Did anyone really understand the Gospel today? It is a complicated passage. And we get caught up at this place where Jesus says: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Because you wonder, is Jesus really telling people that they should gain wealth dishonestly? I don’t think so. So what is Jesus’s message today?
What happens in the story is that there is a rich man who calls his steward to inform him that he is going to be relieving the steward of his duties because the steward has been mismanaging the rich man’s wealth.
And this steward has authority over all the rich man’s resources, so when he realizes that he’s about to lose his job, the steward makes a couple shrewd deals with people who owe his boss money so that when he eventually gets fired, he will have someplace to go because these people will owe him favors. And so he goes to one person and says let’s get your bill for oil down from 100 jugs to 50, and to another let’s get your bill for wheat down from the 100 containers to 80. Just don’t forget about me, he says, because I’m going to be looking for work. And I can’t dig and I don’t want to beg, as if those are the only two options in life, either digging or begging, so I’ll be calling you.
When he finds out about these deals that the steward has made, the rich man is not upset but he commends the steward. The rich man is happy that the steward did a great job in his dishonesty. So we can imagine that the rich man has probably cut a few shady deals in his own day, even though it doesn’t say so. But you can infer from the text that he appreciates the wheeling and dealing that his steward has done.
And so Jesus uses this as an example of what he calls dishonest wealth, which is wealth gained by dishonest means. And in the parable, Jesus contrasts dishonest wealth with true riches, which is what he is offering the people instead.
And true riches are the goal. But dishonest wealth, here in the Gospel, is where we begin. I think it’s interesting about the Gospel today, that dishonest wealth is not something that Jesus automatically dismisses. He doesn’t say here that those who have benefitted from dishonesty are never going to heaven. Rather the passage extends what I would say is an invitation where Jesus is inviting even those who have benefitted from dishonest wealth to come unto him, to drop what they are doing and to follow.
Jesus knows that among those people who are with him, who have been listening to him out there in his travels, there are people who have benefitted from dishonest wealth, there are people wo have done probably exactly as the steward in the Gospel did today. Jesus knows peoples’ hearts and he knows his culture. And like cultures today, he knows that is just part what happens.
In Honduras, for example, where I served as a missionary years ago, bribes are just a part of doing business. It’s that way in many pats of the world – you can’t get anything done without paying off a local official or a politician or a construction foreman. These bribes have to happen. I know it happens here, but it’s nothing compared to other parts of the world.
So I remember one time in Honduras I was driving with another priest and we got pulled over by a cop. And the officer came up to us, but he didn’t ask for my license or registration, he just said – you know you made an illegal turn back there – which wasn’t true – and he said, I can write you a ticket, or we can just take care of it here.
And so I said, all right write me a ticket, because I didn’t want to pay his bribe. And he said, no, let’s just take care of it here. And I said, here’s my license, I’ll take the ticket. And so the cop walked away from my window, behind the car, he went to the other side, and he leaned in to talk to the other priest, who was Honduran. And the cop said – can you explain to the gringo how things work, because I don’t think he gets it? And of course I got it, but I didn’t want to pay the bribe. So my Honduran friend gave him some money and we drove off.
My friend was willing to pay the bribe because that’s what he’s used to. It was his culture and that which he knows. And I wanted to push it by seeing what the officer would do if I didn’t give him the bribe. Of course, I didn’t want to get shot. But I realized how much of a pervasive part of life this is where people are used to dishonest wealth all the time.
And so Jesus lives in this system and he knows how things are. It’s not that different. And instead of just dismissing those involved in it, he wants to help them get out.
So, back to the beginning, what does he say? “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Which is basically Jesus saying: if you’re going to be in this world of corruption and sin (which I know many of you are), at least use your time and energy to get into something good. Make friends with people who will invite you to heaven. Make friends with my followers, he says, get to know my people, come to learn about me.
In other words, use your time in here hell to strive for something better up in heaven. And if you are not faithful in this, he says, how will anyone trust you to be faithful in anything, so at least be faithful.
I don’t know if that really explains the parable, but here’s how it makes sense to me: Jesus knows his world and he knows his people, and he knows that among them are plenty who have done objectionable things. But he does not want to lose them and he does not want them to walk away and he doesn’t want them to stay where they are. He wants to bring them to him and guide them to the kingdom, and lead them to love. And so he’s saying: here is a way to get out. If you’re going to do things that are not ideal, at least find a way in them to get to me.
