Here is a link to listen to the sermon by The Rev. Edwin Chinery on September 22, 2019, the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. There is also a link to the scripture for this Sunday.
You cannot serve God and money.
How do you feel about money? How you feel when I start asking you about money. About your money. Do you get a little squirmy? I do. At least I’ve historically gotten plenty squirmy – especially when somebody in the church starts asking about my money. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. It was actually a big part of why I left Christian community-of-faith forty years ago. And I don’t think I’m the only one in that group either.
But, it’s my fervent hope to get us all a little bit past that discomfort. And to that end, I’m moved to explore a new understanding of the gift Jesus has given us in today’s lesson about the shrewd manager and the dishonest wealth.
How did that hit your ears? “Dishonest wealth”? Let’s start there.
I confess to finding the expression ‘dishonest wealth’ rather troubling – confusing at the very least. So I checked some language resources for other meanings and found that several gospel-interpretations use the words ‘worldly wealth’ instead, which seems a little more useful to me in terms of relating the concept of wealth to God’s purpose and action.
You cannot serve God and money. It sounds, at first, like Jesus is saying that God and money are necessarily separate. And there’s actually a history of scholarship that has sought to validate such a notion. Let us see how that thinking holds up.
It’s pretty standard practice for Jesus to turn what we think of as defining terms on their heads buy using parables. You see parables – as a literary form and teaching tool – appeal to a great variety in levels of mind and spirit. They stimulate the imagination, and in doing so, come to challenge things like unfairness and inequity, through unspoken insistence on critical thinking. Parables have the power to promote sympathy toward a subject without necessarily arousing antagonism.
It’s subversive – in the best way possible – how the parable form moves from things which are known, toward discernment of the unknown. They do so utilizing “the material” and “the natural” as means of introducing the spiritual or the super-material, if you will. And without our even being conscious of it, they can draw aside curtains of preconception or prejudice and place new truths, very gracefully, so far into our minds that they touch our hearts. Best of all, they do so with the stirring-up of a minimum of self-defense and personal resentment.
This is only true, however, when the listener brings genuine openness, and a desire for greater understanding and closeness with God, into their engagement with a parable’s content. These listeners may find what they seek, while those who listen only to ensnare, may remain unmoved – they may see without seeing – hear without hearing. Not much can be done from the outside when one shuts off the appeal to the spirit that dwells within. But a different kind of vitality comes when we hear a parable – and perhaps all truths – with our ears and our minds, and seek to understand them with our hearts.
Is this helpful? Then let’s circle back to the content in today’s parable and try to understand it with our hearts.
The ‘manager’ in the parable – and, p.s., the original Greek word is ‘steward’ – is accused of being dishonest – of being wasteful with his master’s resources. So, right out of the gate our focus is on what we understand of worldly economy. Jesus is master of the set-up.
The accusation is then followed by twin strands of what appears to be added insult and injury: he appears to continue using his master’s resources or wealth for personal gain. This is outrageous! Blatant unfairness seems to be escalating. How can further reducing the master’s income become worthy of praise? But this, indeed, is what happens next. Jesus says, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly…I tell you, use dishonest (or worldly) wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.”
I don’t know about you, but at first, I found myself focusing on the impact the steward’s behavior makes on wealth, ownership and – idunno – maybe even ethics. Our world culture is always telling us that that which is attached to wealth can be the only things that satisfy – that they may even be essential to any other kind of love. These are very powerful and insidious perceptions. But in this parable, Jesus sets you up to begin to think for yourself about what it is in your own life experience that has actually been most satisfying.
So while you’re in there reflecting, think about allowing the curtain to be drawn aside – the curtain of perception and pre-conceived notion. All the details about the world’s understanding of the value of money. In fact, try to allow anything like fear about money to be drawn aside with that curtain. This allows all impressions of the steward’s behavior as being self-serving or manipulative to be swept aside as well. And behind all these things, if we have indeed maintained the appeal to the spirit inherent in the parable form – if we are motivated by a desire to meet God and discover deeper understanding of God and closer connection with God – we may just begin to see what appears to interest God most in this story.
