Investing in Love - Luke 16: 1-13

18th Sunday after Pentecost: Sept. 18, 2016

Luke 16:1-13 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 accounting 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[b] 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.”

This past week I had the chance to attend a clergy conference about the role of faith leaders in calling for racial justice in our society. The Conference was entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?. This title is borrowed from a book written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967, but it is still a very relevant question, for America, and also for the church, almost 50 years later.

Media attention in the past few years has made plain to the masses what has been evident to some all along – that our current social reality is often trending toward chaos, and certainly falls far short of mutually respecting community. On the one hand, hate speech and violent action is rampant, and on the other hand the backlash against political correctness has made it more taboo to call someone a racist than to actually engage in racist speech and actions.

Chaos or community? Which way will we go as a society, and especially as people of faith, in responding to the very deep challenge of addressing our country’s legacy and current reality of racial injustice?

As I participated in the conversation with other faith leaders on Tuesday, I began to recognize a striking linkage between our discussion and this week’s gospel passage.

The conversation spanned issues from the rhetoric of political campaigns, to police violence, to the engineered failure of urban schools, to prisons for profit. And throughout the conversation we kept running into the persistent theme of not just prejudice, but also economic exploitation.

The problem of entrenched racism in America is certainly about attitudes and beliefs, but it is also, fundamentally, about money.

And that is why this gospel’s words kept resonating in my mind as I participated in the conference. Because our gospel poses its own very challenging questions about how we interact with money, and how that drives our behavior toward others.

Now, the significance of the text takes some unpacking. The passage seems to be telling the story of a man who is doing a poor job, and is told he is going to be fired, so instead of trying to reform he doubles down on dishonesty and gives away his master’s money to buy himself friends who will help him in his unemployment.

That’s weird enough as a parable of Jesus, but then apparently his master, and maybe even Jesus too, commends him for being clever.

WHAT?! Why would Jesus tell this story, and what in the world are we supposed to learn from it?

The commentators pretty much all acknowledge that this is all very confusing. In fact, one of my seminary professors, Frederick Borsch, notes that the second half of the passage offers no less than three different sermon options for interpreting the meaning – none of which he finds particularly satisfying.

I certainly see his point – as I studied, and wrestled with this story this week, different verses seemed to keep jutting off in different directions, none of which offered a lessons that seemed very edifying to our community. Until I got to the end, and then kept reading. Let me read it again for you, starting from verse 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.” (Then it continues) “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts, for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the eyes of God.”

What if the point of this strange parable is all about what is in the heart, what is prized?

On the surface, the story seems to be more about actions than attitudes, but Jesus has made the point before that God is focused on what is on the inside, much more than our outward show. It is a point Jesus has made before in Luke’s gospel, especially to the Pharisees.[1] So, what if we use that perspective to look back on this story? What if our guiding question is what we can discern about what the characters most deeply value? Does it read any differently?

I think it does. I think it paints a picture of the children of this age, as Jesus refers to them, driven by the value system that puts money at the center.

  • The steward’s concern ignores his responsibilities, and thinks only of how to provide for himself through money he has not earned.

  • The debtors apparently think nothing of cashing in on the offer of cancelled debts, a clearly unethical monetary gain.

  • Even the master reflects this money-centric values system. At first, he is willing to dismiss an employee on the rumor of misdeeds, with no chance to defend himself; and then he commends the man because he has proved himself shrewd.

The whole story lives within a value system where money is king, and it is your ability to use money (regardless of its effects on other people) that determines your success, and is the basis for your approbation. No surprise then that Jesus says “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

But I don’t think that is actually approval.

This is the same Jesus who, a few chapters earlier, told his followers that anyone wishing to be his disciple must give up all their possessions (Luke 14:33).

It is the same Jesus who, a few chapters along, tells the disciples NOT to block infants and children from coming, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Luke 18:16). This is NOT a teacher who values shrewdness, least of all in matters of money.

And so, when Jesus compares “the children of this age” – which clearly includes the Unjust Manager – to the children of light, I think that comparison is a challenge to make a choice.

Which world do you want to belong to? Chaos or Community?

Do you want to belong to the world whose guiding principle is monetary gain – all others be damned?

Or do you want to belong to the world whose guiding light is the God who calls God’s people into community?

We cannot have both. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” We have to choose.

It’s not an easy choice, and the story doesn’t make it much easier. Jesus shows us the downside of the Steward’s world – the insecurity that comes from having to rely on your wits and take gambles on how your schemes will turn out. But, it looks like the scheme does work out in the end. The Steward is commended. This is not a simple cautionary tale.

The story tells the truth that the temptation is very real, especially when this is just the way the world works. It is certainly the way our world works.

That was evident at the clergy conference as we kept running up against the reality that some of the most devastating systemic impacts of racial inequality seem more motivated by money than by prejudice.

  • 150 years ago some of the most vehement objections to abolition were about money – the economy depended on slavery.

  • And now, some of the most pernicious drivers of mass incarceration, and failing schools, and segregated housing are about money too – about who is making money, and who is “wasting” money, and how holding onto our money is more important than the lives and life chances of other human beings.

  • Because a world centered on money is also toxic with fear – fear that we will lose – and when that fear takes over, other people lose their value. We just want to protect ourselves.

That’s what it looks like to serve wealth as our master. That’s what is looks like to choose the Steward’s world. Whether or not we win the economic game, we lose our fellow humanity.

And we also lose our faith, our trust, in God.

It is a high price to pay, but I confess I struggle with this choice every day. The priority of money is so heavy in the air we breathe that it feels like I would have to hold my breath to be free of it. And all that I can do is ask God to help me.

Thank God we have the reading today from 1 Timothy to remind us that we aren’t supposed to do it all alone. We have a mediator – “Christ Jesus, himself human,” in whose name we pray.

So, as Paul exhorts us, let us pray.

Let us pray for those in high positions who are faced with the task of leading this society in a time of such vitriol, and chaos, and fear.

And let us pray for the faith to choose a different set of values, and to live our lives, “in godliness and dignity,” as a witness to another choice:

A choice that truly values others over money –

even when it’s hard;

even when we might come out economic losers;

even when the world sneers at our idealism, and tell us we are committing the unpardonable sin of risking our wealth…

because we do not serve wealth, we serve God.

Amen

[1] see Luke 11:37-44

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