“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
That’s the conclusion of today’s gospel.
So what do you think? Is it true?
Not everyone thinks so.
“When the Pharisees, who loved money, heard him say these things, they rolled their eyes, dismissing him as hopelessly out of touch.”
So is Jesus hopelessly out of touch on this? He’s talks about money a lot. He seems to think it’s important, and yet at the same time, he calls wealth a little thing, “very little” compared to the “true riches”. So why talk about it at all, wouldn’t Jesus’ time be better spent talking about those true riches, the spiritual things perhaps, faith stuff? That’s what the Pharisees would prefer. That’s what some of us would prefer too, if we’re honest about it. But Jesus seems to think that how we use money tells us a lot about our faith.
When Jesus talks about money, it’s challenging. Today’s gospel is a challenge. Why is Jesus telling us this story about the manager who squanders his boss’s property, gets fired from his job, and then breaks the rules and fiddles the books? Not only does Jesus tell us this story, but then at the end of it, he commends the dishonest manager and holds him up as an example for all of us! What’s going on here?
Most people call this the parable of the dishonest manager. The author Brian McLaren suggests that a better title might be “The manager who switched sides”.
There’s merit in that suggestion, especially if you notice that this is the fourth in a series of stories that Jesus is telling. We talked about the first three last Sunday: the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, where God always seems to end up on the side of those who are lost. This is the fourth story; next Sunday we’ll get to the fifth. But do you remember what triggered this series of stories?
It all began when the religious elites started grumbling because Jesus was spending too much time with the wrong people: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
In other words, Jesus, you’re on the wrong side. You should be with us, not them. You should switch sides.
And so Jesus tells them a story about switching sides. There was a rich man; and the rich man had a manager who looked after his accounts.
Now we need to know a few things about 1st century economics in the Roman province of Palestine in order to help us understand the story.
The first thing we need to know is that this is Roman occupied territory. The Roman Empire had two main objectives in its occupied territories: to keep the peace, by force if necessary, and to extract as much tax revenue as it could. To do this the empire would co-opt a rich elite in each occupied territory, rewarding the rich so that they could have their collaboration in oppressing and extracting revenue from the poor - which was pretty much everyone else.
The rich lived in the south, in Judea and Jerusalem. They made their money as real-estate investors, as land-owners. Most of the good agricultural land was in the north, in Galilee. The rich acquired the land by making high interest loans to distressed family farms and then seizing the land or buying it for a song when the poor farmer could not repay. They would then turn the now landless poor people into tenant farmers, who would work the farm but turn all but a fraction of the produce over to the rich land owners, who would then sell it for a good price to the Romans.
In order to handle all this, the rich used managers, middle-class people with some education or skills, who would deal with the poor tenants, pressure them to increase production, call in loans, buy distressed properties and collect what was owed to the rich land-owners. In exchange for doing the rich land-owner’s dirty-work, the middle class manager would get a cut.
That’s how the system worked. It was all perfectly legal of course, in fact the rich used the courts to enforce the system. The manager in this story had chosen to side with the rich man, the guy from the south who was at the top of the wealth pyramid, in a system that exploited the poor people at the bottom.
I suppose you could say it was a good job. Good pay, no physical labour, solidly middle-class, in fact, there was even a little power and privilege that went with the position. There are advantages, after all, to being on the side of wealth. But then, at least for this manager, it all went wrong. Somebody snitched on him. Said he was squandering the rich man’s property. We don’t know what really happened, we just know that the master was not pleased.
It’s a moment of existential crisis for the manager. It should remind us of the third story Jesus told, of the younger son who has his own existential crisis when he is reduced to feeding pigs. What will I do?
“I know what I will do, so that when I am dismissed as manager people may welcome me into their homes.”
And he proceeds to use his remaining hours as manager to fiddle the books, to summon each one of his master’s debtors and to reduce the crushing debt load which had been imposed upon them. How much do you owe my master? A hundred jugs of oil? Make it fifty, and do it quickly.
Now, we can question the manager’s motives. Nobody’s saying that he’s a saint here. But one thing is clear. The manager has switched sides. He is no longer serving the rich man. He is no longer aligned with the wealthy and the powerful. He has switched his allegiance to those who are the poor and the oppressed. And he's using the only tool he’s got left in his toolkit to relieve their debts. His motives may be compromised. His ethics might be questionable. But he has changed sides, and his actions are now on the side of social justice rather than oppression. The manager is bringing good news to the poor and letting the oppressed go free. And we know whose side that is.
You cannot serve God and wealth.
To whom is the manager responsible? Who should he be serving? Should he be looking out for the interests of the rich man? Should he be striving to uphold the rules of an unjust and oppressive economic system? Or should he serve God by acting justly and generously towards his neighbour in need?
Does this story scandalize you? Does it offend you that Jesus sets this dishonest, rule-breaking ex-manager up as the one being praised for his shrewdness?
I think that this parable does scandalize us because we start from the assumption that rules are to be followed, that the law is just, that loans are to be repaid and that the wealth belongs to the rich man. But what if that’s not true? What if these are just some of the lies that dishonest wealth tells us?
If I go into the bank, the bank will tell me that the money in my savings account belongs to me. If I go to the deed registry at City Hall, they’ll tell me that the land on which my house is built belongs to me. But these are lies.
Everything that I have, my wealth, my abilities, my very life itself belongs not to me but to God, who has entrusted it to me for a time and a purpose. These things, including any wealth that I have, are gifts that have been entrusted to me in order that I might use them for God’s purposes, in order that I can be faithful to God’s call to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and to love my neighbour as myself.
What is money for? It is a resource for sharing with others and a means for generosity and justice.
Why does Jesus talk about it so much? Because how we use our money reveals so much about us and our relationship with God and with our neighbour. Wealth is not ours to do with as we please. We are simply managers, entrusted with wealth for a time and a purpose. For justice. For generosity. For service. For bringing good news to the poor.
So serve God, not wealth. For if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No one can serve two masters.
Soon, a rich young ruler who will come to Jesus and ask, what he must do to have eternal life, to really live life as God intended. And Jesus will look upon him with compassion and say to him,
“Sell all you own and distribute the money to the poor.”
And, we will be told, the young man will go away very sad; for he was very rich.
Nobody said this is going to be easy. It’s a complicated world we live in. It’s a messy world we live in. Just like the world that the manager in Jesus’ parable lived in.
But in the midst of this messy world, in the midst of complicated economic systems and of difficult decisions, it all comes down to this:
Who are you going to serve?
Yr C P25 Sept 18 2022 Trinity
Reading: Luke 16.1-14