Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1 – My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
Amos 8:4-7 – Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat…” I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day. [Baldness on every head??]

Psalm 79:1-9 – The nations have laid ruin to Jerusalem and given our bodies to the birds. How long, O Lord, will you kindle your anger against us?
Psalm 113 – Praise the name of the Lord, from the rising of the sun to its setting. He raises the poor from the dust and the needy from the ashes…

1 Timothy 2:1-7 – I wish everyone to raise up their hands without anger or argument. Pray for government leaders. For this is the will of God who wishes everyone to be saved.

Luke 16:1-13 – Parable of the Shrewd Manager. “And 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.” Interpretation: Use your filthy, stinkin’ money to do some good in this life, so that in the next the poor will vouch for you.

September 23, 2005 is the anniversary of Hurricane Rita.

Luke 16: Wealth and Discipleship

Amos begins our readings this Sunday with a very stern warning for those of us who are rich:

Alas all who are at ease in Zion… Alas you who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls… I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head…

And so on.

The Bible reminds us that we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it. There are no hearses towing U-Hauls. The love of money is the root of all evil. So, just to be safe, be rich in good works, generosity, and sharing.

I love this week’s peculiar gospel story, which only appears in Luke’s gospel. Jesus tells a fable that praises a scoundrel. We are told to make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth (ἀδίκῳ μαμωνᾷ). This is a curious passage, one that is certain to leave listeners scratching their heads a little bit. Jesus tells us to use dirty money to make friends in this life, so that in the next, they might return the favor. It’s edgy. This is, in part, some of its power. Don’t explain it away. “Hey everyone, Jesus said we should make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth! Take that and chew on it a little bit.”

A little digging and it gets clearer. We are to use our dishonest wealth to make friends, alright, with the poor, so that when we kick the bucket and the tables are turned in the eschaton, the poor might just welcome us into eternity. One gets the impression that Jesus believes the poor are in charge of the hereafter, and that no one gets to heaven without a letter of recommendation from the poor. As the world’s wealthy, in a capitalistic society, we squirm when Jesus tells us that something about our eternal destination may be affected by our relationship with the poor in this life.

Then: If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, why on earth would God trust you with eternal riches? You cannot serve God and wealth. Choose now whom you shall serve…

Squirm away. Next week it gets worse. Much worse.

In next week’s gospel (also peculiar to Luke), a rich man with purple garb and linen paraments, lives much like the ones mentioned in Amos. Meanwhile Lazarus is poor, starving to death, and diseased. He is dressed in sores, which the dogs lick. Nice. Jesus has a gift for vivid imagery. (If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out…) Lazarus longs to eat the rich man’s scraps. I’m mindful here of all the food we scrape into the garbage in this society. They both die. Lazarus is carried into Abraham’s bosom. The unnamed rich person goes to Hades.

As I said, it gets worse. But one week at a time. Let’s take this story bit by bit. It seems to me this is the kind of story that begs a line-for-line exposition. It’s simply too fun to pass up. So let’s begin.

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.

The word for manager here is οἰκονόμον, “oikonomon.” This is the word from which we get our word “economy.” “Oikos” is the word for house. “Nomos” means law. The “oikonomia” is the law of the house. It gets translated steward/stewardship, manager, treasurer, administrator, or sometimes superintendent. The “oikonomos” was the city treasurer. In this case it refers to the manager of a wealthy owner’s estate. Mikeal Parsons, (“Luke” in the Paieia series) suggests it would have been understood that this was a domestic slave, perhaps an accountant. The rich man’s accountant has been either wasting funds from the estate or embezzling. Read “mismanagement” at best, employee theft, misappropriation of funds, or embezzlement at worst.

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.’

The proverbial cat is out of the bag. Someone has blown the whistle. “You cannot be my manager any longer,” is basically this: “You’re fired.” Hand me the books and collect your things. “Bad steward.” In the story of the Prodigal Son (which immediately precedes this in Luke 15), the bad son is forgiven by the father, for no apparent reason other than the love of the Father. What, the hearers must be wondering, will happen to the bad steward?

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.

