If you were to find this Gospel lesson appointed for today either confusing or offending, you would not be the first. It would seem that Jesus is extolling the practices of a dishonest account manager. So we hear, this manager falsified the amounts owed to his employer so that, when the manager was out of a job – fired because of his dishonesty! – these same people with whom he is currying illicit favor would admire him or owe him, and ultimately welcome him into their hospitality.
It’s not that this kind of behavior is unheard of, then and now. Quite to the contrary. The New York Times and The Huffington Post would have a lot of white space if similar stories about graft among both public and corporate officials did not appear with almost-daily regularity. But it’s that Jesus would seem to be commending such folks because of their virtue of “shrewdness” is the real puzzler. Jesus does not call such people “children of the light,” – their behavior is, quite literally, “shady” – but Jesus does say, learn from them: “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Hhmm. How curious.
I wonder if Jesus’ mother heard him say that?
Isn’t it fascinating to discover how “street savvy” Jesus is, just listening to the stories and the parables he tells. He was conversant about sheep and shepherds; vineyards and wine-making; fishing and farming; governing authorities (both civil and religious authorities) and their means and their money; about the scriptures (which, of course, is the Old Testament: “You have heard it said, but I say…”; about the birds of the air and flowers of the field; about children, orphans, widows, and merchants; about the powerful, the poor, and the sick; about prisoners and prostitutes; about soldiers, physicians, and tax collectors; about all kinds of temptation; about the weather; about house construction and sailing and fishing the sea; about oxen and donkeys, weddings and funerals and banquets; about the mountains and the desert; about feeling full and about feeling empty; about prejudice and discrimination; about despair and hope; about the joys, challenges, and responsibilities to family members and friends; about weariness and homelessness; and, finally – perhaps as no surprise – about thieves: the Messiah’s return, he says, will be “like a thief in the night.”[i] Jesus was very conversant about so much and with so many, and I think that gives us the best help in making meaning of this Gospel lesson appointed for today.
One of the things Jesus confronted was religious people being so heavenly minded, they were of no earthly good. When we hear Jesus say that he has come to give us life, and to give it to us abundantly, he’s not talking about abundant spiritual life. He’s talking about “abundant life”: life at hand in the here-and-now, and the life to come, where Jesus goes to prepare a place for us. As we say in the funeral rite, at death, “life is changed, not ended.” And so for Jesus. Jesus speaks of life and promises us life – earthly life, eternal life – in a kind of seamless way. There’s to be a mirror-like quality about how we live on earth and how we live in heaven. And so , Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”
It would be a mistake to take this Gospel lesson in isolation and draw some life principle solely from this passage. If we did, it would likely be a rather “shady” principle that would not have integrity. That’s what’s called “proof texting,” where you shop the Scriptures to find some word, some phrase, some story to justify conduct that might otherwise be unjustifiable and inadmissible. Trying to harvest a life principle solely from today’s Gospel passage would not have integrity, integrity with the Scriptures that surround this story, integrity with what Jesus clearly stands for and dies for.
So I’ll take the longer view and glean three principles from this Gospel passage, principles that I do think have integrity with Jesus’ life and with our own life.
1. This Scripture passage comes from the Gospel according to Luke. A recurring theme in Luke’s Gospel is about possessions, a theme much, much more in the Gospel according to Luke than with the other three Gospel accounts. Possessions can be a real problem; possessions can possess us. On the other hand, you need possessions, or at least you need provisions, because Jesus is talking about life, both here-and-now and hereafter. Luke includes, for example[ii]:
- The Song of Mary: “…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”[iii]
- The sermons of John the Baptist: “…“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise…”[iv]
- The prophecy of Isaiah: “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…”[v]
- Blessings and woes: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”[vi]
- The parable about the rich fool: “God said, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you… So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”[vii]
- About not having anxiety about things you need: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear… Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…”[viii]
It could sound like “the rich” – we here, all of us, would be in “the rich” category – are lost, without hope. But then Jesus spends time, welcomes, enjoys shares meals with people with money and resources. And he sends out his disciples to go into all the world with one set of clothes, one pair of sandals, virtually empty handed… not because they should expect manna from heaven, but because people will take them in, care for them, feed them, give them a place to bathe, wash their clothes, give them a bed for the night. People with resources.
How true it is, as Jesus says, that a servant cannot serve two masters, God and mammon – “mammon” is a Semitic word for money – however it is very difficult, maybe impossible, to serve one master, God, without mammon, without money, without resources. The reason that Jesus’ message of good news would speak to so many different people of so many different walks of life is that we are all so much the same. Jesus, the Savior of the world. As that great commentator on life, W. C. Fields, once said, “A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.”[ix]
2. We can see this shady Gospel passage as an example of a principle that “all truth is God’s truth.” Jesus sees something in the questionable conduct of this dishonest money manager that is worth learning. It wouldn’t be right to use this story Jesus tells to justify illegal business practices or immoral personal conduct; however there’s no virtue in being naïve. We need to learn how this world works, how power is brokered and resources invested, traded, bartered, and shared. And we may learn some of this from people who have otherwise been written off. Something which Jesus did not do. I was talking with someone not long ago, and they told me they were in the market to buy a used car. They were praying about this, asking God to direct them to the used car they should buy. That’s all they were doing was praying. They asked me what I thought about it. I told them I would for sure pray, pray for clarity in my God-given brain. Then I’d do some research on the internet, and then I’d go with one of my buddies who’s a car mechanic (and who happens to be a Hindu) and we’d visit a couple of car dealerships. Learn what you can. Be wise as a serpent, and, at the same time, be as innocent as a dove.
3. Thirdly, we need to navigate our life on this earth in a way that is on good speaking terms with life to come, whatever we understand the living conditions of heaven are. In the monastic tradition, this is why we live under a “rule of life”: a series of life principles that inform how we want to deport ourselves with integrity, in this life and for the next. You certainly don’t need to develop a personal rule of life which is as long and comprehensive as, for example, The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.[x] But the principle of a rule – rule, which comes from the Latin regula, a ruler, or measuring device, or model – may be very helpful to you as you “size up” life. If you don’t have a personal rule of life, try using an index card. Make a few bullet points on an index card that are your grounding and guiding principles as you navigate life. Start with that, a few principles. Live with them, test them out. You can always edit and adapt. But where we want to end up is living our life without regret. The psalms speak of this as being on “level ground,” where you can look panoramically to the past, live in the present, anticipate the future (life on this earth and life to come) and it’s all of a piece.[xi] Not pieces, but a piece which has been woven together with integrity.
- We need resources, and we need to share our resources generously.
- Heads up: there’s truth to be learned in life, and from many sources. All truth is God’s truth.
- Live your life on level ground. Take the long view: past, present, future, and be on good speaking terms with it all.
[i] Matthew 24:32-44, the metaphor of “thief” also being used by subsequent New Testament writers, e.g., 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 3:3, 16:15.
[ii] What Luke includes concerning possessions and the poor drawn from Interpretation: Luke, by Fred B. Craddock (John Knox Press, 1990), pp. 188-192.
[iii] Luke 1:46-55.
[iv] Luke 3:10-14.
[v] Luke 4:16-30, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2.
[vi] Luke 6:20-25.
[vii] Luke 12:13-21.
[viii] Luke 12:22-31.
[ix] W. C. Fields (1880-1946), American actor and comic.
[xi] “Level ground” from Psalms 26:12; 27:15; 143:10.
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