Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pentecost 18, 2013: Acting faithfully with dishonest wealth

Lectionary: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113:1; Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13.
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Our God is a God who “…takes up the weak out of the dust and lifts up the poor from the ashes.” (Ps 113:6) Thanks be to God. And God asks us to do the same. To be careful not to “trample on the needy” or “bring ruin to the poor.”

As he traveled on this final journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus spent a great deal of time teaching his followers how to be disciples – how to continue the work of reconciliation on their own after his impending departure from them. In his teaching, Jesus, like many Jewish rabbis, often used parables.

The word “parable” comes from the Greek word “parabole” which translates as “comparison.” When telling a parable, the teacher creates a setting in which an action occurs. The action leads to consequences which lead to the conclusion of the story and the fundamental truth being communicated.

Jesus’ parables always contained an element of surprise. They shocked the listener somehow. It seems to me that Jesus used this moment of surprise to shake loose the minds of his listeners and open them to a new way of thinking or understanding.

Today’s parable, known as the parable of the dishonest manager, is considered a particularly tough one, and it is, but not because the parable is hard to understand. I think what’s hard about this parable is the fundamental truth it communicates.

The setting is this: a rich man calls one of his managers into a meeting. Most people understand the rich man to represent God and the manager to represent us, Jesus’ disciples.

The rich man (God) informs the manager (us) that an accusation has been made against him that he was squandering the rich man’s property. To squander something is to waste it, to be reckless or foolish about caring for it… to let it be lost.

A little background: In those days, collectors earned their salary by adding on fees to the debt they were collecting – a practice called usury, which was strictly prohibited by Jewish law (Deut 23:19-20). This manager would have been hated because his wealth resulted from how successfully he could squeeze these fees out of the debtors from whom he was collecting.

“Give me an accounting of your management” the rich man commands “because you cannot be my manager anymore.” The manager begins to panic. ‘What will I do now? I’m not strong enough to do this work and I’m too proud to beg.’

Then he cooks up a plan to save himself. He decides that he needs to have a good relationship with the debtors so that when his termination date arrives, he’ll have people he can go to to help him.” So he goes out to see each of the debtors and does a surprising thing – he forgives their debt – at least some of it. For one he reduces the debt by half. For another, he cuts it by 20%.

Scholars say the actions of the manager can be interpreted in a few ways. First, the manager is cheating the rich man in order to ingratiate himself to the debtors. He is, after all, dishonest.

Second, the manager is simply cutting out his own commission. This will have a short-term financial impact on him (but a long-term benefit) and it probably won’t affect the rich man at all. He may not even know about it.

Third, the manager is repenting: re-aligning his life to the law of Moses by getting rid of the usury (interest) on the debt. (

What do you think? I think most of us tend to see the manager as totally self-serving, so probably not repenting (right?) Many would believe it more likely that we was cheating the rich man, or that if he was giving up his commission it was a self-serving action, not a benevolence toward his master.

Let’s go on… because then Jesus says a couple of very surprising things: the “… master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

What? Hang on - it gets worse. Jesus says: “… 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.”

Again, what?

I imagine the disciples brains are nearly exploding by now but Jesus isn’t finished: “If then you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you true riches?” And then comes the big finale - the truth being communicated: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Can you imagine being among the first hearers of this parable?

Let’s take look at the actions in the parable through the lens of our identity as disciples of Jesus. God calls us into a “come to Jesus” meeting and fires us for being careless and wasteful, and losing what belongs to God.

And what belongs to God? Everything! All of the resources in creation and all of the creatures of the earth, including people, belong to God. We are accused of acting foolishly with the gifts we’ve been given and letting them get lost.

Who makes this charge against us? Maybe it’s the thousands of seabirds, turtles, and seals who die from the 20 tons of plastic we throw into the ocean each year. (Center for Biological Diversity) It could have been one of the 22,000 children who dies each day due to poverty (UNICEF), or one of the 10.4 million refugees of war living in camps desperate for relief (UNCHF); or maybe it was one of the nearly 48 million Americans whose food assistance benefits have just been cut.

God hears their cries and fires us for squandering the abundance for which we are stewards, abundance we are supposed to use to take the weak up out of the dust and lift the poor from the ashes.

What will we do now… now that we’ve been fired?

Remember that line in that famous prayer that says: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors? Well, that’s just what Jesus has the manager doing in this parable. And the ones who owe more are forgiven more. Sound familiar? Not only is their burden relieved, but relationships are built and the kingdom of God on earth is grown.

The parable teaches us that the wealth offered by the world is dishonest. It lies to us. It makes us believe that we have control of our lives and the right to decide how things should work in the world. It fools us into thinking that we deserve what we have, or that being born into it justifies our having it. It also makes us think it will last forever… but it won’t.

Wealth comes and goes. And as the saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

As disciples, however, we know that whatever gifts we’ve been given were meant to be shared with others as generously as God has shared them with us. And the gifts and resources of creation were given into our care, not for us to exploit for our own benefit but so that we can use them to take up the weak out of the dust and lift the poor from the ashes.

Jesus says we cannot serve God and wealth. He says we will either be disloyal (which is how the word "hate" translates from the Greek) to God and loyal to money; or we will devote ourselves to God and find a devotion to money incompatible with that.

This, I think, is why this parable is considered so tough. That’s our choice. And this is a rare “either-or” for a people who prefer “both-and.”

If we choose the second (which seems the obvious choice for Christians) then we alienate ourselves from the world and its priorities. We step out of a world where “greed is good” (as Gordon Gekko said in the movie Wall Street). We turn our backs on the ‘me-first’ ethics of this world and co-create a new world where mercy and community and interconnectedness reign.

This is how we act faithfully with the dishonest wealth of the world and in doing so we build relationships here on earth that are eternal and lead us all into the eternal presence of God.

It isn’t us and them. It’s just us.

As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse says: “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” [As for] “…me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.” ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

Maybe we wouldn’t be surprised. We are, after all, Anglican Christians, and that is our tradition. Those of you who are or have been in our Inquirer’s Class will recognize this, my favorite quote from Episcopal theologian Terry Holmes:

“We see ourselves as interconnected… this is fundamentally Anglican. …To love God is to relieve the burden of all who suffer. The rest is a question of tactics.” (Holmes, What is Anglicanism?, 95)


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