Unrighteous Mammon

“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?  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 very comfortable 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.  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 have to 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 now, they’ll help me tomorrow 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 might question what’s going on, but the manager brushes it off with a wink and a nod. “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!”  Theologian 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.[1]

“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 upper-level employee, knowing things are about to go down in flames, does everything they can to make sure that when the fire goes out, there is something left to hold on to.  I remember a similar story from a few years ago down in Alabama.  A family grocery store chain was bought by a big conglomerate that almost immediately filed for bankruptcy.  Just a few days before the judge would rule on what creditors got paid and how much, the company held an auction of the company’s cars and office electronics that was open only to executive employees.  The CEO walked away with two grand worth of electronics for three hundred dollars.[2]  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 be honest, I spent most of this week scratching my head on this one.  It just seems so foreign, so outside of what I expect 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 to line their own pockets will be cast out into outer 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.  Money, whether we have a lot of it, or very little, has the ability to turn our attention away from God’s Kingdom faster than probably anything else.  This is true, in part, because money is 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 a delicious Snickers Bar.  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.

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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 is available for everyone and it never ends, where the lame walk, the blind see, the poor are rich, the sorrowful find joy, and the oppressed go 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.”[3]  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 banquet will be filled with friends and strangers, family members and tax collectors, and even Jesus himself.  Act shrewdly by using the Almighty Dollar to bring about the Kingdom of Almighty God.  Amen.

[1] Red Letter Revolution: What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said? (71-72) Kindle Edition.

[2] http://www.al.com/business/index.ssf/2013/09/belle_foods_leaders_buy_compan.html

[3] Paraphrase of a line from http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php

Powerless over anxiety

teeth-grinding

I suspect it would have happened no matter what career path I’d followed, but since my ordination to the priesthood 8+ years ago, I’ve been diagnosed with three medical ailments with stress markers.  I’m honestly not sure what there is in my life to be so stressed about.  I have a solid family, a good job in a good church, and, by and large, things are good.  And yet, my body reacts as if I’m making multi-million dollar decisions on a regular basis; like I’m a brain surgeon working on Stephen Hawking; or the guy who decided to give RGIII another chance.

I am, like most modern Americans, powerless over anxiety.  It is as much a personal issue as it is a societal one.  Yesterday, for example, I spent some time in an outpatient surgery waiting room.  As is the cultural expectation, there was a TV hanging on the wall with one of the 24 hour news networks playing at a reasonable volume.  As I sat there listening to talking heads discuss the Presidential election, I realized that the 24 hour news cycle is designed to make us addicted. They create stress, even when there is none to be had, and let our bodies do its thing.  Eventually, we become so addicted to the cortisol reaction, we can’t look away.  As the 12 Step community would say, we are powerless over anxiety.

The Collect for Proper 20 hits that powerlessness head on.  We ask God to “grant us not to be anxious about earthly things,” but we can’t stop there.  As the old joke goes, you can pray to God to win the lottery all you want, but you have to buy a ticket to have a chance.  We can pray for an end to our anxiety, but part of that prayer has to be about changing our own behaviors as well.  Can we turn off the TV?  Can we step away from the balance sheet?  Can we stop focusing on those things which we cannot change, and instead take the initiative to move the needle where we can?  Can we, in the midst of things that are passing away, turn our focus to things heavenly?

Ask any addict, it is easier said than done, but perhaps this Sunday can be a start.  Maybe I can take this prayer more seriously this week, and begin the process of being set free from my stress and be made alive again in God.

Pray for your Leaders

The Track 2 Old Testament lesson, the Track 2 Psalm, and the New Testament lesson for Sunday seem to be tied together thematically.  Or at least they seem to be related in this heightened political season in the US.  So much of the rhetoric around the American Presidential election has to do with caring for the poor.  The right suggests that the best way to care for the poor is to invest in businesses so they can hire more employees, pay them better wages, and lift them out of poverty.  This is a good theory, and certainly there are many business owners who do their best to take care of their employees, but it seems that even in the days of Amos, it didn’t always work.  For as long as there have been humans, there have been those who “trample the poor” and “sell the sweepings of wheat.”  To them, the word is clear, “God will not forget how you treat the poor.

On the other hand, the left suggests the best way to care for the poor is to create safety nets that keep them from falling through the cracks.  This has its merits as well, and the latter half of the Psalm for Sunday seems to indicate that it is the will of God that we care for the poor through charity.  “[God] takes up the weak out of the dust * and lifts up the poor from the ashes.  He sets them with the princes, * with the princes of his people.” Though as we have seen in this country, when the responsibility for safety nets left the confines of the Church and became the government’s responsibility during the Great Depression, it became susceptible to fraud and pork spending.  Who indeed is like the Lord who sits enthroned on high, but stoops to behold the earth?.

