Saturday, September 17, 2016

Befriending Dishonest Wealth

Luke 16:1-13
September 18, 2016
William G. Carter

"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."

Of all the parables Jesus told, that one is a real stinker. Maybe that’s why I talk about it whenever it comes up in the cycle of lectionary readings. Jesus tells about a wily crook that is cheating his boss. When the boss hears about it, he says, “You’ve got to go. Turn in your record.” So what does the fired employee? Before he goes out the door, he has a fire sale. He trims the prices on his boss’ products, thinking that after he’s gone, at least he will have some friends.

And when the boss hears about it, he doesn’t throw him in prison or hand him off to get roughed up. No, he says, “Congratulations! I’m impressed. What an excellent idea!” It’s the ending of that parable that gives good Presbyterians fits. They think a crook ought to be arrested, not be commended. Is that boss crazy? The thief has done the crime, he should do the time. But instead he’s congratulated by the very man who has let him go.

It’s a troubling story, the most slippery of all the stories that Jesus tells. And the only thing more troubling is one of the teachings that Jesus extracts from it: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Now, what in the world is that about?

Make friends by dishonest wealth? We know about making friends . . . but to do it by dishonest wealth? Or to translate it another way, “filthy money” or “unrighteous mammon.” Who wants to make some friends by way of some dirty money?

A friend of mine is the pastor of a new church not far from here. The new church is the merger of some small country churches. They have a beautiful new facility. Right by the front door, there is a plaque to honor a local business man of, shall we say, dubious reputation. I don’t need to mention any names, simply to say he runs a big junk yard, and he may be the largest land owner in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It’s hard to say, he doesn’t do interviews. 

Apparently somebody knew somebody who knew somebody else, and they got this business person to arrange for the site preparation of the new church building. He’s not a church member there. It may be questionable to ask such a person for a favor, but they did. Now they have a large plaque honoring his generosity. Is that what Jesus means by “befriending dishonest wealth”?

Or I think of a new community center, a place not far from here that is dear to my own heart. The board is in the process of raising money to rehab the building and open the center. It was announced that there was a $100,000 grant. Well, that was wonderful! It’s not enough to do the whole project, but it’s a big help. And where did this grant come from? From the profits of Pennsylvania casinos.

Well, we’re grateful for the funding, but I confess some discomfort on where the money comes from. I know families that have been ripped apart because somebody spent too much money in a casino. This summer, I visited a local casino for the very first time. I didn’t spend a dime, just went to look. Do you know what I observed? Nobody is smiling. Not a single person. But some money from that den of addiction is helping to fund a very important project in the community. As Jesus says, “Befriend dishonest wealth.”

Or I remember the conversation with my dad. I went home one time from Princeton Seminary, full of biblical ideas about peace and justice. And I said, “You know, Dad, I am a little worried that you work for a company that makes high capacity weapons.” At the height of his career at IBM, my father managed the development of a computer guidance system for the B-1 bomber. My father looked at me, smiled slightly, and said, “It’s true that the Cold War has funded your higher education, to say nothing of a lot of other things that our family enjoys.”

“But Dad,” I protested, “don’t you think that’s wrong?” He replied, “People like me make a lot of money so we can send preachers like you off to school to learn the Bible, so you can come back and raise those kinds of questions.” Oh, I miss my dad.

Jesus said, “Make friends through filthy money.” I wonder about that.

I mean, I would never dare ask the source of that money that all of us are putting in the offering plate today? I’m not sure I want to know where it comes from. From the looks of it, this is a crowd of good-looking, church-going folk. You don’t seem like you’re caught up in shady deals or back room manipulations. But what about the people who touched the cash before you give it away today? Does our money have germs?

Once upon a time, there was a church that received a visit from the FBI. The Feds dropped by to visit the pastor and the Finance committee. It seems somebody in the pews was laundering marked bills from a robbery by putting the ill-gotten funds in the offering plate. The local bank discovered the cash, traced it to the church, and realized it has come in a number of times. The minister said, “We didn’t ask where it came from. What we can tell you is the money is buying church school curriculum, sending kids to camp, feeding the hungry, and providing hurricane relief.” But it was dirty.

