It is a strange story to come from the lips of Jesus. And I think it is an authentic Jesus story—in my opinion—because it is such a strange story I don’t think anybody would have attributed it to Jesus unless he himself actually told it. The Jesus Seminar agrees.
The owner of a business pretty much let his manager run his business without close supervision. Word got back to the owner that his manager was squandering his property. It doesn’t say he was embezzling; it just says he was squandering. You know what another name for squandering is? Expense account.
Maybe he took a lot of business trips; maybe he had three martini lunches; maybe he hired his relatives at inflated salaries; in some way the manager was squandering the owners’ assets. The owner found out and called the manager in to fire him. He gave the manager notice, and told him to settle up his accounts, and turn everything over to him.
The manager sees a bleak future ahead. Who else is going to hire him? When he loses his position he will also lose the housing that comes with it. Where will he live?
So he decides to use the time he has left to make friends for himself. In his remaining days, while he is still the manager, as he is settling up his accounts, he reduces people’s bills, and, in Jesus’ story, these are big bills, The bill for a hundred jugs of olive oil is not a bill you or I would owe, it is a bill Whole Foods would owe. A hundred containers of wheat is not a bill a household would owe; it is the bill a bakery would owe. He reduces these bills in as much as a half, so that those who owe the money will feel kindly toward him and take care of him when he is unemployed and homeless. They will owe him big time.
In Jesus’ story, when the owner finds out what the manager has done, he praises him. Jesus doesn’t tell us whether the manager is still fired, but the owner is impressed by the manager’s shrewdness. It is almost as if the owner is saying, “I wish he had been as smart and ruthless in making money for me as he is in using my money to take care of himself.”
I wonder if this was a story Jesus wrote or if it actually happened and Jesus repeated it as an illustration. No way to know.
Luke says the story is about the appropriate use of money. He says the story is about what money is good for.
In verse 9 of Luke 16, he says the punch line of the story is “Make friends for yourselves by the means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”
This is the verse we want to try to unpack this morning.
Up until Lent, which begins Ash Wednesday, February 17, we are trying to get a sense of the economics of Jesus… which is not an easy thing to do. We will only touch the surface in these sermons so we have a class on Wednesday nights on Faith and Finance, and I’ve suggested in your bulletin some books you might want to read to go deeper into this topic.
We pretty much know this: Jesus lived in a money economy. Jesus and his disciples had a treasury or a purse they kept money in. They had a treasurer; his name was Judas. They had donors, many of them women. Jesus owned no home; but some of his disciples did. Jesus owned a robe which was probably very expensive. Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist lived in voluntary poverty in the wilderness; by comparison Jesus ate well and drank well when he could and attended lots of parties. He was not an ascetic like John the Baptist.
I myself do not think the Christ could have come until there was at least the beginnings of a global money economy, because Christianity was destined to be a global religion. Christianity became a global religion by spreading the good news along global trade routes.
This may be part of the reason Jesus seems to have talked so much about money and told so many parables about money. Without a money economy he could not have been the Christ; but at the same time he understood the dangers of money. That’s my intuition.
So the verse we want to look at, based on the parable Jesus told, is Luke 16:9, translated in the New Revised Standard Version: “Make friends for yourselves by the means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”
The first thing we should look at is the phrase the NRSV translates “dishonest wealth.” A literal translation of the Greek would be the mammon of unrighteousness or the money of injustice. Scholars tell us that it is a Greek phrase based on a Semitic idiom, which means it is more likely to be something Jesus said.
The phrase is “the money of injustice”—the assumption behind the phrase is that money itself is part of a system that is unjust.
We like to think that money is neither good nor bad… it is just a tool. There is a web site I ran across that says this: “money is a neutral tool like a crowbar. Some people will use it to open things; others will drop it on their toes.”
But the Semitic idiom “money of injustice” suggests that by being part of the money economy, even just the economy—leave out the word “money” if you want—by being part of the economy, we participate in injustice.
Even though I know a lot of you don’t like the idea, this is why I have a hard time giving up altogether the idea of original sin. I know the concept is misused to suggest that sex is sinful and because most of us are born as a result of sex, we are born tainted by sin. I don’t think that is the case at all.
I think that the true meaning of the concept of original sin is that we are born into a unjust world and, from the very beginning, we are all implicated by and accountable for the injustice. None of us manages to live pure lives without participating in systems that demean and injure others.
This is why Paul Tillich defined sin as separation and why he says we are all born into it. We are all part of systems that distort our relationship with God, our relationship with others, our relationship with ourselves.
Money—economics—does this. Economics is an expression of our alienation from God, others, self.
Any money we have implicates us in somebody else’s poverty. I’m not saying that. I think that is what Jesus is saying when he uses the phrase “money of injustice.”
So none of us can say, “It is my money; I’ll do with it whatever I want.” I’m not saying we can’t say that; that is what it seems to me Jesus is saying.
