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Someone once said “We don’t want things to get weird.” Things can get weird when money comes into the picture. Friendships can disintegrate when money takes on an overarching importance. Families can be split apart. Money has been described like this:
Some people got to have it
Some people really need it
Listen to me why'all, do things, do things, do bad things with it
You want to do things, do things, do things, good things with it
Talk about cash money, money
So what are we to make of this story? What does any of this have to do with The O’Jays?
We’re looking at the parables of Jesus this summer. We’ve talked about how parables present a view of a world that might be, like poetry. We’ll be talking about how parable take us to unexpected places. We’ve talked about how we must interact with parables. They’re not to be reduced to the status of fable or morality tales. They’re much more than that.
So let us look at the story of the Dishonest Manager and hear what God has to say to our hearts.
This is widely known as the most difficult of parables. How could Jesus commend someone for dishonest (or shrewd as some translations put it a little more leniently) dealings? Is this parable telling us that to scam people in business deals is a good thing? What is it that Jesus is trying to get across here? Again what does all of this have to do with the O’Jays?
It really has to do with the star of the story. Look at the first line. “There was a rich man…” It’s the same way the next parable in this chapter starts. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.” There was a rich man. The star of the show, as it so often is, is money. Mammon. The thing that can so easily become a god. Dishonest wealth is the term that the NRSV uses. Unrighteous mammon. Helmut Thielecke describes it like this – “…. we understand all too well why Jesus calls mammon ‘unrighteous,’ why he calls it ‘the lord of unrighteousness’ (which is its literal meaning), the lord of an unrighteous world. We have only to think of certain stock speculations (or Enron), armament profits, unearned profits, many forms of tax manipulation… and unrighteousness, sweat, tears, and even blood become terribly depressing images, all of which are connected with money. ‘Money rules the world.’ (or as they say about the so called Golden Rule – “Those who have the gold make the rules.”) Doesn’t this bring money terribly close to that sinister figure whom Jesus calls ‘the ruler of the world’.”
Yet at the same time, Jesus does not advise fleeing from it, or having nothing to do with it. We’ve talked about how Jesus uses the ordinary everyday things of the world to make the reality of the Kingdom of God known in parables. What could be more ordinary or everyday than money? Some people do bad things with it. Some people do good things with it.
This is the whole thrust of Luke 16. We have one parable talking about the use of money, and one talking about the non-use of money. What is the proper way to approach it?
And so Jesus speaks in a parable. There has been much speculation and much written into the story over years of interpretation. But here are the facts of the matter as Jesus presents them. There was a rich man who had a manager. Charges are brought to the rich man against this manager, accusing him of squandering the rich man’s money. We’re not told if these charges are true or not, and we’re not told of any investigation on the part of the rich man. He takes action anyway, tells the manager to turn over the books because he will no longer be the manager. The manager realizes that he needs help. He’s not strong enough to dig and too ashamed to beg (a situation that one commentator described as being familiar to many pastors!) The manager figures that he will create some goodwill among the people who owe the rich man money (it’s thought that he’s in a kind of wholesaler situation given the amounts here) by cooking the books. The story is starting to sound more like a business school case study than something we’d be looking for a theological point in.
“You owe for a hundred jugs of oil – make it 50!” “How much do you owe? One hundred containers of wheat? Take your bill and let’s call it 80!” So far so good. Then comes the surprise. The manager is commended by his erstwhile boss for acting so shrewdly? How can this be so? What is going on here?
I would propose that it’s this turnaround that really makes the story. It reminds us of another turnaround that we read about in the previous chapter. There was another man who squandered money, you see, in riotous living. Same word in both stories. Same unexpected reaction. In the Kingdom of God, you see, things get turned upside down. Expectations are being subverted. A patriarch is running along the road to meet his wayward son and extend forgiveness. A dishonest manager is being commended for his shrewdness by the man who he is cheating in order to make sure that he’ll be alright when he’s out of a job.
I think it’s important to look at the facts of the story. Some have interpreted the story in such a way as to make out that the manager was skimming off these accounts. Taking a percentage over and above what was owed. Some have said that the money that was knocked off was his skim. This is why the boss was unaware and commended his manager. This is not in any way made clear in the story itself, however.
