it.” And yet here is that carpenter meddling into economics. “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”
Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not talking about what’s in the news about interest rates, or the cost of living increases, or the stock market values of big tech companies. While I find that stuff interesting, it’s tangential to what’s going on here. And I’m not taking a pot shot at anybody or anything or any corporation that deals in interest. Goodness knows, I am captive to that system and I benefit from that system.
Mostly, I want to make a theological point. I’m just making the inconvenient observation about how we hang tightly to some words from Jesus while we pretend not to hear other words from Jesus. We get real worked up when Jesus says anything about humans and who we love; we underline our Bibles when Jesus starts talking about heaven and hell; but lending, interest, and credit? Boring. We don’t come to church expecting to hear Jesus talking like he works for the Federal Reserve. I mean, we come to church to hear about love, and mercy, and prayer, and the eternal destiny of our souls, right?
Exactly. Because that is what is going on here. Money is a theological issue. Money is a moral issue. How we use our money, how we treat our money, how we treat others with our money is a spiritual question and an economic matter. This is especially true in the Gospel of Luke. Here Jesus is talking about lending money without expecting things in return. Just before this, Jesus has said that the poor are blessed. The poor, that is, the ones getting ripped off by high interest rates are the ones blessed by God. And later on in Luke, a short little man named Zacchaeus will confess his sins to Jesus. And how does Zacchaeus show his remorse? Zacchaeus gives half of his money away and pays back anyone four times the amount of what he defrauded (Luke 19:8). Talk about interest rates. Moving along, if you grew up Presbyterian, you may have prayed the Lord’s prayer differently than we do as Episcopalians. You may have prayed that our Father would forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Oof, trying saying that prayer with integrity next time you check your bank account.
A life with Jesus is about our money. It’s because money signifies relationship. What we spend our money on, what we save our money for, tells us all we need to know about what and who we value. You don’t need me to tell you this. Business pay their most prized employees the highest salaries. You spent money on your significant other for Valentine’s Day. It’s just life.
So back to the passage at hand. Jesus knows that when we lend money to someone and expect something in return, our judgment of that person becomes clouded. We see them less as a person and more as a future financial asset. We expect something in return from them. They become an object with dollar signs and interest rates attached to them. That’s why Jesus cares about our money. It’s why Jesus cares about economics. Because people are people, not objects.
This sermon then, and Jesus’ teaching here, is not really about money. It’s about people. How we treat people, how we value others, how we relate to our neighbors. It’s a question of interest, sure. It’s a question of what keeps our interest – our neighbors or our money. And of course, when it comes to making a decision, every time Jesus is going to say that we should what is in the best interest of our neighbor.
Again, I’m not saying that I do this and you should do it, too because I’m such a good follower of Jesus. Our system of interest-based financial markets has shaped me. Or as Kathryn Tanner would say, our system has disciplined me to behave in the ways it wants me to behave. Nor is this a sermon about giving money to the church. That would be convenient, wouldn’t it? “Well, stop worrying about all your money and just give it to the church!” Or I could use it as a threat. “You know, Jesus said that you shouldn’t care about your money…what better to not care about it then give it to the church…” But I’m not that cheap. And I want to dig one layer deeper.
What we do with our money not only shows what we think about our neighbors, but it shows what we think about God and it tells us something about God. And here again we come to the natural conclusion of all things – one day, we must render an account of ourselves to God. We will have to show the balance sheet of our lives to the auditor of our souls. You hear that economic language there, right? And as one of my favorite bands sings, “I’ve never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch” (Wookiefoot, Just Visiting). You came into this world with nothing and you will leave with nothing. What God has given God will take back. No interest will be accrued. You came in with zero you will go out with zero.
The debts we rack up, the rage and fretting and anger we accumulate; our greed, our desires, our thirst for more, we cannot pay all that back to God. And so what does Jesus say? “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” Jesus is talking about himself. This passage is divine self-revelation. Jesus lends to us everything – love, grace, mercy, our very lives – but Jesus cannot expect to receive anything in return but our hard-heartedness and ingratitude. Think about these words. Who loves his enemies, who does good, who lends expecting nothing in return? No one but Jesus Christ our Lord who pays our debts, who forgives our trespasses, who balances the spreadsheet of our lives with his own blood upon the cross.
We’ve covered a lot of ground today – from the lending practices of major corporations, to which words of Jesus we pay attention to; from how we treat our neighbors, to some rock band philosophers. But most of all, remember this. As Christians, we shouldn’t treat each other like dollar signs. We should treat each other as people. Because God doesn’t treat us like dollar signs, God doesn’t treat us as objects. God treats us as children, worthy of love. For that is what you are to God, a beloved child of our Father in heaven. We’ve covered a lot of ground today, and it’s taken me ten minutes to try to hint at what Jesus said so well and so succinctly. Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”