The Story About Money That’s Not About Money

The Story About Money That’s Not About Money

Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Luke 16:1-13

Good morning, friends of Ascension and St. Agnes church! I’m thrilled to be in worship with you once again, to greet old friends and to meet those of you who have made Ascension and St Agnes your spiritual home in the time since my last visit. A special welcome to anyone who is a guest with us today. We are glad you are here and pray that through this service God speaks to you in a powerful way.

Today Jesus’ words, taken from the Gospel of Luke, cause us to consider our relationship to money–the money we earn, the money we save, the money we spend, and the money we give away.

Jesus spoke a lot about money, quite apart from the rather curious story about the rich man’s manager that we’re just heard. He spoke so often about having a right relationship to money and possessions that we have no choice but to conclude that for Christians, how we relate to whatever wealth we have is of great spiritual concern. For how we earn, save, spend and share our money reveals core values and life priorities. “Where your treasure is,” Jesus said in another place, “there your heart will be also.”

Today’s text leaves us with another of Jesus’ rather famous one liners: “You can’t serve both God and wealth.” My first thought whenever I read these words is that none of us wants to serve wealth. We value money because of how it can serve us, free us from worry or want, and allows us to live in the ways we like.

In important ways money does free us. If you can’t afford health care, or new clothes for school or work; if you have to decide which bills to pay with a limited paycheck, or don’t feel welcome in a certain social setting because you can’t afford what others take for granted; or worse, if you can’t feed your family and or secure adequate shelter, or lose sleep at night wondering how you will pay for retirement, you know some of the ways that poverty can imprison us. We want money to free us from that aching worry or feeling that we don’t measure up.

Jesus understands what we seek in our possessions and in our wealth or the pursuit of it. But he also loves us enough to speak the truth. Be careful with money, he says, for it can also trap you. It can seduce you into believing that it’s the most important thing, and it’s not. The most important things can’t be bought or sold; they can only be given and received.

For all that Jesus spoke of wealth, he didn’t really care about it when he walked this earth, and he doesn’t care about our wealth. He doesn’t care–in the sense of valuing us more or less–if we are rich, poor, or somewhere in between. Jesus doesn’t judge us according to our balance statements or credit card debt. Unlike practically everyone else, Jesus doesn’t want our money. He wants a relationship with us. All this to say that money is not important to him, except in the ways it affects our experience of life. He cares about that a lot.

There were people in Jesus’ day, as there are in ours, who were trampled on, ruined by economic exploitation. Jesus cares when people are trampled upon. He cares because such cruelty deprives people of life. Likewise he cares when we exploit others, consciously or unconsciously, because it diminishes us as it dehumanizes them. I can’t say that I know Jesus’ opinion of global capitalism, but I do know this: he cares about the people who make our clothes in Malaysia, pick our coffee in Guatemala and lettuce in California, and produce in China the gazillion things we buy at Target. He cares about the people who wash our sheets when we stay at hotels and who pick up our garbage each week and who try to sell us things on the telephone or at our door. He cares about the migrants, some of whom have traveled thousands of miles from their home to reach our southern border, and are now being bussed to cities like Washington, DC, arriving at our doors with nothing. Jesus cares for all who are at the bottom of our economic pyramid as much as he cares about anyone else. He asks that we care, too, and that we do our best to hold those at the top accountable for the decisions they make affecting the lives of millions.

Jesus cares about us when we’re caught in the deadening spiral of anxiety about money, when we max out our credit cards or worry about an impending lay-off and are ashamed to talk about it. Jesus wants us to be free. But the path to freedom, he says, isn’t necessarily by getting more. More money doesn’t always buy more freedom. Because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, poverty is a subjective experience. The richer we become, the poorer we can feel, as our tastes and expectations change, and particularly when our material wealth distances us from true wealth, not defined in possessions but rather depth of being, quality of relationships, and generosity of spirit. If we use our material wealth to serve true wealth, Jesus says, then our money becomes an instrument of grace. But if it distances us from what matters most, money becomes our master and we its slave.

More than anything, Jesus cares about the quality of our lives. The only way I can make sense of the comical scenario in the story of the rich man’s manager is to conclude that it’s not a story about money. It’s about life and what we do with what we’re given. Use what you have for good, Jesus says. Use what happens to you, your life circumstances, and your resources, he tells us, no matter how much or little you’ve got and how you feel about it. Use everything about your life, for good. Be creative. Be persistent. Be crafty if you must. You’ve been entrusted with one messy, imperfect, glorious life. Stop being squeamish and jump in, headfirst.

