September 22, 2019 What does it mean?
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
I am someone who grew up in the Protestant tradition and I believe that the Reformation was necessary as it rediscovered a few fundamental theological truths: People are set right with God through faith alone, we are saved by the grace of God alone and not because of our good deeds, and even though tradition and clergy add great perspective, the final authority when it comes to theology is the Word of God. Grace of God, through faith and based on the Word of God!
On paper it seems pretty clear, does it not? When you want to know God’s will, all you have to do is open the Bible, read it and viola, you find God’s will! Unfortunately, as church history sadly reminds us, the Bible is not always as clear as one would expect. Very soon after the Reformation, once the Bible was translated and printed and more people could read it, people with opposing theological views were convinced that they, and not others speak on behalf of God. Why? Because they believe the Bible tells them so!
Some views were benign; others were harmful! For example, when Jesus tells the criminal on the cross: Is it “Truly I tell you, today you will be in paradise with me.”? Or is it “truly I tell you today, you will be in paradise with me.”? A minor difference with a theological interesting implication: What happens when you die? Will you be with God immediately (today) or not? Interesting question but in the bigger scheme of things not very important.
However, the interpretation of the story of Noah and his son has been very harmful. In Genesis we read about Noah’s son Ham who sees his father Noah naked and laughed. Noah, as you recall, drank too much after the flood. Ham is cursed for his laughing at his naked and intoxicated Father. The result? Ham and his offspring, are cursed to be slaves. This was used to justify slavery of Africans. This has resulted in unimaginable pain and injustice and it is a wrong interpretation of the Genesis story.
I believe that the Bible is God’s Word to us. I believe that God’s Word is sufficient, it has authority, it is trustworthy and it is true. However, the Bible is not always an easy book to understand. What do you do with references to giants (Genesis 6:4) and a talking donkey (Numbers 22) and trees that anoint a king over themselves (Judges 9:8)?
And what do you do with our Gospel reading today? I have to admit I am not quite sure what to make of it. Fortunately, I am not the first one who tried to explain the text. So, I read what others theologians make of this parable. The good news is that I am not alone in being confused about the meaning of this parable. The bad news is that they were not a great help and I am still confused.
So instead of me telling you what the text means, I invite you to think with me what the meaning of this parable possible could be. As the sermon title suggests: “What does it mean?”
It is a parable about a rich man with a dishonest manager. The dishonest manager squandered the property of the rich owner. When the rich man summoned him and brought charges against him, the manager shows us why he is called dishonest: he in turn summons his master’s debtors and essentially tells them to quickly and fraudulently change their bills.
At the end of this illegal activity his master, instead of punishing him, commended him “because he had acted shrewdly.” On top of this, Jesus says: “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.” It would have been much easier had Jesus condemn the dishonest managers actions instead of saying “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.”
So, what on earth does this mean? The easy and honest answer is: “I have no idea!” But that is too easy and perhaps a copout!
Let me share with you what I’ve learned: Luke loves the theme about how one uses or should use your wealth. In chapter 12 Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. The rich fool uses all his time and energy to accumulate wealth and then he dies. Then these words follow: “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The parable ends: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” This parable is then followed by the familiar words: “Do not worry – about your life, your body, or what you would eat. Do not be afraid little flock for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
So, wealth and how we relate to money and wealth obviously was in Luke’s scope. Furthermore, it is interesting that the dishonest manager was shrewd enough to convince the debtors to change the bill themselves? It was therefore not the manager who was dishonest, it was the debtors who were swayed to change the bills. He was shrewd in correcting his errors so that his boss would not fire him for not being a good steward.
Disciples of Christ are also called to be good stewards. Remember that dishonest wealth is a translation of the word Mammon. The word Mammon does not appear in the Old Testament. It is however a familiar concept in broader Judaism. Mammon in this context refers to money and wealth that can spoil people and lead to a selfish life. Disciples are warned that they should not be too attached to wealth. And one is too attached to wealth when wealth becomes a purpose in itself.
The general purpose of Luke is to warn faithful people of the dangers of making wealth a purpose in itself. A purpose that requires an exclusive focus in which you pour all your energy and purpose. The nature of Mammon or wealth is such that it very easily becomes your top priority. It does not leave you with energy and enthusiasm for anything else. It is therefore not possible to serve both God and Mammon. And history is full of examples where faithful people thought that they could find a healthy balance between wealth and serving God. However, history shows us that too often Christians succumbed to worshipping Mammon or focusing too much on wealth and not God.
Wealth in the Bible is not always seen as evil. There are many faithful people in the Bible who were very wealthy and they served God well. Abraham, Job, David, Solomon and Lydia of Thyatira a business woman who converted to Christianity in the Book of Acts. Other books in the Bible show that it is not impossible to be faithful and wealthy.
The Bible is however clear that being faithful is very hard when you are wealthy! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. It is so hard because being faithful is to be able to let go of those things that you build your trust in. It is hard to unconditionally trust God and to fully rely on God, if and when you have material means, contacts, and other systems of support.
One also has to face the hard fact that it is very difficult for people to stop accumulating and to say: this is enough. It does not come easily and it does not come naturally. Greed is a powerful force.
This paragraph is thus not only hard to understand; it is also very hard to embrace for it is brutally honest about how difficult it is for us to find a balance between loving God and serving Mammon.
There is another part of this paragraph that is perhaps easier to understand and easier to embrace: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” and vice versa.
This is a theological truth but also a general truth. Sure, this has to do to with the way one approach wealth and God. One who is not trustworthy and honest in small and insignificant things will not be trustworthy and honest in big and important things. But it is also about living with integrity and authenticity. You see, faithful living, is about integrating your faith with your whole life: the way you treat those with power and those without power. The way you pay your taxes and the way you do business with others. The way you are honest with you spouse and the way you are honest with your children. It is to live with respect, dignity and integrity in ALL aspects of live. It is about speaking the truth and caring about the truth. It is about living as the image of God and treating others as the image of God. Too often we hear about people of faith who are caught being dishonest in business and relationships.
Which brings us to the bottom line of this text: If we, as people of faith, cannot be trusted, how can God entrust true riches to us? True riches of course are the riches of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps we can emphasize this point by asking a couple of questions:
When people look at people who call themselves Christians, what do they see? Do they see honest, humble, trustworthy, authentic people with integrity? When people who are skeptical about religion what do they think when they look at religious people? Do they see love or hate?
According to author Dan Kimball a leading voice of the Emerging Church movement, the six most common perceptions of the Church among post-Christian 20- and 30-somethings are the following:
- The Church is an organized religion with a political agenda.
- The Church is judgmental and negative.
- The Church is dominated by males and oppresses females.
- The Church is homophobic.
- The Church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong.
- The Church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.
How would it be if people, regardless of their age, when they look at the church and church people, would see trustworthy people who live with integrity, whose lives are authentic and loving, people who can be trusted in everything, big and small, people who deeply care for others and who trust God unconditionally? How would it be if they would see people who are in healthy relationships with themselves and others, their possessions, the environment, humble and not self-serving! How would it be if we live like people who know that we are entrusted with God’s true riches and instead of being boastful about it, would share it abundantly with all?
I suspect that if church people were to live this way, the church would grow without us having to say a word! Amen