Dishonest Wealth and True Riches
Proper 20, Year C, RCL, Track 1 Luke 16:1-13
Our Gospel passage centers around how we handle our money in relationship to others. We have the Pharisees, the disciples, and Jesus. We have a wealthy landowner, the manager of his estate, and the people indebted to him. This is not an allegory in which we can simply replace one person for another or even an entire group. The parable that is being told is telling us some truth about how we handle our money in relation to others and how these dealings have a spiritual impact on our relationship with God and with those we encounter family, friends, neighbors, and stranger.
We find that the estate manager has a bad reputation and the landowner has to deal with the situation. We do not know what the specific charges are just that it has to do with mismanagement or squandering of the property. We also know that the debtors do not think highly of the manager. The manager is afraid that when he is relieved from his duties he will have nowhere to go. He has no one who will take him in or help him while he is out of work.
The manager’s poor relations with these people leads us to believe that he has somehow mistreated them; possibly by overcharging them or being too ruthless in his dealings. Many suggest that he may have been skimming from the top, overcharging the people while keeping some of the proceeds for himself. And this is why both the people and the landowner are upset with him.
We know what the manager does next. He cuts the people's debt significantly, even in half in some cases, all in an attempt to gain favor with the people so that hopefully one of them will take him in when he is dismissed. Our first instinct may be to see this act as a continuation of his dishonest deeds. Saving his own skin at the expense of the owner’s property. But it is at this point that we know that the story is a parable, for the owner commends and praises the manager for the shrewdness in handling the situation.
It is here at this point where the message seems to get confusing. Jesus says, “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 is at the very top on the back page of your service insert. Make friends by means of dishonest wealth. And it clearly sounds like we are to be dishonest and that somehow this dishonesty will allow us to be welcomed into our eternal homes. Did
Al Capone have it right all along? Let’s look a bit deeper at what is really meant.
Luke often sees the world in a dualistic way. Earthly things are bad and heavenly thinks are good there is little gray in between. If we look a few verses later we will find that dishonest wealth is being compared to the true riches. “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” In the passage, all money and assets are dishonest wealth no matter how it was obtained. We could simply call it earthly wealth and the phrase would say “make friends by means of earthly wealth.” In many ways, this is Jesus’ recognition that the world and our relationships with others are based on transactions of wealth. Whether this is money or barter, one thing is exchanged for another. This seems to be hardly different from our lives today and these transactions are still unavoidable.
What is avoidable, is how we affect others through these transactions. The manager made no friends in his dealing. He was not a friend to the people or to his boss. No one liked him. We also see that when he became generous in his business dealings he gained friends in the community. Though it is still hard to read the owner’s true feelings for the man, whether impressed or just amused, it does seem that his impression of the manager has changed.
This leads us to ask ourselves, how do we treat others generously in our day to day relationships? If we hire a housekeeper do we pay a living wage even if they ask for less? If we go to a restaurant, do we leave a decent tip? When we are doing work for others, do we give all we can or the minimum to get by? The first part of this statement is about treating others generously; with the same abundant generosity that God offers us. When we are generous through our earthly transactions our generosity will build relationships.
Now when we pair the two halves of the sentence together its meaning becomes much more clear. I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of earthly wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. This earthly wealth is what we are entrusted in this life and we are asked to be faithful with it. Not faithfully in the eyes of the world but faithful in the eyes of God. This is why Jesus says if we are not faithful with dishonest wealth how can we be entrusted with the true riches? Which then leads to one of the more memorable quotes in the Bible, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The passage opens with Jesus telling this story to the disciples, but it is clear in verses 14 and 15 that some Pharisees, who loved money, were listening to the story as well. These Pharisees seem to need help understanding that they are a perfect example of what Jesus was talking about. So he spells it out for them. “He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.’”
The big picture is more than money. As Jesus says the problem lies in what we value highly in our lives. If we value things more than we value God there is a problem in our relationship with God and likely with our relationships with other people as well. This is the serving of two masters. Money or wealth in and of themselves is not bad. Their use is unavoidable but it is how we gain or use our money or wealth, how it affects or influences others that we should be concerned with.
At the beginning of this homily, I mentioned how we handle our money in relation to others has a spiritual impact and this is true. When we are stingy with money, think of Ebenezer Scrooge, we tend to have a rather small heart for the wellbeing of others. We tend to see the poor as people who do not work hard enough. We see people who are in need as a problem that society cannot fix and therefore throw up our hands in despair. We may believe that if someone is willing to work for a wage that doesn’t pay for their basic needs that it is their problem for taking the job to begin with. The reality is you can’t work harder when two or three jobs still don’t pay the bills.
God loves each of us and he wants us to share this love and abundance with all the people we meet. Through our generosity, we build relationships and create an environment of empathy and understanding for one another. Each one of us can do our part. It may not feel like much, but it is a vital part that helps all of us; all of God’s people. Holding onto an abundance of possessions does to secure our ultimate future. What Jesus asks may seem difficult, it may be a reorientation of what we have been told throughout our lives. But what Jesus asks of us is to put God and his values above our own, above the dishonest ways of the world.