Deuteronomy 16-18, Psalm 58, Luke 16
God disdains corruption – woe to you who swindle others!
Deuteronomy 16 – 18
Old Testament scholar Pete Enns tells us,
One of the recurring issues with Deuteronomy is how its laws differ from those given in Exodus. For example, the fourth commandment, to keep the Sabbath, reads differently in Deuteronomy 5 than it does in Exodus 20. In the former, the reason given for a day of rest is to commemorate that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. In Exodus, the reason given is that God rested from his labors at creation, and so should the Israelites. Another example concerns the preparation of the Passover lamb. In Exodus 12:9, it is to be roasted over fire, and not boiled (Hebrew bashal) in water. Deuteronomy 16:5 says nothing of fire, only that it should be cooked (bashal). These and other factors tell scholars that Deuteronomy represents a different legal tradition than what we find in Exodus or Leviticus. The Pentateuch is truly a collection of traditions and sources compiled into one.
As the author of Deuteronomy reiterates the law drawing upon more than one tradition, we are told that God abhors corruption. Moses says,
You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deut. 16:18-20)
When I spent a summer working for a bishop in Africa, I arrived in Kenya shortly before Bishop James Mundia, who was finishing his sabbatical in the United States, arrived. I made my way to the airport in my tan poplin Brooks Brothers suit and my camera in hand ready to photograph the bishop’s arrival.
While I waited, I saw armed soldiers in the airport carrying M16 machine guns. I took a quick photo of them to document my experience in Kenya. Moments later, I was surrounded by five soldiers pointing their guns at me and demanding that I hand over my camera. The bishop’s daughter tried to intervene, but to not avail. I did not want to lose my camera in a shake-down by the military.
Knowing that Kenya was a largely Christian country, I asked, “Are any of you Christians?” All five of the soldiers noted that they were. I explained that I was studying to become a priest and then said, “You should be ashamed of yourselves. Christians do not act like this.” They backed off and returned to their posts. To this day, I still cannot believe that I said this or that they respected what I said.
The Roman Catholic Church and Anglican Communion are the two largest worldwide Christian fellowships. There are over a billion Roman Catholics and 80 million Anglicans living around the world. We have a special obligation at global churches to let every society know that God abhors corruption. Venezuela, Mexico, Columbia, Afghanistan, India, Honduras, the Ukraine and Russia are just a few of the many countries that are notorious for their corruption. Judges, lawyers, police, military and entire governments are corrupt. They are cultures with a cancer. Innocent people and the poor suffer.
It takes guts and cunning to know how and when to speak out against a corrupt state. The Church can easily be persecuted. It also requires the Church not to be corrupt itself, but be transparent and never to live as if it is above the law.
We read that “anyone who presumes to disobey the priest appointed to minister there to the Lord your God, or the judge, that person shall die.” (Deut. 17:12) This is the voice of tyranny, not the voice of God. All authority must be tested, when it is wrong or corrupt. Moses offers provisions for the establishing a king over Israel, a measure which will later become controversial when Saul becomes Israel’s first king.
Moses also makes it clear that the king “must not acquire many horses” or “many wives” or “silver and gold.” (Deut. 17:16-18) King Solomon, arguably Israel’s wisest king, will defy all of this. The labyrinth pattern that Christians walk today was said to have been copied from a design found on the floor of the vast stable of Solomon under the Temple Mount. In addition to many horses, Solomon had vast supplies of gold and silver and hundreds of wives. So much for obeying the religious law!
When I was in college I once watched the evening news with a professor who was a Roman Catholic priest. A gunman had shot some students from a tower at the University of Texas. It was a horrific event. The shooter had been arrested. I blurted out, “That guy ought to be shot!”
My friend the priest said, “You can’t help but feel sorry for that fellow.” His statement stunned me. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well no one in their right mind would ever do that,” said my friend. He was correct. No one in their right mind would climb a tower and randomly shoot students.
I learned something that day that my pastoral work over the years has confirmed. The harm that we do to others is usually done unintentionally or when we are not in a healthy frame of mind. We are still responsible for our actions, but there are underlying causes that are often at work.
The psalmist often lacks patience. He cries out for vengeance. We have all acted like this. He says,
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun. (Ps. 58:8)
The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. (Ps. 58:10)
The psalmist vents his feelings of anger and vengeance. When we confront another party after being injured or hurt, there is always the possibility of resolution. When we bury our hurt, resolution does not occur and we often merely distance ourselves from the one who hurt us. They, in turn, are perplexed by our behavior, because what they may not comprehend our hurt. Before seeking vengeance or distancing ourselves, it is wise to confront with honesty those who have injured us.
I must confess that I have never truly comprehended the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, but what I do appreciate is what follows. Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” Then he adds, “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:10-11)
Years ago a Presidential candidate who attended the Yale Divinity School and actually lived in the room that I lived in got in trouble for doing something that the French would not consider wrong. Rumors leaked that Senator Gary Hart had a girlfriend on the side. He told the press, “Follow me if you think that’s true.” They did, and they found him aboard “The Monkey Business” with his arm wrapped round a woman half his age in a bikini. His Presidential campaign soon ended as many surmised that if he was dishonest in this, how honest would he be with a major concern for the United States was at stake?
We cannot tell small lies and expect others to find us credible in great matters. Anyone who is willing to bend the truth in small matters is more likely to lie when the stakes are much higher. Trust is built one step at a time. It’s been simply to act trustworthy at all times.
Luke alone tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In only one of Jesus’s 39 parables did Jesus name a character: the beggar Lazarus. So often in the Bible there is an unnamed figure, often a poor person or a woman not deemed worthy to be named. In this story, however, it is the rich man who has no name. Perhaps this is because he stands for each of us when we fail to stop and care for the poor.
While the rich man lacks a name, he clearly knows who Lazarus is. He must have known him and his condition before being cast into Hades. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue. (Luke 16:24) Clearly, you can send a rich man to hell, but he will still manage to ask little people to run errands and indulge him.
Realizing that the tables have been turned and the Lazarus is now enjoying life while he is suffering in torment, the rich man seeks to warn his family. “Then, father, I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warm them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” (Luke 16:28)
Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31) Some scholars say this shows that Jesus told the story with Lazarus of Bethany in mind, since Lazarus, in fact, was raised from the dead and Jewish leaders refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah as the prophets had foretold. The parable suggests that wealth is dangerous but also warns against the Sadducean belief that rewards and punishments are limited to this life, because there is no life after this.
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. (Luke 16:10)
How do you fight corruption? What are you doing to insure that we live in a more moral universe? Are you quick to jump to conclusions about other people’s actions and motivations? Do you ever tell small lies? What makes you think others will expect the truth from you when matters are more significant? Do you teach your children and grandchildren never to lie?
Almighty God, so much of life is built upon trust. When trust exists, all things are possible. When trust is absent, it is crippling and our possibilities are greatly constrained. Help us each day to build trust with you and with all those around us. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania