Delivered Nov. 10, 2013, at the Hub in Sunland, Calif.
Through the fall, we’ve been talking about several of the key images that run through Luke’s telling of the Gospel and how they relate to our life and spirituality. This week we’re looking at possessions, and we talked about a number of different passages and parables in some of our small groups this week, but this morning I want to focus on one parable in particular.
In Luke 16, Jesus has told the story of a spendthrift son, his extravagantly, embarrassingly forgiving dad, and his resentful brother. In fact, with this Jesus just finishes here a whole series of illustrations about going out of one’s way to find something precious that’s lost. For Jesus, these are pictures of God’s extravagant love for lost things, for lost people. Jesus tells all of these in conversation with a religious-elite group called the Pharisees, in response to a charge they make against him in Luke 15:1 to discredit him, that he ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So in chapter 16, Jesus turns now to his disciples, his own followers now, and tells them a seemingly very different story, v. 1:
‘There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions, so he called him in and asked him ‘What’s this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you can’t be my manager anymore.’
So what it means that this guy is a manger is that he doesn’t just keep the books for his employer; he keeps the book. He has his boss’s ledger, which basically gives him power of attorney over his boss’s finances. So whether this guy has just been really bad at his job or, what seems more likely given how the story plays out, he’s been embezzling, word gets to his boss, so his boss sends word that prepares him to be fired by asking for his ledger back. It’s often translated, ‘give an account,’ like he needs to answer for himself, but if he’s asking for the manager’s side of the story, it’s moot, because his intentions to fire him are clear. He seems to be asking not just for an account but for the accounts—the ledger and the power it carries. V. 3:
‘The manager said to himself, What am I going to do now? My master’s fired me, I’m not strong enough to do manual labor, and I’m too prideful to beg. Oh, I know! And this way, when I’m out of my job here, people will welcome me into their homes.’
What he seems to mean here is that people will bring him into their household affairs; he’ll get a job in other households. In any case, he doesn’t prepare to defend himself; he doesn’t invoke ties between their families or years of service; he just goes, ‘Well, party’s over; I’m finished.’ The thing that’s coming across just in these first four verses is that this guy is super guilty. Both the master and the manager recognize it, so there’s nothing to discuss. V. 5:
‘So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ ‘800 gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it 400 hundred.’ Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ ‘1,000 bushels of wheat,’ he replied. He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it 800.’
That’s about a year and a half of wages that he erases for each person, and he can do this with legal authority as long as he still has possession of that ledger. So of course the master sees this, and flips out, right? No, it says the master commended the dishonest manager—why?—because he acted shrewdly. Now, bear in mind, it doesn’t say that the master took him back. That was never on the table; it was to get in with other people, and in doing that, he lost the guy even more money. The manager didn’t redeem himself; far from it. He used crooked dealings to get himself out of trouble from crooked dealings. What the rich master has to admit, nonetheless, is simply that this guy might be a complete S.O.B., but he’s clever when it counts. And this is the point Jesus drives at in v. 8:
For people of this world [see above] are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Interesting that Jesus’ own followers don’t have presupposed places in these eternal dwellings.
Let’s recap: So the religious elite scorn Jesus because he spends quality time with outsiders, and Jesus says, ‘No, you don’t get it; this is God’s heart. He makes space for them at the table.’ Then he turns and tells his own people, ‘And if you want a place at the table, you’d better be shrewd.’ Why? Because the people that Jesus goes after, the people that Jesus welcomes in most through the gospels, are people who have been disempowered by a system within the community where others profit from at their expense. In fact, even the disciples, by no means the wealthy or powerful people, can find themselves profiting at the expense of the marginal. Keep in mind, when the gospels say ‘sinners’ it doesn’t mean non-Christians; it doesn’t mean people who use rough language. We’re talking often about prostitutes and tax collectors. And you know kind of person sells her body? Someone who can’t buy bread any other way. And you know what kind of person turns traitor to his people and starts extorting money for the empire? Someone who can’t keep watching their family starve. So here the social and the economic are all tied in with each other. The lost ones that Jesus is concerned about in chapter 15, to the scandal of the Pharisees, have been on the receiving end of the power-to-isolate, cut off from the resources of the community, because the ones who are doing well have the power to insulate themselves from the undesirables. That’s how the religious elite used their power in Israel: to put up walls that marked the inside and the outside, but the truth that Jesus revealed is that the party within the walls is going to end one day; their party, the one safe and separate from the unclean and the unworthy, isn’t actually God’s party. All the privilege of being an insider is going to dry up, and they’ll have nowhere to go. What would be really shrewd, then, what would be really prudent, Jesus suggests, is to use your power now to close the gap instead; use your power now and the symbols that give you power now (wealth, property, money) to tear down instead the walls between yourself and the poor, before what gives you power now ceases to carry any power in it. One day it’s going to be the powerless who have the homes to invite you into, and you’re going to want to have closed the gap by then.
