Tag Archives: money

The strangest of them all

ImagePhyllis Tickle calls it “The most difficult parable of them all.” David Lose calls it “The most confusing parable.”  The New International Version labels it “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager.”  The New Revised Standard uses the word “Dishonest” instead of shrewd.  The Common English Bible goes it different direction with the subheading “Faithfulness with Money.”

All parables have an element of strangeness.  That is sort of the point of them.  Jesus uses parables to teach about the Kingdom of God, which is a strange concept.  Forgiveness, compassion, self-sacrifice, these are counter-cultural concepts that take strange stories to understand. Some parables are strange because we don’t understand the cultural weight of words like Levite or Samaritan.  Some parables are strange because of the actions people take (who would plant a weed – one that gets really big – in a garden?) Yet despite the general strangeness of Jesus’ parables, the one found in Luke 16:1-13 seems to be the three-dollar bill.

It is a story of an owner and a manager.  The owner discovers that his manager has been dishonest, fearing that he is going to be fired, the manager decides to do some dealing.  Facing impending unemployment, he decides to make some quick deals so that “people will welcome me in their houses.”  He goes to a few of the owner’s clients and settles their debt at much lower rates.  Collecting about half as much as they owe, the manager figures that the clients will be grateful to him, and treat him well in the future.  The owner finds out about the tactics, and this is where it gets strange.

The owner commends the man for acting “shrewdly” in the NIV and NRSV, “cleverly” in the CEB.  What?  The manager, who was already identified as dishonest, goes about being more dishonest, and the owner praises him?  This one is a tough one to figure out.  Why would the owner praise him?  In most parables, the owner or master is supposed to be God.  Here we seem to have God praising a man that screwed him.  There is only small consolation in remembering that the disciples rarely understood Jesus’ strange stories either.

So what are we left with?  What is the good news?  I think it comes down to the same place that most of Jesus’ strange stories come to: relationships.  At the beginning of the story, we have many strained relationships.  There is a strained employer-employee relationship.  There are debts and debtors.  What are we left with at the end of the story?  Reconciled relationship and cancelled debt.  It makes no sense for the owner to praise someone for cancelling the debts people owed him.  He did not get what was coming to him, and yet he celebrated.

Perhaps a quick scan around the rest of the Gospel of Luke will help lift the fog from this confusing story.  Remember when Jesus taught the disciples to pray? Back in chapter 11, he tells them “Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”  What if Jesus actually meant that?  “But wait!” you might be saying, “He wasn’t talking about money.  He was talking about sin, and you know, trespasses (whatever that is supposed to mean).”  All I have to say is, really?  You don’t think Jesus was talking about money?  This is the Gospel of Luke we’re talking about, the one that says “Blessed you that are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now…” not “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” like the Gospel of Matthew.   It is in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Later he tells a man to “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me;” (Luke 18:22).  Then he says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God'” (Luke 18:24).

And don’t give me the line about the gate in Jerusalem that was called the “Needle’s Eye” or some such nonsense.  There is no archaeological evidence of this mythical gate.  There are, however, many non-canonical uses of a similar phrase to explain something that is really, really hard.

On Episode 29 of the Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Eric and I discuss this difficult parable, and the lament found in Jeremiah 8:18-19:1

On Episode 29 of the Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Eric and I discuss this difficult parable, and the lament found in Jeremiah 8:18-19:1

All of this is to say, maybe Jesus is trying to teach us something about the nature of relationships and money, and our relationships with money.  Perhaps the manager was praised because he put relationships ahead of money.  You could argue that his motivation was less than pure, but in the end, he valued his ability to “be invited into people’s homes” over his ability to please his boss.  And maybe the owner cared more about his manager’s heart than he did about his bottom line.  The Pharisees didn’t get it.  They valued money, and understood that having money was the same as having God’s favor.  Jesus is reminding them that there are things in this world more important than wealth.  Perhaps the level of confusion that this parable stirs is evidence of how remarkably important it really is.  This one blows our mind, because it seems to go against all of our common understanding of fairness.

And that’s just it.  The Kingdom of God has little to do with fairness.  It has little to do with keeping proper ledgers and making sure that everyone gets what is their due.  The Kingdom of God is about relationships.  It is about reconciliation.  It is about forgiving our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  It is not an easy story to hear.  It is sometimes an even harder story to live.  It doesn’t make good economic sense.  Jesus had a funny way of not making  sense.

