Sermon on Luke 16:1–13 for Pentecost +18, 25th Ordinary, C Sept. 22, 2013
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 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.
“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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.”
Forgive us our Debts
I never would have bought my home in Daphne in 2005 had I known what was going to happen to the housing market in 2008. I think finally the market value of my home getting is closer to the amount I still owe, but it has been a scary eight years. And I’m in much better shape than thousands of people in this country.
But, we do not know the future, right? So we make decisions to the best of our ability with the information available at the time. This was my first home purchase. When I tell the story of buying my first home, the crash of 2008 is part of the story.
Stories told, after the fall
How different a story sounds when you tell it, looking back from long afterwards. Especially if things have changed significantly in the mean time. Can you imagine hearing a story of a person going to work in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 if nothing had happened that day? Most of the stories would have been boring. Just another pretty September work day in New York.
But when you tell a person’s story of going to work that day, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it’s the story of the last day in her life. It becomes entirely different. What would she have done differently had she known?
The Bible’s looking-back stories
Most of the stories in the bible are told from the standpoint of looking back long after things have significantly changed. We read a bit of Jeremiah’s gut-wrenching lament for the state of his people. Jeremiah and most of the Old Testament was put into the form we have it looking back after the debacle of 587 BCE. The Babylonian Empire conquered the Jews, exporting the survivors across the Mesopotamian desert to Babylon where they lived as exiles. How different the story is of Israel, of king David and of Solomon in all his glory , looking back after Babylon.
Luke too, writes his story of the ministry of Jesus looking back after 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the temple and razed the city of Jerusalem. They crushed an attempted Jewish independence revolt that had started four years earlier. According to the ancient historian Josephus, over 1,100,000 Jews died in the conflict. The city of Jerusalem was burned to the ground, thousands and thousands of Jewish survivors were enslaved.
Imagine how it sounds to Luke’s community to hear a story of a rich Palestinian land owner and his devious manager, looking back after the whole estate, if real, would have, by then, become a blackened ruin? Most likely both the manager and owner would be dead, or enslaved; probably at minimum, impoverished. All the accumulation, all the accounting, all the strategizing and dirty deals would now seem pathetic; it would be like a person speaking of worrying about what he was going to order for lunch in the tower on the morning of 9/11.
The Puzzle of this text
This text we read from Luke has puzzled interpreters like almost no other. A manager who is about to get fired for squandering his boss’ assets does a bunch of dirty deals, it appears (there are different ways you can understand what he did), to make sure that when he gets the sack, he would have people who owed him favors and would welcome him into their homes. His master finds out about his shenanigans, and instead of getting angry and punishing him, congratulates him for being “shrewd”.
Jesus seems to hold up this devious and deceitful manager as an example for us to follow, which seems, at best, odd. Then Jesus compares good guys and bad guys, children of light and children of darkness, and says the bad guys are smarter about money than the good guys are – again seemingly reinforcing the devious manager’s actions.
Finally the text concludes with the famous caution: a person cannot serve two masters, God and wealth. One always wins and the other looses.
What’s going on here? Biblical scholars tell us that Luke has put together a number of originally separate sayings of Jesus, including the parable of the rich man and his manager, because they are all linked by the common subject of money. Jesus talks a lot about money. It’s important to him. But this combination has left us scratching our heads about how to understand these sayings in this present form, all joined together.
There is one piece of information that helps a lot that we don’t catch in English. Twice we read about how money is used to obtain a welcome into “homes.” First, the devious manager makes sure he gets welcomed in to people’s homes by making them owe him a favor: he has reduced their debts to the rich man by half!
Next, Jesus says to his disciples:
“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.”
But the word he used is not “homes” like the manager wants to be welcomed into, but rather “tents.” Tents are for people on the move, like pilgrims, or nomads; not settled, landed people. It’s as if Jesus is saying, make sure your use of money now will suit you when conditions have significantly changed and people are living in tents.
