Texts: Amos 8:4-7 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-15
It’s a thought that continues to haunt me as I read the gospel for today. Jesus’ parable today is confusing, but the last line of his lesson is not: one cannot serve both God and wealth. While I hardly consider myself wealthy, the truth is that I have quite a lot: we’ve just bought a house, we have a car and four degrees paid off between the two of us, and I own more possessions that many people throughout the world. Yet I still can’t shake the feeling that the money I didn’t get back from the pickup is a major loss and a mistake.
This is where Jesus’ parable meets us. In order to make sense of it, it helps to know some of the cultural context, the information that Jesus’ original hearers would have assumed, and so no one bothered to write down. First, when the rich man fires his manager, he is being unexpectedly generous. By right, he could have required the manager to pay back all of the money that was “squandered,” or he could have had the manager thrown into prison to extort the money from his family.
When the manager considers his former boss’s mercy, he hatches a plan. He meets with his master’s debtors and changes their bills in their favor. It is worth pointing out here that these are extravagant amounts of debt: about 900 gallons of oil, and perhaps as much as 1,000 bushels of wheat. In both cases, the manager reduces the debts by the equivalent of about 500 denarii, or almost two years wages for the average laborer. Today, that might be between $30-$40,000.
Here’s what he does: before his master’s debtors know that he has been fired, he brokers these “deals” to make his master look exceedingly generous. Now his old boss can’t renege on the new deals without looking like a monster, and he can’t demand the money from the steward because then they would know he was swindled. At the same time, the manager has set himself up as a hero to his master’s debtors for brokering these deals, and they will be honor-bound to reciprocate his generosity in his unemployment. It is for this reason that his former boss commends him: he has masterminded the perfect golden parachute for himself by assuring his own future and simultaneously sticking it to the man who fired him. Well played, sir; well played.
In the parable, this manager contrives to come out on top, even though he’s been fired. He has turned the entire situation to his advantage. And yet, he’s also shown himself to be just as crooked as the rich man originally thought: when he was charged with squandering the man’s property, he squandered it even more in order to save himself.
Perhaps the one thing he did right (aside from perhaps doing some good for his master’s debtors) was to see the writing on the wall and make arrangements for his future. He used the wealth at his disposal to make those arrangements, and that is what Jesus is holding up as a virtue: he recognized that wealth is only as useful as what you spend it on.
You see, this story could have gone another way. The manager, having been dismissed by his boss, could have changed the bills in his master’s favor hoping to be forgiven and rehired. However, had he done that, it would have given his master a bad reputation with his customers, and as a result he may have lost business. His master would have been furious with him and fired him anyway, and he would have been universally hated, rather than beloved.
The difference between these two stories is the direction in which the manager is looking. In my version, he is looking backward, hoping to maintain what he has and placing his trust in the power of mammon to save him. It’s the way our culture operates: we trust in mammon to get us what we want, and what we want is what we already have, only more. This parody of Jesus’ parable simply serves to point out how tenuous and ridiculous it all is.
Jesus’ version of the parable, however, has the manager looking forward, towards the future. He knows that what he has is coming to an end, and instead of trying to save it or get it back, he uses everything at his disposal to prepare himself for what is coming. In spite of the manager’s dishonest methods, this attitude is exactly what Jesus has been preaching: the kingdom of God is at hand; make yourselves ready.
All the stories we’ve been reading from Luke’s gospel over the last several weeks have been pointing to this same truth: the way the world works now is not the way it will work in God’s promised future. We can either ignore the coming of God’s kingdom, enjoy ourselves now and suffer when the tide turns, or we can pay the high cost of discipleship now and be ready for God’s promise whenever it arrives. In the terms of today’s parable, we might say that we can either ally ourselves with the “children of this age,” the rich landowner who’s already fired us, or we can place our hope in the generosity of the forgiven debtors and the age to come.
To look to the future means to see and accept that we will be broken. That is frightening for people who use our mammon to build walls of power, privilege, and wealth to protect ourselves from brokenness. If I am being honest, I have to admit that my distress over a few hundred dollars lost in a sale comes from a deep-seated belief that that money has the power to get me where I want to be; and its loss means that I am somehow diminished, broken. To worship mammon is to resist brokenness, but to worship God is to embrace it.
Mammon promises us security, happiness and contentment; but we know that no amount of money or power or privilege can stave off death in the end. God, on the other hand, promises us death; and yet, we know that in death, God brings new life. Jesus himself is living proof of this. Instead of wielding all the power and might of God, he humbled himself, giving his life as a ransom for the world—he was broken for us; and in that brokenness, he achieved for us what we could not achieve for ourselves: eternal life and a place in God’s new creation.
To worship God rather than mammon is to place our trust in the promise of a future we cannot yet see or even really imagine. It is to live into the divine insanity that gives itself for the lives of others and dies to bring new life. To worship God means to not only expect and accept brokenness, but to welcome it.
When we come to this table to receive the body and blood of Christ, we are invited forward with these words: “People of God, behold what you are; become what you receive.” We look upon the bread of communion and see ourselves, the Body of Christ, given for the life of the world; that bread is broken for us, just as we are broken for others. When we receive this gift, we become it: we eat the broken bread, and we become the bread to be broken; but in this brokenness, we are brought to wholeness.
It is ironic that we look to mammon to preserve our wholeness, when true wholeness is found in brokenness. Even the crooked manager in Jesus’ story can see that mammon is only a tool, not a god. Can we see that? Can we recognize that the mammon we have has been given us by God as a tool to help us fulfill our baptismal vocation, our call to love and serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth? Or can we see it as nothing more than an idol that will give us what we want?
This is perhaps what Jesus wishes us to see with this story. Mammon is no idol, no god that can save us. Instead of worshiping it as a savior, perhaps we can come to see it as a tool given to us by our true savior.
The dishonest manager used everything he had at his disposal to invest in his future: his master’s money, his position as a debt manager, and even his relationships with his master’s debtors. Of course, none of things were his; they had all been entrusted to him. Just think if the “children of the light” put as much energy and resources into investing in God’s future; if we used everything that has been entrusted to us not to save ourselves, but to serve our neighbors. What if we allowed ourselves to be broken for the life of the world? The parable may be asking us if we are willing to use the mammon we have been given—our money, time, privilege, and power—to do just that.