Year C, Proper 20 September 18, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Thinking and praying on our relationship to the material world is of utmost importance, particularly for us, rather well off 21st century Americans as many of us in this room are. Look at our world. Our political system is utterly corrupted by wealth and the hubris of wealthy people vying for the reigns of power (yes St. Timothy, we need to pray for them). Our economy is morally crippled by disparity in wealth where some have everything they could possibly dream of while others will sleep outside in the rain tonight, right here in our neighborhood, on our back porch, hungry, sick and cold. Our ecosystem is collapsing under the weight of the billions of tons of carbon we wantonly spew into the atmosphere… Our material world is a mess and we should be ashamed for our corporate and individual parts in that.
Fortunately for us, Christianity, Our Lord Jesus Christ in particular, has a lot to say about this, about the temporal world of time and space and matter. William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote, “Christianity is the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions.” Now that is not a critique! What he means is that we, as Christians, understand the importance of all of this, of the world and all that is in it. We understand the world to be so important, so desperately important that God in God’s self came here to redeem it, to save it, to save it from us! “The Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us.” This is the heart of what we Anglicans call “Incarnational Theology,” which it is all about God’s unending love for the creation and all of us that are part of it. So if God loves it so, we ought to also (which means, of course, we must hold it and everyone in it with the same desperate love.) “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” That is God’s summation of the creation at the end of the 6th day, Genesis 1:31. The goodness of the creation is the starting point of all Christian thought, feeling and being.
And then there is this parable; the Dishonest Manager and the statement we cannot serve God and wealth… Exegetical preaching, digging into a passage line by line, is not my go to place, nor my strength, but this parable can be so opaque and is so desperately important, that that is what we are going to do today.
So a rich man hears that his manager is screwing up. So first off, the accusations are based on hearsay. I’m just saying. So the master summons the manager, likely a slave, many managers or stewards were slaves, he summons him and says, “Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” He’s fired.
The dismissed manager has this internal dialogue. “What will I do? … I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg….” So what did he do? He acted shrewdly, is what he did.
He first called debtor who owed the master 100 jugs of oil, and reduced the debt to 50. Then to someone who owed 100 containers of wheat, he made it 80. These are big figures. In that time, that was enormous wealth. In giving special favors to those debtors, the manager hoped to win their favor, and maybe be invited to join their household or come into their service for the deals he offered. It’s pretty slimy, pretty dishonest, it is white collar, or white cloak crime, but not a capital offense. And more, if you had a class warfare kind of hermeneutic, you might say that the manager shouldn’t feel any loyalty to a master who would summarily dismiss him on hearsay alone. If you treat your employees like that you can’t expect loyalty (or even honesty) in return, kind of just desserts for the owning class. And it is precisely with that ethic that the master responded to the manager’s actions. He didn’t call the police or the centurions to arrest the manager for embezzlement, rather he commended him because “…he had acted shrewdly.” Capital by its nature is mercenary. It exists for its own sake and to increase itself. So to a capitalist, someone who uses capital to further their own cause like the manager does, is commendable because that is the point. Shrewdness is a cardinal virtue associated with the management of wealth.
Now here is where it gets interesting, and rather confusing. In the version we read today, there is a controversial semi-colon. It reads, “…because he acted shrewdly; (and continues) for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.” There is a period and a new sentence in other versions, though not quotation marks anywhere! Now that is important, because read that way puts those words in the mouth of the master and NOT in the mouth of Jesus where it would seem to belong. “Children of this age” means regular folks, just people of the time, where “children of light” is a reference to followers of Jesus, people in His community. (Such references are used elsewhere in antiquity). So that sounds like Jesus, and then the next sentence, still not enclosed by any quotations reads, “And 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.” That doesn’t sound like something the master would say, does it? It is a bit odd, but it does sound pretty Jesus-y.
What does that mean, that the “children of this generation are more shrewd than the children of light?” First, I think this is a critique of the children of light. Jesus is pointing out the discomfort his followers have with wealth. Pretty understandable. When He says things like, “…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all of your possessions,” I mean that’s not generally going to attract folks with subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal or Forbes, is it? He is not preaching to the country club set. No. Jesus repeatedly makes wealth and its consequences out to be morally dubious things if not genuinely corrupting things. And most of his followers are poor, right? Most of them. And poor folks generally aren’t so shrewd with money. It is hard to be skillful with something that you don’t have. So I think he is saying something about needing to deal with the reality of the world. The world as we know it works on money: know that world. Be shrewd, children of light.
