Wealth, money, riches! I feel like I should begin my sermon with an apology for the readings today. Especially to any guests who may have just had their worst fears confirmed that the church is always talking about money! To be clear, we follow, as most churches do, the 3 year cycle of appointed readings, so, I don’t pick ‘em, they’re already chosen for us. And, in point of fact, if you page through the Gospels, money is a regularly recurring theme that ranks right up there, and even exceeds most other social issues on Jesus’ agenda. The real rub, I think, is that the church too often uses that to ask for money, for itself. And so I promise to you today, I will not do that. We are bold to ask, you may have noticed, that you consider giving, not to us, but for the cause of ending World Hunger, by using the envelopes provided. But we will not dig into your pockets for ourselves. In fact, we believe at Unity that whoever is a first time guest, should be invited to, not make an offering, but instead to, “save your offering and spend the week noticing all the ways that God blesses you, and then return and give generously, so that the whole world may know God’s love.”
In just such a way, there is a sudden reversal of expectation in the parable about the rich man who had a manager, when, the master “commends the dishonest manager.” We expect he will be outraged, but instead he approves, “because he had acted shrewdly!” Every time I hear this story again, I always wonder, who let this off-beat tale into the bible?! Yet, wiser friends in the faith, then remind me that ‘clever tricksters’ and ‘rogues’ have been popular throughout the sweep of Judao-Christian history. The most popular is probably Jacob, the trickster patriarch, who deceived his father while cheating his brother out of his birthright, and then made off with most of his father-in-law’s flock! And there is the Rabbinic story, which is worth telling again, and which goes like this:
There was once a man who was caught stealing and was ordered by the king to be hanged. On the way to the gallows he said to the governor that, he knew a wonderful secret and it would be a pity to allow it to die with him, and he would like to disclose it to the king. He would put a seed of a pomegranate in the ground and through the secret taught to him by his father he would make it grow and bear fruit overnight. The next day the king, accompanied by the high officers of state, came to the place where the thief was waiting for them. There the thief dug a hole and said, “This seed must only be put in the ground by a person who has never stolen or taken anything which did not belong to them. I, being a thief, cannot do it.”
So he turned to a high officer of state who, frightened, said that in his younger days he had retained something which did not belong to him. The treasurer said that dealing with such large sums, he might have entered too much or too little, and even the king admitted that he had kept a necklace of his father’s. The thief then said, “You all are mighty and powerful and lack for nothing and yet you cannot plant the seed, while I who have stolen a little, because I was starving, am to be hanged.” Then the king, pleased with the ruse of the thief, pardoned him.
The king, is much like the master in Jesus parable who “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” And so, oddly enough, it follows, “to make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Jesus opens the door to the choice between faithfulness or dishonesty, because even being a little bit of one, means we are choosing that path to a much greater extent for our lives.
Of course, which of us has not been dishonest or taken something not our own, at some point in our lives? We cannot will ourselves to be without fault for a lifetime. But thankfully, the parables’ reversal reorients us to the “property” that we are entrusted with. Whether it be our personal property, our responsibilities at work, or our children, we are given the opportunity to be shrewd in caring for them, just like the dishonest manager was with his Master’s olive groves and wheat fields. Especially when we come to realize whose it is, and who is giving it to us. When we remember that we are managers, and all we have comes not from us, but as a gift from God. All property and possessions, our talents and unique traits, our intellect, and compassion, and our sense of humor, are really a gift and a debt, that we cannot repay to the Creator. We can’t take it with us when we go.
And this is what the dishonest manager grasps so quickly! Faced with the end of his world as he knew it, he instinctively and shrewdly used the gifts he had been entrusted with. And in using his fleeting and transient possessions, he developed good relations with others, who were in the same boat as himself. He made friends with other debtors, instead of cheating them. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that, when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
In a very strange way, the dishonest manager shows us how to emulate the grace of God. As God has given us everything we have, ourselves, our time, and our possessions, and there is no way we can repay God, so we too are most alive and fulfilled when we learn to leverage and use our wealth and gifts in sharing, and giving it away to others. The dishonest manager, in making friends by means of dishonest wealth, by reducing the debt of the farmers, one 50% and another 20%, showed mercy and grace. And if all that we have is from God, it makes more sense to share it, than hoard it.
Yesterday, it was Unity’s turn to again serve dinner at Uptown Ministries on Lawrence and Sheridan, and as always, after serving, the servers sit down to eat with the guests! And, as usual, there was enough to invite everyone up for a second helping – all given away as a gift, and labor of love. Not that anyone had to pay for the first helping! But, as one of the recipients brought their second meat loaf sandwich back to the table where I was sitting, she began packing it away in a plastic bag, and admitted rather sheepishly that it was for her spouse who couldn’t make it today. Maybe she felt like it was a bit of dishonest wealth, but it seemed to me that it was a downright shrewd act, a sharing with others. “Whoever is faithful in a very little, is faithful also in much.” And the person thanked us with a wonderfully wry smile.
God gives us our talents and gifts and all we have, and wants us to develop and use them, as best as we are able. Not for our own glory, but to the glory of God. Here at Unity we say that we want God to “change us, so that all may be fed as Jesus feeds us.” Because of the grace and mercy we have received, we can also give heavenly gifts to others.
In an odd way then, it is desirous to become ‘tricksters’ and ‘rogues,’ in sharing all that we have, “that you may be welcomed into the eternal homes.”