“Mammon, True Riches, and Thoughts About a Shrewd Manager” by Rev. Stephanie Cooper

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, September 18, 2016 titled “Mammon,True Riches, and Thoughts About a Shrewd Manager” by Rev. Stephanie Cooper.

The true riches of God are found in this: friends, family, relationships, and being people of the light.  The currency of true riches is not comparable to the currency of mammon.

A few years back, the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” hit the box office.  While winning the award for most foul language in a movie, ever, it also detailed the real-life back-handed dealings of Jordan Belfort, a penny stocks, pump-and-dump Wall Street broker.  Belfort founded Stratton Oakmont and the movie follows him as he and his colleagues take their shareholders for a ride. And while the movie was thrilling to watch—this was real-life for some folks in the 80’s.  Putting their trust in someone like Belfort to invest money in small companies, and finding themselves broke in the end.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an encapsulating movie because you see how quickly the love of money and greed take hold of the regular old Joe down the road.  Within 6 years, Belfort had more money than he knew what to do with and an unappeasable quench for more.

Money, makes the world go round, or so they say.  I am always fascinated by the Ron Swansons of the world…the off-the-grid types who prefer bartering goods and services rather than using cash and currency.

And while, in an ideal world, bartering would be sufficient, that isn’t the world we live in.  We live in a world that requires currency.    And while, on a basic level, we are just trading goods and services for other goods and services, money plays a pretty vital role in how that happens.

And that’s where we find our gospel passage today as well.

Today’s gospel narrative of a rich man and his land manager is about getting paid.  Well, more about someone who’s not getting paid any longer.

I have to tell you, today’s gospel narrative is strange.  In fact, if you find yourself straining to find the connection here… the wrapped-up in-a-bow moral of the story… you’re not alone in your struggling.

What a strange parable.  I’m with ya—in fact… I don’t think our gospel writer Luke even knew what to make of it.  At the end of the parable, we have these four, somewhat connected, conclusions… but it sounds a little more like the rambling of an external processor to me.

This is no lost sheep parable.

So let’s re-cap:  Our parable contains two main characters: a rich man and a manager.  The rich man is clearly off somewhere so that he is unable or unwilling to manage his own land.  So he has hired someone to manage that land for him.  This manager from the get-go, gets the title shrewd and dishonest.  So the rich man calls the manager in having heard that he wasn’t doing a great with the managing part of his job.  The manager gets his notice.

He then thinks to himself, I don’t want to do manual labor, I’m too proud to beg- so I’ve got to find some other way to set myself up—so that when I am dismissed from my management duties people will welcome me into their homes to stay.

So—with all of this in the back of his mind, he goes to the tenants of the of the rich man’s land and sort of arbitrarily cuts their debts.  You owe 100 jugs of oil?  Make it 50. You owe 100 containers of wheat? Make it 80.

Now remember—these aren’t debts owed to him—they are debts owed to the rich man.

So when the rich man hears of what the manager has done in his last days of managing he… commends him for being dishonest?  Because he had acted shrewdly?

Our typical parable application would make it seem as if Jesus condones dishonest measures to get ahead. But that surely can’t be the case. Anyone who has spent anytime reading the Jesus story knows that Jesus’ care is for those oppressed by systems of dishonesty.

And so Luke, I like to think a little confused by the parable, begins in with four different conclusions.

  1. The first conclusion- verse 8 says, “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.”

In this sense, Jesus is commending shrewdness but- shrewdness doesn’t have to always embody a tightly wound grandmother.  This man was shrewd in the sense that he was sharp, clever, and quick on his feet.  And in that sense, this man isn’t being commended for his dishonesty- but rather is an example.  Jesus says the children of this world are more clever in their dealings than the children of the light are.  Take his conniving action, his quick-wit and sharp perception as example.

And what if that were the case for all of us?  I think as children of the light or as I would prefer to say followers of the way, we can often be slow to act.  We can committee meeting everything to death- can I get an amen? But when it comes to matters for the sake of the gospel- should we not be shrewd?

Now I don’t mean we should cleverly trick people into a set of beliefs so they might go to some heaven out there somewhere.  But being a Christ follower isn’t as complicated as we modern day Christians sometimes make it.  Love God and love people.  When you see someone who needs a cup of water- give it to them.  When a child needs help, help them.  When someone is in the hospital, visit them.

  1. Secondly, Luke offers this conclusion in verse 9: Jesus continues, saying, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of worldly mammon so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal dwelling places.”

Eternal dwelling places.  I can’t help but immediately think of the e. e. cummings poem when I hear the phrase: “welcome you in their eternal dwelling places”:

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)
i am never without it (anywhere i go you go,my dear;
and whatever is done by only me
is your doing,my darling)
i carry your heart (I carry it in my heart).
Eternal dwelling places.

