The church, I think, has spent too much time asking for sad money, for obligation money, for “Please give now so we can pay the bills” money. But, that’s not what Jesus talks about when he talks about money in the present age. He talks about the power of giving away money and stuff to change the world, to break the power of Mammon.

Luke 16:1-13

Then 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. 2So 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.’ 3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then 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.’ 8And 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. 9And 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. 10“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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.”

Mischief Money

 When I was fifteen years old, too young to have a job legally outside of hauling hay on the family farm, but plenty old enough to have a regular need for money, my Dad and I had this ritual. On Friday night, my friends who were old enough to drive would come over and hang out a little while when they came to pick me up for the football game or bowling, or just driving around up and down the drag to see who we could see. Before we went out the door, I would ask my father, “Dad, may I have my allowance?”

And he would act kind of put out and imposed upon, grumble like a bear, but reach into his pocket and pull out some cash. He would peel off a five dollar bill (enough back then to put a little gas in my friend’s car and still have some money for a cheeseburger and a football game or bowling a couple of lines—it was a long time ago) and he would hold it for a few seconds as if bidding that five dollar bill goodbye forever (which in fact, he was) and then sigh deeply “Oh, alright,” as he handed it to me. 

I’d put it in my jeans pocket and say “Thanks, Dad,” and then he would look up at my friends and me and he would smile as he remembered the year 1947 when he was fifteen years old and living in Greenville, Texas and going out with his friends. I guess he felt nostalgic because he would look around, as if to make sure my mother wasn’t watching, and he would get this mischievous grin on his face and then peel off a little more money, stuff it in my shirt pocket, and almost whisper, “Don’t get into too much mischief, guys.”

As we walked out the door, it felt as if I had one kind of money in my jeans pocket, and another kind of money in my shirt pocket. There was sad money in my jeans pocket, and joyful money in my shirt pocket.

I remembered that little ritual from long ago as I tried to figure out this weird parable of Jesus about the manager who gets charged with squandering his boss’s property. I call it weird because two problems jump off the page right away:

  1. Jesus' story, with its questionable hero, and his subsequent statement, "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth," seem morally indefensible. It conjures a picture of Christians leveraging laundered drug money and the proceeds from dog fights to win friends. “Yeah, that’s what I was doing,” the dog fight promoter could say, “just doing what Jesus said, using dishonest wealth to make friends.”
  2. The second problem is that this parable seems to have multiple and competing endings and applications. Is the "lesson" of the parable that God's people ought to act as shrewdly as worldly people (v. 8), or is it that disciples ought to make friends for themselves with dishonest wealth (v. 9), or is it that you cannot serve two masters -- God and wealth (vv.10-13)? New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd once quipped that it looks like Luke simply jotted down notes for three different sermons on Jesus' story.[1]

These two problems begin to clear up, however, when we start looking at the parable through the lens of a first century Palestinian instead of twenty-first century Americans. To a first century Palestinian, when Jesus says, A rich man had a manager, the first thing they would think of is the imbalance of power in that relationship. The people who worked for the rich man did not have a constitution to protect their rights. They had no rights. There was no competition for their services because they were not free to leave one boss and work for another until they had paid all their debts to their boss. They couldn’t pay their debts because what they earned was always less than their bill at the company store. Many of them could see the inevitable slide downward in debt from indentured servant to slave to owing the rich man their own children as slaves.

This imbalance of power in this story would give the original disciples who heard this story a bias toward the manager. They would be rooting for him to stick it to the rich man who had made a fortune by controlling prices and amassing IOUs from the people who actually created the wealth with the sweat of their brow.

The literal translation of the phrase “dishonest manager” is better rendered “manager of unrighteousness.”  In other words, his job has been to manage his boss’s unrighteous property in a system that is immoral. I’m convinced in my reading of this passage and my reading of scholarship about this passage that the NRSV missed the boat on this translation.

Another interesting detail in this parable is the word “squandered.”  The manager was not charged with stealing. He was charged with “squandering.”  It’s the same word Jesus used of the younger son in the previous chapter’s story of the prodigal son who took his early inheritance and squandered it on loose living.

The word means that he was using money in such a way that what he got back was not a good value, not a good return on the amount he spent or invested. That prodigal son spent his money on things that didn’t last, things that gave him temporary pleasure but left him with nothing when it was gone. The manager in this parable was putting his boss’s money into growing olives when there were plenty of olive growers and what was really making money was growing date trees. He may have been doing his best, but his heart wasn’t in it. He was doling out sad money because he had an obligation to invest his boss’s money.

Then, the crisis comes.

When we look at the gospel of Luke as a whole, we know that a money crisis is never about the money. A money crisis is a spiritual crisis. In Luke’s gospel, money and property is the god of this age. He even gives it a name, Mammon.

This god, or currency, is legal tender in the present age, but it’s like Confederate bonds in 1863. You can use it now, but it’s the currency of a doomed sovereignty and it has a limited shelf life.

In the gospel, the crisis of money, or Mammon, is Am I going to cling to the present age, or am I going sit down at table with Jesus in the new creation? The Rich Ruler decides it one way; Zacchaeus chooses the other.

This manager decides he will meet the crisis by using the short time he has left to quit managing sad money and start managing mischief money, or joyful money. The manager who is about to lose his job reminds me of those kids in the Harry Potter novels who, in order to get the Marauder’s map to work, have to tap it and say, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good!”