Seeing it coming
Did Jesus foresee the disastrous Jewish revolt of AD 66? Sure he did, but it didn’t take prophetic powers to do that. There had already been attempted revolts that didn’t amount to much within his lifetime. He knew many people were planning for a showdown with Rome. In fact several times he predicted that it would end in catastrophe, as, of course, it did.
So, if you see disaster coming, and no one (or not many) are heeding your warnings, you look at things differently. You see people going about their daily lives consumed with matters of the marketplace as if it were all going to last forever. All the buying and selling, the hoarding and deal-making, all the moral compromises and self-interested manipulations were going to look quite different in just a few short years.
In such circumstances, Jesus would say, “Don’t get into bed with money. She is not a lover who can save you when the swords start flashing.”
Your whole relationship to your money has to change when you can imagine a future in which it makes no difference that you used to have a lot of it.
How differently the rich man and the manager would have acted, had they known what was coming. But we do not know the future, right? So we make decisions to the best of our ability with the information available at the time. Or?
The Certain Future
This is where this story of the long-distant past becomes very relevant. We are in the same position as the manager and the rich man. Why? Because war or no war, there is a predictable, certain future coming that is going to change everything, and when it comes, what we own, the assets we control now, our net worth and all of our present “stuff” will be meaningless.
None of us lives forever, and we can’t take any of it with us. This is the future that is coming for all of us. It is predictable. One hundred percent certain.
How will we look back on our present lives from that perspective? What will we have spent our emotional energy on? What will we have invested our time and money in? How will it look from that future vantage point?
This text leads us to ask serious question about ourselves and our relationship to our money. Who is boss? Which master is making the decisions?
What we can afford in America
Here in America, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, we give an average of 2% of our incomes to charities of all kinds, religious and non-religious including education, the arts, causes we support, and research. So, on average, we Americans think we need to keep 98% for ourselves.
In this rich country, we are constantly being told what we can and cannot afford. We are told we cannot afford health care for everyone. We cannot afford food stamps for the poor. We cannot afford wages that real people can actually live on.
We are told by some that the church and private charities, which only gets a fraction of that average 2% of charitable giving, should take care of all of these needs for the poor, for the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and the unemployed.
What will this all look like from the future? From the other side of the gravestone? Will we ever open our eyes to that perspective?
Maybe there is hope for us yet. There have been a couple of incidents recently that make me hopeful that this is true. Perhaps some of us are starting to see through this mirage that money will save us.
The Homeless man and the Backpack
The first one was about that homeless man in Boston who found a backpack containing $42,000 in cash and travelers checks. What would you do? He found a policeman and turned it all over to him. When news of this got out, people created a fund for this man and donations started streaming in. The fund now has over $100,000 in it.
The homeless man had values that told him Mammon was not going to save him. People heard the story, and wanted to assert a big “Yes!” affirmation. Maybe we are starting to get it.
The DQ Employee and the Blind Man
I just heard about another incident like it. At a Dairy Queen in Minnesota, a worker, nineteen-year-old Joey Prusak, watched as a visually impaired man dropped a $20 bill on the floor. A person noticed it and picked it up and slipped it into her purse. When she got to the counter to be served, Joey said no, he was not going to serve her until she returned the money. She refused. It was her money now, she said, along with saying some choice words.
Joey asked her to leave, and then went over and took a $20 bill from his own pocket and gave it to the man who had lost it. He did not know anyone saw him do that, but someone did, and wrote it up on a social media website (Reddit). It went viral. Eventually the story filtered up to Warren Buffett whose company owns DQ. He has personally congratulated Joey. Other people have given him anonymous donations for his good deed. One offered to buy him a DQ franchise to run.
Neither the homeless man nor Joey, the DQ employee had any idea they would be rewarded at all for what they did. But they did it because they had gotten it that “a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions,” as Jesus taught. They were operating out of a vision of the world that knew that money is not god, and not to be served. I think these two people are deeply free people, authentically human, not in bondage to a god called Mammon.
And the people who responded to them were saying, “You did the right thing. Greed is not good. Money is not god.” Someday in the future, we will all know that truth for certain. May we know it now, that we too might live in the joyful release of knowing the truth that sets us free.