It is the picture of grace, this passage. Jesus is coming to say – do your best, no matter where you begin, for you can still get to heaven. And it is a powerful message especially for those who feel separate from God because of what they have done, whatever it is. At times we all feel separate from God. And we struggle to reconcile the things we have done with the people we want to be. And we fail to live up to the image we have of ourselves.
And one place where you especially see this is with people whose lives are on the margins. If you spend time with people who are in prison, or people living on the streets, those who are unhoused, those sleeping in tents down by the river, you see all sorts of lives filled with guilt and shame at what people have done, lives touched by this system in which we live. It is not the most corrupt system in the world, but it is still a place where people face difficult decisions which no one should ever face, like do I get my medicines or do I pay my rent?
Many of those living on the edges need this message that Jesus gives today of God’s love, because many people end up feeling trapped by the choices they made.
I remember years ago, a woman came to me to make a confession. It was at the church I served just outside of Boston. And the woman told me that she had stolen baby formula, because she needed baby formula and she had no money. She lived in a tiny apartment where her rent was so high that after paying rent and utilitys, she had almost nothing left. And one month there was an unexpected expense, so she had nothing. So she stole formula to feed her baby. But she felt horrible about it. And she came to me at the church and confessed.
So what do you do? You can lay down the rules and say – well you know that stealing is wrong – that’s what it says in the Bible. But she already knows that stealing is wrong. We know when we’re doing something wrong. And sometimes because of life and the way the system is, doing something wrong may be the best option that someone has.
So Jesus stands before his disciples today to let them know that they cannot serve both God and wealth, but he doesn’t say that those who have been serving wealth are bad or not welcome to follow him, that those who have been underhanded or dishonest are not allowed into his kingdom. In this Gospel, he does not condemn the people. But what he’s saying is- if that’s what you’ve been doing, if you’ve been like the steward in the passage, there’s still hope and you can get to me.
You have to start where you are. I think that’s a key message from the Gospel today. And it’s incredibly helpful. You have to start where you are. Because you can be faithful and make friends with people who can welcome you into heaven. You can get into heaven yet, no matter where you begin. So start now
Often we don’t think where we are is good. We don’t think where we are is a place you can start from and still get to heaven. We think we have fallen on the wrong side of the line, maybe because of something we have done, because of our own shady dealings, or our own version of being dishonest stewards. But Jesus is saying that’s not true. You just start where you are.
Maybe in your life you have decided to make a major change and do something like you are going to look for a new job or give up drinking or smoking or start your diet, or move, or something really big. But you haven’t done anything about it. And you have all of these excuses: I can’t do this because I don’t have time right now. I’m just too old for that now. I’m still too young. This week I’m just too tired. My car is in the shop. Whatever it is.
Whatever your excuse for not starting something new, you are never going to do anything unless you are willing to start where you are.
Where you are right now is perfect. It may not be good, but it’s perfect. Where we are is that we are doing the best we can in a world that is uncaring and often against us. And unless we are rich and white and straight men, it can be a world where people especially condemn you and judge you and give you no help. Jesus wants to give you help.
So go ahead, he says, and use your dishonest wealth if that’s what you’ve got. Use what you’ve got. Make some new friends and exhibit your faithfulness. Just make sure you serve God.
At its heart, this Gospel is about a simple choice between just two things, serving God and serving wealth. In the King James Version, many of you will remember, it said: you cannot serve God and mammon. And mammon is a good word but it’s more complicated than the word wealth.
I like the word wealth because we know what it looks like when people serve wealth. We have this whole social media world which celebrates constantly what it looks like to serve wealth. And we know what it looks like when people are also unserved. And when wealth turns its back on people, sometimes they have to make difficult decisions.
But wherever we are and whatever decisions we have made, and whatever our relationship with wealth is, it’s amazing to know that we are not stuck. But that we have incredible freedom, through Jesus Christ, to start here and move on.
And it’s not that hard. It’s just one simple choice. Who do you serve in this moment? And it’s a choice we have to make again and again and sometimes we choose poorly. But the gift that Jesus offers today is the reminder that through him we get an opportunity to choose again every day, wherever we are. And so today we choose God.
And if you ever want to talk with people who live on the edge about their experiences and the challenges they face every day, come to the drop in center on Thursday.