When people hear the Bible passage for today, they get disturbed. Jesus holds up a common thief as the hero of one of his stories. He doesn’t make any comment on the man’s morality. It’s almost as if he assumes that the work of human commerce is always going to be contaminated somehow. Money is merely paper, metal, or numbers in a computer somewhere. But there’s no question that somehow or another it will get dirty. The problem is not what money is, but what it can do to people. It’s not money that is “the root of evil.” No, the Bible says “the love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10)

That’s why the Bible tells of terrible things that happen when people are twisted by greed and power. Judas Iscariot sold out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Ananias and Sapphira held back some of the profits of a land sale when the people of God had needs (Acts 4:32-5:10). A man named Simon Magus waved a fistful of fifty dollar bills at one of the apostles and said, “Can I buy some Holy Spirit for me?” (Acts 8:19) It didn’t turn out well for any of those people.

But there are other stories, too, stories of people who make a constructive difference with their money. They give, they share, and something good happens. I think of the apostle Paul making an appeal to the wealthy people of Corinth. There had been a famine and people were starving. He says to the Corinthians, “You have so much and they have so little. We know you are eager to give generously. So give me a reason to brag about your generosity.” Notice he doesn’t ask how they made their money, or whether their money had germs when they received it – his concern is to invite them to do something good with the money they have.

Like my friend Mike. A couple of weeks ago, I took my mom home from a visit, and stopped to see my brother and his family. They were working at a carnival in their town. Specifically, they were working a lottery booth for the high school band boosters. My brother said, “Buy some tickets and support my kids.” I looked both ways to make sure nobody was watching. So I gave him a buck, I’m such a big spender. He gives me four tickets to scratch off. I didn’t win anything, but hey, it’s for my nephew and niece, so I’ll give them a buck.

While I’m standing there, along comes my friend Mike. He lays down a twenty, buys a bunch of tickets, starts scratching them off. He’s not winning anything. And I ask, “What if you hit a lucky number?” He said, “I’ll just give the winnings to the band.” He lays down another twenty, gets more tickets, doesn’t win anything.

I said, “Why don’t you just give them the twenty dollar bills? He said, “Well, that’s no fun. Besides, it’s for the kids.” Then he quoted Garrison Keillor, “Nothing you ever spend on kids is wasted.”

Was the money dirty? No, not with what he was doing with it.

There is a certain kind of shrewdness that Jesus is calling for. He is not talking about investing money to make more of it here and now. He’s talking about being welcomed “into the eternal homes,” about being faithful to God with the “true riches.” He’s speaking about using our money here and now for God’s purposes, to express God’s values, to create relationships rather than financial wealth.

As the poet Wendell Berry says somewhere, there are two economies. Either we use capital to build social relations, or we sacrifice social relations to build capital. Berry says, “If we do not serve what coheres and endures, we serve what disintegrates and destroys.”[1]

To this, Jesus adds, “You can’t serve God and wealth.” It’s one or the other. “If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

So here’s the question, the Gospel question: what are we going to do with our money? It is one of the profound questions of faith. If anybody takes a look at our checking account statements, they would see what we value. We spend money and give money to the things that matter most to us. Is it only for ourselves, or is it going to build relationships? Will it reflect the values of God’s eternity? Will it build God’s kingdom and extend the reach for God’s kingdom? Or is it merely going to build walls and install security systems?

Jesus says it makes a world of difference. Spend some time meditating on this 16th chapter of Luke. It’s a collection of Jesus’ teachings – and warnings – about what we do with the money we have. The question is not whether money may be tainted. The question is whether our hearts are focused on God and generous toward others. Those are the “true riches.”

In Michigan, there is a fourth grader by the name of Cayden Taipulus. He was standing in the lunch line in the school cafeteria, and noticed the kid ahead of him was denied a hot lunch because there was no money in his lunch account. Instead the lady with the hairnet took two slices of white bread, put a single slice of American cheese between them, and handed it to the embarrassed kid. He was pretty upset, and so was Cayden.

Cayden went home and sulked. He asked his mom, “Isn’t there something we can do?” He collected bottles and cans for recycling, and turned them in for money. He asked his family members to help out. He collected enough money to pay off the lunch accounts for 300 kids.

His mom got into the spirit, and helped him to set up a fund raising page on the internet. As of yesterday, they have raised over $37,000, so that no kid in his school will ever have to go hungry.[2]

There are a lot of things we can do with our money. Rather than merely make money, how about if we make a difference . . . to the glory of God?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[2] See the website at and consider making a donation.

No comments:

Post a Comment