A friend of mine married into a very wealthy family. While she seemed to enjoy the luxury of her husband’s wealth, she found herself resenting it for how it defined her and for many years she kept it all at arm’s length. She complained about it quite a lot, having no idea how ridiculous she sounded to those of us not burdened with multi-million dollar trust funds. To be fair, her pain was real. Who among us would want to be defined by someone else’s money? It’s not my money, she would say, it’s not my family. Finally, when she was in her fifties, she realized that she had imprisoned herself in a veneer of passivity and learned helplessness. She decided it was time to take the reins of her life. One way she did that was join the leadership circle of the family’s foundation and there she helped set the course for its future. It is now one of the important sources of funding for organizations committed to social justice in the nation, and her mark on it is everywhere.

I realize that most of us can’t even imagine what living with that kind of wealth would be like. But no matter where we are on the spectrum of riches, we are surely more blessed than we realize, and at the same time, there may be a lot about our lives that we wish we could change. We may find ourselves in situations that frustrate or hurt us; or disappointed by the attributes we wished we had but don’t. We see others who seem to walk through life with more grace and joy and we wonder, why can’t it be like that for us?

But that, in the end, is a false question, in that it leads nowhere. The real question is, what are we going to do with what we have? What we have may not be what we want and it may seem paltry compared to what we see others enjoy, but so what? As Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful in little is also faithful in much.”

Our Jewish friends are about to celebrate the holiest days of their faith, beginning with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year on September 25-27 and followed by Yom Kippur, a solemn day of self-reflection and atonement for sin on October 4. Years ago I read a newspaper article by a journalist named Gail Rosenblum entitled “A Question for the Jewish New Year” with the byline: “How do we know, finally, whether we’re living the good life?”1

“I once knew a man,” the article began, “who confessed that he read the obituaries every day to make sure he wasn’t in them.” “I confess that I also find my way to the obituaries every day,” Rosenblum continued, “but not for the same reason. I go because Entertainment Weekly only gets me halfway to the answer I seek. I’m pretty clear on how the rich and famous choose to spend their time and trust funds, but the obituary pages are even richer. There, in black and white, is our society succinctly summarized: the workaholics and tireless volunteers, the billionaires and custodians, the blue-ribbon bakers and golf fanatics. Read the sweet tributes–‘she loved her library card and a good game of Scrabble’–and the tragedies that some did not escape: ‘She was 24…she died after a long and courageous battle with cancer, ALS, or depression.’ Or, ‘he died suddenly.’”

“Who among them had lived the better life?” Rosenblum wondered, “The right life? Who was happier?” It was an impossible question to answer, she realized. Yet it haunted her, particularly when it was her task to pick eight outstanding members of the community who would be elevated from paid obituary to recipient of a more fully reported story. “How could I choose?” she asked. “It felt like playing God.” In the end, she was spared the task. But a question lingered for her: “What about me? Would my life make the cut? And if so, what would I want written?”

What, indeed. One thing is for certain: when assessing the quality of our lives–how well we live and how happy we are–what matters is how we have embraced our life and given of ourselves for others. How we use our money figures into the equation, but only as it relates to the most important question of all: how well are we living the one life we have to live? Whoever is faithful in little is also faithful in much.

So let me leave you with a few questions to ponder, and with an offer, should you be interested.

  • How would you describe your relationship to money?
  • Do you have a financial plan–a way of managing your money? If so, how is it working for you? If not, would you like to explore the possibility of establishing one?

For all of us living in a capitalist, consumer-driven society, intentionally thinking ahead and making informed and generous choices is the wise thing to do. Having a plan ensures that our money serves us and not the other way around. If you don’t have a plan–or a satisfying one–or if money is a real source of anxiety for you, I invite you to talk about it with someone who could help. There are many such people. Speak or write to Fr. Dominique or to me and we’ll create such a space for conversation and support, without judgment. Trust me, you are not alone. And you’ll be glad you did.

  • And the final question: when it’s time for your obituary to be written, what do you hope that people will say about you?

I’d love to pray for us.

Gracious God, I have attempted to interpret Jesus’ words about the distinction between serving wealth and serving you; of what it means to be faithful with what has been entrusted to us, and how to live with the kind of freedom you long for us all.

I pray now for all of us, asking that you speak to our hearts with the word that we each need to hear, to be assured of your love and your desire that we can truly live the best possible version of our lives.

Thank you for all that you have entrusted to us–materially, relationally, and spiritually. Help us all to use the many gifts entrusted to us wisely and generously, and to live well. In your name, I pray. Amen.

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1Gail Rosenblum, “A Question for the Jewish New Year,” in the Minneapolis Star Tribune this week there was an article by Gail Rosenblum entitled, “A Question for the Jewish New Year” September 15, 2004, p. E-1.