At the Same Table: On God’s Economy, and Serving Two Masters

A stewardship sermon on Luke 16:1-13.

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager

16 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 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.

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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No 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.”

If anyone ever tries to tell you that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself…well first, point them to all the weird food laws that Jesus and Paul later said were fine. And then, show them this parable.

The title itself is a contradiction: “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.” It’s pretty clear from that who the bad guy is going to be, right? The example of what not to do, the leader of the exercise in missing the point? Except… Well, turns out, maybe not. As it turns out, both Jesus AND the boss who got cheated out of some profits, commend the dishonest manager for his business sense.

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

It’s just a weird parable. It sends some mixed messages, from a moral standpoint, and scholars have been arguing for centuries about what it means. The poorly-performing manager is fired. So he does what anyone would do when they’re about to be unemployed–he mines his network. He updates his LinkdIn profile. He goes about doing favors for everyone he knows, hoping they’ll be good to him when he needs a new job, or a loan, or a place to live. So he calls in all of his boss’s debts, at a fraction of their actual amount. That’s what you call sticking it to the man, I guess. But it seems like dubious ethics, at best.

But then Jesus seems to side with  that guy. He uses him as the good example! He calls him “shrewd,” otherwise known as clever. Even though this dude is clearly protecting his own interests and cheating his boss. What are we to make of that? Maybe it was a Robin Hood situation? Rob from the rich and give to the poor, perhaps.  Some scholars frame it that way, saying that in those days, charging interest of any kind was forbidden… So, maybe the debt forgiven by this manager was a measure of interest that the boss wasn’t supposed to be charging anyway.

That is possible. Or maybe it was just a popular story that was going around at the time, and Jesus tried to use it as a sermon illustration… and it wound up kind of falling flat. In all honesty, every preacher I know has done that. We try to take the ‘trending topic’ of the week that you know is on everyone’s mind, and try to cram it into whatever scripture is up for the day… Yeah, sometimes that works better than others.

Even if the story itself is a little confounding, it still has an important message in the broader context of the gospel: you cannot serve God and money. Maybe we should not to overthink the rest of it, and stick with that bottom line — You Can’t Serve Two Masters. The manager here, whether you want to call him shady or clever, has chosen who he’s going to answer to, and it isn’t the boss’s rules. He’s chosen another economy, another set of values–and whether it’s for his own gain, or for the good of others, he is clear on who he’s going to answer to… and who he’s not.

Older translations of this text say–and maybe this is a familiar phrase to some of you– you cannot serve God and ‘mammon.’

money-2696219_640

More recent translators have swapped out mammon for the contemporary language of ‘money.’ But back in Jesus’ time, Mammon was actually a personified god, worshipped by many. Whatever god you chose to worship in your house reflected a certain set of values… and Mammon was the god of material wealth. So, if a family chose Mammon as their household god, it’s clear where their priorities were.

This might be one of the only times you’ll hear me say this but… maybe the older translations are on point. Our translation, “you can’t worship God and money,” is maybe over-simplified. Mammon was not just about money, but the IDOL of money. 

And isn’t the idol of money so much more powerful than money itself? Because the idol of money about more than the amount we have in hand… it represents all that we don’t have, all that we perceive our neighbors might have, and all that we might have later. And that’s a god around which we can easily begin to order our lives. That’s a god that starts to affect our decisions, fuel our anxieties, and misdirect our trust. When you put it like that, it seems much of the world we live in–and the entirety of the global economy–worships the god of Mammon.

The parable is not so simple, but the message is: At some point we have to decide which economy we’re going to operate in— our God’s, or the world’s?—and then adjust our values accordingly.

The trouble is…that’s easier said than done. We still have to make a living. We have to eat and pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads. And to do that, we are often at the mercy of how the world works. It has always been so. And maybe that’s how we get such confusing parables about money and the kingdom of God. Because there is really no easy way to be faithful to the gospel while also living within the world’s economic system.

But just because it isn’t easy, doesn’t mean we are excused from trying.

If we were to look around our own lives, our own community, we would find plenty of examples of people choosing to operate in God’s economy, even while living in the world’s. Neighbors helping neighbors; people who generously share what they have in order to make the world a better place. Sometimes, even big corporations doing the right thing–counter to all that we think about corporations. Did you know that the TJ Maxx company of stores are still paying all their employees in Puerto Rico–even though all of their stores are still closed from the hurricane?

Now, I’m guessing T.J. and Maxx, whoever they are, are still doing alright. I’d imagine they aren’t hurting for cash, and they’ve probably got gas in the car. Plus change. And yet, they are choosing to operate on a worldview that places people above the dollar. I don’t know if they’d call themselves Christians or not, but they are rejecting the god of Mammon, and choosing another set of values. And sometimes, choosing God’s economy over the world’s is just that simple.  (That that, Hobby Lobby). 

The emerging world of ‘pay-what-you-can’ restaurants–and there are about 50 of them around the country– is transforming the way people think about food assistance and charity. They feed people in need and people who can pay side by side, giving low-income people the chance to eat a real meal at someplace other than a shelter. An actual bill comes to the table, and then the person pays what they can. Nobody else can see what they do–or don’t pay.

The important thing these restaurants offer, other than free and affordable food, is dignity. And also, community. One of these restaurants is in Philadelphia, and it’s called EAT — an acronym for Everyone at the Table. They have found that location is the key to success in this kind of venture–and the best places to situate a pay what you can restaurant are in economically diverse neighborhoods. If you put it in the nice part of town, (say, Leawood?) the folks who really need it can’t get there; and if you put it in a rough neighborhood, the people who can actually pay and sustain the operation are probably not going to venture there.

It’s tricky because these are not non-profit organizations. They are actual businesses with operating costs, and owners and employees who need to make a living. But they are not at the mercy of the world’s economic system; they have envisioned a new way, a new system of feeding and connecting people, while also keeping the doors open and the lights on.

For that to work, the table has to be approachable and accessible. And of course– what really makes or breaks the operation is the generosity of the ones who can pay. They could get away with not paying and enjoy the meal, just the same. Or they could pay only what the bill says the meal costs.

Or—-those who have more, can pay a little more. this is what makes the place sustainable, and this is a parable in and of itself. It’s the only way to make sure the ones in need can eat for free.

It’s a pretty simple story, after all. And an even simpler economic reality. Pay more when you can. And trust someone else will cover you when you can’t.

Ok, on that note, I’m going to subtly remind you that it’s pledge Sunday. (You knew that was coming, right?) The same economics apply. It takes actual money to run a church–to keep doors open and lights on and staff paid and coffee in the pot–and Lord, we love our coffee. Coffee costs money too.

We live in the world’s economy–even the church. We pay the same utility bills, the same internet services, the same day to day operations as your household or business. But the good news is, we are not at the mercy of that system. Our giving to the church is an act of resistance against those lesser gods–the gods of scarcity and anxiety; the gods of profit over people, and destruction of resources for short term gain. In our economy, the ones who can give more, give more; and then the ones who give less? Their gifts mean just as much. Everyone gives what they can, so that everyone can eat at the same table. 

Our  giving frees us from the endless cycle of anxiety and acquisition, that we’ve talked about the past few weeks. Generous living proclaims our faith in God’s economy.

And the story of that economy is simple. It’s about valuing people more than possessions; taking the long view instead of the short one; and above all, trusting in the goodness of God to meet our needs. When we walk in this way faithfully, we give generously, and find that we still always—somehow– have more than enough.

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