Now here is where it gets really complicated… He is talking about “dishonest wealth” mind you, wealth that was mis-gotten, stolen, the product of exploitation, like in this case, it was embezzled by a jilted employee from a slave owning 1%er. That’s some dirty money. And about this wealth, Jesus says, “Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes.” What He is saying here, is that you can use something bad, something tainted, for a good purpose. So you can use “dishonest wealth,” in this case, to forge relationships, that then can transform into something better even when the wealth disappears; being welcomed into eternal homes sounds pretty good. He says things like this elsewhere. When talking about eating with unwashed hands, He teaches “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15) It is not the thing itself that matters, in this case the dishonest wealth, it is what you do with it that matters.
That reminds me of a story about General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. He took money from everyone to build that church and he took some flack from it. He was quoted once, something to the effect, “I’d take money from the Devil himself and wash it in the blood of the lamb!” I sometimes use the term “karmic money laundering”… same-same.
In the Buddhist Sutras there is a parable teaching the doctrine of “Expedient Means.” A man comes home and sees his house burning. He calls his children out of the house, but they don’t listen. So instead he cried, “Children, I have presents for you!” and they stream out just before the house collapses and they are all saved. It is okay to use expedient means, or dishonest wealth to accomplish God’s work. So if you have some Monsanto or Mylan stocks (the maker of the $600 EpiPen) that you are looking to clean up, stewardship season starts October 2! I’m serious about that, we have an easy process to convert securities into pledges. Now taking that money is a lot different than reaping profits by investing our endowment in such companies! And that is sort of where this is going to go.
“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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
Now this is a little convoluted. Was it the master’s wealth that was dishonest? (Most great concentrations of wealth are) Or the wealth the manager rerouted? (It was stolen). It is hard to tell, but it all gets to the real moral hazard of wealth. Because wealth is really corrupting. From whoever stole the can with $1.50 in nickels from our copier closet, to those who profited from opening extra bank accounts at Wells Fargo, to the Ponzi scheme of debt that is our capital market system, massive forces mustered by the devil himself are arrayed to lull us into complacency about if not lead us into downright feeding-frenzies of greed when we encounter wealth. No matter if it is $5 or a state pension fund, we need to stay honest. G.K. Chesterton, the great British theologian writes on the idea of honest wealth among the rich, because the rich, it is said, cannot be bribed because they are already rich. Chesterton writes, “The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man.”
And that is the heart of Jesus’ message in this opaque parable and teaching. We can take unclean things, bad things like dishonest wealth, but we must remain honest with them. We must remain untouched by them. Like we can cash in securities from evil doing companies that others have profited from but no longer would, and wash it in the blood of the lamb. However, we should not reap profits from Raytheon’s drones, or Boeing’s bombers or Monsanto’s poisons by owning their stocks ourselves. We can deal with these things, but we must be wary not to make them more than they are, which is simply tools. Money has no, zero, zip inherent value. It is a derivative, its value is derived from somewhere else, largely our faith in it. If we loose faith in the almighty dollar, then instantly it is no longer almighty. And there is deep, deep, deep moral hazard in money, because it is something that demands our faith and is not worthy of it.
Money is a tool. Like a car, or a computer or a phone or school or a nation-state or any created thing. Its value is utilitarian and we need to be careful what we offer our loyalty to. These are not evil things, the creation is good, “very good” is how God put it, right? But our first and foremost sin has been, is and likely always will be idolatry; treating as God that which is not God and therefore ought not to be treated as God. This means that we must not treat money, wealth, any material thing as our ultimate concern. God must be our ultimate concern, because what we treat as our ultimate concern is our God. And while this creation is good and is from God, nothing in it is God, save that precious moment when Jesus Christ became flesh and dwelt amongst us to reveal God’s true nature, seen and unseen as it is.
We cannot serve two masters. We are not what we have. We are children of God. We are not what we are worth. We are all children of God. Because you have wealth or security or have worked very hard to get either, you are no better than someone who doesn’t or didn’t. You don’t have a right to expect things of others because you have more, though that is what the devil whispers in our ears through the values and conventional wisdoms of our families and cultures and sometimes religions.
Money, dishonest or otherwise, is simply a means. Who are you going to serve? Our purpose as Christians is to love God with all of our heart and all of our souls and all of our minds, and with every resource at our command, dishonest and otherwise, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” AMEN