The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 20—Year C; Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; I Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
Okay, I need help with this gospel. Can you all help with this? Okay, Jesus lays this scenario out before his disciples. There was a rich man, sort of an absentee landlord. So imagine you are the rich man, and you live in Orlando, Florida (where Disney World is). But you have this business here in Boone. Well, you can’t manage it from Florida, so you hire a manager to manage your business affairs here in Boone. But your manager isn’t very good at his job, in fact, he squanders, he wastes, the rich man’s property, starts to drive his business into the ground. Word of this gets back to said rich man, and so he calls the manager down to Orlando—“What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you can’t be my manager any longer.” That gives the manager pause. He says to himself, “What will I do, now that I am going to lose my job? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. Ah, and you can see the light bulb go off over his head, I know what I will do so that when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, the manager returns to Boone, and summons (that’s a fancy word for “calls”) his master’s debtors (those who owed the master money) one by one. The exchange goes likes this:
Manager “How much do you owe my master?”
Debtor 1 “A hundred jugs of olive oil.”
Manager “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.”
Manager “And how much to do you owe?”
Debtor 2 “A hundred containers of wheat.”
Manager “Take your bill and make it eighty.”
What do you make of this? Is this honest? He’s changing the amount the debtor owes. What about this fifty? What about this twenty? Who is he cheating? The master? Is the manager undercutting the master? How do you think the master will react? And what about the debtor? Is the manager overcharging the debtor?
Oh, it’s a trick question. The manager is cheating himself. You see, in that day, it was the custom for a manager to tack on a really high commission, sort of a tip if you will, on top of the bill to compensate for his managerial efforts. So, when the manager tells the debtor to mark down his bill, he is eating his own commission. The master will still get what is due him, and the debtor is really grateful because he doesn’t have to pay so much. So grateful, the manager believes, that when the manager loses his job, these grateful debtors will invite him into their homes, and he will have shelter. Kind of strange, but you might call this the first unemployment insurance program.
So, what does the master do? The text tells us that his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. Do you know what “shrewdly” means? It’s the ability to understand things and make good judgments; it means you’re really sharp in your head, clever. Jesus goes on, “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.” Okay, got that? Tell me what that means. The children of this age are better at understanding the way the world works than are the children of light. Okay. We would expect that. But what about Jesus’ instructions on how to make friends? How does Jesus tell us to make friends? Okay, by means of dishonest wealth. So we make friends by being dishonest and throwing money at them? Okay. And why do we do that? So that when it is gone, those friends we have made through dishonest means will welcome us into the eternal homes. Perfectly clear. Such the ethic I want to teach my child about how to win friends and manage money.
This is bizarre. It gets better.
Jesus continues, “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.”
Huh? But Jesus just told us to make friends by means of dishonest wealth, and now Jesus is telling us we can’t serve God and wealth? Oh, this makes no sense.
You can be seated while I keep scratching my head.
What do we make of this story/teaching that Jesus shares with his disciples? This is confusing. So, I will just jump into the deep end and see if we can swim.
First of all, is there anything redeeming about the first half of the story? Anything at all? Why would Jesus hold up a manager who is a bad manager, a squanderer, and dishonest? Why would this guy be commendable?
We have to remember that this story comes on the heels of Luke 15, the lost-and-found chapter. Remember, leaving the 99 to go for the 1. Searching crazily to find that 1 lost coin when you still had 9. And that delinquent-property-squandering young son, who gets the ring and robe and the party with the fatted calf when he finally pulls himself home. Last week, Jesus was in the business of squandering love and abundance and forgiveness. Through that lens, things look different. In Jesus’ eyes, squandering gets redeemed; squandering gets transformed. So poor management gets transformed into personal relationships that will sustain the manager when he’s out of work. Through his ability to size up the situation, the manager chooses a course that will tie him back into the community relationally, and in doing that, he finds the true riches—relationship with others who will share your joys and bear your burdens. Eternal homes are the places where we know communion, and by the end, that’s exactly what the manager will know.
That second section is also puzzling. I get the part about faithful in a little is faithful in much, and dishonest in a little is dishonest in much—that all computes. But this whole bit about “if you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches…You cannot serve God and wealth” sounds like a bit of a mixed message. Jesus seems to be telling us to be good shrewd stewards of dishonest wealth, but then he tells us we can’t serve God and wealth. Boom. End of story. Crystal clear command, and a bit harsh, too. “You can’t serve God and wealth.” Really Jesus? Ouch. There has got to be something else going on here.
So, let’s work in reverse. What is the problem with wealth? From Jesus’ perspective it has to do with the tendency to cling, to hold onto, to hoard, which is a danger when you are accumulating wealth. It is hard to think of wealth without thinking about accumulating, amassing (it’s kind of built into the definition of wealth), and accumulating and amassing is a holding stance. Stay with me here.
If we hold dishonest wealth, if we cling to our wealth, if we hoard wealth, if we don’t know how to come into contact with money and release it back out into the world easily and freely, if it tends to stick when it hits our hands, if it tends to occupy our minds and consume our hearts, if we can’t develop a healthy receiving of abundance and emptying of that abundance back out into the world, then we will not be capable of handling the true riches, which is love.
If we cling to wealth, we will cling to love. If we don’t know how to release wealth, we won’t know how to release love.
The problem for Jesus isn’t money, per se, it is attachment. Jesus doesn’t attach to anything, he drinks in the abundance of love from God and others, and he just as graciously and just as freely pours that love back out into the world in abundance. Nothing is hoarded, nothing sticks, he clings to nothing. If we are clinging to anything, wealth or anything else, there is no way we can love with the abandon with which Jesus loves, and if we can’t love freely and cleanly, then serving is impossible. The big church word for Jesus’ way is kenosis, self-emptying love, but love freely received, freely given will do.
So, where do you catch yourself sticking, holding, hoarding, clinging? Maybe it is wealth. A lot of us have to wrestle in this arena, but maybe it is someplace else. Where are you being called to be faithful, to release, to let go, so that you will know how to receive and bestow the true riches? What bills do you need to rework that might open the way to new relationships and a new communion with God and others? Where are you being called to exercise your ability to discern well and to make sharp judgments?
God provides all of us the schools we need to grow in God’s way of loving. We have a lot to learn about abundance, and we have a lot to learn about giving it all away. Wealth, for many of us, is a stumbling block. Jesus, in a very bizarre way today, is calling our attention to a simple truth—how you hold your wealth will tell you how you hold your heart, and how you hold your heart will tell you everything about how you will love. Figure that puzzle out, and you will understand what the true riches are all about. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 22, 2013