Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 22, 2019
“What to Do with Dishonest Wealth”
Luke 16: 1-13 – Common English Bible
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. 2 He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
3 “The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.
5 “One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’[a] The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ 7 Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.
10 “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. 11 If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for 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, most confounding and perplexing, and most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables to understand. Good luck.” Phyllis Tickle, a highly respected scholar said, “Oh no! Is it really time for that parable again?” It comes around every three years. Most years I look to see what other options I have in the lectionary.
Many parables are repeated in other gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke often contain the same parables, sometimes told in slightly different ways, depending on their audience and purpose. But what does it say that Matthew and Mark took a pass on this parable too!?
Six of us gathered to eat noodles for lunch on Thursday. Our practice is to read three different translations to ourselves as we eat and then discuss. This week, I watched each person finish reading with a “what?!” look on their face. This text raises a lot more questions than answers.
It starts by Jesus telling his disciples that an accusation was made against the household manager of a certain rich man. His income came from a cut of his boss’s income. Not an unusual practice. Perhaps someone thought he was taking too much and tried to get him in trouble by telling the rich man he was squandering his property. Most focus on his alleged dishonesty. But I want to go back to first ask, how did this rich man get so rich? And what had he done to stay so rich.
As the text begins, it seems odd but OK. “We can work with this.” Until we come to its most perplexing line. Kathy read: “use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.” A little weird. But the New Revised Standard translation of that same verse isn’t just weird. It’s offensive. It says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Surely an editorial error was made somewhere along the way. Jesus would never say something like that. And if he did, why?
What do you think of when you hear the phrase dishonest wealth? I can’t help but think of emoluments clauses and the small business people who were contracted to build and furnish casinos in Atlantic City and golf courses in Florida, and probably everywhere else too. When they went to collect their money, they were told they would have to accept less. Small businesses that couldn’t afford to join among the 60 who filed lawsuits or the 200 who placed liens were paid as little as ten, twenty, thirty cents on the dollar. And subsequently forced out of business. Some claim it was just a shrewd business practice. Sadly, we could spend the next hour sharing such stories of cabinet makers in Philadelphia, drapery installers in Las Vegas, and a toilet company in New Jersey.
Jesus, does this have anything to do with why some Christians have made friends with people of dishonest wealth? Yet, in the end, Jesus did say, “If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; if you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things.”
This weird and offensive line about dishonest wealth is even more curious given the topic Jesus talked about more than any other in the Gospel of Luke. Despite the odd line about being welcomed into eternal homes, Jesus spoke of economic justice more than heaven and the afterlife. More than healing. What does this perplexing story have to do with justice for the poor?
The verse that immediately follows says, “The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus.” If we are perplexed and confounded by this parable, somehow the Pharisees knew exactly what Jesus was saying. And they didn’t like it. Jesus then told the parable about Lazarus and the rich man, which is not a super popular parable among the accused “money-lover” class either.
Does it matter how this certain rich man got so rich?
Was he like the man who promised God, “If you solve my problem, I’ll sell my house and give all the money to the poor?” One day he realized he would have to make good on his promise. He put his house on the market for $1. But anyone who bought the house would also have to take his cat, which came for the bargain price of $100,000. When the house sold, the man promptly gave everything he received from the proceeds of the house to the poor. He had said nothing about the cat in his promise.
Was he being shrewd? Was it dishonest, or worldly, wealth? Perhaps more importantly, what does any of this have to do with us?
There is not one person in this room, myself included, who doesn’t live a relative standard of wealth above most people in the world. We may not be guilty of something devious or have committed a crime to get it, but we certainly have some responsibility for all the access and advantages and privilege that comes with it.
All of us benefit to some extent from wealth gained by dishonest practices. After all, we live on land that was stolen from indigenous peoples. Every time we travel to the Pine Ridge Reservation, we are reminded that the United States has never kept even one treaty in order to get wealthy from mining gold and silver and every other mineral we wanted. As the gold on the dome of the state capitol glimmers in the sun, it should serve as a reminder of the benefits we receive from dishonest wealth.
We have to ask how much of the wealth of our country was derived from slave labor? The South is rightly excoriated for their practice of owning slaves and then losing a war for the right to keep human beings enslaved. But the earnings of plantation owners filled the banks and increased the bottom line of the whole country. Unpaid labor made cheap goods possible for everyone. Wealth grew. People made rich off slave labor didn’t have to give any of that up. Inheritances grew, except for those upon whose backs this wealth was made. Given our history, I don’t know why reparations is even a controversial issue. There are debts to be paid.
The price of freedom for newly freed slaves was impossibly high. Their former owners told them to get off their land or now pay to live in the squalid quarters that had been their homes. With what were they supposed to now pay rent? Hence, a “new and improved” form of slavery began, called sharecropping. Those emancipated were supposed to start with nothing. Although, as one commentator said, “I refuse to be a victim in this scheme. I am the ancestor of those who survived the worst that could be thrown at them. My ancestors are the strongest. My ancestors are survivors. And so am I.”
It reminds me of Maya Angelou’s poem:
“Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Yet the legacy of an uneven playing field remains today. The gap between the net worth of the average black and white household in the United States has only continued to worsen – a greater wealth gap today by race than 1970 South Africa during apartheid.
Wealth buys access to a family home, and therefore credit, which generates wealth. Providing such things as access to higher education. The crisis of cripling student debt will have serious long-term effects on all of parts of our economy, but student debt is even worse for people of color.
This is the kind of stuff that Jesus talked about all the time. Far more than heaven, salvation, and family values, unless you define family values as food enough for children. He spoke of justice. Not retribution and retaliation but reconciliation and redistribution. Also known as reparations? Jesus didn’t say a single word about abortion or homosexuality but quite clearly, he said, “You can’t serve both God and wealth.” As Jesus said, “You will either hate one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other.”
For example, by serving wealth instead of God:
At the end of trying to understand this confounding, perplexing enigma of a parable wrapped in a riddle, I take away one thing: More than the admonition that “we can’t serve both God and wealth,” rather, I ask in the positive, “how do we use our wealth to serve God?” Why deny it. We have it.
Martin Luther King once said, “time is neutral. You can use your time for good or you can use your 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.”
Are you a servant of God or a servant of money? An easy question. Hard to answer.
We can be wealthy in many things – in friendships, in family, in kindness and acts of compassion. But this parable is about money. It’s not an anti-wealth parable. In fact, one way to understand it is that “we should not be so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.” Shrewd in the ways of the world. Not to forget, Jesus and his disciples depended on the wealth especially of women who financed his ministry.
But it does invite us to ask, is financial wealth the goal of our life? Or is our focus the wise, even shrewd, use of money? Again, let’s not bother denying we have it. How do we use it?
Whether obtained honestly or dishonestly, is your wealth making an impact on the people Jesus loved and talked about all the time? For some people, it is giving it all away. For others, how are you using your wealth to serve God? And if you wonder who is God, just remember that God is love. We can ask the question, how are you using your wealth to serve love?
 Luke 16: 10-12 in The Message
 A Sufi story, adapted http://bytesizesufistories.blogspot.com/2011/06/oath-man-who-was-troubled-in-mind-once.html
 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
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world