Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost Lectionary Reflection
September 22, 2013
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. Luke 16:10
So is this an early example of a debt settlement offer? If so, it’s a perfect cultural fit for contemporary North American practice: companies vie for the overburdened, overextended, and stretched-beyond-reason consumer, promising relief from stress and an easy way out. You’ve probably heard the advertisements on the radio or during daytime television. Call 1-800-BYE-DEBT and let us deal with your creditors. Of course there’s a lot that many of these outfits don’t tell you; in short, there are no easy fixes. Talking about money issues in our culture…it’s complicated.
Why does Jesus tell this story? What greater truth is he pointing to with the dishonest manager? What does this have to do with stewardship? It definitely seems out of character for Jesus to praise dishonesty and to reward the self-serving shenanigans of a sketchy employee. The fellow certainly is focused on the fine art of self-preservation, and yet he manages to come out of a difficult situation smelling like a rose. It’s not that he does other folks in–he’s no Gordon Gecko–but he is determined to secure his future by leveraging his master’s wealth to cover his abuses and poor management. If nothing else, this guy has chutzpah.
Perhaps Jesus is pointing out that disciples would do well to take some cues from those who navigate the culture around them. The dishonest manager was true to himself, was fully focused on his objectives, and had a plan to meet them. He had figured out a way to make the system work to his advantage. He brought others on board by figuring out a mutually beneficial scheme. It appears that everybody got something and went home happy in an honor/shame culture where that was the exception rather than the rule.
A not-so-hot moral role model, he nevertheless exhibited follow-through, creativity, and guts in addressing his situation. He was not afraid to encounter money and work with it. He did not hesitate to expand his circle of influence and enlist the help and support of others. He refused to roll over and give up, and he was serious about securing his future.
The 21st century church and everyday disciples can learn much of value from this character. We can see that engaging culture is better than pretending that it doesn’t exist. We can take stock of our resources and use them wisely. We must collaborate and cooperate, and we must not give up and turn inward on ourselves. The church has a wonderful story and powerful message; it compels us to stay true to that good news and to share it regularly and consistently. We need to hone a razor-sharp focus on our mission and vision as people of God and use the tools, gifts, and talents which we have been given. And, we need to deal with the “M” word (money).
Fortunately, God is much more giving and compassionate than any human. Like the manager, we have nothing that really belongs to us; we are stewards of God’s abundance. One prayer we might offer is for the people with whom we serve, that they would be reliant on God’s grace, mercy, and love, trusting that God will make a way, and that we will not be left bereft if we choose to serve only God and our neighbor. What if, like the dishonest manager, we learn to talk about money in our community and, in the process, learn to engage everyone. The difference might be that we use our resources for the good of all, and not with self as the number-one consideration. What if we truly trusted God to take our “loaves and fishes, our humble offerings” and multiply them for ministry? What might it mean to own the concept of stewards of abundance rather than hoarders of scarcity?
How, in your context, can you bring this parable to life? The connections are surely there; we need only make them. Then, we can move step-by-step and day-by-day toward a life that is more fully faithful and focused on what truly matters. We can then begin to use our resources–time, talent, and (yes) money–to help people come to know God’s saving grace, amazing love, and life-giving abundance. Blessings on your preaching and teaching.
Go to your local dollar store and pick up a money notepad or some fake paper money. Give everyone a page or a piece of fake cash either in their bulletin or as a separate hand out. During your sermon or in a separate temple talk ask them why money is such a taboo subject in our worshiping communities. If possible have them talk with others nearby. What are their fears? Concerns?
Ask them to write their fears and/or concerns about money and about talking about money in the church and then pass offering plates or baskets to collect the comments. The simple act of writing down these fears and concerns may release some of the control and power such things have. At least it gets them “on the table” so to speak. Bring the plates forward and pray over them. Pray for clarity, discernment, transparency, and the will to open conversations about money as a tool to faithful discipleship and effective mission and ministry. Be sure to compile and share the results in some way.
Want to be really radical? Begin a study about money and finances. At the beginning or end of the study, burn the paper money. Begin with no fear and a commitment to erase money taboos. It may take more than this symbolic actions, but symbols are powerful, and at least this is a way to open the conversation and begin to take seriously our call to faithful stewardship of all of God’s abundance.
A Prophetic Word
Introducing youth to the concept of prophetic words is not as difficult as one might think. There are plenty of modern day people who have spoken “prophetic words” to the world: Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Wangari Maatthai, Bill McKibben, Jim Wallace, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oscar Romero are a few examples that come to mind. Introduce Amos and his world. Read this week’s Old Testament passage (Amos 8:4-7) and invite youth to think about how these (or similar) words would sound today. Are they still applicable? Would they make folks uncomfortable? Who might squirm?
Have time for an in-depth activity? Consider making a video using these words and images from contemporary western culture that the youth find. Invite them to contemplate these questions in preparation for the activity:
- Do we still buy people today? How? (Human trafficking, purchasing goods made with slave labor, paying less than a living wage)
- Do we still “sell the sweepings of wheat”? How might one see that happening today? (Selling dangerous infant formula to other nations, food deserts, and encouraging poor nutrition among those who can least afford it might be lifted up.)
- Do we still trample the needy and bring ruin to the poor? How?
- Do we even wait for the Sabbath to be over to engage in commerce?
- How do we understand the last verse of the reading (verse 7) in our own context?
You could end up with a powerful video, collage, or performance piece if you let the youths’ creative juices flow.
This is a good Sunday to introduce children to the concept of being a “steward.” Use verse 12 from the gospel reading (“And if you have not been faithful with the what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”)
Show children a stack of library books. Most children will be familiar with what is involved with borrowing books from a school or public library. Tell them why you value the ability to borrow books, DVDs, or CDs from your local library. Talk to them about how careful you are with these books since they belong not to you but to the library–to the people and the common good. In the same way, all that we have is on loan from God. We do not really possess any of it, but we are commanded to be good stewards of all that comes into our care. The word steward is from the old English word “stiward” or “stigweard” meaning keeper of the hall or pen. The steward took care of the possessions of another–the house and pig pen of the landowner and Lord. We may not steward the pigs of another today, but we are still to care for all things and all people. If you are beginning a stewardship emphasis for fall, this is a good time to introduce the concept to children. Just be sure to tell them that stewardship is a part of every day and everything that the do.