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September 15-21, 2010–Doing Good by Doing Well?

Contributed by Eric Ullestad, West Des Moines, IA

Warm-up Question

When have you been given more responsibility than you thought you could handle?  How did it turn out?

Doing Good by Doing Well?

What’s it like to head up the world’s biggest company?  Mike Duke knows.  He was named CEO of Wal-Mart in 2009.  This was a daunting task for Duke.  He inherited a major improvement plan, Project Impact, from his predecessor, which gave a face-lift to nearly every Wal-Mart store around the world.  This multi-billion dollar project came on the heels of the nation’s biggest economic crisis in decades.  Duke soon discovered that, though shoppers liked the fresh look of the stores, they were visiting less frequently and spending less each time they came.

Wal-Mart has also endured its share of public-relations setbacks in the past few years.  “Big Box Stores” like Wal-Mart are often cited as reasons why smaller retailers are closing up shop.  Wal-Mart also came under fire for shady employment practices that required close to full-time labor from employees, but offered no benefits beyond an hourly wage.  Some people have called for a boycott of Wal-Mart stores because some of their products are manufactured in countries that don’t provide safe working conditions for farmers and textile workers.

Despite these, and other, obstacles, Wal-Mart continues to set the pace for global commerce, topping $408 billion in sales for 2010.  Being entrusted with the responsibility of running a company of 8,500 stores and 2.1 million employees is a task that Duke welcomes.  He is already looking to the future in the hopes of building a “next-generation Wal-Mart.”  This won’t be easy, as economists consider the possibility of a “double-dip” recession in the months ahead.  Duke believes that enhancing the company’s participation in social programs, ensuring living wages for employees, and adding stores in growing markets like China and India will be benchmarks of Wal-Mart’s future.

Discussion Questions

  • Would you want to be CEO of Wal-Mart?  Why or why not?
  • What challenges (financial, ethical, legal) would you encounter as the head of a major corporation?
  • How would you demonstrate your leadership abilities if you were given this kind of responsibility

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 19, 2010 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Amos 8:4-7

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

The Parable of the Shrewd (Dishonest) Manager, found in Luke 16:1-13, is one of the most perplexing tales in all of Scripture.  It has confounded scholars for centuries.  So, if you’re not quite sure what Jesus is trying to say, you’re in good company.

Jesus begins by telling his disciples, within an earshot of the Pharisees, about a manager who wasn’t taking good care of his master’s property.  The master is about to fire the manager, but before he is relieved of his duties, the manager has to turn over the accounting books to the master.  Quickly, the manager goes to the people who are indebted to the master and reduces their debt.  By doing this, he has built a relationship with the lowly servants in the community; a relationship that he may need to rely upon once he is unemployed. 

The odd thing about this story is that Jesus concludes by praising the tactics of the dishonest manager.  He even encourages the disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.”  Fortunately for us, he goes on to talk about faithfulness and responsibility.  Jesus calls his followers to be “faithful with what belongs to another,” indicating that if a person is responsible with caring for someone else’s possessions, they will prove themselves trustworthy to handle their own riches.

In many ways, the easiest verse in this passage to comprehend is also the most difficult verse to implement.  “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  It’s an interesting choice of word.  Notice he doesn’t say “money” or “possessions.”  Jesus says that wealth is the “master” that is in direct opposition to God. In other words, focusing on acquiring a lot of stuff isn’t the way that God works.

Consider the debtors in the parable.  A hundred containers of wheat and a hundred containers of oil were crippling debts to the poor people, but likely didn’t mean much to the wealthy master.  This is not unlike the world we live in today.  We currently have the highest concentration of wealth in recorded history.  The wealthiest 20% of the people in the world have 83% of the wealth, while the poorest 60% have only 6% of the wealth.

Perhaps this story can teach us that God rejects the systems that make it possible for wealth to be accumulated at the expense of the poor.  God doesn’t appear to be anti-stuff, God just wants to make sure everyone has enough to live.  Serving God, therefore, might mean doing what we can to bring about economic justice and equality to all of God’s people.  

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think Jesus praised the shrewd / dishonest manager?
  • How would you interpret this parable?
  • What can this parable teach us about faithfulness and responsibility? 
  • What do you think about what Jesus says in verse 13?
  • How do you find yourself serving the god of wealth? 


Activity Suggestion

Use your phones, computers, iPods, etc. to do some research on companies that are giving back to their workers, helping to reduce debt, or helping to lessen the gap between wealth and poverty.  (Examples include Fair Trade products, American Apparel clothing, Tom’s Shoes, and Justice Clothing.)  Discuss ways to support companies, especially locally owned businesses that reinvest their wealth in responsible ways.  Consider sharing your findings with people in your congregation.  Be creative!

Closing Prayer

God of abundance, thank you for the many blessings in our lives.  Help us to turn away from the false comfort of wealth and serve you by caring for those in need.  Amen.

July 21-27, 2010–Debts Forgiven

Contributed by Jay McDivitt, Grace Lutheran Church, Thiensville, WI

Warm-up Question

Have you ever owed someone something? Has anyone every owed you? How does it change a relationship when people owe each other?

Debts Forgiven

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank agreed on June 29 to back $4.6 billion in debt relief for the country of Liberia. On June 30, Haiti received word that they had fulfilled obligations under the “Heavily Indebted Poor Countries” (HIPC)  program, and $1.2 billion in debt has been forgiven there.

