In seminary I took a class about Reconciliation, and one of the requirements of the class was to lead a Bible Study at the local jail. Our team of four Episcopalians waltzed into the jail, prepared with study notes, a lesson plan, and as much of an air of confidence as we could muster. Not very long into the Bible Study, though, we realized we were in trouble. You see, many of us had been drawn to the Episcopal Church because the Episcopal Church embraces the via media, or the middle way; we are a church that affirms the sacredness of the gray over the black and white. But an inmate has no time for gray. Their whole lives are governed by black and white, right and wrong. The rigidity of life in jail is applied to Holy Scripture as well. Most of the inmates were either perplexed by our suggestion of any ambiguity or gray in Scripture, or simply thought we were wrong. Fortunately, our professor had come along. After about forty-five minutes of debate and disagreement, our professor quietly spoke. He invited the men to reflect on life where they were from, the complexities of the street, racism, and poverty. If life at home was so layered, ambiguous, and complicated, surely Scripture could be too. I am not saying my professor made any great strides in the debate around the literal interpretation of Scripture, but I believe he may have opened a window for some of the inmates.
I think today’s Scripture lesson is a bit like that jail classroom. At first glance, this could be considered a text that is black and white. The final verse of our gospel says, “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.” There is no gray in Jesus’ words. Either we choose God or we choose money. And based on the fact God is one of our two options, there is no ambiguity about which of these options we should choose. But here is the problem with trying to assert this passage of scripture is black and white. Whereas as the end of the passage Jesus seems to be saying we must choose God or money, in the parable, Jesus seems to be saying something else.
If you recall, in the parable, 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. In verse nine, the text 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 is where things get confusing. At first, Jesus seemed to be clearly saying money is evil and we must choose God over money. But when Jesus says to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” Jesus seems to be claiming money can sometimes be one of those gray areas of life; in fact, money can be used as a means to an end. Now, 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 we often forget is 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 money inherently lures 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.
One of the things I like to do when I am struggling with a challenging Biblical text is to look at other translations to see if I can 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; however, I also find that the language from the 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, and very much lives in the gray of life. First, money has a corrupting force in our lives. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, 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 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, for ministry. 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]
Many years ago, there was a commercial circulating around the internet. 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 their medical 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.”[iii]
Jesus knows how money corrupts our world. To be sure there is no ambiguity about the place money takes when talking about God. We are to choose God. 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 us today: to examine how our relationship with dishonest wealth can be used for goodness. Jesus affirms for us this week that the way into the black and white, the right and wrong of life, might just be through the path of gray. Amen.
[ii] Thomas G. Long, “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, vol. 30, no. 4, Pentecost 2007, 55.