Pentecost 18 C: Wealth and Relationships
Dear Partner in Preaching,
So what do you think: is it ever okay to tell the congregation that you really have no idea what a passage means? I know, I know, that may be hard to do, as we are, after all, supposed to be the experts in this kind of thing. Moreover, it might be a tad scandalous for some, as they have a pretty high confidence in your ability to help them understand the Scriptures.
At the same time, though, it might also be comforting, as when they scratch their heads in perplexity at a passage like this one, they now know they’re not alone. It’s not that they’re not smart enough or lack training, it’s that this passage is really, really hard. After all, the preacher said so!
And, of course, it might be freeing for you to admit you’re not really sure what the passage means, freeing for you so you don’t have to pretend a confidence you don’t have, but also freeing you to risk an interpretation that seems to fit your particular circumstances without laboring under the burden of figuring out the “original intent” of the author which, in this case, is rather obscure, if not irretrievable.
So, a few suggestions for preaching this rather vexing passage:
1) Preach the text. Should be obvious, I know, but the temptation will be strong – and I know because I’ve been feeling it! – to use this text as a springboard to whatever theme you’d rather talk about. And when we do that, we make it that much harder for our folks to understand how Scripture connects to their lives and, consequently, why they should read it.
2) Having said that, do indeed see the ambiguity in the text as granting a measure of freedom. That is, preach the text, but preach what makes sense to you in relation to your circumstances. Commentators’ opinions on the meaning of this passage and its original setting and import diverge rather significantly. (Even Luke, quite frankly, seems a tad unsure of what to do with these words, as after the “parable proper” comes a string of sayings from Jesus that are at best only loosely connected.) So read the commentaries and then figure out how this passage might speak to your people and preach that with confidence.
3) When a passage is particularly difficult or confusing, sometimes it’s helpful to ask questions, certainly of yourself and possibly of your congregation. Some that I am mulling over include the following:
Why is the “dishonest manager” commended?
What is “dishonest wealth” and what does it mean to make use of it?
Who exactly are the children of the light, and how does that translate to today? (And in a world of so much intolerance, should we even try to translate it to today?)
Beyond these questions, I have one more, prompted by the text and potentially addressed by it: Why are we so hesitant to talk about money in the church?
I suspect the answer is that we don’t want to offend people. But I think it should offend us more that there are entire elements of our life that we feel Scripture does not speak to. I think most of us genuinely struggle to make sense of our economic lives and would welcome some counsel. And I think that’s part of what this text indeed speaks to, the struggle to make good use of our resources.
So maybe this is the week to at least bring up the question of money and faith. If you do, you’ll quickly realize there is no simple “biblical” view about economics. Why? Probably because our relationship to our wealth is pretty complex, and “sound bite” theology or biblical maxims don’t work. At the same time, there are a few themes that seems to run across the Gospels and make an appearance here.
1) Wealth is both a blessing and a responsibility. As throughout Scripture, we are blessed to be a blessing, and we are held accountable less for what resources we have accumulated than how we use them. From this point of view, perhaps the shrewdness or prudence of he manager comes through his recognition that he has privileged amassing wealth to developing relationships. It may be that he earned his money by charging interest on the amounts his lord loaned out to others. Finding himself between a rock and a hard place, he cuts the amount others owe by his surcharge, avoiding further accusation that he is defrauding his master but strengthening, perhaps even establishing, relationships that will sustain him in a time of need.
2) Wealth – along with status, power, and privilege – is fleeting. One day this manager is on top of the world; the next he is faced with disaster. We are not so far removed, I think, from the financial meltdown of 2008 that we cannot remember how many people lost much of what they’d amassed in such a short time. When faced with the pronouncement that we cannot serve God and Mammon we might remember that whereas the Lord’s attention, care, and providence are constant, Mammon proves to be a pretty fickle, and ultimately untrustworthy, master.
3) In times of crisis, God often appears where we least expect God to be, coming us to “from below” to render help and aid. There are lots of “crises” in Luke that turn on receiving help from unexpected places – the Jewish traveler left for dead along the road who is saved by a Samaritan; the rich man (in next week’s text) who begs for help from Lazarus, the slave he ignored; this manager now suddenly dependent on those who used to look to him for loans. From Mary’s Magnificat through the beatitudes to Jesus’ death on the cross, God regularly shows up in those places where we least expect God to be so that we are not tempted to place our faith in the wrong place.
And perhaps this is the key – or at least one of the keys! – to this passage: we are placed on this earth to love and care for each other, not to separate ourselves from each other with wealth, status, or privilege. I’ve heard it said that St. Augustine asserted that God gave us people to love and things to use, and original sin manifests itself in our penchant to confuse those two, loving things and using people.
Perhaps one way to get at this would be the following: after raising some of your questions and offering your suggestions, provide folks with a 3×5 card and an envelope dated October 18, 2016 (a month from Sunday), and ask them to write on the card the name of one person, one relationship, that they want to improve or deepen and so deserves their investment of time, energy, and money. That is, let’s take seriously that God gives us people to love, that we are given all of our resources to care for others, and that none of us know how much time we may have to do that. So ask people to write the name of one person with whom they would like to improve or deepen a relationship and then put that card in the envelope, take it home, put it somewhere safe, and open it again in a month to see how they’ve done.
This is not a challenge, and no one will judge the outcome. It is simply an invitation to see those around us as God’s true gifts to us, the “honest wealth” and true riches of life in community.
Please know, Dear Partner, that whatever direction you may move in this week, through your words and your struggle with this passage, God is blessing us once again. Thanks for your work.
Yours in Christ,