Years ago, a famous comedian joked about having an empty bank account. He noticed that that if you had no money, the bank would charge a fee. He observed that the less money you have, the more the bank charges.
He would ask, “Ever been so broke that the bank charges you for not having enough money? The bank calls you and tells you “you have insufficient funds.”
You say, “yes. I know. That’s obvious to me.” His cadence indicated contempt on behalf the the bank. The response is a bewildered retort – I’m just doing the best I can. Of course I want more.
Then he notes: If you have $20 in your bank, they will charge you $15. And now you have $5. And sometimes you can have negative money in your bank account.
Even free things are out of reach!
And if you do have money, banks will pay you to bank with them. You get paid to leave your money with them.
To anyone listening to the gospel this week, this story resonates.
Some believe that the master is God. In such an interpretation, God gives us money or gifts we are responsible for and we should use them. If we don’t, we will get punished.
But I suspect that it’s the slave who does nothing who really understands: this is a master who does not reap where he sows; he gathers where he does not scatter seed. He’s rich off of the work of others, and only the poorest one can tell him to his face how the system works.
The servants invest, but they don’t get a return on their investment. There’s no indication they get anything besides more responsibility and hard work. They don’t even get the benefits of their labor.
But Jesus says that God scatters seeds all over. He scatters on soil that is rocky, and fertile. He also rewards people who come late to the vineyard, paying them equal to the people who came at the beginning of the day. God gives to people who don’t deserve their wealth. He is generous to a fault.
And for Jesus, God is a God who forgives debts and gives food ahead of time.
It’s not an easy message if you have power or money. It implies how easy it is to become satisfied with what we have, and yet also anxious about loss. We become perpetually busy for no reason, except manage this fear. We believe the master has our best intentions because we want to keep the status quo.
The slave with the least is sober in his observation. While most of us can easily be seduced by money, attention, and power, he is not. He knew the rewards were limited, and that the master only cared for himself. And so he revealed to the master the values at stake.
The values of the master are accumulation. More power. More visibility. More influence. But for Jesus, the suggestion is that none of this is necessary. And that to understand this takes clarity of thought, or in other words, “sobriety,” the word that Paul emphasizes in today’s letter.
Sobriety is not solely temperance or abstemiousness. Sobriety represents the ability to gives up what one loves for something greater, and by doing so invites clarity in conviction. It’s sorts through the bad information from the useful, to have a glimpse of the truth. The sober person realizes they have nothing to lose by being honest. They refuse to lie to themselves.
A responsible relationship with money might require sobriety because we can all be a slave to money’s seductions. While we each could benefit from a little more, the gospel reminds us to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” For while money constrains and disciplines, it both liberates and enslaves. As an alternative, Paul writes “encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”
Jesus is not impressed with money. Nor is he moved by honor or talent.
Instead, the gospel suggests we can be worthy of good things apart from our success. And so with Paul, we seek the habit of mutual encouragement, of building up each other, to strive for victories of another kind, ones based on love, where our own thriving doesn’t require the diminishment of others.