Monday, September 19, 2016

Dethroning the god of money (Luke 16:1-13)


This Jesus story like other stories Jesus tells has a way of shocking us into thoughtful reflection. I love the story of the pastor who called a special meeting to call attention to the run down condition of the church facilities. He began by asking for pledges and he turned first to one of his more prosperous deacons. Brother, ‘so and so,’ would you like to start the pledging.” This deacon responded, “I’ll pledge five dollars.” About that time a piece of plaster fell from the ceiling and thumped this deacon right on the head knocking him to the floor. After he picked himself up and dusted himself off he said, “What I meant to say was that I pledge fifty dollars.” At that moment the pastor looked up toward heaven and shouted, “Hit him again, Lord!” This is a story (as so many of the sayings and stories of Jesus) that has the potential to “hit” us, to give us pause to reflect and to be changed by it. One of the beautiful and yet difficult things about Jesus’ parables is the multiple ways one of his stories can impact us.

A question serious interpreters of the parable ask is: Where does the parable end and the commentary begin? And sometimes, as with this parable, it is difficult to know. Then the next question is: Who is responsible for the commentary? Is this Jesus commenting on his own parable? (which, is probably not very likely because Jesus wanted his hearers to wrestle with the stories on their own.)  So then, is this Luke’s commentary or did the commentary develop as part of the oral tradition, when it was being passed on by word of mouth decades before it was ever written down?

Personally, I think the story ends at 8a, and the commentary that follows in verse 8b – 9 comes from Luke. The next paragraph in vv. 10-13, which also serves as commentary, are individual sayings of Jesus that Luke has strung together. (In Matthew these sayings appear in different contexts).

The reason this story is so unusual and somewhat shocking is that the main character, who is commended, is called by Jesus a dishonest manager. Some interpreters have tried to paint a more positive picture of the manager by suggesting that what he actually eliminated was the interest that had accrued or perhaps the commission he would have received from the transactions. The problem with these explanations is then he wouldn’t really be dishonest would he? If it was just his own losses that he was willing to sustain in exchange for the favorable treatment he would receive by these customers in the future, then there is no reason to call him dishonest.

Jesus calls him a dishonest manager. He falsifies the accounts so that the ones who benefit from his dishonesty will show him hospitality when he is out of work. He’s not concerned about his boss’s profit or loss. He’s concerned about where he is going to sleep and how he is going to live once the master of the estate kicks him out of his house. He says, “I am too weak to dig and too proud to beg; I need to find a way out of this mess.” I’ve been there a time or two in my life, so I can relate to the predicament the manager finds himself in.

Now, even though he is dishonest, Jesus commends him for his shrewdness. Jesus says in verse 8a that the master of the estate commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. Then Luke adds commentary beginning in verse 8b, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
 
Who are the “children of this age”? The “children of this age” are apparently persons who live by (who are motivated and driven by) the values, mores, customs, and standards of the culture in which they live. Luke seems to be suggesting that most folks tend to be quite clever in arranging and securing their future in this world. Now, this is obviously a general observation. Not everyone is so good at it, but that is the goal right? To secure ones place and future in this world. This is what the dishonest manager was trying to do, so after he was thrown out he would have someplace to go to find work and a place to live.

Now let’s be honest. We are all caught up in securing our place and future in this world are we not? Let’s don’t pretend to be more pious than we actually are. I’m caught up in it and you are too. In some measure, we are all children of this age. And we don’t stop being children of this age even when we identify ourselves as children of light – that is, children f the kingdom of God.

We have to be very careful about making too narrow and rigid distinctions in either/or terms. Unfortunately, this is a common religious practice. From an actual life point of view – it’s not that we are one or the other, we are both. We are both children of this age and children of the light.

We desperately need to move beyond the talk of “in” groups and “out” groups as much as we can. I know it’s not possible to do that completely, but we must learn to see that it’s never totally one way or the other; it’s almost always a matter of degree. So the issue is: To what degree are we children of this age and to what degree are we children of the light? That’s the real question. It’s rarely just one way or the other.