The battle lines having been drawn between right and left, the American public has been convinced that we exist in a zero sum game.  One side agrees that to invest in business means to leave the poor to fend for themselves.  The other says that to offer safety nets creates a culture of laziness that kills the economy.  Both are, of course, wrong.

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So what are we to do?  We who live in this world of competing goods, how can we ensure that somewhere in the midst of all the rancor and wrangling, we are living up to the call of Jesus to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the oppressed, and those in prison?  Aside from revamping the US tax code to return to the Church these responsibilities, our task is, as Paul tells Timothy, to pray that our leaders make wise decisions and live lives of godliness and dignity.  Thankfully, the Book of Common Prayer has all sorts of prayers to help with such praying.  Here’s but one example, a Collect for the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority.

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Pray for your leaders today, and everyday, for it is right and acceptable to God.

A Parable About Talents?

In Year C’s Parable Season, we don’t have the chance to hear the Parable of the Talents from Luke 19.  It is Matthew’s version that instead gets airtime in Year A.  Perhaps you recall the story of a master who gives three of his slaves portions of his wealth to watch over while his is on an extended trip.  To the first, he gives five talents – roughly 100 years worth of wages.  To the second, he gives two talents, and to the third slave, he gave one talent.  Upon his return, the first slaves returns ten talents; the second, four; while the third simply gives back the one talent to his master.  The Parable of the Talents isn’t really about money.  In fact, it is pretty convenient that the monetary unity is called a talent because that seems to be what it’s really about.  How are you using the gifts God has given you to the glory of God?

I’m beginning to think the Parable of the Unjust Steward is similarly about talents.  The story begins with Jesus introducing us to a rich man and his manager.  The manager is known to be squandering the rich man’s property.  Squander is an interesting word.  The only other time I hear that word used is in relation to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who squandered his inheritance on dissolute living.  It means to scatter, to throw to the wind, or to winnow.  It is the opposite of “to gather together.”  It wasn’t that his man was simply a bad manager, but he was wasteful with his master’s wealth.  His defining characteristic was that of a squanderer.

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Squanderer put this song in my head

When the manager finds out that he is going to be fired, he doesn’t panic, but instead he does what he does best.  He uses his skills at squandering his master’s goods to put himself in the best possible position once he is no longer employed.  He uses his talent, icky as it may be, to the best of his ability to further his own best interests.  When the rich man praises him for his shrewdness, we are shocked.  When Jesus suggests his followers should do likewise, we get squirmy and look for another text to preach, but what if this story is a parable about talents?  What if Jesus is encouraging us to use the gifts we have, to the best of our abilities, to further God’s best interests?  Preachers should preach for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Bankers should manage funds for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Lawyers should practice law for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Cashiers should engage customers for the up-building of the Kingdom.  No matter what gifts and talents we have, they should be put to use with shrewdness, for the up-building of the Kingdom.

God or Money

multitasking

Parable Season continues with a doozy of a parable this week.  As I said in yesterday’s sermon, Jesus’ parables aren’t fables: we can’t just pick them up 2,000 years later and find a universal truth in them.  This is especially true this Sunday, as we are forced to deal with what might be the trickiest of Jesus’ parables, “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”

The story begins with an abrupt scene change.  After three parables directed to the Pharisees and scribes who had been grumbling about Jesus’ tendency to hangout with sinners and tax collectors, Luke tells us that this parable is told only to the Disciples.  Most preachers might wish it had stayed there, but alas, it is in Luke’s Gospel and assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary.  I’ll get to the details of the parable later in the week, but what has my attention this morning is what many preachers will likely focus on when they punt this Sunday.

After telling a very strange story, Jesus summarizes the lesson to be learned by talking about honesty and dishonesty.  He ends with perhaps his most famous saying about money: a topic he dealt with in 11 of his 39 parables and in 1 out of every 7 verses in Luke’s Gospel (Source).

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

What is interesting about this pithy quote is that Jesus assumes we are going to be slaves to one or the other.  Yes, I said “slaves” because that’s what the Greek word means.  We are either going to be slaves to money and the stuff, power, and prestige that goes along with it, or we are going to be set free from that bondage to be devoted fully to God’s will for our lives.  You simply cannot do both.  You cannot have two masters.  There will come a time, sooner rather than later, when you will be forced to pledge your allegiance to one over the other.  It might be a work decision: will I choose the honest path and lose money or not?  It might be a family finances decision: will I give to the church instead of buying that new toy I really want, but ultimately don’t really need?  It might be a lifestyle decision: will I work 80 weeks to accumulate wealth for the family I never see to spend?  These are choices that we all have to make at one time or another.  You cannot do both. You cannot be a slave to money and be faithful to God.  Which will you choose?