God or Money


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?

Dishonest Wealth

When it comes right down to it, the real problem I have with this Sunday’s Gospel text, and the problem I suspect most preachers have as well, is Jesus’ admonition to “make friends by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

There are so many problems with this sentence, that I barely know where to begin.  I’m thankful to Evan Garner, who continues to push me on this text for his thoughts today, especially his treatment of the Greek that gets translated as “dishonest wealth.”

And to Bill Murray who commented in Facebook about “dishonest wealth,” “I think the “dishonest wealth” is just that- a faith based economic system that claims to be one thing (of value and worth) when it is not and typically devalues everything around it . . .”

I’m also thankful to my Lutheran colleague, Michael Bonham for sharing this reflection on “unrighteous mammon” in a comment on yesterday’s post:

I think the key is in the term “unrighteous mammon” in verse 11. What is this “unrighteous mammon”? Think for a moment, what do we assign to be of value? Money? It is only paper or metal? Gold or Silver? It is only rock. Our home? It is only brick, wood, and mortar. Our Car? Our boat? Our possessions? Giving value to these type of things, and there are others, are giving value to that really has no value. It is “unrighteous mammon”.
If we recognize “righteous mammon” then we see clearly this narrative is simple. It is about giving value to that which is truly valuable. Loving God and loving our neighbor. Taking what really has no value and using it to take care of what is really valuable, my neighbor.
The following link helps to visually see what Jesus is talking about.

I’m also grateful for the myriad other resources at my disposal this week:

  • Robertson’s Word Pictures – “Use your wealth to build the Kingdom and to establish friendships.  When the mammon fails, and it will fail, then the treasure laid up in heaven will suffice.”
  • WorkingPreacher.org – “Instead of using ‘dishonest wealth’ to exploit others (as the rich do [in Luke’s Gospel]), disciples are to use wealth to ‘make friends for themselves.'”
  • The Center for Excellence in Preaching (although the writing is far from excellent) – “So what is it about the shrewd manager’s attitude that Jesus finds useful for also the children of light?  It is this: he gave thought to the future and it shaped his actions in the present.  Further, he knew that for now monetary resources are one way to secure the kind of future vision you have drawn for yourself… The Church likewise has a strong vision of the future called the Kingdom of God.  What’s more, that future vision should include the potential joy that will rock the cosmos in celebration when more, and not fewer, people end up attending God’s big party.  That vision of the future should influence us mightily in also the present moment.  So if we have resources by which to reach out to the lost of this world, then like the shrewd manager, we need to do everything we can to take the risks necessary to be with those people — yes, the very folks whom also yet today we typically don’t invite over for a hamburger. Yet those are the ones we must reach, Jesus says.  And since not much happens in this world without the help of money, then us it, Jesus says, for God’s good purposes and glory.  You cannot serve both God and the Almighty Dollar. Jesus says, but you can serve God by using the almighty dollar to reach out to others.”
  • Dear Working Preacher – “Whatever we may think of the manager, might we recognize that there are better and worse ways to use money, and using money to establish relationships is better than hording it?”

Great stuff is coming out of my study this week.  Now, if I can only perform a miracle and turn it into two pages of coherent text.