Healthy Christianity in particular, and healthy religion in general realizes this and keeps nudging and pushing us beyond our dualisms, beyond our either/or approach. Some distinctions, of course, will always be necessary, but the more inclusive we can be in our approach to other persons and groups the more, I believe, we reflect the inclusive love of God.

So then, as disciples of Jesus we are both children of this age and children of the light. What Luke means when he uses the phrase “children of the light” is that in varying degree Jesus’ followers reflect Jesus’ values and concerns such as his compassion for the sick and the oppressed, his concern for the poor, his love for all people, and his commitment to a just world. If we are living as children of the light we will reflect to one degree or another these values. But we don’t stop being children of this age.

What Luke seems to be suggesting is that we who so identify ourselves as children of the light, as disciples of Jesus, can learn something from those who are living primarily to secure their own well-being and future. (I have no doubt, sisters and brothers, that some children of this age who have no religious affiliation at all care more for the good of others, more for the good of the disadvantaged, more about the common good than many practicing Christians. Another reason to avoid dualistic language. I talked to one last week who commented on an article I wrote for the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. He was a very smart, kind, and caring self-professed atheist. In the course of our online conversation I told him that I had more in common with him than most Baptists in my community. It’s true.)

So what can we learn constructively from children of this age? Well, there is probably a great deal we can learn, but if we stick to the parameters set by the parable what we can learn is this: We can learn how to use money to further the agenda and concerns of Jesus, namely, liberating the oppressed, healing the sick and the addicted, setting free those trapped in destructive cycles of poverty and violence, and enlightening people to the grace and love of God. We can learn how to use money to bring hope and healing and redemption to as many folks as we can. To do so, according to Luke, is to invest in “true riches.”  

I find it interesting that Luke calls money “dishonest wealth.” The RSV translates it: “unrighteous mammon.” Mammon is the Greek term employed here, which is a transliteration of the Aramaic term. Money, here, is being referred to as a god. Money has a god-like quality that appeals to our allegiance and devotion. And by calling it “unrighteous” or “dishonest” Luke seems to be suggesting that money is not morally neutral. We tend to think that it is neutral, but Luke suggests otherwise. Luke thinks of money as a rival god that must be dethroned. 

Richard Foster, in his book The Challenge of the Disciplined Life puts it this way: “Money has power out of all proportion to its purchasing power. Because the children of this world understand this, they can use money for noneconomic purposes. And use it they do! Money is used as a weapon to bully people and to keep them in line. Money is used to ‘buy’ prestige and honor. Money is used to enlist the allegiance of others. Money is used to corrupt people . . . Rather than run from money, we are to take it—evil bent and all—and use it for kingdom purposes. We are to be absolutely clear about the venomous nature of money. But rather than reject it we are to conquer it and use it . . . to advance the kingdom of God.” (p. 54) 

What Foster is saying is that when money is subdued and captured and stripped of its power to corrupt, it can then be used for kingdom purposes. Instead of serving money we are called to use money to serve the higher goals of God’s purposes in the world.  

I heard about a pastor who was excited about taking his two visiting nephews to church. The two boys, 6 and 9 had never been to church, and for whatever reason they were not very impressed. When the offering was passed they watched as people put money in the plates. When it finally got to them, the youngest one looked up at his aunt and said, "You mean we gotta pay for this."

Well, it’s not that we gotta pay for it. It’s that we are privileged and empowered and liberated by the Spirit of Christ to use money for kingdom purposes and as a way of making kingdom friends. Luke says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone (and it’s going to be gone, we are not going to take any of it with us), they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Luke is very clear in his Gospel who Jesus’ friends are. Jesus’ friends – those who welcomed him into their lives – are those whom Jesus welcomed to table fellowship – the tax collectors and sinners, the poor and downtrodden, the sick and demonized. Remember a few Sundays back the ones we were told by Jesus to invite to dinner: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
(By the way, if you want to vote for candidates that reflect real, clear Christian values – that is, the values of Jesus – then vote for the candidates who you think will do the most to help the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged among us. Because this is one thing that is very clear in the Gospels that Jesus focused his ministry on the sick and the disadvantaged.)  

