18th Sunday after Pentecost
September 22, 2013
Luke 16: 1-13
So here it is! My Starbuck’s app! Just press the button and you can pay for your drink with a blip! You can use your credit card to reload it and off you go. I like Starbucks because I can buy dark roast fair-trade coffee there, and I’ve seen first-hand the difference it makes to buy direct from peasant farmers. It makes me feel like I’m doing my part to support poor farmers in places where only the rich owned land and workers were virtual slaves, unable to read or write, or educate their children for anything better in life. From my rich world, I feel as if it’s the least I can do, and I love the wizardry of waving my phone over the scanner. I sometimes wonder if Jesus thinks I’m as cool as I think I am. He has plenty to say about my rich world, and about the power of money to help me distance myself from the real issues of poverty and advantage in the world.
This story that Jesus tells in today’s reading is a headache. Famous theologian Rudolf Bultmann called it “the problem child” of Jesus’ parables. What the heck is Jesus trying to tell us? It’s clear that the manager is a sly customer – Jesus calls him shrewd – and that he uses his advantages to rip off whoever he needs to in order to make his life comfortable. And surprisingly, the boss commends him for being so clever. Then Jesus commends him, too, suggesting that we ‘children of light’ could take a lesson from his shrewdness. What? And what’s his comment about using ‘dishonest wealth’ as a path of discipleship?
We already know that Luke has a particular slant on wealth. Jesus’ stories are often about the proper use of money. In his day, it is pretty much assumed that if you are rich, you have done something sly to accumulate such wealth, but Jesus’ big issue always seems to be that those who have wealth are able to share with their community because they have been given such great giftedness. We don’t really talk much about money in church except when we want to gather some in for a project or to fund the budget. But Luke has a theology about money and its power. When Jesus says that you can’t serve God and wealth, he’s articulating something that we all know, but rarely want to discuss in our money-driven culture. Wealth and the seeking after what it brings is an active power that rivals God. Money and wealth demand allegiance. The sly manager in the story understands exactly how money works to build obligation and connections. By building relationships he regains control of his future.
Remember that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and we all know what awaits him there. His healing and his miracles have attracted a lot of people who want to come along. But Jesus is increasingly difficult in his teaching about what it means to follow him. The road will not be so easy, and the sacrifices will begin to be apparent. In this context he discusses what true wealth looks like. It’s not about the kind of riches that make life easy, as the shrewd manager is able to pull off, it’s about finding the true connections that will last. So, says Jesus, if you cannot see the limits of earthly wealth and its advantages, how can you follow the path of God’s kingdom in which gratitude, forgiveness, and welcome are the true riches. Wealth makes us turn inward into our own interests and away from the concerns of our neighbor. It teaches us to rely on our own devices and grasp our best advantages instead of thinking beyond our own needs and wants. It closes our eyes to the gifts that come from being helped and held and shared with. God’s kingdom is all about pouring out love and benefits to people who don’t deserve any of it. We all receive grace upon grace, just because God loves. And discipleship means giving as generously as we have been given to.
This week’s been all about food stamps. Some of our representatives think that what’s best for our economy is to cut benefits to people who might not deserve them. Others think cutting back on benefits is balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. The reading from Amos tells us that this is not a new issue. I’m not trying to say that either the Democrats or the Republicans are right or wrong. There’s plenty of obnoxious rhetoric to go around. What I am suggesting is that Jesus’ take on the power of wealth to turn hearts to their own self-interest is Biblical. And that God’s longing for all to be cared for is as old as Scripture itself. One of the marks of God’s people in the Hebrew Bible is that they will care for widows and orphans. I am as guilty as anyone of enjoying my advantages and those gizmos that make life so easy. We are all guilty of seeing the world to our own advantage. So often I congratulate myself for giving the small stuff, while I am still a part of a system that continues to keep the balance in my favor. I am so glad that God loves sinners. Jesus generosity overwhelms me when I think about it. He didn’t hold back at all. He gave up everything to bring God’s love to our world of inequity and self-interest. And he calls me to step outside of the power of money to define me and the life I live. And even though I can’t do it, he forgives me and welcomes me anyway. And he continues to ask me to wake up to the gifts that have been showered on me, and to use them with an open heart, building the community of support and generosity which is called his body. May we all bring our gifts to build up that body. Amen.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.