“Good news!” he tells his master’s debtors. “Your debt is reduced to an amount you can actually afford to pay!”  It wasn’t just a lighter burden. It was the difference between slavery and freedom, between a living death and abundant life. This manager quickly became a hero of the people.

When it’s time for him to walk into the master’s office to pick up his pink slip, he doesn’t have to walk, he’s being carried on the people’s shoulders as they sing “For he’s a jolly good fellow!”  The master can only shake his head, knowing that even if he sends this guy packing, he’s got all the people on his side. He has so many friends now that he’ll never be in need. The rich man’s plan of putting the manager in his place is completely derailed.

So, he commends him. “You really do know how to get a return on money. Instead of producing more money, you produced freedom for your friends, and deeper friendships for yourself, and secured a future full of love and laughter.”

Money is money. It’s not sad. It’s not joyful. It just is. How we use it determines where it falls on that continuum between sad money and joyful mischief money. On the one side is that sad money we have to spend on something like paying a speeding ticket. We don’t get anything back except regret, self-loathing, and not having to go to jail.

On the other end of the continuum is that money we spend on a gift for the person we love most in the world, and we dig deep so it’s more money than she ever would have expected or even thought about anyone spending on her, but it’s something she just loves, so it’s a huge mischievous surprise.

I read in my College Alumni newsletter about a project of some current students, a micro-loan program, in which the students collect pocket change and package it together in very small loans for people in a developing country to start a business like a sewing cooperative or an egg farm. With the $18,000 dollars in the system over the last four years, this money is creating all kinds of mischief against the powers of this world. In economies that have oppression and corruption built in, these students are upsetting the rules of the world that keep the poor from getting out of poverty. They get a return on their money that is more than the percentage rate the borrowers pay back on the loan. It’s a return of joy in the mischief of breaking the rules and changing the world.

A few years ago, for Vacation Bible School in a church I used to serve, we had a special project of using the offering toward building a water well in a village in India where our denomination has mission workers. It cost $700 to build the whole well, which we thought was far more than the kids could find in their parents’ sofa cushions, but we thought we might be able to teach the lesson of cooperation with other churches in our Presbytery by raising enough money for part of it and telling them, “We’re not alone, there are other Christians who will put their money with ours and we’ll build a well together.”

But the kids had other ideas, those mischievous little kids decided to show us, they kept bringing their change and putting it in the bucket until the bucket was too heavy to haul by Tuesday, and then too small to hold it all, and they had to get a wagon to haul it around by Thursday, and each class laughed and hooted and clapped when they saw that there was more than enough money to build a well. That was joyful money.

Every month when we give to the church, we remember things like the young men and women whose lives have been changed forever through the Drift scholarships. I think of how, because they have a shot at college to follow their calling, the whole world will be better because of their ability to reach their potential as teachers or nurses or auto mechanics or engineers.

I remember the hurricane relief mission trip, and the smiling face of the neighbor who was so excited to see another house in his neighborhood getting worked on. “They’re coming back!” he said, and just seeing sheet rock going up on his neighbor’s walls gave him hope.

I remember that our giving goes to help people I will never meet, like the woman who walked into Mercy Health Clinic with her diabetes out of control because she could no longer afford both groceries for her children and her insulin. She makes too much as a childcare worker to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford health insurance.

She is now back at work, her two children are in school, and she can reasonably expect to live long enough to raise them because her world is no longer completely out of control.

And I remember the relationships among people in this congregation and how many generous souls have decided not to cling to the stuff of this world for security, but to sit down at the table with Jesus, cling to the cross, and find the joy in the mischief of giving generously. It’s changing lives, our lives when we give as much as the lives of those who receive; and, in changing lives, it’s changing the world.

Years ago, just after our second daughter Beth turned seventeen, she left to spend her junior year of high school as an exchange student in Italy. Part of the structure of the program through AFS is that we would not see her again for ten months until her school year was finished. There was no Whats-App or international texting or Facebook Messaging. We didn’t even get a phone call for the first 2 weeks she was gone. Nancy and I fretted with one another about all the things she would have to learn to cope with without us there. Of course, the unspoken truth was that we had to learn to cope without her here.

Nancy and I said goodbye to her at the gate into airport security early in the morning of September 5, 2007. We gave her a big hug and tried to say whatever we had planned to say, but Nancy and I were both too much of a mess to get the words out. But, almost on autopilot, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a couple of twenty dollar bills and handed them to her. “Don’t get into too much mischief,” I wanted to say, but I couldn’t get the words out. She knew, though, I’m sure, that I was handing her joyful money, mischief money, just because it was a gift she didn’t expect. Of course, it was probably spent before she got through the New York airport, but that’s alright.

The church, I think, has spent too much time asking for sad money, for obligation money, for “Please give now so we can pay the bills” money. But, that’s not what Jesus talks about when he talks about money in the present age. He talks about the power of giving away money and stuff to change the world, to break the power of Mammon. He talks about the power of generosity to do mischief to the present order. He talks about the power of generosity to break up the power of this world to give us a glimpse of the eternal order, the coming kingdom, the ways of the age to come.

What fun it is to get to be part of that mischief. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Tom Long, Luke 16:1ff -- The Parable of the (so-called) Dishonest Manager
2007-09-17 Lectionary Homiletics blog entry by Tom Long: