I go a bit off-piste in the talk – and if you listen to it you will discover why I am still earnestly writing my sermons out in full first.
Wealth. Money. Always an interesting topic. Actually, I find the whole topic of money – what it is, how it works, what it means – fascinating. And I particularly enjoy a confusing, challenging Jesus story. So a confusing parable all about money is like a night out on the tiles for me.
Let me start by saying that I intend to prove Jesus right about the lack of shrewdness of the children of the light. Apparently what generally happens when the topic of money comes up from the pulpit is that it is in the context of how you should be giving more away to the poor, and to the church. However, I don’t think that’s the primary point of this passage.
The question, ultimately, is this: how is to live with (or without) wealth? It seems to offer us security, status, freedom. But does it? What does Jesus have to say about it?
To get an answer to this question, let’s address this most perplexing parable.
To begin with, possibly the most striking thing about it is that it is a pretty funny story. It ought not to be – it is, however you spin it, a story about people getting ripped off. But there’s a lightness to it. I’ll come back to that in a minute, because I think it’s important.
Next: a bit of background. First century Palestine was an agrarian society. Wealth generally took the form of land and agricultural products. The rich man, then, was a big local land owner. He evidently didn’t live locally, hence the main character in the story: the manager. He would have run the farm for the land owner, and managed all the relationships with local suppliers and tenant farmers, so that the landowner could devote himself to whatever passed for the good life amongst the elite of first century Palestine.
Someone has grassed on our hero, the manager, and accused him of dishonest practice. A certain amount of dishonest practice probably went with the job, so presumably this guy had gone way too far, so the land owner could now longer ignore his naughtiness.
So the landowner had to step in, and let it be known that he was going to dismiss his ne’er do well manager.
This would have been seriously bad news for the manager. He wasn’t a labourer, habituated it to the work from his youth, so he wouldn’t have been physically able to do the hard manual graft required to keep a pre-industrial farm going. His pride wouldn’t let him beg – and, realistically, his prospects would not have been good.
He was, in short, in a bind. Serious consequences awaited him – to be unemployed and friendless in a culture with no social security net is a very dangerous position to be in. What was he to do?
Then – the solution. I know – I’ll reduce the debts of the people who owe stuff to the boss. Then they will owe me a favour, and, hopefully, I’ll be able to keep body and soul together.
So that is what he did – reducing the debts of the various people who owed his boss wheat or oil, or whatever else they owed him.
But here’s the sting in the tail – the rich man, instead of really blowing up at this shocking betrayal, praises him for his shrewdness!
Having told this surprising story, Jesus concludes with a few, no less mysterious, remarks.
Firstly, he makes the surprising suggestion that, like the manager, one should “make friends with dishonest wealth” in order to be welcomed into the “eternal homes.”
Then there is a complicated series of admonitions. To summarize, how we handle “dishonest wealth”, which is somehow not our own, will affect whether we are entrusted with true wealth, that which is truly our own.
Finally, Jesus rounds it off with one of his most famous sayings: That we can’t serve both God and wealth.
So much for what the passage says. What does it mean?
As I said at the beginning of this sermon, there is a lightness of touch here. This is a comic story – like watching Ocean’s Eleven. We are cheering for the dishonest manager, from whose point of view the story is told. The comedic effect is enhanced by the reaction of the land owner, who, rather than throwing him in gaol, actually, ironically, commends him for his shrewdness!
It’s weird. And it’s an odd sort of a parable, because we don’t know where we stand, morally. Often when we’re reading a parable we ask ourselves: Where am I in this story? Which character stands for God? What’s the moral lesson here? But in this story, there is no obvious answer to these questions.
The key to this, for me, is in one little remarked aspect of Jesus’ ministry: he is often rather cavalier about material objects which don’t belong to him. We tell the stories so often that it’s possible to overlook this aspect of them, but it is surprisingly clear when you look for it.
This was made vividly clear to me in a youth group Bible study about the miraculous catch of fish, in which the nets were strained to breaking point, such was the enormousness of the catch. A particular girl in the group, from a wealthy family, was quite preoccupied with the nets, that they would be broken. I wasn’t at all sure how to respond, apart from suggesting that she was missing the point of the story.
I still think that’s true – she was missing the main point. However, there is something there. Did the nets break? And if so, who repaired them? The first disciples walked out on their boats and fish and everything else. That seems, to say the least, reckless, or even feckles. And, come to think about it, who repaired the roof that the paralysed man was lowered through by his friends? And that very valuable herd of pigs destroyed when Jesus cast out a whole legion of demons into them? Where does the money come from for all of this eh?
Altogether, it’s a lamentable record, at least from those of us who are shrewd and cautious with our money, who pride ourselves on having our stuff together. If I heard it from anyone other than Jesus, I would be tempted to feel quite aggrieved.