If chapter 15 is about closing power relationships, God’s heart for lost things, here in chapter 16, Jesus identifies money/wealth is a chief form of that power. It either insulates us from poverty and isolates us from the poor, or else it’s the means by which we close the gap between the poor and whatever we think isn’t poor about us. Money is not indifferent to spirituality, because spirituality is not indifferent to power. The kind of spirituality that interests this god is all about power. The religion that the God of Israel cares about is a religion that lifts up the powerless at the expense of our power: Jas 1:27, ‘True religion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows and to keep the world from contaminating us.‘ (And I’ll suggest perhaps one of the cardinal ways we can be contaminated is in taking on the world’s cynicism about poverty, to forfeit our identity as a religion that foremost upholds the poor.) This is a declaration from James that stands on the entire tradition of Israel’s Law and Prophets, the very shoulders Jesus stands on, as he says in this very same chapter between teachings about wealth, ‘It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter in the Law to be dropped.’
This Jesus, who eats with sinners, who upholds the Law and the Prophets in the interest of the poor, this is the Jesus about whom Luke (20:20) tells another story where some of his critics wanted to trip him up by asking whether he thought it was right that their nation pay taxes to their occupiers. You can see how that’s a loaded question. Jesus responds, ‘You know what, I actually don’t carry any imperial currency on me, so let me see one of yours: and whose picture is on it?’ he asks, as if he’s stupid. The emperor’s, they reply, as if Jesus is stupid. ‘There you have it,’ he says. ‘Give Caesar his coins back, and give God what is God’s.’ I love my professor’s paraphrase of this: ‘Give Rome their stupid coins.’ What I mean to say here is that our possessions, our wealth, are tied to economies, and these economies can have their stupid money, but the act of their use, the power they borrow on, that belongs to God in Christ Jesus. Render that to him.
As I was preparing this week, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite Onion articles. If you’re not familiar with The Onion, it’s a satirical news source. Here’s the headline:
This is why satire is funny; there’s something true at the core of this, before its implications are played out to the extent of the absurd. Currency has value only because we agree it has value; even bread has value because our hunger and its scarcity accords it value, but its value suffers if no one has use for it or if it dries up and ceases to be useful. How much more so cars and boats and houses and savings accounts. That’s to say, these things are not intrinsically valuable but only as part of an economy. Jesus is inviting us into this realization. Yes, it’s not a completely empty mutually shared symbol. No, we shouldn’t just burn our money. But we should recognize the difference between (a) a thing and (b) its value, its meaning, its power. A piece of paper will burn up, a house will fall apart, and the economies that give value and power to these things will inevitably collapse, but one economy will never collapse, and that’s one that doesn’t give a lick about property value or net worth but only the kind of friendship that it purchased, the kind of justice it was able to purchase within economies of injustice. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Use your worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.’
We can be tempted to divide the gospel into two strands: good news and calls to action, words that comforts us and then words that makes demands on us. Here we have in this text a parable and a teaching that refuses our separation of the two and helps us to see that the Gospel is only ever always both. In this parable, it’s because it charges us to action that there’s good news, and if there wasn’t good news here then it wouldn’t compel us to action. That there’s an action to take is the good news for us; it’s not, ‘Surprise: OK, the party’s over: Hand in your ledger; let’s see what we’ve got. Oh, this doesn’t bode well for you.’ No, rather, we are given an instant, in this life, in these kingdoms, to cut our losses (what appear to be gains but which will only look like gains for another moment) and to exchange riches in this order for riches according to the new coming order, in order to purchase investments that bear real value–only if we lose by the rules of this game already lost, already folding up before our eyes through poverty and violence and oppression, abandon this game and buy into another with radically different rules.
The kind of stuff you guys did two Sundays ago when you opened up space for families to come play games and eat burgers with us, the kind of thing we’re asking you to help us do by bringing in donations for the 5 & Dime on the 23rd, it’s very roughly this kind of stuff. These are our attempts to put possessions to work in spiritual practices, to work in our spiritual life. These are not shrewd financial decisions. We don’t see a good return on this stuff. We’re not getting a profit off these investments; we’re not going to increase our attendance with a one-day community thrift shop. But, as best we can figure right now, it’s darn-well worth buying hundreds of hot dogs in order to build a relationship where someone can one day feel precious to us and to God. And it’s darn-well worth buying new toys and reselling them at cents on the dollar so that a parent struggling financially can have the dignity of buying her own children Christmas presents. We are trying to practice the hospitality of the Gospel, which makes space in our possessions for the other so that when our possessions are gone, we have belonging with a hospitable god. What’s shrewd is preparing right now for the vanishing power of our wealth to vanish by investing it in entirely differently patterns, patterns that uplift the disinherited and draw us down close in relationship with them as we disinherit ourselves from the power of possessions.
So what is it that you can build today that will last? How can you use your possessions today to build something eternal? I ask on our behalf this morning, and I invite you to ask the Holy Spirit, How can we incorporate our possessions and our wealth into a spiritual life that is foremost about justice and hospitality. How can we give up the symbols and sources of power and use our worldly wealth to bridge relationships? How can we build an eternal home for these relationships? This is the demand and the good news; this is the Gospel for disciples.