Drawing on Aesop: falsely accused trickster, Parsons points out the narrative never verifies the manager’s guilt. This could be a familiar narrative of the falsely accused slave. History is replete with such fables and actual occurrences. One need only consider the number of black men lynched for allegedly disrespecting white women during the lynching era.

Guilty or not, what is the slave to do now? “I’ve lost my job.” Two options: dig or beg. Manual labor or abject poverty. With weak back and strong pride, the shrewd manager decides neither are good choices and starts to hatch a plan. Jesus, the master storyteller, has them on the edge of their seats. What will the steward do? How will he survive?

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.’

It’s a clever ploy. This is why some companies make you collect your things immediately and have security usher you out the door. Once you know you’re done, you have nothing to lose; anything is possible.

The manager does some major favors for the owner’s debtors, at the owner’s expense. As if a fire sale, the accountant cuts the debtor’s debts drastically, some by 50%. He isn’t fired yet. Once fired, hopefully one of those clients will be grateful, and he’ll be offered a job. Once again, the steward/accountant/manager does what he may have been doing: cooking the books, to his advantage.

The listeners know what’s coming next: the owner’s rage.

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.

But wait! No anger? Here is the surprise in Jesus’ story. Instead of flying into a rage at this impertinent employer, the owner laughs a hearty guffaw. “Well played, steward. Well played.” The manager is shrewd as the owner is shrewd. The owner is impressed. Worldly business owners and worldly business managers are a heck of a lot smarter than the children of light, Jesus points out. Pay attention.

Parsons points out:

The manager’s action effectively puts the master into a corner: the relieved debtors will be so full of gratitude and praise for the master for his unexpected generosity that either the master has to risk great bitterness by disowning the steward’s action, or he is forced, whatever he really feels privately, to praise the steward for his action… In this sense, the story is again part of the larger stock of slave-as-trickster stories… (Parsons, Luke, loc. 6118)

Then the punch line:

So 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.

Is Jesus telling people to be dishonest in their business practices? Of course not, Augustine attests. Anyone listening to the story is smiling and laughing at Jesus’ humor. And if we tell the story in the sermon with just the right approach, the congregation will laugh too.

We are all prodigal children and dishonest managers. There is no question that we ourselves fall short of God’s righteousness. But here in this story, there is hope for the unrighteous. If you cannot be perfect, then at least be generous. Your money is tainted, yes, but use it for good. You may be rich by the world’s standards, yes, so take what you have been given and show great generosity to the poor, then when you get to heaven, to that great flip-flop where the first are last and the last are first, and you are the homeless one, maybe one of the poor to whom you were generous will take you in. You never know.

Preparation for the next life includes careful stewardship of resources in this life.

It’s a great story. Squirm away, but it’s a great story.

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?

Life on earth is a trial run, Jesus seems to be saying. If you are faithful with petty earthly wealth, God might entrust to you the riches of the kingdom. Jesus is not so hyper-spiritual that he doesn’t see the value in being faithful with our assets. He understands our relationship to mammon is a reflection of our relationship with God. If money is your god, it will lead to a different set of priorities than if God is your God.

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.

And there it is. Choose which master you wish to serve. There is, for Jesus, a clear relationship between how people handle earthly and spiritual things.

What’s the good news here? Jeffrey (“Luke”) suggests an answer. In this flip-flop universe that Jesus proposes, what are we who are rich to do? Make no mistake, we are the rich. We are the upper 5% in the world. If you have fresh drinking water, a roof over your head, an automobile, at least one meal today, you are doing well by global standards. If it’s true what Jesus says, that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, then what hope is there for us?

The story of Zaccheus in Luke 19 offers a suggestion. Jesus enters Jericho and goes right over to the wealthiest guy in town, who has by his own admission (19:8) gotten his money by cheating others. In the end, Zaccheus gives half of his dishonest wealth to the poor and repays those he has cheated times four. This is not law. This is above and beyond what the law requires. This is gospel. Then Jesus says something astonishing, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Generosity is not in itself salvation, but it is a sign that one’s heart is right with God. It is a fruit of salvation.

The good news is, God has a heart for scoundrels.
The good news is God saves the rich too.
And there are clear signs when this happens.