But it is Jesus who says it, and who behaves in this surprising way. So if I want to be his disciple, then I had better pay attention. He isn’t just some self-proclaimed rabble-rousing revolutionary with some naïve hope that if only we all really paid attention to the lyrics in John Lennon’s Imagine then we could all live together in some vague utopia of happy sunshine and also everyone would have a pony.
Perhaps the key to it is in the strange moral Jesus draws from the story. “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.”
What, he is asking, is your wealth for?
I think that this is like the insight lying behind the very mysterious saying “if you have not been faithful with what belongs to you, who will give you what is your own?”
Wealth, Jesus is saying, is not fundamentally our own. It is external, secondary, a tool to achieve the fundamental aims for which we were made. This is what the bit about “eternal homes” is pointing to: our eternal home is with God, and money is of use precisely to the degree it moves us towards God, or away from Him.
The Human heart, Calvin said, is a factory for manufacturing idols. The more significant something is, the more liable it is to be turned into an idol. Wealth – the money, which we have instead of land and olive oil and wheat, is a very strong candidate for a stand-in for God.
It’s a fascinating thing, money. Unlike oil and wheat and so on, it is not directly and of itself useful. It is only useful because we all believe in it. I give the barrista a little piece of brightly coloured polymer, and she gives me a latte in return. My faith in the miracle of money has been rewarded! The whole thing is an international, intergenerational trust exercise. The movement of little bits of paper and plastic – or even the changes in figures in a piece of accounting software in a bank – is the power to buy food, shelter, and the good things of life.
The thing about money, at base, is that it demands to be taken seriously. The serious way people in financial services dress, in order to convey sober respectability. Those wonderful old banks on Collins Street, built to look like temples or churches. All to convey a sense of gravitas, of trustworthiness to the whole enterprise. Even the way the day’s financial information is reported on the evening news, with a seriousness to rival even the sports reporting. It’s sacral. All the more so because ninety-nine out of a hundred of us don’t have the foggiest notion of what they are talking about.
It’s an endlessly fascinating topic, and I could wax lyrical about it for hours. But the time is getting late, and it’s not really what I’m here to discuss. The main point is to note the power of money, the grip it has over us, both from a practical level and symbolically for us.
The biggest power wealth claims for itself is security. If only I had more money, we think, then we’d be safe against the worst that life can throw at me. This is one of the most direct challenges to a life of discipleship imaginable. Jesus says that there is no security apart from with him, bringing us into a right relationship with God and each other. Wealth says that I can be safe and secure and not need anyone else. That is why it is such a powerful idol – because it directly challenges our primary trust of God, and wants to replace it with trust in itself.
It lies, of course. Money really can’t buy security, let alone happiness. It just means endlessly running on the hedonic treadmill. You need a holiday to reward yourself for your stressful job. You need a well paid, and hence stressful, job in order to pay for the holiday, which, in turn, you need to cope with your job. And so on. There is no escape, no amount of money you will ever be able to earn when you will be able to say: this is enough.
They don’t call them the “golden handcuffs” for nothing.
Don’t get me wrong – poverty is horrible. Debt, so easy to get into and so hard to escape from, is a curse. And that’s without even beginning to think about the terrible situation of so many people in the two-thirds world, who are one bad harvest or episode of bad health away from starvation. Even in our own, considerably more affluent, society the precariousness of so much work is a huge source of stress for a lot of us.
Into this situation of anxiety, Jesus speaks.
Into this world where money cries out to us to take it seriously, to devote our lives to its service, that with just a little more, we could be secure, that we could purchase the solution to all our deepest needs and desires, if only we knew where to shop and had enough money to shop there. In the meantime, perhaps the new iPhone would do it for me?
This is the world into which Jesus comes.
The lies that wealth and poverty tell us ringing in our ears make it hard to hear, but Jesus is saying that they ultimately don’t matter. They are secondary matters. And, he says, you can be free of the slavery to money so much of us labour under – the rich as much as the poor.
The transformation Jesus wants for us is to see that wealth can be a false rival to God, and that we need to be free of the slavery of money in order to be able to live our lives oriented towards God, our eternal home.
As that old Bob Dylan song says: you gotta serve someone. It might be money, or it might be The Lord. But in the end, you are going to serve someone. The question is: who?
So if you are rich, then of course you need to give money away – because that’s part of what it means to be free of the slavery to wealth. And if you are poor, then you are not somehow a lesser person, because what counts is your orientation towards God, not whether you eat in the coolest restaurants or struggle to make ends meet at the end of the month.
This is, I think, the message of the story today. Jesus comes to bring us freedom – and part of that freedom is the freedom from always needing more, of finding our security in wealth that is not, fundamentally ours. Rather, he offers us the wealth that is truly ours, which can be found only in following him.
Because Jesus, ultimately, shows us God.
Let us pray.
Loving God, you call us away from all pretended rivals to you,
And to take lightly the claims of wealth and status.
Help us to follow you, so that we can know the freedom you offer,
Freedom from the dread of not having enough, and not being enough.
Help us to put our trust only in you.
In Jesus name