Pentecost 17, Proper 20, September 19, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church , the Rev. Paul Moore
Some researchers in Germany ran an experiment with some chimpanzees. They made it necessary to cooperate with another monkey in order to obtain a food reward. That wasn't so hard, until the dominant member of the team hogged all the food. Then the first monkey was unwilling to cooperate anymore! They ran the same experiment with human children. The children were much more apt to cooperate and share, and repeat the cooperative behavior even if they didn't get any reward for it. We seem to be hard-wired for altruistic behavior, and chimpanzees are not. Perhaps it is the real difference between the great apes and humans.
It is a big topic, one addressed repeatedly in Scripture. In the Old Testament lesson the prophet calls the people to honest living. The issue was not in what they were doing, but why they were doing it. They were following the letter of the law, but twisting it around to serve their own ends. Not much different from the dominant monkey! In the Epistle Lesson Paul calls on us to pray for those in authority. They draw any real authority they have from heaven itself. When the government is at peace the people are at peace. When the people are at peace it is easier to preach the Gospel of peace with God.
In the Gospel lesson Jesus addresses it directly. He uses a parable to set the stage. A manager mismanages the assets of the company. When he is caught he goes to the customers of the company and negotiates a deal with them on their outstanding invoices. His aim is really selfish--he wants to be able to have connections when he is unemployed! Then Jesus puts a twist on it: This man was shrewd in serving his own ends, but we should be shrewd in serving the kingdom's ends. In the end, serving one's own ends (wealth) is incompatible with serving God. Our faith calls us to be fully human. You can't be half and half.
So how do we serve God? You serve God by being like God. God has given us the good earth on which to live. God has given us people who know and love us. God has given us government that allows us to serve Him. God has given us the truth of His Son, Jesus, by which we have peace with God, with one another and with the creation itself. Jesus is the prime example of altruistic self-sacrificing love. He said, "Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend." He gave His own life on the cross for us, only to take it up again for us. He sent the Holy Spirit to call us into life with Him, which is our own best life. God has set the example.
And so we serve others as we have been served, in gratitude and love. We need not be overly concerned with our own good, since we have Someone who is watching over that. Some concern is wise—it allows us to maintain the resources necessary to serve others. Paul says in Ephesians 4 that we should not steal, but work with our hands in order to have something to share. This idea is not restricted to merely thievery and shoplifting. We steal whenever we exclude another from resources that they could rightfully use in order to consume them ourselves, like using up all the ground-water in cities when the ranches that produce our food are in drought, or polluting the air that the world breathes because we can afford the fossil fuels. We steal when we throw thousands of tons of uneaten food scraps in the landfill (we won't even feed them to our pigs) and build a wall along our southern border to keep the hungry and starving out (unless the famous plaque on Lady Liberty somehow applies to Ellis Island and not to the Rio Grande,) and when we deport workers who would willingly do the work we will not and then turn and buy cheap apples and live in homes we can afford because of the below-standard wages we pay them. It's the difference between being a monkey or a human. Paul enjoins us to make an honest living in the context of our community so that we give rather than take. It must always be a means to a larger end—that of serving others in Christ's name.
We can do this because, in that God pours Himself into us, we are free to pour ourselves into another. Suddenly it's not really important who gets the reward or even the praise. It's important that people are OK. And that means that they are supplied, it means that they have community, and it means that they have the justice that leads to peace.
We don't get it in our newspaper, but I really like the comic strip, Kudzu. In one episode a couple is sitting across the desk from the Rev. Will B. Dunn. They magnanimously announce, "We've decided that it's time to start a family. We just have so much love to give. Besides, the gold fish died!" We do have so much love to give, not because we have an open slot in our list of recipients, but because we have received so much love. And love is not a substance that one saves up and then dishes out. It is a stream of altruistic concern that, like a river, is enhanced by how much it delivers.