What’s the Big Deal?
Just as in life, so too in the bible, and especially in the teachings of Jesus, some things are completely clear, and other things are not. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself” is completely clear. Not at all easy, but clear. The text we just read, is not.
What does it mean? Jesus tells a story of a dishonest manager who acts in a totally self-serving manner (if not a duplicitous manner) and then Jesus says:
9 I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
How could that dishonest manager be a model for us of anything positive at all? What does it mean to make friends by using dishonest wealth? Why would a good person ever do that? And if you did, how could it ever get you a welcome into “eternal homes?” So, this is one of those unclear, ambiguous, if not opaque teachings of Jesus. I guess we should top off these questions with one last one: what in the world does this have to do with us today?
It might surprise you, but as we look closely at this teaching of Jesus, we will see that it fits our time and place remarkably, and that we need to hear its message.
Starting with God
Let’s start with this most basic fact about ourselves: we are here now because of God. We sense that this material world is not the only world. On some days it is overwhelmingly clear to us, and on other days it is just in the faint background, but either way, we understand that God is real and present. On our best days, we long to get closer to God, to listen to his voice, to be directed and guided by him, to experience his presence all around us.
Perhaps on other days we would just as soon have him leave us alone to do our own
thing; his demands seem onerous, his awareness of us invasive. But when we are thinking clearly, we cannot help but love him. Look what God has blessed us with! It is amazing that he loves creatures like us – but he does.
God is our perfect Father – he looks at us, his children that way. Remember how you felt about your children when they were little? You wanted to teach them how to live well. You wanted them to avoid unnecessary pain and suffering – certainly to avoid brining it on themselves. You wanted them to learn to love, to give love, to make a difference in the world. Our heavenly Father wants no less for us.
This odd parable that Jesus told about the dishonest manager is one example of God’s good guidance to us, his children. That’s how we look at all of Jesus’ teachings; they are God’s Fatherly instructions so that his children can live well, avoid unnecessary pain, and learn to live the life of the beloved. So, what does God want us to learn today?
Clarifications: commissions and exaggerations
First, some basic clarifications. The rich man in the story is an absentee landowner who has an authorized managing agent handling his business. There are some strict rules the agent must observe – he has to make a profit for the owner of course; but the managing agent has lots of latitude. It’s like commission sales; whatever the manager can get above the owner’s set profit is his to keep.
Of course there are limits; extortion was not legal. The amounts in this story are absurdly huge; exaggerated for effect. A hundred jugs of oil; that’s 900 gallons! A hundred containers of wheat; that’s over 100 bushels!
When the agent is about to lose his job he rushes around and tells the debtors to re-write their IOU’s, cutting their bills down by 20-50% – again, exaggeration. If what he is doing is eliminating his commission from the total, that’s way too much. But we are hearing a story, not reading a legal brief. We get it: the manager made lots of friends in the village by giving away his own percentage – very shrewd.
Knowing the power of money
Nevertheless, the manager lost his job because of dishonesty – something he did was dishonest that had nothing to do with writing off his commissions – it was something he had been caught doing dishonestly before – but we are not told what, other than that he “squandered his property.”
So the landowner hears about how his dishonest manager has arranged things so that everybody loves him now, and congratulates his shrewdness. The dishonest manager knows the power of money to get what you want. The landowner and the agent both know that world well. The “children of this world” are clear about the power of money – maybe even more clear than Jesus’ followers?
Irony: what can money buy?
Jesus wants his followers to be just as informed about the power of money as the people in his story, so now he make his point.
9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
Okay, a bit more clarification: “dishonest wealth” is the modern way to translate words that mean literally “Mammon of unrighteousness.” This does not mean “ill-gotten gain” but rather something like “corrupting cash.” Money frequently corrupts people – always has, always will (there are no new ideas).
So what does it mean when Jesus tells us to “make friends” by means of the cash that often corrupts people so that they will welcome us “into eternal homes”? Be serious! No amount of cash buy you a room in an “eternal home.” Everybody hearing Jesus suggesting that they should use cold, hard, cash to buy their way into heaven would have had one of those ironic grins on their faces. Yes, we get it; be smart about the power of money – know it’s power and its limitations. It’s not going to save you!
