A sermon by, Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va. September 22, 2013
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (NRSV).
Of all the parables Jesus told this one—from Luke 16, the one we call “the Parable of the Dishonest Manager”—is the hardest parable of all. It is found only here in the Gospels (thank goodness), and it comes up only once every three years in the lectionary cycle, but when it does the preacher often thinks it would be a good time to preach the Old Testament lesson, or the Epistle, or the Psalm, because of all the parables in the Book, this is the one that sounds the least like Jesus. It’s not a hard parable to tell; it’s a hard one to understand.
It begins easily enough, with the notice that a certain rich man had a manager who was squandering his property. That can’t go on forever, and so the rich man called the manager on the carpet and said, “What’s this I hear about you? Go clean out your desk. You’re fired!” And if you’ve ever been fired you may know exactly how the manager felt in that moment. Everything he had taken for granted—a house to go home to, a bed to lie down in, food in the pantry, supper on the table—all of that seemed a lot less certain than it had just a moment before. He walked out of the master’s presence in a daze, wondering, “What will I do? I’m too weak to dig; too proud to beg.” And then, out of the blue, it hit him: a way to secure his future. “That’s it!” he said, and he began to call in all the people who owed his master money. He asked the first one, “How much do you owe my master?” “100 jugs of olive oil.” “Quick, take your bill and make it 50,” the manager said, and then he went on to the next one. “How much do you owe?” “100 bushels of wheat.” “Quick, scratch that out and make it 80.” And so on and so forth until he had reduced a lot of debt and made a lot of friends. But when the master heard about it he was furious and said to his servants, “Seize the dishonest manager and throw him into prison. Truly I tell you, he will never get out until he has paid the last penny!”
No, actually, that’s what you would expect the master to say, but that’s not what he said. He didn’t condemn the dishonest manager, he commended him for acting shrewdly. “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” Jesus says. And then he offers the most unexpected moral of the story you could possibly imagine: “9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
When I try to picture the disciples in that moment I picture them standing there, staring at Jesus, wondering if they heard him correctly. Did he just say that they should use money to make friends for themselves, friends who would welcome them into “eternal homes”? Was he joking? Were they supposed to laugh? It sounds like a joke. Jesus has just told another story about a prodigal son who went to a far country and made a lot of friends with someone else’s money, but when he ran out of money he also ran out of friends. They certainly didn’t welcome him into “eternal homes.” I picture the disciples standing there, looking confused, until one of them finally admits, “I don’t get it.”
If you look closely, you can find several morals to this story, tacked on one after another. It’s as if Jesus said, “Oh, you don’t like that moral? Well, how about this one: Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” (vss. 10-12). And then, when he saw that they didn’t like that one either, he said, “13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (vs. 13). And, really, that may be the point Jesus has been driving toward the whole time, that you can’t serve God and money, that you have to make a choice.
Notice that he doesn’t even call it “money.” In the translation that I’ve been using, the New Revised Standard Version, he calls it “dishonest wealth,” but in the King James Version it’s called “the mammon of unrighteousness,” which is a good bit closer to the original language. You can almost hear the contempt in his voice when he says, “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness.”
You get the feeling Jesus doesn’t like this stuff very much.
I was thinking about that last week and it occurred to me that Jesus didn’t carry any money. Do you remember that time Peter told Jesus they needed to pay the temple tax and Jesus said, “Go, throw a hook into the sea, look in the mouth of the first fish you catch and you will find a coin. Use that to pay the temple tax.” Do you remember? Or the time the Pharisees asked him if was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar and he had to ask for a coin? “Whose head is this and whose inscription,” he asked. “Caesar’s,” they said. And Jesus said, “If he likes this stuff so much he puts his picture on it you probably ought to give it to him, but give to God what belongs to God.”[i] And in John, chapter 12, we learn that it was Judas Iscariot who carried the common purse, not Jesus. He didn’t carry a purse. His robe didn’t have any pockets in it and he didn’t have any money.
And he was fine with that.
He calls it “unrighteous mammon,” what the writer of 1 Timothy referred to as “filthy lucre.” It’s not the kind of stuff you would want to carry around in your pockets, but if you could exchange it for something of value that would be a different story. I once heard a professional fundraiser say that all fundraising is an exchange of value. You ask people to give up some of their money, which they value, for something they value even more, like having a building named after them at the local college. Maybe that’s the point of this parable. Maybe the dishonest manager figured out that it wasn’t a job he needed, it was the money he got for doing the job. And that it wasn’t the money he needed, it was the things he could buy with that money—food, clothing, and shelter. So he took something of value—his master’s money—and exchanged it for something even more valuable to him—the kind of friends who would take him in after he lost his job, the kind who would provide him with what he really needed in the first place—food, clothing, and shelter. And when the master (who had been approached on more than one occasion by fundraisers) saw what he had done he commended him. “Good for you,” he said. “You finally figured out what really matters.”
