If you were following today’s gospel lesson closely, you are most likely wondering whether you heard Jesus correctly, as his words make little sense. Jesus tells another one his parables about money. When a scheming, dishonest, self-serving manager is about to get fired, he goes and does the unthinkable. He forgives debts which are not his debts to forgive, hoping in the end to make enough friends who might support him once he is out of a job. And so when the master returns and finds out what has happened, we expect judgment to reign down on him even greater than before. But in a shocking turn, the master commends the manager for acting shrewdly. In response to this turn in the story, Jesus says to the disciples, “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 home.” We hear Jesus basically telling the disciples to use dishonest wealth in the same way as this manager, and our response is confusion, disbelief, and maybe even disappointment.
After years of economic downward spiral, after watching banks and individuals cheat their way to the top while pushing down the poor and middle-class, many of us find Jesus’ words confusing if not altogether offensive. We want nothing to do with a life that encourages scheming and plotting behavior and the embracing of dishonesty. Some part of us feels a bit betrayed by Jesus’ strange advice and we are not entirely sure how to proceed.
So for those of us stuck in a bit of a confused haze about dishonesty, money, and relationships, we are going to take a step back and look at what is actually happening in the parable so that we can understand Jesus’ comments a bit better. First, we have a poorly-behaving manager. The manager has squandered away the master’s money. When he is caught, the manager takes a good look at himself and admits some honest truths – he is not capable of doing manual labor and he is too embarrassed to beg for money. Having been honest about who he is, he connives his way into a solution: he will engender goodwill among his neighbors by doing financial favors for each of them – forgiving portions of their debts in the hopes that they will sometime very soon return the favor. Both the master and Jesus recognize the shrewdness or wisdom in the manager’s behavior because the manager uses his wits to get out of a devastating position.
After understanding exactly what Jesus is complimenting, next we need to understand what Jesus is saying about money. When Jesus says to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” Jesus is not saying to start behaving unethically. Jesus is claiming that money itself is inherently a means, not an end. This point is a little tricky for us. We all have varying philosophies about money. Some of us manage to care very little about money, with money holding very little power over us. Some of us struggle with money, sometimes remembering how money can be used for good, but most times feeling like money creates stress and anxiety in our lives that we cannot seem to shake. And others of us become narrowly focused on money – either in how we can acquire more or what ways we can spend and enjoy money more. What Jesus knows that we often forget is that money is inherently “dishonest.” Money creates systems of injustice and hierarchies of power; money can destroy marriages and friendships; and money can be the ruin of many a person. So when Jesus says to make friends through dishonest wealth, he does not mean to become a dishonest people; he means that money is inherently luring us into dishonesty, and we can either throw our hands up in the air in resignation and a refusal to be associated with that dishonesty, or we can use that dishonest wealth as a means to something much more important – relationship with others.
So if we understand what the manager is actually doing, and we can see money as a means to an end, how do we get to the step of being comfortable with using something bad for good? Jesus is not telling us to manipulate people with money in order to be in relationship with others. Most of us believe the old adage that you cannot buy friends – or at least not good ones anyway. But Jesus is not suggesting we try to buy friends. Jesus is suggesting that instead of categorizing everything into good and evil, honest and dishonest, we become a bit shrewder in our thinking. Jesus encourages his disciples to learn from the dishonest manager because the dishonest manager takes a pretty awful situation and manipulates the situation into something good. The kind of shrewdness Jesus is encouraging is the kind of activity that we might call, “thinking outside of the box.” If the disciples are to live in this world and thrive, they are going to have to think outside of the box and get creative not only with money, but all sorts of things.
As I have been struggling with this text this week, I did one of the things that I often do in Bible Study. I started looking at other translations to see if I could make more sense of Jesus’ words. This week, I found the most help from a translation called, The Message. Now as ample warning, The Message is a very contemporary paraphrase of the Bible, which takes a lot of theological liberties that I am often uncomfortable with; but I do often find that the language from that paraphrase opens up the biblical text enough for me to start seeing the text with fresh eyes. The Message translates Jesus words in this way: “Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”
What Jesus is trying to say to us today is layered. First, money has a corrupting force in our lives. Jesus talks about money incessantly in scripture, from telling people to give away all their money, to scolding people about storing up their money in larger barns, to reminding people not to stress about money, to this odd text about money. As Luke concludes today, Jesus tells us that we cannot serve God and money, because of the all-consuming way that money can corrode our relationship with God.
Second, we cannot escape money. Money is a part of our everyday lives, and as we all know is necessary for functioning – for food, for shelter, for clothing, for comfort. Even those monks and nuns who take on a vow of poverty still rely on the money of others for support. Money, with all its potential for corruption, is inescapable in our lives.
Finally, once we understand the power and place of money in our lives, Jesus reminds us that when we are wise, keeping God at the center, we can use money as a means to goodness in our relationship with God and with one another. The manager “transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others. By reducing other people’s debts, he creates a new set of relationships based not on the vertical relationship between lenders and debtors (rooted in monetary exchange) but on something more like the reciprocal and egalitarian relationship of friends.”[i] This kind of work is not about charity per se, but about making friends.[ii]
A commercial has been circulating around the internet lately.[iii] In the video, a boy is caught red-handed trying to steal a bottle of medicine and a soda. A woman is berating him in front of a marketplace, wanting to know why he would take these things. He confesses that the items are for his mother. A local merchant steps forward, and hands the woman a handful of money to cover the cost of the stolen items. The man then quietly asks the boy if his mother is sick. When the boy nods yes, the merchant has his daughter also bring a container of vegetable broth and other items, and sends the boy on his way. The next clip of the commercial shows the merchant thirty years later, still working in his shop. He collapses and is taken to the hospital. The daughter becomes completely overwhelmed as the medical bills add up, even selling the shop they had once run together. As she is found crying near her father’s bedside, she finds a revised copy of her bill. The amount due is zero. We find out through the video that the doctor who forgives the bill is that same boy who stole medicine thirty years ago. He writes at the bottom of the bill, “All expenses paid thirty years ago with three packs of painkillers and a bag of veggie soup.”
Jesus knows how money corrupts our world. But Jesus also knows that we can shrewdly utilize our money as a tool to create relationships that glorify God. This is Jesus’ invitation for you today: to examine how your relationship with dishonest wealth can be used for goodness. Amen.
[ii] Thomas G. Long, “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, vol. 30, no. 4, Pentecost 2007, 55.