Today’s Gospel reading is a doozy. I read it over and over and my internal voice kept saying, “He can’t really mean that!” Let me share.
Jesus is telling a tale about a dishonest manager who’s squandered his master’s property. The master finds out about it and fires the manager. (So far so good.) Now the manager being a shrewd man knows that he is in trouble because he is too weak for manual labor and too proud to beg, so he comes up with a way to ingratiate himself so that he will not end up on the street. (OK, sneaky but imaginative.)
So he calls together his master’s debtors and proceeds to drastically cut what they owe. Notice it is not his money that he is giving away and it’s pretty ironic that the way he decides to get himself out of the consequences of having squandered his master’s wealth is to squander his master’s wealth. It’s like telling a lie to get yourself out of telling a lie. Now this is where it starts to go downhill.
The master apparently finds out about what he’s done and commends him for acting shrewdly. (Say what?) The master pats him on the back for further loss of his wealth because he was shrewd about it? That makes no sense, but wait it gets better.
Jesus then goes on to say that the children of that age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light, so they should make friends for themselves by dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may be welcomed into their eternal home. (And that, ladies and gentlemen is where the train goes completely off the rail.)
Is Jesus really telling them that they need to learn something from this double-dealing manager because he managed to find a way to save his own skin?
Is he actually commending the children of the age, who represent the worldly way of doing things, and reprimanding the children of light, his followers, for not being shrewd enough? Then there’s this business of getting friends through the means of dishonest wealth, which begs the question, “What are the children of light doing with dishonest wealth?”
Is Jesus saying that we should make friends through something we shouldn’t have in order to benefit ourselves? I read some commentaries that tried really really hard to make those cases.
Now look, I’m no scholar but all the explanations I read just seemed to be trying too hard. Maybe in three years time when this passage comes back around I’ll think differently about it but for today I’m going to offer you what makes sense to me.
When we read the Scriptures we do so with reverence because it is God’s word. But God’s word is there for us to understand and be instructed by so that we may draw closer to God. That’s serious business and so we tend to read everything in the Scriptures very seriously. But not everything we say and communicate is done in solemn tones. That’s like trying to recite Mary Had a Little Lamb as a Shakespearean monologue; it makes no sense. We use all sorts of devices to get our points across, like humor and sarcasm for example.
So, what if Jesus was being sarcastic or ironic. His statement about the master commending his manager and the children of the age being more shrewd than the children of light could be something akin to, “Yeah, I love mowing the lawn about as much as a I love getting my teeth pulled.” To take this literally makes about as much sense as making friends for yourself through dishonest wealth so that when it’s gone you can be welcomed into your eternal home.
Speaking of which, you did notice that it said eternal home not heaven, right? In fact the word for home is really tent in the Greek, which implies something temporal, movable, and transitory. Does that sound like heaven to you? That sounds more like things earthly than things heavenly, as it said in today’s Collect, and it actually makes more sense to interpret it as the place where unapologetically dishonest people might end up in the afterlife.
So then, what is Jesus taking about?! Well one of the themes in Luke is about the proper use of wealth; what it is and how we use it. Luckily for us Jesus goes on and starts to use vocabulary that we are used to hearing out of his mouth—words like faithfulness.
Jesus throughout the Gospels is always telling and showing us that the Kingdom of God is not like the world. The values are different. The ways of doing things are different. They are not compatible in how they operate and we have example after example of how the Kingdom is completely counter-cultural—things like the weak being strong, and the poor being rich (I refer you to the Beatitudes.)
I think Jesus wants us to be clear about true riches, which are things, according to this passage, that are given/entrusted to us. I also think that Jesus wants us to be aware of our relationship to money, which is why he says we can’t serve both God and wealth. We can have both but we can’t serve both because there is a conflict of interest. God wants us to use everything we have and everything we are to further the kingdom, that is, to be conduits for his love, mercy, and power in the world.
For example the dishonest manager used his master’s wealth to make friends for himself and we too can use money to make friends for ourselves, but there’s a difference. In his case he used the money to make friends in order to benefit himself. In our case we can use money to benefit others, which can make them our friends. It’s all about how we think about the wealth we’ve been given. Am I rich because I have lots of money in the bank or because I have family and friends who love me? Is my life good because I can buy anything I want or because God has given me everything I need.
I met a very interesting person this week. A beautiful woman who was very put together and definitely looked like one of the privileged. We began to talk and she revealed that things had not always been so easy and then she won the lottery. Now the thing about that she said, is that most people think that winning a lottery will fix everything and make one’s life good. Do you know what she does? She goes around making speeches about how having money can allow you to do more things but it isn’t what makes a life good. She wants people to know that their lives are already good. Money is an opportunity to enrich the lives of others, which is the way we are enriched ourselves. Sounded a lot like the kingdom to me.
It’s interesting to me that this Gospel story appears in the Lectionary at the kick off of most church stewardship drives. Most people groan either inwardly or outwardly when they hear that but really it’s a glorious opportunity to examine our attitude and thinking around what we’ve been given. We think of rich people as successful people but Mother Teresa said that the true measure of success is faithfulness. That’s a Kingdom value and one available to all of us regardless of where we are on the economic scale. How we use what we have is really important to God and so the season of stewardship is actually a wonderful time to recall all of our true riches and ponder the ways we can be enriched by enriching others.
May we hold fast to the things that endure, as the Collect said, and be found faithful in what we’ve been given, that we may be entrusted with even greater riches; for God’s glory and our good. Amen.