This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Luke 16:1-13.
For centuries, scholars have been confounded by this parable. This is without a doubt one of the most confusing stories Jesus ever told. It’s a story of a man caught by his boss, caught for squandering money. The boss tells him to make an accounting of what he’s done, and then he’s fired. But the man quickly does something that looks to me like more squandering: he meets with everyone who owes the boss money, and just reduces their debt. He does this so that the debtors will like him, and perhaps even help him out when he’s unemployed. And the thing is this: the boss commends him for what he has done! And even more confusing: Jesus also commends him for this.
A few years ago, I found a way to think about this in today’s world. I have used this illustration in a sermon before, so my apologizes if it sounds familiar.
Anyway, imagine a big Wall Street firm called Sleazeball Financial. Sleazeball Financial has historically done well for its shareholders. But the executives of this company can see the writing on the wall, and the writing on the wall says, “The bottom is about to fall out.” Very soon this whole company will be out of money. So the executives say to one another, “We don’t have much time. We’d better do something to make sure that we’re okay once this is over.” So they quickly sell their company stock and approve huge bonuses for themselves. They say, “Everything will be okay. Because when this is over, we will have money. And we can rely on that money to take care of us.” That’s easy to imagine, isn’t it?
Now imagine another huge financial firm, we’ll call it Righteous Financial. It’s in the same position; the executives see the same writing on the wall. And they say to one another, “We don’t have much time. We’d better do something to make sure that we’re okay once this is over.” But here’s what they do. They take the money they still have, and they send a $200 check to every shareholder. Then they offer generous severance packages to all the employees they’re about to lay off. And they make huge donations to the Red Cross, to the United Way, to the American Cancer Society. They say, “Everything will be okay. Because when this is over, people will respect and like us, and we will have relationships with people. And we can rely on those people to take care of us.” That’s harder to imagine, isn’t it?
Let me ask you? Which executives were right? In your experience, which can you rely on more? Money or friends? (Everyone will say “friends.”) It’s obvious. And yet it’s so hard for us to imagine Righteous Financial.
But it’s a lot like the story Jesus told us. Kind of like the executives at Righteous Financial, this manager realizes he doesn’t have much time, and he quickly makes use of what’s still available to him, in an attempt to build relationships, so that he will have friends to rely on.
Now, I know. It still sounds unethical. Well, parables are weird and slippery sometimes. It may be that Jesus isn’t praising the way the manager acted. Perhaps Jesus is praising his motive, the motive of turning to relationships as something to rely on, instead of money.
Because in the end, money will fail us. Every single time. In the end, if we are relying on money, we may or may not find ourselves financially secure, but either way, we will be empty, grasping, lonely.
But if we rely instead on relationships, we will find more than money could ever offer. Because people are so much more than money. People can provide not just security, but inspiration, hope, surprises, and love. Now I know that relationships can fail us as well. I know that we can be disappointed, hurt, even abused by other people. That’s why it’s good to diversify! Spend your time and your effort not striving for money, but working at building multiple relationships, with family, friends, your congregation, and others. Even relationships built online with strangers who share and interest have turned out to be amazing and trustworthy friendships.
And above all, if we rely on our relationship with God, we will find that that is a relationship that never, ever fails. God is with us morning to night, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, always holding us, taking care of us, understanding us, inspiring us, and calling us to a life of mission.
Sleazeball Financial didn’t get it. Money is a gift from God, a tool and a resource God has entrusted us with, something we are given in order to use it wisely. There’s nothing wrong with money, until we slip into relying on it and putting our trust in it. People, on the other hand, are not tools or resources. People are gifts from God, gifts sent into our lives to offer hope and peace and inspiration and surprises. Just as we are sent into the lives of others to offer the same. And God, well God is the source of all of this, the source of all goodness, the fount of salvation, the very ground from which we get our being.
As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Jesus said, you cannot serve both God and wealth. Which will you serve? Which will you serve? Whom will you trust? What will you spend your time and energy on? Will you be like Sleazeball Financial? Or like Righteous Financial? Or like the manager in the gospel story? God has given you gifts. God is trusting you with them. Will you trust God?