Money: powerful, powerless, and dangerous
This is what God our Heavenly Father wants to teach his children, us, to spare us
from a world of self-inflicted pain. Money is powerful – maybe more than we even know – but ridiculously limp and impossibly helpless at achieving what we want the most: to be in God’s presence. Put money in its place, along with the riding lawnmower and the automobile; great tools, powerful in their own way – but you don’t go riding them into heaven.
There is more. Money is like the mower and the car in another way; it can hurt you, it can kill you. It is dangerous.
Leo Tolstoy is said to have asserted that every person has a price, it’s just that some set a price too high for the devil to pay it. Perhaps the opposite is also true: that for some, robbing a bank is out of the question, but cheating a little, hoarding a little, falsifying a little bit feels OK. Jesus said that there is a relationship between how faithful and honest we are with “a very little” and how much we can be trusted with “much.”
10 “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.
The material-spiritual relationship
Money is dangerous; like addictive drugs: a little becomes a lot in a hurry. But it’s even more complex than that. Just as there is a relationship between a little and a lot of money, so too there is a profound relationship between money and God. That’s how powerful money is: there is a link between our economic lives and our spiritual lives. Jesus says it this way:
11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?
Here is that “dishonest wealth” phrase again – and here too it is literally “mammon of unrighteousness” which, remember, means something like “corrupting cash.” If we cannot be faithful with our cash, how will God entrust us with the “true thing” – true riches – with spiritual life? So then, it is true after all; there is a direct connection between our economic decisions and practices and our spiritual lives.
A question of faithfulness and control
Notice that the question at issue is not whether we are honest, it is a question of “faithfulness.” If we are not “faithful” with corruptible cash, Jesus asks, how will we be entrusted with spiritual life?
What does it mean to be faithful economically? The consequences are serious; we had
better get this one right. The answer is in the next thing Jesus says. It is the question of control. Who decides where the money goes? Who is master and who is slave?
13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
This is not a should-statement; this is fact-statement. It is not that we should not try to serve both money and God, it is that it is an impossibility. Just like you cannot be married and single at the same time, so you cannot be a servant of God and money at the same time.
“You gotta serve somebody” – Dylan
Did you catch the assumption here? We will serve – it is only a question of whom: God or money. Nobody walks free. Everyone is at the mercy of one or the other. Either money is setting your agenda, telling you what is important and what not, determining what is right and wrong for you, or God is. There is no possible “and” here. It’s one or the other. Money is that powerful: it is in direct competition with God for your heart.
So we have gone from the ambiguous and unclear to the crystal clear. We have gone from an odd story of a fired manager who knew the power of money and did some bizarre things to vouchsafe his future, to a clear, either-or statement about God vs. money.
Personal responsibility remains
But there is more that is uncertain. How much money should you spend on yourself and how much should you give away? When have you done enough? How does living on a fixed income change things? How do you account for investment income and its fluctuations?
Of course everyone is personally responsible to answer these questions before God. No one can tell you. Some guidelines, however, may be helpful.
If you have income, the biblical standard is the tithe – that means 10%. I know for a fact that a person can live on 90% of his/her income and give away 10% without missing it. Presbyterians give, on average less than 2%. That’s because we are all living so close to the poverty line, right?
Well if not, then what is the reason? I think it’s spiritual. Sorry, but what else could it be? Who is being served when we, the prosperous, spend 98% of our incomes on ourselves: God or money?
If you are retired, then think about your total spending. How much do you spend each year – on everything: from food, clothes, utilities, insurance, medical, to restaurants, gifts, entertainment and travel. Take 10% of that number as a bench-mark for giving. It’s the same principle. You can live on 90% and never miss the 10%.
Love is why
I wonder if anyone here is feeling defensive? People often feel defensive when the topic of money comes up. When do we bring it up in church? Exactly when Jesus brings it up. What do we say about money? Only what Jesus says about it. Money is a power – a dangerous power. It has the power to be an alternative master; an alternative god.
God, our heavenly Father, love us, his children so much that he wants to help us avoid a world of unnecessary pain. Money has probably caused more pain and suffering than just about anything else on earth. God loves us! He would hate us to suffer under the tyranny of money, and so has given us this teaching to help us be free to serve him instead.