It doesn’t make sense to plant a weed in a garden.  It doesn’t make sense to ruin a whole vat of flour with some leaven.  It doesn’t make sense to turn your other cheek, throw a party for people that can’t invite you to theirs, leave behind a flock because one sheep strayed, or throw a party for your good-for-nothing son who finally came back home with his tail between his legs.

It doesn’t make sense that God would come to earth and take on flesh.  It doesn’t make sense that God would claim me as his own, or invite me to the Table of Grace.  It doesn’t make sense that Jesus would do all he could for a people that responded by nailing him to a cross.  It doesn’t make sense that tomb was empty, or that disciples have been able to experience Christ in the breaking of bread for centuries since he was said to be dead.

This strange parable is a doozie.  It is a challenge.  It is a challenge to look at what cancelling debt really looks like.  It is a challenge to take a close look at how I serve wealth over God.  It is a challenge to look at how I spend money, how I save money, and how I treat others.  It is a strange one, all right.  Maybe that’s how God intended it.

Listen to the Pulpit Fiction Podcast about this parable

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Journey to Hope: Money

In our Journey to Hope (which admittedly, was supposed to end at Easter, but I’m a little behind), we have explored several surprising places we may find hope.  This is Week 5 of the series Journey to Hope, a Rethink Church study.


Week One: Relationships

Week Two: Self-Esteem

Week Three: Work

Week Four: Temptation

The opening question of the discussion is “Are you indebted to banks or to people?”  When leading a discussion about money with my youth, I framed the question slightly different.  “Do you own your stuff or does your stuff own you?” We listed some of the things we own, and what they spend their money on.  We had a list of things like clothes, phone, entertainment, food/snacks (beyond what their parents provide), video games, and books.

It was an interesting discussion, and they seemed to understand the question, “Do you own your stuff or does your stuff own you?”  We didn’t watch the video that was suggested by the study.  Although I love Pink Floyd, the discussion didn’t need the added media to get it going.  For the purpose of this blog though, I thought of a different song.

When thinking about the love of money, I think of the song “If I were a rich man.”

We all like to throw around cliche’s like “money can’t  buy happiness,” but money can be a powerful tool.  I don’t believe that money in itself is an evil.  It is a catalyst or an exclamation point.  Money magnifies the character of the one that possesses it. It can be used for terrible harm and it can be used for a great deal of good.  The reason I love “If I Were a Rich Man” is because it is so honest.  Tevye doesn’t just say, “I’m happy as I am.”  He knows that being wealthy could change his life.

He also admits that he might be a little extravagant with his money.  He would strut and preen.  He likes the idea of people treating him better.  He would get a bunch of animals so that they would make a lot of noise and point out to everyone that “Here lives a wealthy man.”  Part of the song speaks of the kind of frivolousness that many of us dream of a little.  I would buy a Jaguar.  Tevye would buy one staircase going up, another even longer going down, and another going nowhere just for show. I appreciate the honesty of that kind of wishful thinking.  There’s no sanctimonious piety.  Then, he starts to sing about other, more valuable things.

He starts to ponder the meaning of wisdom.  He starts to dream of spending time in Synagogue.  He dreams of sitting on the Eastern Wall.  His passion and deep commitment to God starts to grow apparent has he dives deeper into his fantasy.  Finally he comes to the ultimate fantasy – being able to sit with learned men and discuss the holy books for seven hours everyday.  The mere thought of it gives him pause.

That moment of the song – when he stops singing – is my favorite.  To me that moment reveals so much of the character of Tevye.  If you don’t know much about “The Fiddler on the Roof,” I apologize.  You should go out and watch it (and I’m really excited that it is coming to Davenport this season).  In this moment, I see the difference between the love of money and the love of what money can do.  Herein lies the difference between owning your stuff and allowing your stuff to own you.

When it gets down to the heart of the matter, it’s not the great staircases or loud animals that Tevye wants.  It is the chance to get closer to God.  Of course, if I were Tevye’s pastor, I would suggest to him that he can grow closer to God without money – but his heart is in the right place.  For too many, money is an obstacle.  It gets in the way of generosity, risk-taking mission, and genuine relationship.  These are the things in life that are of value.  It is very easy for the things we own, that we think are supposed to be serving us, become the instruments of the oppression we are trying to avoid.

People claim that wealth is a sign of God’s favor.  I don’t believe that.  Others claim that God is on the side of the poor.  I’m not sure when God chooses sides.  I think what God wants is for us all to be in relationship with God and with one another.  I think money can be related to that, but I think simplicity has more to do with it than a checkbook balance.  Simplicity in life goes a long way, and often with money there are complications.

Still though, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to biddy biddy bum all day.

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