Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 18, 2016
“Serving God, Not the Bank”
Luke 16: 1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And 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. 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 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.”
Almost every scholar I consulted to help make sense of this story started by saying “This is the strangest and most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables to understand.” Basically, “sorry, we can’t help.” Phyllis Tickle, a highly respected commentator said, “Oh no! Is it really time for that parable again?” My thoughts exactly.
Let me try to summarize: A man ran up huge personal debt – maybe from living too large, maybe from gambling, maybe… who knows. Bottom line: He owed a lot of money.
So far, not unlike a lot of Americans who have far more debt than savings.
He had been paying for his lifestyle by taking a cut of his boss’s income. But that’s not so unusual. Managers now and then were usually paid by taking a percentage. Maybe it was because he was taking too much.
For whatever unnamed reason, when the boss found out, he said, “You’re fired.” Since he was out of a job, quickly, before anyone else found out, he looked for sympathy from his former boss’s clients by reducing the amount they owed, hoping their gratitude would turn into dinner a few nights a week into the future. It doesn’t say he personally got any money out of those transactions. Just the hope that the people for whom he saved some money would take care of him.
When the boss man learned about what his former manager had done, instead of being angry that his invoices had been reduced, the boss praised him for being shrewd. The boss praised him for coming up with angles to take care of himself, for using his wits, using his smarts to prepare for his future. But with the caveat, using his smarts “for what is right.”
Jesus then concludes the story with the very famous line, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Or God and money. Or God and mammon. Variations on the translation. But the one that says it best, Eugene Peterson’s The Message, puts it this way: “You can’t serve both God and the Bank.” That really makes a pointed statement.
But I’m still left with the question why. What’s the relationship between his shrewd preparation and Jesus’ admonition? There’s still a disconnect for me. So let’s dig into it a little more.
First of all, I have to say, I can’t read this story without thinking of Donald Trump. I can’t help but think of all those small contractors who worked to build Donald Trump’s casinos in Atlantic City and golf courses in Florida and probably a lot more. He was sued over unpaid bills at least 60 times, liens placed on his properties for unpaid bills at least 200 times. It’s not a partisan dig to state what even Fox News does not dispute as truth. They did their work but when it was time to get paid, those contractors were told there wasn’t enough money, so you’ll have to settle for less; like 30% to 70% less than they were owed. Jack O'Connell, former president of Trump Taj Mahal, said "Part of how [Mr. Trump] did business as a philosophy was to negotiate the best price he could. When it came time to pay the bills," Trump would say "'I’m going to pay you but I’m going to pay you 75% of what we agreed to.'" Small business owners who couldn’t afford to sue were left taking as little as ten, twenty, thirty cents on the dollar. And were subsequently forced out of business.
Some would say it was a shrewd business practice – which America should adopt too. Others would say it was dishonest. But how could anyone dispute that it doesn’t pass the smell test? It wasn’t right. And it’s a simple affirmation of the statement: You can’t serve both God and the Bank.
The story of the shrewd manager, or dishonest, crooked, or any number of other translations suggested, may be challenging to interpret, but it falls smack dab in the middle of a host of other texts about justice for the poor. The texts that precede this one include:
Jesus talks about economic justice more than any other topic in the gospel of Luke.
But the question remains, is the primary message of the Shrewd Manager that dishonest preparation is better than none at all, as one scholar suggested? Or is the focus on “the radical mercy of the boss?” as another scholar suggested? Is it a screed against the wealthy?
There is not one person, myself included, in this room who doesn’t live a relative standard of wealth above most people in the world. There is also not one person in this room, including myself, who did not gain our wealth from dishonest practices. After all, we live on land that was taken dishonestly from Indian tribes. But also, how much of the wealth of our country was derived from slave labor? The South gets excoriated for their practice of owning slaves, their fierce defense of owning human beings justified by twisted interpretations of scripture. But the earnings of plantation owners increased the bottom line of everyone, not the least of whom were banks. Cheap labor made possible cheap goods for everyone in the country. Wealth grew. Inheritances grew, except for African Americans who, upon emancipation from slavery, were left with nothing to start a new life. And to this day have less wealth to pass on to future generations.
According to 2011 census data, the net worth of the average black household in the United States is $6,300, compared with $110,000 for the average white household. The gap has only worsened in the last decade, and the United States now has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did in 1970 during apartheid. The black-white income gap is roughly 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.