The steward is commended for acting shrewdly because he also brushed aside the curtain. There was no curtain for him, it seems. He saw worldly wealth, but he saw God in it. And he used that worldly wealth to do what? He used it to create a spiritual connection. To create friendship. And while an abundance of ancient sources state that honor is prized over wealth which may be why the master praises the steward, this steward created a spiritual connection and friendship with those who could not be expected to return the favor – and this is why Jesus praises him.
I’m guessing that, for God, this is what it’s always all about. The shrewd steward used a worldly thing to create a spiritual thing – to create a connection that advances God’s purpose and supports God’s generosity toward the needy in this world. Worldly wealth used to create spiritual wealth, and thus, greater good in the world – a good that flourishes outside the wealth domain. This is God’s economy. The eternal homes. The places in the heart.
What’s the spirit in the thing? Whether in his teaching or healing, in his passion and crucifixion – Jesus never wanted to squash the individual’s concept of divine communion by establishing precise ‘forms’ – particularly as they are bound by worldly terms. That would surely limit the believer’s spiritual imagination – formally cramp it.
I hope that these thoughts help eliminate some of the meta-physical radioactivity around the word money, and maybe open a door onto a kind of spirituality of money. I feel a lot less squirmy, and I hope you do too.
Two points, in closing – one global, the other local.
In early fall of 2017, Bangladeshi entrepreneur and Nobel Prize winning economist Muhammed Yunus was profiled in a NYTimes piece called “Giving Capitalism a Social Conscience”. The content was thrilling. Yunus contended that capitalism is a wonderful construct – one that fosters healthy competition, creativity and growth. But it cannot be allowed to develop too close to its perfect form. Which is the present state of world economic affairs. This is not a good thing – and it is something of a universal truth. For example, in the words of Alexander Dumas (author of “The Count of Monte Cristo”, “The Three Musketeers” and more): ‘Do not value money for any more or less than it is worth – it is a good servant, but a bad master’. A key point in the Times piece was that, in Yunus’ thinking, if we could get just a few more billionaires – in addition to Buffet and the Gateses – to direct even single digit percentages of their vast wealth toward projects that benefit humanity rather than being singularly focused on profit-making, it could make an enormous difference in terms of social justice and our ability, for example, to lessen the divide between rich and poor. And, while thrilling, I wondered if the content would fall on deaf corporate ears. But it seems it has not. Only a few weeks ago about 200 Fortune 500 CEO’s signed off on a public statement re-writing the central tenets of what corporate success means. No longer do these powerful world figures want profits and shareholder well-being to be the primary motivators in business. Stakeholders have replaced shareholders and work is being done, even as we speak, to reconstruct corporate systems that will ensure well-being and care for everyone involved in business missions and goals. Customers, employees, suppliers, the communities in which business operate – all of these are being recognized as essential to the creation of a new ethos that will make for better companies, better communities and a better world. Again, as was often suggested after the Yunus article two years ago, we shall see how things progress. But hearing this news seems to represent a far better step in the right direction than not hearing it. How will we participate? There’s likely to be many opportunities.
And, finally, in terms of participation, perhaps some of you didn’t miss the connection between emphasis on the original word for ‘manager’ actually being ‘steward’, and the fact that we’re beginning to enter stewardship season. Not only here at Ascension, but throughout much of the church. Perhaps some of the resonances around rethinking and de-toxifying the idea of money – begun by Jesus’ provocative parable of long ago – may be lingering. Parables, it is also said, possess the advantage of stimulating the memory of truths taught when similar familiar scenes are subsequently encountered. You may find yourself asking yourself about how you might be able to sweep aside curtains of pre-conception in order to see God’s presence in your money. Maybe you will begin to recognize the ways God has a hand in the acquisition of money – that God and money are NOT necessarily separate.
And don’t be afraid to also ask yourself these last couple of things as you discern: How are we doing as stewards of your money? That question is like a coin, the other side of which reads, How much of “you” is included in “we”? The “we” of Ascension isn’t just me and Liz and the rest of the staff or even the vestry and wardens. “We” includes “you”. So, how are we doing? How are we doing when it comes to taking things worldly and making things spiritual out of them? Making the eternal homes…
Thank you for being here. “We”, literally, could not do this without “you”. “We couldn’t be “we” without “you”.