So what should we do with the money we get our hands on? Luke 16: 9: “Make friends for yourselves by the means of the money of injustice so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”
Use your money to make friends in heaven. The imagery is this: You are at the gates of heaven. God, or Jesus, or St. Peter or whoever is deciding whether or not to let you in. So you want lots of friends there who will lobby in your favor. So use your money to make friends who will lobby on your behalf at the gates of heaven.
But I really think that this image is a metaphor. The meaning of the metaphor, I think, is that we should invest in relationships. The only thing of eternal value is relationship… community. The only true source of security is friendship, relationship, community.
This is why I think Jesus liked parties. This is why Jesus got a reputation for being a party guy, a glutton and a winebibber. Parties are about friendships, and relationships, and community.
Use your money to build community, and if you need to choose between making money or making friends, choose friendship.
Ministers don’t like to talk about this but do you know what the Old Testament tells you to do if you are too far away from the temple to get your tithe there? Israelites were to give a tenth of their harvest to the Temple. It was a major law in the Old Testament.
Deuteronomy 14:22-24 in the Message translation says: “If the place God, your God, designates for worship is too far away and you can't carry your tithe that far, God, your God, will still bless you: exchange your tithe for money and take the money to the place God, your God, has chosen to be worshiped. Use the money to buy anything you want: cattle, sheep, wine, or beer—anything that looks good to you. You and your family can then feast in the Presence of God, your God, and have a good time.”
If you are too far away to get to church and you can’t get online to transfer your tithe electronically, buy beef and beer and have a party. That is what Deuteronomy says.
Invest in community, invest in relationships, invest in friendship.
Because the truth is that when you get to be 60 years old, you may be able to buy health care, which is now a commodity, you may be able to buy nursing care, you may be able to buy legal counsel, you may even be able to buy sex, but you will not be able to buy someone who actually wants to sit on the sofa with you in your sweats and hold your hand while you are watching a movie. You can’t buy someone actually wanting to do that.
When you are in a nursing home like my brother, you may be able to buy health care, but you will not be able to buy someone wanting to bring their grandchildren almost every day to come spend time with you there like my sister does with my brother. You can’t buy that.
I was pastor of a downtown church in the early 90s and some of our members were dying of AIDS. I had a member who was in the hospital and he asked if I’d visit him. His partner who I didn’t know who was even sicker was in the same hospital on another floor. When I was visiting my member, he asked if I’d say a prayer with him and his partner together. We went down a floor to his partner’s room.
His partner was in a wheelchair. He looked awful. He was beyond skin and bones. Chunks of his hair had fallen out. There were raw lesions on his neck. When we got there, the member of my church walked over to him, kissed him on the lips and said, “Darling, look how handsome you look today. Let me comb your hair, darling. Is your water cold enough? I’ve always loved that bathrobe on you. Let me hold your hand, sweetheart.”
You can’t buy that. You can have ten million dollars and buy all the nursing care in the world, you can have your own full-time doctor, your own full-time chaplain, your own full-time lawyer but you can’t buy someone to kiss you on the lips when you are dying of AIDS, call you darling, and tell you that you are handsome and mean it.
There is no just money. All money is the money of injustice. Jesus said that, not me. What is it good for? To build community. What is community? Community is relationships that are just. Community is relationship with justice, fairness, equality.
That is what money is good for.
I am a fan of the best of the year anthologies. Best Essays, Best Spiritual Writing, Best Sports Writing, I like knowing a little bit about lots of things.
Every year I read the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology. For the first time that I can ever remember, the first essay in the Best American Science and Nature Writing of 2009 is by a poet.
It is an essay by Wendell Berry that I had actually read when it first appeared in Harpers. It is entitled “Faustian Economics.”
In addition to being a poet, Wendell Berry is a farmer, he farms his family farm in Kentucky and he is an environmentalist.
His essay in the book of the best science writing of 2009 is about the freedom of living with limits. “Our national motto,” he says, “has been ‘There’s always more.’” Now we are beginning to understand there may be only so much of our consumption our earth can manage.
Wendell Berry does a masterful job of reading the myth of Faustus in its several literary manifestations. The message of the myth, he says, is that “our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements… to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible,” he says. “For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or a generation.”
One small farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, can fill a lifetime with work and learning, he is saying. What we need today is not more and more but “the fullness of relationship and meaning.”
I think this is sort of what Jesus is saying. What we’ve always needed is not more, but the fullness of relationship and meaning. You can buy more and more, but you cannot buy fullness.
You can buy nursing care, but when you are skin and bones, and chunks of your hair have fallen out and there are raw lesions on your neck, you cannot buy someone to kiss you on the lips and say, “Darling, look how handsome you look today,” and mean it.
So invest your money, and time, and energy and attention and soul wisely.
John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 35b Luke 9:21-18:34 (Word Books, 1993), 805.
Wendell Berry, “Faustian Economics,” The Best Science and Nature Writing of 2009, Elizabeth Kolbert, ed., (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 1-10.