I named this week’s sermon in honor of the joke that flopped at two of the three services this morning. You can listen to it here, or read on.
“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly [prudently, wisely]…” I mean, what other choice did the rich man really have? Think about it. The manager, who is about to be fired because of accusations that he was wasting his boss’ money, quickly runs through the options before him. “I could dig,” he thinks to himself, “except after years of extravagant living, I’m in no shape to dig, I’ll never get hired over guys who do this every day with strength and endurance.” “I suppose I could beg,” he imagines next, “except I’m too well known in the community. People will laugh at me. They’ll pity me. Surely, they won’t help me, God knows I haven’t helped them any over the years. I’ll be dead of malnutrition or disease in six months. No, I must do something else.” And then, like a brilliant strike of lightening, a plan comes into his mind. “I haven’t helped anyone in this job, yet, but there is still time. Maybe, just maybe, if I help these poor slobs out, they’ll help me in return.”
Quickly, he calls in all of his master’s debtors, people who owe upwards of ten years’ worth of oil and grain, and he begins slashing their debt by twenty, thirty, even fifty percent! Some of them question what’s going on, but the manager brushes it off with a wink and a nod and “My master is feeling generous these days.” As the land owner comes to town for the day of reckoning, word has spread throughout the village and countryside of what has happened, and people begin to shout to him from the fields and out of windows, “Thank you, O gracious master, for your generosity and care!” Shane Claiborne imagines the scene at the center of town as the crowd breaks into song, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” at the top of their lungs.
“And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly…” I mean, what other choice did he really have? I suppose he could’ve gotten angry, destroyed the manager and forced everyone to pay their original debts. Of course that would have ended up in a riot where it is most likely he would have been killed in a fit of mob rage. So, the rich man takes the only other option available to him, he puts his arm around the shoulder of his manager and says to him, “You got me good, way to use your brain and act shrewdly, but you are really, really fired.” This story has played itself out a million times throughout the course of history. A shrewd employee, knowing things are about to go down in flames, does everything he can to make sure that when the fire goes out, he’s got something to hold on to. Just this week, there was the story about Belle Foods, the folks who bought Bruno’s down in Gulf Shores and are now in bankruptcy court. Days before the judge would rule on what creditors got paid and how much, the company held an executive employee’s only auction of company cars and office electronics. The CEO walked away with two grand worth of electronics for three hundred dollars. He got what he could before it all went away. We hear stories like it all the time.
What we don’t expect, is to hear about it from Jesus. It seems even Luke wasn’t real sure how to handle this story, giving us no less than three and probably four possible interpretations. The most challenging interpretation is the admonition to “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” To paraphrase the late-20th century philosopher Arnold Jackson, “What-chu talkin’ about Jesus?”
To be honest, I spent most of this week scratching my head on this one. It just seemed so foreign, so outside of what I expected Jesus to say. I want Jesus to tell this story and then look at his disciples and say, “In my Kingdom, people who cheat in business deals with be cast out into utter darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I don’t want him trying to convince me that there is some lesson to be learned in this story of deception and fraud. What are we supposed to learn from this dishonest manager who in the end gets commended by his former boss for his wisdom and shrewdness?
The key, it seems, lies deep within that most difficult lesson from Jesus, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” In Luke’s Gospel, more so than the other three, wealth is always a bad thing; a power and principality, not unlike Rome, that clamors for people’s attention over and against their devotion to Almighty God. I got a glimpse of the real power of money this week as I sat down on Monday to adjust our budget for the new house. Ten dollars a month here, fifty dollars a month there, and I felt my blood pressure rising and my trust in God dwindling as I wondered, “did we make a terrible mistake?” Money, whether we have a lot of it, or very little, has the ability to turn our attention away from God and his Kingdom faster than probably anything else. This is true, in part, because money is truly a faith based system. A dollar is worth a dollar, only because we believe it to be so. Our faith in the economy allows a piece of linen and cotton that has been dyed green to be traded for, well, a dollar isn’t worth much these days, but maybe a Snickers Bar, if they’re on sale. Because wealth is a faith based system, it is in direct competition to God, which, for Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, makes it dishonest wealth, or perhaps better translated, the mammon of unrighteousness, stuff that takes our attention away from the Kingdom.
When faced with a bleak future, the dishonest manager used the material resources at his disposal to create a better outcome. Jesus has a vision for the future as well. The Kingdom of God is that place where lion and lamb lay down together, where the banquet of rich foods and well-aged wines never ends, where the lame walk, the blind see, the poor are rich, the sorrowful find joy, and the oppressed are set free. Jesus wants that future to be our motivation for everything we do, most especially; it should be the motivation behind how we spend our money. “Take your money and use it to build the Kingdom of God by building relationships. Throw a dinner party, but don’t just invite your friends, also invite that one co-worker or neighbor or classmate who is always left out. When you buy gifts, make sure you include those who have never received a hug, let alone a nice sweater for Christmas. When you go shopping, look the sales clerk in the eye and affirm them as a human being, not merely a means to an end or a cog in the machine. If you hear that your neighbor has been ill, drop by with a thermos of soup or get in the car and visit them in the hospital. Be extravagant in caring for the people around you. And because nothing can happen in this world without money, use it to the mission and glory of God.” That’s really what Jesus is saying here.
“You can’t serve both God and the Almighty Dollar, but you most certainly can serve God by using your dollars to reach out in care and love.” The Church rarely, if ever, talks about money without asking for some. So, I’m not going to do that today. I mean, we’ll pass the plate, of course, but don’t let this sermon guilt you in to giving. Instead, take your wallets out of this place and use them, in one way or another, big or small, to build up the Kingdom this week. Take your mammon of unrighteousness, and use it to build relationships, so that when it’s all said and done, the cheering section at your arrival to the great heavenly party will be filled with friends and strangers, family members and tax collectors, and even Jesus himself. Act shrewdly and trust in the Lord, not the Almighty Dollar to provide your desired future. Amen.
 Red Letter Revolution: What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said? (71-72) Kindle Edition.