So what are we to make of this story? The first thing is this great reversal. This unexpected offering of grace on the part of the rich man. People have found a hard time believing that Jesus could use a story about such an unscrupulous character in order to make a point about the Kingdom of God. We should remember though, our own unscrupulosity. Jesus has been making good of unscrupulous characters for a long time, present company included. This is what God does. There’s this wonderful ambiguity in verse 8 about the use of the word “lord”. Does this refer to the rich man who’s commending the manager or Jesus himself? We can rejoice that such a one can be brought into the fold or we can stand outside in the dark keeping the older brother company. Mercy can be found in unexpected places and extended to unexpected people. One writer puts it like this – “If we overlook a few unsavory points on the steward’s record and grade him only on a pass-fail basis, he barely earns a pass. But in the kingdom of God, barely is more than enough to set off a huge celebration.
This does not mean that we’re meant to look on this as an example story, or to look at it from a moralistic point of view. The second thing that I want us to consider is Jesus own gloss on the story. It comes in verse 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 eternal homes.” It’s some stark truth from Jesus that the thing of which we make an end is only ever to be thought of as a means. Money which we can think of as our goal is never to be thought of as our goal, but only the way to a goal. It’s some stark truth that when we make wealth the bedrock of our lives, we are making bedrock of something which is as fleeting as the grass. It’s a stark reminder that we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing out of it. It’s Jesus being very real. We’re going to have to deal with money as we make our way through life. It’s not that money is an evil in and of itself but rather the love of money.
So what is the goal then that money is to be a means to? The Kingdom of God. It’s reminiscent of Jesus saying “How much more?” If this dishonest manager knew enough to use money to make friends and assure his ongoing well-being, how much more should children of light use money to ensure ongoing well- being. For ourselves? Well what do you think?
Somone put it like this – “We think we know what the kingdom of God looks like. It looks like the Baptist Church, the Episcopal hierarchy, the Methodist system, Presbyterian polity, Lutheran liturgy, Catholic tradition, or religious sentiment. But what if the kingdom is the crying need for a homeless shelter, food pantry, hospitality center, or some other vehicle of God’s urgent demand upon us?”
What if that were the case?
Then we would be relying on God to impute a righteousness on our money the same way that God imputes a righteousness on us. Helmut Thielecke calls it an “alien righteousness”. A righteousness that comes from elsewhere. A righteousness that comes from outside ourselves. We think of all the evil that goes on in the pursuit of an exchange of money. Do I need to list it? And yet in the same way that God works within us to change us and make us people of God’s Kingdom, God can do the same thing with something like money. Thielecke puts it like this – “... is this really the same money – the money a racketeer takes out of his wallet to pay for a champagne binge and that other money that is dropped into the offering plate in church or into a hat passed around for an unfortunate colleague? I ask you, is it really the same money – the contributions which are dispensed impersonally from a checking account as Christmas bonuses and that other money which I take out of my own pocket, warm from my own body, money that is all budgeted, money, which, if I give it to others, means depriving myself… Doesn’t the money in the offering plate and the hat serve an altogether different master… Is there not something like an ‘alien righteousness’ that applies to money just as it does to men?”
Which should challenge us to think of all the ways we use our money. The purchases we make. The systems we are supporting or not supporting. The many different ways in which God can allow the money with which we come in contact. Money needn’t be lucre or filthy when it has been washed clean in the same way that we are washed clean in Christ.
Who is telling the parable? We must always come back to the one who is telling the parable. The one who went to the cross in order that all things might be reconciled – brought back to God. Jesus did not go to the cross in order that he might be another element in the mix of our lives, but because in his life and death and being raised to live and ascended that he might become our centre. That with Christ as our centre, each part of our life might be given a righteousness that comes not from us but from God. Even our money. As someone has said, our pocketbooks can have more to do with heaven… than our hymnbooks. As we continue to consider what might be, may God grant that the Kingdom of God and its righteousness might be made more and more of a reality in every aspect of our living. Amen.