Written by Pastor Ed
Making Wise Choices
Sept. 18, 2016
Amos 8: 4-7
Luke 16: 1-13
One of the discussions or arguments that arises from time to time, I remember it first from the 1970’s, is whether the church should accept lottery money from the government for church projects. It’s the same dilemma as some part of the church face in whether to accept money from the tobacco farmers, or the distillers. The arguments go back and forth. One side says this is tainted money, from industries that thrive on people’s addictions and primarily on the poor and therefore we shouldn’t use it.
The other side says, in the words of George Brunk II, “The devil’s had the money long enough, I think it’s time it went to a good cause.” Thus he justified taking money from the tobacco farmers of Virginia for his tent crusades. And the church has decided different things at different times. It’s not always that simple.
And today’s parable doesn’t make it any easier. The parable found at the beginning of Luke 16 is one of the more interesting ones that Jesus told. Even deciding what to call the parable shows the trouble many commentators have. Is it the parable of the Unjust Steward? The Shrewd Manager? Or the Dishonest Manager, as the NRSV labels it?
The story, as usual, is fairly straightforward. A wealthy businessman had a steward, a manager, who was in charge of his money, what today we would probably label a Chief Financial officer or CFO. One of the responsibilities of such a person is a fiduciary responsibility; to look out for the interests of the owner rather than any personal interests. And a charge is brought that the CFO had abused that responsibility and so the owner calls him to give an accounting of himself.
Realizing that he is in trouble since he has had a sit-down job and isn’t in shape for any hard labour nor does he want to go on welfare, and about to get fired, the manager decides on a plan of action. He calls in the business’s debtors and slashes their bills by as much as 50%! And then the owner commends the manager for his shrewdness!
Now, we need to understand a bit about the practices of the day in order to make some sense of the story, because at first glance this manager, by today’s standards, was way out of line for cutting the bills. But the reality of that time was that he was probably correcting the issue that got him into trouble in the first place.
You see, by Old Testament law, businesses were not allowed to charge interest. But businessmen had found lots of ways to get around that. They could mark-up prices or add other duties, service charges, things we wouldn’t know anything about. And it was also common practice it seems, for managers to also add in extra fees that they could skim off the top, adding to their own income.
So it is generally accepted that what the manager was actually doing was reducing the payments to what they in reality, actually were. And in so doing he was making friends with all those customers, so that they might feel kindly towards him when he was in need. And the owner, well he thought the steward was fairly smart, forsaking immediate gain for longer term effects.
And then we have what seems to be Jesus’ commentary on the story, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” And he goes on,
10 “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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,[d] who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.” (16:9-13)
Now it’s very easy to take the last sentence and simply condemn wealth. And certainly Jesus had a lot to say about money, perhaps more to say about wealth than any other topic. And preachers have bene talking about wealth, or Mammon, for a long time. Martin Luther, 500 years ago said,
“‘Many a person thinks he has God and everything he needs when he has money and property, in them he trusts and of them he boasts so stubbornly and securely that he cares for no one. Surely such a man also has a god — mammon by name, that is, money and possessions — on which he fixes his whole heart. It is the most common idol on earth.”
And there is truth in that, but the parable makes it clear that it’s not quite as simple as that. The Old Testament laws about charging interest, the usury laws, were put in place to safeguard against a return to slavery, as the children of Israel had experienced in Egypt. The prophets, like Amos, condemned those who took advantage of the poor or who used the wrong weights and measures, creating injustice.
So when the shrewd manager uses his position to undo injustice and thus to make friends with those who were indebted, his master commends him and Jesus holds him up as an example of someone who knew the rules of the game, and chose to use them, not for monetary gain, but for building relationships. While he had been playing by the master’s rules, he now realized that doing so put him in the same boat as the master, who would have been in the category of the tax collectors as those who took advantage of others. Realizing his dilemma, the steward used those same rules to provide for his own future, by making friends with the debtors.
So there are perhaps several lessons, or at least questions we might ask ourselves from this parable. One clearly has to do with how we use the wealth that we have. Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of Mammon so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal home.” I’ll actually say more about that next week when we look at the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
But Jesus raises another interesting question. If you can’t be trusted to use your earthly wealth properly, can you really be trusted with the wealth of the Kingdom? You may know the rules of this world, and be able to manipulate them to your advantage, but do you know the rules of the Kingdom, and can you follow them as well. Where do your priorities lie?
One of my favourite British comedies was one called The Vicar of Dibley, the story of a small rural parish in England that deals with all kinds of issues, especially after they get a new vicar, Geraldine. In one episode, there is a violent storm and a tree crashes through the beautiful stained glass window of the church. Of course, no one can remember exactly what the window looked like, and there are lots of ideas as to what should be included in the new window. So with insurance money and fund raising, they wait with eager expectation for the unveiling of the new window. But the vicar has been troubled by all of this, and so makes a decision, and when the new window is unveiled, the parishioners discover that is it a clear glass window, with a beautiful view of the trees outside, and that most of the money has been given away for relief of others.
Where are our priorities and loyalties? As Karoline Lewis says in her on-line commentary, Working Preacher, “Jesus is not calling out the rich. Jesus is calling out our loyalties, not only to God, but also to that which in your life enables you to be who God has called you to be.” As in the parable, sometimes those who don’t claim to be Christian are actually better than Christians at making wise use of their resources. They work the system to their advantage, using the rules of society around them.
But we play by a different set of rules, the rules of the Kingdom where God sets the standard, the kinds of standards set out in the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. The gains we aim for are different than much of society. Rather than focusing only on our own gain, we seek for a just society, much as Amos called for. We seek good relationships rather than material gain. We aim for peace rather than using violent means to achieve our ends. We seek that which has eternal value over those things which will not last. And so we need to choose whose rules we want to follow.
As Bob Dylan once sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” So choose wisely.