If you haven’t seen the new version of Alex Haley’s Roots, I highly recommend it. It tells the story of Kunta Kinte from a very different perspective than the original. Instead of the focus on the cruelty of slave owners, and therefore a focus on them, this version tells the story from the perspective of the strength of character of Kunta Kinte’s family. It still has plenty of unimaginable violence, but instead of victimhood, the story is one of pride and survival.
But, to today’s point, I was particularly struck when the newly freed slaves were told to leave the land of their former owners. Get off my land or pay me to live in the squalid quarters that had been their homes. Having earned no money, with what were they supposed to pay rent? People who had been made rich off slave labor didn’t have to give any of that up. And those with no resources were supposed to survive, having to start with nothing. The legacy of such an uneven playing field remains today.
Wealth buys access to credit, to banks with free checking while those without resources go further into debt, relying on payday loan ventures that trap people into permanent debt over a few hundred dollars to pay an unexpected medical bill.
Tax breaks for the rich while white, black and brown food stamp recipients are drug tested to receive money to buy groceries for the week…
Jesus talks about economic justice more than any other topic in the gospel of Luke. More than healing, more than heaven and salvation; far more than family values, unless you define family values as food enough for children, not homosexuality, abortion, and one man, one woman. Curiously, Jesus didn’t say a single word about those things. Rather, quite clearly, he said “You can’t serve both God and the Bank.”
What would it look like to serve God, not the Bank?
I’ve told this story before but it is so egregious I keep telling it. The city of Cleveland proactively hired ex-offenders for such jobs as garbage collection. An unscrupulous TV network made this into a scandal. With screaming headlines, an “exposé” claimed that ex-cons are going through your garbage looking for social security numbers. This scare tactic caused the city to end the program and force people back into the underground economy to survive, for which they would often be arrested and put in jail. And as repeat offenders, get even longer jail sentences. When religious leaders objected, we were branded as sympathetic to crime. The city acquiesced to the fear mongering and a permanent under-class was maintained. That’s serving the Bank, not God.
Meanwhile, private prisons are thriving on Wall Street. Payday lenders enjoy some of the biggest profits on Main Street. And the homeless are arrested for sleeping on 16th Street. That’s serving the Bank, not God.
What else can you think of? Jesus didn’t talk in theories. He looked around and said, “See over there?” Jesus didn’t wonder about economic injustice. He saw it and said something. And so should we.
Alyce McKenzie, one of those scholars who began her piece by saying “this parable is one of the strangest of the strange” concluded by saying “The parable’s commendation of shrewdness needs to be viewed in the larger context of Luke’s emphasis on God’s mercy, Jesus’ concern for the poor, and the reversal of fortunes the will come in the Kingdom of God. One’s best interest, in that larger context, means [how well we] act” with justice for the poor over “making wealth the goal of one’s life.”
It’s not an anti-wealth message. It’s a question of how we use it – whether we are serving God or the Bank, or more importantly, our own bottom line. Is it wealth that is the problem or the temptation that comes with it?
Daniel Harrell, pastor of Colonial UCC in a very wealthy suburb of Minneapolis, said provocatively, “Yes, Sometimes We Can Serve Both God and Mammon.” He claimed, “It’s not that prospering financially is a biblical vice. It’s just that greed, injustice and extravagance lurk in prosperity’s shadows.”
Colonial Church is likely one of the most prosperous in the whole denomination, and he makes an interesting point. The shadow side of money. Lurking. Ready to pounce on our vulnerabilities. After all, we are often much more easily convinced of scarcity than abundance. We are often more fearful of our own insecurity than angered by others. Yet, that’s serving the Bank, not God.
Martin Luther King once said “time is neutral. You can use your time for good or you can use time for evil.” But liberation theologian Justo Gonzales said “money is not neutral. It is either used for purposes that are just or purposes that are unjust. What we do with whatever wealth we have – however great or small – is of enormous importance. We are either servants of God seeking its wise use or servants of money, always seeking more.” If we have wealth, use it wisely, maybe even shrewdly, for God’s purposes – compassion, justice, and repairing the breach.
How often have you heard the phrase Money is the Root of all Evil? That’s actually not correct. It actually says in 1st Timothy the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. Wealth isn’t evil. It’s just that we must be careful because greed, injustice and extravagance lurk in prosperity’s shadows.
This parable may be strange, but perhaps more so, what it is, is uncomfortable. How many people would rather talk about their sex lives than how we use our money? And yet, Jesus boils it down to pretty simple terms. Choose this day. Shall I choose to serve God, or the Bank?
 Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-after-ferguson-race-deserves-more-attention-not-less.html?action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=RelatedCoverage®ion=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article&_r=0
 Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, “Commentary of Luke 16:1-13” by Justo Gonzales