So essentially Jesus instructs his listeners to use the means of this world for a deeper purpose. Use mammon, your worldly wealth to make friends so that they might carry you in their heart.

We all have that one friend- you know the one who always picks up the tab. Even before you sit down at the table you tell the waiter to bring you the bill at the end of the night and somehow your friend has already paid for the meal.   They’ve got extra tickets to the concert and the game.  Man- and who doesn’t like that guy?!

Now- I don’t think Jesus is advising you to spend money you don’t have.  But it could be argued that the shrewd manager’s lesson is in knowing that relationships are more important than any worldly mammon. And perhaps our focus and energy should be spent on relationships and making friends, where true riches lie.

  1. And then the third: The third conclusion has one focus: stewardship. In three verses Luke writes, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is not trustworthy in a very little is also not trustworthy in much. If then you have not been faithful with the worldly wealth or mammon, 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?”

While the dishonest manager seems to be dishonest with worldly wealth, he is, in fact, commended.  And it appears that this is the case because he lays preferences to the true riches.  And not worldly mammon or wealth.

And the great preacher Fred Craddock reminds us that we may never be entrusted with running an estate, or christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake.  More likely we will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday School class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat.

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.

  1. And lastly, the fourth conclusion that Luke draws upon is likely the most familiar: 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.

And it is in this fourth conclusion that we start to see the pieces align.  We begin to see the overarching theme that comes through with this parable.

You cannot serve both money and God.  And this fourth is the easiest to make sense of, though, perhaps the most jarring to our American ears.

Our country and much of the world for that matter is built on the idea of consumerism.  We buy and trade goods to build happy lives.  The latest technology, 401ks, vacations, nice dinners, new car, a house in this Austin market.  Money makes the world go round.

And throughout the gospels, Jesus gives some pretty straightforward instructions when it comes to money.  Sell all of your possessions and give them to the poor.  Do not store treasures on earth but store treasures in heaven.  It is more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven.

Now- in any of these instances do I not presume to think Jesus is denouncing money all-together.  But I do think Jesus knows how easily we can be lulled into thinking that money is going to fix our problems.

And it’s when money becomes our main focus that we lose sight of the things that God is about.

Mammon, or worldly wealth is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Mammon and the true riches of God are very different. And you cannot serve two masters.

There is an old story that goes like this: There were once two men who were neighbors.  Remy was a poor farmer and Pursy was a rich landlord.  Remy would spend long days laboring in the fields.  Each season when harvest came, there wasn’t much excess left.  But Remy was happy.  At night, he never bothered to lock the doors and windows.  And each night he went to sleep and fell into a deep sleep.

Pursy on the other hand was always very tense.  Having a lot of possessions and money, he thought it absurd to not lock the door at night. Pursy, however, did not sleep very well. He was always kept awake with worry for his property and his money.

And one day, Pursy called over to Remy and invited him in.  Pursy gave Remy and gave boxful of cash saying, “Look my dear friend. I am blessed with plenty of wealth. I find you with not a lot to live on. So, take this cash and live in prosperity.”

Remy was overwhelmed with gratitude and took the money home to his family. As the night came, Remy went to bed as usual. But, as he lay in bed, he began to feel anxious and worried. He went and for the first time in his adulthood, he locked the doors and windows. But he still could not sleep.

So as day broke, Remy took the box of money and knocked on his neighbor’s door. As Pursy answered, Remy gave back the money saying, “Dear Friend, I am grateful for your friendship and your generosity.  But last night, for the first time, I felt my peace leave me.”

The true riches of this world cannot be bought or obtained with money.  Maybe the lesson of the shrewd manager really rests in the idea that worldly wealth and the true riches of God are not within the same playing field.

But true riches are found in the serenity we experience on a quiet Saturday morning reading the paper, in the laughter of family, the wonder of a child.  They are found in peace that comes when we humble ourselves to give back as Jesus demonstrated.  Washing the feet of a friend and providing food for the hungry.

True riches are found in friendships that last a lifetime and when we are invited into other’s enteral dwelling places.  I carry your heart—I carry it in my heart.

Because, when we choose to follow this path that God has set out before us—when we choose to live into this way of Jesus, when we choose to be followers of the ways of peace and love and inclusion, not only can we transform the world, but we too can be transformed in the process.   Worldly wealth is not the ends, but means to an end.

We are invited to be transformed and to see with new vision.  We are invited to hear with new clarity.  We are invited to love as Christ has loved us.  And it is when we make ourselves vulnerable to transformation, that we can experience the truest riches this world has ever known.

Thanks be to God.

May we pray?

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