Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Walking the Line

Walking the Line
Lk. 16:1-13[1]
  It seems to me that there’s a fine line between integrity and dishonesty. We view them as opposites, and so you might think that they are so far apart that it’s easy to tell the difference.  But, unfortunately, in our human condition they too often get mixed up.  When does a conversation with a friend who owns a company in which you own stock become felony insider trading?  Ask Martha Stewart about that one.  Or what is the real difference between using “nutritional supplements” to enhance your athletic performance and resorting to more potent compounds? That’s a dilemma probably every professional athlete faces.  Or when does a campaign promise that reflects a candidate’s values and intentions shade off into a lie that is simply intended to garner votes in the election?
  I’m afraid the line between integrity and dishonesty is a fine one indeed.  And as Jesus made clear over and over again, that line applies to our money as much as any other area of life.  Our Gospel lesson for today is one of several parables Jesus taught his disciples in order to warn them against the danger wealth would pose to their fidelity to God.  It’s incredibly easy to cross the line from serving God to having our lives controlled by money--whether it’s an abundance of money or the lack of it.  And like he does elsewhere, Jesus makes it clear that you cannot serve both God and “mammon” (Lk. 16:13).[2] 
  And yet, on the face of it, this parable is somewhat confusing.  It almost seems that Jesus is commending the dishonest use of wealth as a means of gaining eternal life! Given not only Jesus’ teaching about money, but the whole biblical witness, it’s clear that Jesus would not have made such bizarre statement. So what are we to make of this?  A little background might help.  A “steward” was a household slave who was in charge of the master’s estate.  He would manage all the affairs related to the operations, the personnel, and the finances.  So the “steward” was the one who was entrusted with the master’s wealth.  It seems that this particular steward has been caught being dishonest, and it’s clear that the master is going to dismiss him.
  What the steward does next may seem shocking to us.  He called in those who owed debts to the estate, and gave them back the original IOU and had them write out another one with a reduced debt.  This may seem like outright theft.  But it is likely that in fact the amount by which the steward reduced the debts was actually excessive interest that he had been charging (and probably pocketing).  It would seem that in fact he was simply foregoing his dishonest “commission.”[3] 
  We might wonder how this would do him any good.  In that day and time, debts of honor were taken very seriously.  In a very real sense, the steward was placing these people in his debt by doing them huge favors.  And when he came calling to “cash in” his favors, they would dishonor themselves in the eyes of the community if they did not welcome him as a guest in their homes. This explains the strange comment about the master commending the steward (Lk. 16:8).  It seems confusing at first, but the master simply recognizes that the steward has come up with a very shrewd plan to avoid poverty when he is forced to leave his current position. [4]
  It’s at this point that Jesus begins his strange comments.[5]  He says, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Lk. 16:8).  Does Jesus want us to be dishonest and self-serving like the steward?  I don’t believe that for a minute.  But I think he does want us to give as much forethought to the way our actions affect our future as this steward did.[6]  Perhaps it would be better to say that Jesus wanted his disciples to exercise good judgment when it comes to the way they live. 
  But he goes on to get more specific about this.  He says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Lk. 16:9).  Here again, it sounds like Jesus is advising us to use money the way the steward did--to gain an advantage for ourselves.  I don’t believe that’s anywhere close to what Jesus was saying.  Again I think he wanted his disciples to be as intentional about the way they use their wealth as the steward was.[7]  But Jesus clearly expected his disciples to use whatever wealth they had in the opposite way to the steward--we’re to use our wealth to seek first God’s kingdom of peace, mercy, freedom, and new life.[8] 
  It’s all too easy in this day and time to let our concerns about money literally take over our lives.  I think we would all agree from personal experience that money is a hard taskmaster.  When we serve “mammon,” we stray from the path of following Jesus.  Perhaps even worse, we can create a serious obstacle to building our lives on trust in God.  And yet, we live in a world where money is a necessary evil.  I think Jesus was aware of that.  And I think he wanted those who follow him to be aware of the temptations money can pose.  More than that, I think he wanted us to be wise about our use of money, and that means making sure to put it to good use for the sake of others where ever we can.  As with other aspects of our discipleship, when it comes to the way we use our money we are called to walk a fine line--a straight and narrow path that leads to life.[9]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/22/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] cf. Martin Luther, Larger Catechism, 12, where he calls mammon “the most common idol on earth” (Part One, the Ten Commandments, on the First Commandment).  Cf. also Ralph Martin, and Peter Davids, eds., The Dictionary of the New Testament and its Later Developments, s. v. “James, Letter of,” by Robert W. Wall, where he points out that those who love mammon “inevitably exploit their neighbors.”  See further Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 100.
[3]Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Gospel According to Luke X–XXIV, 1101; Darrell Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1330, 1341; J. Duncan M. Derrett, Law in the New Testament, 56–63; I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, 616–19.
[4] In fact, it may have improved the master’s standing in the community, because the steward’s dishonesty may have consisted precisely of the fact that he was lending the master’s money and charging exorbitant and in fact illegal interest rates.  Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Story of the Dishonest Manager (Lk. 16:1-13),” Theological Studies 25 (Mar 1964): 35-37.
[5] There has been a debate about where the parable ends and Jesus’ comments begin.  Where does the parable end and Jesus’ interpretation of the parable begin?  Some have suggested that the parable ends with 16:7, and that what follows in 16:8 constitutes the narration of Jesus’ (the “Lord”) commendation of the Dishonest Steward (cf. Rudolf Bultmann, The Synoptic Tradition, 176–76, 199–200).  Others have suggested that 16:8a belongs to the parable, while 16:8b constitutes Jesus’ comments on the parable (cf. Fitzmyer, Gospel According to Luke X–XXIV, 1101; Marshall, Commentary on Luke, 619-20; Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1332).  This seems more likely, and most agree that 16:9-13 constitute further comments on the topic of wealth.
[6] Cf. Jennifer E. Copeland, “Shrewd Investment,” The Christian Century (Sept. 7, 2004): 21, where she observes that the steward “used all the means at his disposal to adapt to his new reality. We should be no less shrewd in adapting to God's reality.”
[7] Cf. Michael J. Christensen, “The Shrewdness in Stewardship,” in The Living Pulpit (July-Sept 2006): 7, where he says, “Those who insist on uncompromising economic purity in this world would have to live as St. Francis did, in utter simplicity and dependency on God alone for daily bread. For most of us, managing money will be a necessary distraction.”
[8] Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.18.6 (vol. 2, p.421), where he says, “What we give to our brethren in the exercise of charity is a deposit with the Lord.”
[9] Cf. Stanley M. Hauerwas, “Living on Dishonest Wealth,” Journal for Preachers 20 (Advent 1996): 17, where he warns us that even though we may be aware of the dangers of our wealth, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that even our generosity will save us.  He says, “Being generous with our wealth is a good. But our generosity will not save us. Rather what we must face is the only thing that can save us is that our God is a generous God who offers us forgiveness of our sins—sins that are all the more powerful because we cannot will our way out of them. We are caught, but God has freed us from our ‘caughtness’ through Jesus Christ.” 

No comments: