How well are you trading on the Spiritual Nasdaq?
Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
Then he said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man [Ἄνθρωπός τις ἦν πλούσιος] who had a manager, and charges [διεβλήθη1] were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. [διασκορπίζων τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ] 2So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account 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 [unjust] manager [τὸν οἰκονόμον τῆς ἀδικίας] because he had acted shrewdly [φρονίμως]; for the children of this age [οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ αἰῶνος] are more shrewd [φρονιμώτεροι] in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light [οὺς υἱοὺς τοῦ φωτὸς. John 1:5 is φως]. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest [ἀδικίας ] wealth [mammon] so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. [σκηνάς; tents]
10 ‘Whoever is faithful [πιστὸς] in a very little [ἐλαχίστῳ] is faithful [πιστός] also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little [ἐλαχίστῳ (perhaps least thing) ἄδικος] is dishonest [ἄδικός] also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful [πιστοὶ] with the dishonest [ἀδίκῳ] wealth, [mammon] who will entrust [πιστεύσει] to you the true riches? [riches is understood, but see Davis: the context says the translation should be mammon. He is right.] 12And if you have not been faithful [πιστοὶ] 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.’ [μαμωνᾷ mammon]
This week's prayer
May I be focused, even obsessive,
but not about the cricket, Lord.
Or the garden, or a pay rise.
May I put my life
and may I find my energy
in building people up,
in setting people free
from helping folks learn they are loved.
For then I will be able to see
your kingdom beginning where I am
and know that I am loved too. Amen
This week's sermon draft
How well are you trading on the Spiritual Nasdaq?
Have you ever been in that place where someone tells a story, and everyone laughs, but you can't see why? That's a bit like where we are this week. Jesus has told a story, not meant funny in this case, and lots of his listeners are nodding and agreeing, but we have no idea what the story means; in fact, it sounds like the sort of thing Jesus wouldn't say!
He's telling the story to make a point about something else. It's not a complimentary story, and would have stung Luke's audience a bit, because Jesus tells it as a criticism of them, and their discipleship.
What he's saying is this: Look at the top end of town. Those blokes are playing for sheep stations1. (See below, if you're not from Oz.) They are serious when it comes to doing business. No mucking around; they play it hard and fast to get the deal. I wish my people—you mob—I wish you mob would do the same. Because you know sheep stations are worth nothing at all in the bigger scheme of things. You know that you can't take it with you when you die. You've woken up; your eyes are open. So why aren't you focussed and committed and playing it smart when it comes to what really matters in life? Sometimes I wonder if you are really serious about being part of my kingdom, or whether you're more interested in just lining your pockets. I warn you: you cannot serve both God and wealth.
Here's the background: The rich bloke does schmoozing with the tax collectors and the local centurion while they pretend they're wine connoisseurs. He has a manager to bring in all the money. And the manager is in a funny kind of situation. He can 'cream off' a cut of all the deals; the boss expects that; it's not a problem. But he has to make money. He has to make the boss feel like he's keeping up with the other rich fellas, or even getting in front, right?
But the manager can't go too hard. Because if he does, people will take their trade elsewhere or… they'll make trouble for him, and then he'll be in trouble with the boss. He has to be a shrewd operator. In this story it looks like something hasn't worked out. He hasn't been quite shrewd enough. Someone's got the boss's ear and been telling porkies about the manager. It doesn't matter if they are not true. The rich man, the boss, can't afford to look weak, can't afford to lose face, so the manager is getting the sack.
He's got little girl's hands; he can't dig. He doesn't want to die slowly while he's begging for food. So he hits on a really devious scheme. He gets the clients in and the marks down all the invoices. If worst comes to worst, it will oblige people to help him out for a while, anyway.
It turns out a lot better than that, though. Because the boss is on the way to inspect the accounts when someone in the main street claps him on the shoulder, and says in front of three other farmers, "Crikey, Harry. You run a good business. I really appreciate the discount, mate. I'm bringing my other farm's business your way, and my neighbour reckons he'll do the same. And this happens a couple of times before he gets to the office, so that he's wondering what the blazes is going on.
And he finds out that the manager has handed out massive discounts all around the district. Which is a really odd place to be. Because… the bloke he was going to sack… has just boosted the rich man's social status and goodwill way up the ladder; he's increased business so that the bottom line is heaps better despite all the discounts, and… made it impossible to sack him because… one, why would sack someone whose just earned you a bucket? And, two, if you did, people would smell a rat—what's going on in there? So like business for all time, what's happened under the table gets ignored in favour of the bottom line.
The master commended the manager because he had acted shrewdly, said Jesus. The master also decided he'd never again trust the manager as far as he could kick him, and keep a lot closer eye on the business. But Jesus didn't need to tell anyone that.
But what's the point of the story? The rich man is not God. The rich man, and the steward— the manager, are both hard, shrewd, and rather sleazy players, in an economic system which in the end, won't amount to anything. Jesus is asking us why we aren't shrewd in the spiritual economy, the spiritual reality which, in the end, is the basis of everything? Why are we in love with money and only half in love with God? You can't have it both ways, he's saying. You can't live for money and think you're living for God.
