Monday, September 23, 2013

Using Dishonest Wealth Faithfully

    I want to forewarn you this morning that when I was in seminary, I wrote a 30 page paper on today’s Gospel lesson.  And as I continue to wrestle with this text, I had a really evil thought.  You see, this text is pretty mind boggling.  It doesn’t seem to gel with what we see and know of Jesus throughout the rest of scripture.  Since it seems so head scratching, I thought I’d just read my 30 page paper this morning leaving you utterly bored and just as confused as when you first read it.  That way we could all still walk out of here scratching our heads and still trying to figure out just what point Jesus is trying to make.

    Well, that was the thought, but I don’t even want to put myself through 30 pages of Greek translation, the nuances of the words, tying them into other biblical texts, and what have you.  If I ever go back to school, maybe I will force myself to do such things, but right now, I rather enjoy letting others do that kind of work and simply reading about it.

    But that is beside the point, what is on point is our Gospel lesson and the difficulty wading through it.  I mean, there are certainly parts of this text which are straight forward and easily understood, but it seems like there is not a good flow of logic.  It doesn’t seem like one thing necessarily follows from the other as we move through this teaching of Jesus.  So, I’d like to attempt this morning to wade through this text once more in a careful manner to see if we can indeed make sense of it and see if there is an underlying logic to it.

    We begin with a story about a rich man and his steward.  Someone brings charges against the steward, accusing the steward of squandering the rich man’s property.  The rich man acts accordingly, “You are squandering my property?  Give me an accounting because you can no longer be my steward.”

    Well, the rich man must have given the steward some time to get his paperwork together, because the steward now has time to contemplate his future, and he is not happy about what he sees.  “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am too ashamed to beg?”  Mind you, in Jesus’ day these two options were looked down upon greatly.  There was great shame in working with your hands.  There was great shame in begging.  The steward was not happy at all with his lot at this point. 

    But, in the midst of his thinking, he comes upon a solution–a grand plan, if you will.  He says, “I know what I will do  so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 

    The steward starts calling in the people who owe his master money.  The first guy owes a hundred jugs of olive oil.  The steward says, “Make it 50.”  Of course the guy who owes the oil is very happy.  Second guy comes up and owes 100 containers of wheat.  “Make it 80.”  Of course, the guy who owed the wheat is happy.  But there is more.

    The culture of Jesus’ day really and truly revolved around a “you scratch my back, and I will scratch your back” reality.  People were constantly doing one another favors to put themselves in a position of honor.  Folks weren’t doing nice things just for the sake of being nice, nope, not at all.  Folks were doing things so that they might be repaid at a later date.

    And the steward is doing just that.  He is setting these folks up.  He is performing a kindness to them so that if indeed his master lets him go, he will have a place to stay.  Essentially, the steward can go to the guys who owed his master olive oil and wheat and say, “You know, I did you a favor in reducing your debt significantly.  I need a place to stay.  Do you mind?”  And because of the cultural norms in that day, the debtors would have been obliged to let him in.

    Now, here is the other kicker to the puzzle.  This is something that just occurred to me this past week.  Perhaps it has occurred to others who study such matters, but I have never read it in any other work.  The steward, by his actions also brought the rich man honor.  How did that happen?  Well, the guy who owed the olive oil and the guy who owed the wheat actually owed it to the master–not the steward.  So, in effect, what the steward did was make these debtors doubly indebted to the rich man.  They now owed the rich man massive favors.

    So, let’s think about this.  By reducing the debt of these men, the steward can either go to them and say, “You owe me.”  Or he can go to his master and say, “Because of my actions these men now owe you.”  The steward brought his master honor, and now the master owes his steward a favor.  The steward manipulated the system perfectly!  Is it any wonder then why the master praises the steward for acting shrewdly?  The guy indeed is a master when it comes to manipulation.

    At this point of the story, I think the disciples are pretty much going, “Yep, that’s the way it works.  That’s the way the system is set up.  Jesus continues, “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”  This is probably very much a truism.  Those focused on this reality and how it works indeed are more shrewd in dealing with this generation.  But what about those who are not focused on this reality?  What about the children of light who are called to focus on the reality of the Kingdom of God?  What do they do with wealth?

    Jesus continues, “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.”  This statement to me is fascinating.  For it leads me to ask a couple of important questions: what does it mean to make friends out of dishonest wealth?  And how can those friends welcome you into the eternal homes?  Last I saw, the only friend who can welcome us into the eternal home is Jesus.  And Jesus himself knows that only God can welcome us into the eternal home.   So, I have to wonder at this point if Jesus isn’t being a bit sarcastic.  Is Jesus trying to make us contrast reality and eternity?  The reality is: manipulate the system to put yourself in an advantageous position even if you have to be dishonest to do it.  Does eternity work that way?  No.

    Jesus finishes with these words, 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.”

    Again, we have Jesus calling us to use dishonest wealth faithfully.  Does this mean we have appropriated our wealth dishonestly?  Well, maybe.  But not necessarily by intent.  I mean, let’s think about how wealth is acquired.  Sure, we acquire it by working.  There is no shame in that.  “A laborer is due his wages,” writes St. Paul.  But are our wages completely free of dishonestly?  Is the wealth we accumulate completely free of sin and injustice?  We know this is not true.  We know many of the things we buy are purchased from industries overseas who do not treat their workers well.  We know that many goods we buy, including our food, are cheap because of cheap labor–sometimes labor which has been abused.  We know that our wealth doesn’t necessarily come cheap–sometimes it comes out of the pockets who can least afford it.  And yet, it is wealth given to us, and the question is: how do we use it?  Do we use it dishonestly?  Do we squander it?  Or, do we use it to do God’s work?

    That, I think becomes the ultimate question.  Do we use our wealth to the glory of God?  Do we use our wealth to be faithful to Him?  The reality may be that in order to get ahead and work the system we are supposed to be dishonest; however, as Christians I do not believe we are called to work and move with this reality in mind.  I believe we are called to think about the eternal homes–the homes in the Kingdom of God.  And in that reality, we use wealth to serve God even if that wealth is tainted.

    It seems to me that if we are called to Live God’s Word Daily, we must be cognizant of how we use our wealth.  We must be cognizant of our intent in how we use it.  Do we use it to make friends for ourselves here to save our bacon?  Or do we use it to glorify God?  To Live God’s Word Daily, I think the choice is clear.  Jesus said it himself, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Amen.

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