In Luke 16:10-13 Luke strings together several teachings which do not actually depend on the parable for their meaning. But the parable becomes the occasion for Luke to gather these sayings that relate to money and possessions.

What is true of money is true of everything we have. We are called to be faithful with all that has been given to us. As disciples of Jesus we are called to give faithful attention to the little things, the frequent and familiar tasks of everyday life, however small or insignificant they may seem. For the little things add up and we should not assume that we can be faithful with major tasks if we are not faithful in the minor ones. By fulfilling our responsibilities in the small areas we are learning how to be trustworthy regardless of the nature or size of the task. And in God’s view of life, size is irrelevant; faithfulness is what matters. Love and compassion are what matters. Being faithful to what the kingdom of God is about is what matters.  

Fred Craddock puts it beautifully, “The realism of these sayings is simply that life consists of a series of seemingly small opportunities. Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice and feed the neighbor’s cat.” (p. 192) 

But you know, brothers and sisters, it is precisely in our faithfulness to these small tasks that we demonstrate our faithfulness and trustworthiness as disciples of Jesus. Using our money for kingdom purposes is a vital part of being a faithful disciple of Jesus. But it doesn’t end there. Our faithfulness as disciples of Jesus include all the little things, the small tasks and responsibilities that make up our lives as parents, workers, neighbors, friends, and citizens. 

The final verse in our text sums it all up: We cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve God and money. You see, our attitude toward and use of money and possessions are spiritual issues. Money matters are spiritual matters; issues regarding money impact our spirituality. So when considering our relationship with God and our discipleship to Christ money does matter — what we think about it, what we do with it, how we spend and invest it. It all matters. 

The comedian Jack Benny who was always 39 years old and a tightwad, in one routine is accosted by a thug who points a gun at him and says, “Your money or your life.” There is silence. The thief says, “Come on. Come on. Your money or your life!” Benny finally responds, “I’m thinking. I’m thinking.” It’s a hard decision, because for us it’s never that clear. The allurement and entrapment of money and possessions are very subtle, and we can easily become entangled and ensnared without even realizing it. Because it’s never just about money. It’s about what money can do. It’s about the power, prominence, and prestige money can bring.

How we relate to our money and possessions is an indicator of our faithfulness and trustworthiness as stewards and agents of the kingdom of God. When you think about it, our money is not really our money. We have nothing tied up in houses or cars or property, in a savings or retirement account, in stocks and bonds, or money stashed away in a piggy bank that does not belong to God. It’s all God’s.

What I hear Jesus and Luke saying in this story and the commentary that follows is that shrewdness in the use of our money and possessions - and really, everything else, our abilities, talents, time, everything – should not be solely for the purpose of securing our little kingdoms (which are temporal and fleeting), but for something greater.

We are called to participate in God’s kingdom or as some of us like to call it, God’s kin-dom. God’s kingdom is really God’s kin-dom because it’s about people and relationships and caring for one another and working for the common good in universal household of God. We get to join the Divine Spirit in using whatever has been given to us (in terms of money, ability, and time) to fulfill God’s benevolent and compassionate will for humanity and for creation.

Our good God, help us to recognize the power and god-like influence money has and how we are tempted by it — tempted to use money to secure position or status or honor or power. Give us a desire to use what you have given us to further your cause and do your will in the world — to spread your love and compassion, to work for justice and what is right and good, to serve our sisters and brothers in the human family and to take care of the creation you have placed in our charge. Forgive us, Lord, for giving money or anything else too much attention and devotion, devotion that should go to you and your cause in the world. Show us how to be faithful managers of all that is within our charge.  May we find our security in your love and acceptance so that we can be free to give ourselves and to use our resources to care for the people and causes you deeply care about.



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