Not. Even. A Little. Bit.
Because, as he reminds us, little bit of dishonesty is proof we'll be dishonest in the big things—
—wait up!! Who said anything about dishonest, we cry. I'm operating within the law. I obey the law. I'm running a clean business. We had a tax audit last year; we came up roses.
Here's the thing: In the English text it says the manager was dishonest. The Greek word reminds us that the basic meaning of dishonest is… unjust. Dishonesty is a lack of justice. You see, the manager was not breaking one single law. But he was unjust. He was within the law, but the law was shaped to rip off the poor—legally. The economic system the rich man and the manager were in was fundamentally unjust. And it still is.
What the Faith is saying, is that if we are not living for the justice of God; if we are not committed to a life and a purpose which is aimed to enable all people to live and be treated the same, then, by definition, we are serving mammon—our own material well-being and wealth, not God. We might be going to church, we might even be a minister, or a Christian Prime Minister, but if we are not living to bring our income down to a level where everyone can live the same, we are, at best, serving God and mammon. At worst, we might find God considers we are just using the name of God to serve our personal business and political interests. We might be keeping all the laws of the land and find that, nonetheless, God considers we have lived a life of fundamental injustice.
I don't know about you, but I live in this place where my only hope is in the love and mercy of God, because I am so entangled in mammon that I barely dare show my face before God.
In the bible study this week, I have said that "our behaviour is symptomatic and formative." What that means is that our behaviour shows what we are like; dishonest in little things shows we will be dishonest, and unjust, in bigger things. But our behaviour also forms us. Little dishonesties prepare us—train us up—for bigger dishonesties. A little hardness of heart prepares us for closing our eyes to bigger injustices.
Closing our hearts to the beggars in the street, prepares us to close our heart to refugees from the American wars we joined, which prepares us to ignore the nations being flooded by the rising seas from our carbon emissions. It becomes a vicious cycle: we never used to see people begging on the street in Adelaide; now we can't see them...
What hope have we got in a country which is so obscenely rich... and so spiritually sick?
Well, Jesus doesn't say the opposite of dishonest and unjust, is, first of all, to be honest and just! Jesus actually contrasted being unjust... with being faithful. A little faithfulness shows that we will be faithful with bigger things. And a little faithfulness grows us towards being more faithful. It forms us. It becomes a salvational cycle.
Don't understand faith as signing off on doctrinal dot points about Jesus; that's the tiniest fraction of faith, and it reduces faith to some sort of magic to manipulate God. Faith is trusting Jesus; specifically, faith is trusting that what God has called just, and what God has called good—what God calls kingdom, is the thing we should trust our lives to. Not money... and not being part of the Australian system.
So I have a friend and colleague... who lives on the smell of an oily rag. Who can't buy a house. Who won't have remotely enough super. Who has a good chance of ending up as an old person who is homeless. And yet they have trusted that what they are doing is worth doing. And they live according to that trust instead of hardening their heart, and gritting their teeth, and knuckling down to some other job just to get more money.
Are they foolhardy, or are they trusting that what God teaches is good and true? One thing is for sure; they are playing for keeps, for more than sheep stations.
And I have a horrible and glorious feeling;
horrible, because I think they are right, and it's scary and it demands similar from me. To be honest, it terrifies my faint heart.
And yet it's glorious, because I think they are showing me that trust of God is the way to live. I think I am seeing what Jesus calls true riches gathering around them.
It's not that there is some invisible pass mark that we need to get into heaven here. It's not like that. God will hold open the door into the kingdom for all time. It's whether we want to come in, or whether we spend 'most of an eternity,' so to speak, chasing after something else, some other security, some other hope for life and meaning, which will always let us down. That will form us too, and might mean that for the longest time, we can't even see the door to real life has been opened for us!
Play it shrewd folks. Play for keeps. We're not playing some cosmic version of Squatter2 (for sheep stations) here. We're playing for our lives. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
1 "Playing for sheep stations":
The phrase is a traditional Australian English term. It is used to describe the terms of a game, sport or competition, often a game of chance. A sheep station is a large sheep farm in Australia or New Zealand, hence denoting something important, large or valuable.
The phrase "playing for sheep stations" has both a literal and ironic usage. In the negative, it is used to encourage participants to play in a friendly and not too competitive manner. Playing sport or cards or a game of some sort, but not for prizes, one might say "take it easy, we're not playing for sheep stations". It could be used starting a game of cards or pool for example, to check whether the game would be played for money, beer, or just pride, asking "so, are we playing for sheep stations or what?"
In typical Australian fashion, it can also be used to mean the exact opposite, because a sheep station is such an expensive item that nobody would bet it on a game, the phrase "we're playing for sheep stations" can also be used to mean that the game is purely for sport, and there is no bet or prize involved.
I'd add that it is also used of those who are "playing for keeps," really seriously... with an undertone of, "But why?"
2. Squatter is an Australian board game based around sheep stations. Really!