What really matters, of course, is life. It wasn’t a job the manager needed. I don’t need a job. You don’t need a job. What we need is what a job provides: income. And we only need income to the extent that it helps us buy the things that are necessary for life: food, clothing, and shelter. But you may also know—instinctively—that those are the things that are necessary for life with a small “L”; those are the things that are necessary for survival. Life with a capital “L” is something else altogether, and Jesus knew that instinctively; he knew it even before he started to tell this parable. You get a hint of it down near the end of today’s reading when he says, “If you haven’t been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” Did you hear that? “The true riches.” On one hand you have dishonest wealth, unrighteous mammon, filthy lucre, but on the other hand you have “the true riches.” What are those true riches, and what will they buy? If you can make friends with unrighteous mammon, if you can buy food, clothing, and shelter with filthy lucre, what could you buy with the true riches?
That is an excellent question.
I wish I knew the answer. I’m not sure that I do, but I do have a clue. The clue comes in Luke, chapter 12, when Jesus tells his followers not to worry about their lives, what they will eat, or about their bodies, what they will wear. He’s telling them not to worry about the necessities of life with a small “L”—food, clothing, and shelter. He says, “Look at the birds of the air! Look at the flowers of the field! Your heavenly father takes care of them and he will take care of you. But seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you” (vs. 31). How much time do we spend worrying about the necessities of life? How much time do people spend looking for a job, any kind of job, so long as it provides food, clothing, and shelter? “Seek first the Kingdom,” Jesus says, “and all these things shall be added unto you.” He’s telling us we can’t serve God and money. He’s telling us we have to make a choice. He’s asking us to exchange one set of values for another—to give up our love of money for the love of the Kingdom, to give up life (with a small “L”) for Life (with a capital “L”).
Why would we do such a thing?
Huston Smith, the great scholar of world religions, once wrote:
There is within us—even the blithest, most lighthearted among us—a fundamental dis-ease…. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and deep in the regions of our soul. All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with … entertainments, obsessions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release…. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence with its confining walls of finitude and mortality. The Good News…is that that longing can be fulfilled.[ii]
What do we long for? C. S. Lewis called it beauty. He said:
We do not merely want to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it…. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.[iii]
Brian McLaren, after quoting these two, says:
It is my conviction, after these many years of reflecting on the…message of Jesus, that what [Huston] Smith, [C. S.] Lewis, and a thousand other writers, poets, teachers, and mystics have been talking about is hidden like a treasure in this beautiful phrase, “kingdom of God.”[iv]
“That’s what you need to look for,” Jesus says: “the Kingdom.” And every once in a while we catch a glimpse of it. Honestly, I’ve caught more glimpses of the Kingdom in the past year than ever before in my life. This church has been working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and on more than one occasion it’s come close. I think about those second graders who held a bake sale so they could raise money to buy a new pair of shoes for someone who needed them. I picture them in the kitchen with loving mothers and fathers, stirring up batches of cookies, cupcakes, and brownies. I can still see them down at the end of the hall, sitting behind a table, exchanging their baked goods for piles of filthy lucre. But it didn’t stay filthy for long: they exchanged it for a pair of new shoes, and gave them to Cheryl, and when she opened the box she stuck her nose right down in it, and smelled those new shoes like she had just pulled a pan of chocolate chip cookies out of the oven. Somehow, all the complexity of this difficult parable is unraveled in the simplicity of that story.
- These children were looking for a way to bring heaven to earth—they were seeking the Kingdom.
- They were able to make friends for themselves with money—by doing something extravagant for someone they didn’t even know.
- They were willing to exchange something of value—first flour and butter and sugar, and then money, and then shoes—for something of even greater value—a glimpse of the Kingdom.
- They were faithful with that little bit they were able to earn, and were therefore entrusted with the true riches.
- They decided that they were going to serve God instead of money.
- And heaven came to earth.
How much is that worth to you? How much would you pay for that? And how often does our greedy, anxious, grab for money keep us from having such experiences? “You can’t serve God and money,” Jesus warned. “You have to make a choice.” But you could make the right choice. You could choose to exchange your love of money for the love of the Kingdom. You could choose to exchange life with a small “L” for Life with a capital “L.” Just ask those second graders how to get started.
They’ll tell you.
[i] I need to give William Willimon credit for this line. I heard him say it that way once and I have never forgotten it.
[ii] Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).
[iii] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), p. 397.
[iv] Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), p. 198. I got both of the previous quotes from McLaren, underlining them with a ballpoint pen while I was lying in a hammock on the banks of the James River last Thursday, my day off.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.