A sermon about making friends with someone else's wealth
I wrote and delivered this sermon in my preaching class in seminary nine years ago. It's a lot more focused on exegesis than I might do today, but I still think it stands up to the test of time.
Our Gospel reading from Luke today is one of the more vexing parables in the New Testament. It goes by several different names – is it the unjust steward, the dishonest manager, or the prudent middleman? – and some interpretations of it are questionable or downright bizarre – is Jesus praising dishonesty? Is it about justice rather than money? Does this parable tell us to use worldly wealth so as to secure our own futures? Or is it all just completely ironic?
In my career as a theology student, both formally here at Candler and informally in my previous life as a recovering Baptist, I have come across plenteous articles, footnotes, and commentary essays about this story. And I can say with some confidence that the problem with many writers of articles and commentaries is that they were not English majors.
Because if they had been English majors, they would be looking first to the whole Gospel of Luke for themes and key concepts and then looking within this parable to see how those themes and concepts play out. Further, they would be looking at the stories surrounding this one to see why this parable is situated at this particular place in Luke.
In Luke, the rich do not fare well. Right off the bat, Mary sings in the Magnificat that the rich are going to be sent away empty. And Jesus directs a woe at them during his sermon on the plain: woe to you rich for you have received your consolation. In the Lukan stories - both parables and personal encounters - we meet the rich fool, who stores all his stuff in a barn and then in a bigger barn and then dies, having stored his treasure for himself instead of using it for God. There’s the rich young man who goes away sadly from Jesus because he cannot bring himself to sell all he has and give the money to the poor. There’s the other rich man who wears purple and eats gourmet meals and ends up in the flames because he did not use his wealth to help poor, sick, hungry Lazarus at his gate.
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus says. Get the picture? The rich have difficulty parting with their wealth, and this is a big problem for them in terms of their salvation. Not because rich people cannot be saved – rich Zacchaeus will be saved over in Chapter 19 – but because they are not willing to be generous with their wealth. They don’t get it that their wealth is to be used to bridge the gap between rich and poor – to address the needs of others. And in fact, this is how Zacchaeus is going to be saved, by volunteering to give away his money to the poor. Because, as Jesus emphatically tells us, you cannot serve both God and Mammon.
Now, notice that today’s story comes at the heels of the parable of the prodigal son, who squanders his father’s property in dissolute living and suffers the consequences. When he hits bottom, he decides on a course of action by which to secure a future for himself: he will return to his father and do penance, seeking his protection. So goes home, where his father welcomes him with open arms.
Compare now our story. A rich man discovers that his manager has been squandering (there’s that word again) his property. The manager, like the prodigal son, has hit bottom: he is about to be sacked, so he sits down to decide on a course of action by which to secure a future for himself, because he must protect himself. But his way of protecting himself is to be generous: to take this last chance to offer generosity to the rich man’s debtors while he still can. He does not repent of his squandering ways, he keeps on squandering, believing that his generosity will lead to his salvation - being welcomed into the eternal home.
And then the story after ours is the parable I mentioned before about a rich man who spent his wealth on himself while the hungry beggar Lazarus lay outside his gate, covered with sores. And lo, the rich man found himself burning in the eternal flames – because he was not prudent with his Mammon – he used it for himself instead of for others.
So, while that rich man kept his wealth to himself, our friend the manager used his position to be generous with the wealth of his boss. The manager has served God (through openhandedness toward others) rather than serving the rich man’s monetary interests. And for this reason he is called dishonest, or shrewd. In fact, Jesus says, he has been faithful by giving the boss’s Mammon away.
Well. It’s probably not all that profitable to talk about Mammon with this crowd, seeing as how many of us are living on the largesse of Emory’s endowment made possible by Coca Cola stock dividends.
And actually, what I find remarkable about this story is that the manager’s way of protecting himself is to be generous.
Now I don’t know about you, but for me, about this time every semester, I start worrying. I look at my assignments stretching ahead of me, all those pages, those papers, those hours spent at my field placement, not to mention the needs of my family, and I start to feel anxious. I’m already overloaded and I start to wonder how I’m ever going to do it all.
And then pretty soon I start to doubt my abilities – why did I think I could do this? Who am I to write a sermon to turn in to Tom Long? AND a paper, AND read hundreds of pages, AND go to the grocery store and do the laundry and plan a service for Sunday and ….
And so about this time every semester, I start feeling as if I do not have enough. Not enough time, not enough intelligence, not enough energy, not enough anything. And my impulse is to pull in and protect myself. To ward off things that might take more time or require energy or creativity. Even things that might be fun. Even things that might help others.
I want go into “Two Year Old Child Automatic No” mode – will you serve at Chapel? No. Will you go to the concert? No. Will you take notes for someone in class who has a disability? No. Will you have lunch with me so I can tell you how overwhelmed I feel right now? No. I don’t have time, I don’t have energy, I have to study, I have to run errands, I have to do something that makes me feel productive. If the phone rings, I am tempted to answer it by saying “What do YOU want?!?” Because I’m in crisis mode and I need to protect myself.
This is why I admire the manager. When HE gets in crisis mode and sits down to think of what he will do to protect himself, HE decides to be generous. He decides that helping others reduce their own loads is the best response to his anxiety. And Jesus calls this behavior faithful.
This makes my automatic no mode look like what it truly is – an attempt to make my life manageable by treating it like the proverbial pie. As in, if I give you any pie, there may not be enough for me, because there’s just only so much, you know. But I am not a pie. We are not pies.
We all may be under pressure, but we are still called to be faithful. And in fact, we are stewards of all kinds of riches that we did not earn - but yet we have the power to give away.
There’s way bigger stuff out there than books and papers and laundry and errands. There are people who need someone to help them out. Who need a hand with planning a worship service or need help with a newsletter article. Who need advice and encouragement from a more seasoned student. Who need a friend with whom to eat lunch. Who need your expertise in something you have a talent for. Who need a shoulder or a sympathetic ear. Who have their own anxieties.
There are people out there who are looking to you and me, my friends. And we can live out our call to be faithful by giving away whatever kind of wealth we have access to – friendship, smiles, wisdom, talent, even time.
These are anxious times. Let’s be generous. Amen.
Candler School of Theology
September 19, 2007