For years, churches (including the ELCA) and other groups have urged wealthy countries and international banks to forgive debts that cripple the economies of emerging/developing nations. Large debts, often built up by oppressive past regimes, saddle countries like Haiti, Liberia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and others, with large interest payments. In Honduras, for example, an estimated 12.3% of the total value of exports goes to service the interest payments on their $5.1 billion in debts.

Debt relief in Liberia frees up resources to rebuild the country from years of conflict; in Haiti, forgiven debt frees up $20 million in interest payments for 2010 alone, which will help that country rebuild after the horrific January 12 earthquake.

Although there has been some progress on debt relief in recent years, there are still many heavily indebted poor countries in the world. In Haiti, for example, the $1.2 billion that was just forgiven is just over half of what they owe – the country still has $1.051 billion in outstanding debt.

Under HIPC, indebted countries have to show that they are creating stable economic growth and establishing sustainable programs to reduce poverty. Several nations continue to work toward these goals and having their debts reduced or forgiven. Activists and churches continue to work with them and to lobby wealthy governments and banks to make faster progress on eliminating these heavy debt loads.

For further information consult these sources:



Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think churches such as the ELCA are interested in forgiving poorer countries’ debts? Can you think of a reason why not to forgive debt?
  • Do you know anyone who has had a debt forgiven?   (Currently, there are lots of people attempting to renegotiate mortgage or credit card debt.)  How would it feel to have a debt canceled?
  • How much do you know about things like debt and interest?  How much do you talk at home about finances – savings, mortgage, charity, credit cards, etc?  Why is it important to know about things like that?  Who could teach you?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, July 20, 2010 (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost)

Genesis 18:20-32

Colossians 2:6-15 [16-17]

Luke 11:1-13

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

You probably noticed that the version of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught the disciples that day is a little different from the one you normally pray during worship. (There’s a long reason for that; ask your pastor about it sometime!) It’s also a bit different from the other place where Jesus teaches people how to pray (Matthew 6:9-13 – check it out). One interesting place where they differ is in the part about forgiveness:

            Matthew: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

            Luke: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”

 Debt was a big deal in Jesus’ day. It was very easy to fall into debt – crop failure, bad business, death of a husband/father – and very hard to get out of it. When you owed someone something, that gave them control over your life and your future – which was, of course, a huge distraction. More than that, it could lead to becoming a slave or prisoner. It’s not surprising, then, that one of the first things that happened when some Jews in Jerusalem attempted to overthrow the Romans was to burn all the records of debts.

It’s interesting that Luke uses “sins” instead of “debts” in his version of Jesus’ prayer – but when talking about our relationship to others, they both agree that forgiving debt is the primary way that we practice forgiveness with our neighbors. There may be many reasons for that – here’s one guess:

Since God gives us daily bread – whether we deserve it or not – it is strange to think about us “owing” God, at least not the way we “owe” the bank or our neighbor. God gives and gives – and we could never begin to pay it back. Instead, God asks that we live our lives in a loving relationship with God and with our neighbors.

 Unfortunately, we aren’t always good at loving God or our neighbors. That’s sin – a broken relationship with God and others. And in this prayer, we ask God to heal that relationship – to forgive the ways that we fail to respond lovingly to God’s grace.

And when that relationship is healed, it puts our other relationships into perspective.  We realize that we have a role to play in helping clear the way for people to be in relationship with God. One of the biggest distractions that get in the way of our relationship to God and each other is debt,  both literal debt and all the other ways we make people depend on something or someone other than God (grudges, revenge, unhealthy or abusive relationships, and on and on).

So sin (broken relationships) and debt (belonging to someone other than God because of what we owe) are connected. God can’t heal our broken relationship with God if we’re spending all our energy and time owing and owning each other. And so we pray for the strength to cancel debt – to forgive each other and free each other to be in a relationship with God.

 The writer of Colossians got this, too. To a community that fought about all kinds of silly stuff, the writer tells them to remember who’s really in charge – and what really matters: “God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses,  erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross” (vv 13b-14). In Jesus, all debts are forgiven. All the records of sin and broken relationships have been erased by God’s grace – so we are free to set aside all our own grudges and debts and broken histories with each other. And thanks be to God for that.

Discussion Questions

  • How would you describe the connection between “sin” and “debt”?  How does the meaning of the prayer change when we take the word “debt” out of the version of the Lord’s Prayer we pray in church?
  • What would happen if everyone stopped owing other people anything? How would relationships change if no one had any debts?
  • Tell a story about a time you’ve been forgiven – by a parent, teacher, friend, sibling, or someone else. What does it feel like to be forgiven?
  • Tell a story about a time you’ve forgiven someone else. What does that feel like?

Activity Suggestions

  • Check out Find the countries listed on that website on a map/globe. Pray for those countries. Use the resources on the website to write letters to government or bank leaders asking for debt relief. Put together a poster or some other project to help educate folks at church about debt relief. (For ELCA resources, check out:
  • Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. On one side, write the things you “owe” other people (real debt, things you’ve done to hurt people, etc). On the other side, write the things that other people “owe” you (debts, grudges, payback for helping them out, etc). Nail them to a cross, or pile them up and burn them. Or – add them to a stack of copies of credit card bills or mortgage statements, and run them all through the shredder.

Closing Prayer

God in heaven, your Name is Holy. Build up your power among us, and take us where you want us to go.  Thank you for feeding us  day by day with all that we need – and for forgiving us for all the ways we break your heart by giving our allegiance to people and things other than you.  Help us to forgive people for anything and everything they owe us, and keep our feet on the path of mercy and grace.  Everything we are, and everything we have, belongs to you, O God, forever and ever. Amen.