The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 22, 2013
Math was never my strong suit. Clearly, that’s why I’m a priest. Most of the time, my ineptitude does not create any problems. We have a guy that does our taxes. Microsoft Excel works our home budget. So usually, this is no big deal.
But there was one mathematical mistake I made that Maggie will never let me live down. I was seminary in Washington, D.C., and Maggie had flown up for a weekend visit. I was desperate to eat anywhere but the seminary cafeteria, so we went out to a hip little burger place in the city. And I’ll never forget this – the bill came. It was $30. Okay, it was a fancy burger place, but not too outrageous. When I got my card back from the waitress, I quickly put down a number for the tip, not really thinking about it. And I didn’t really think about it the waitress gave me this ear to ear smile, that smile that says, “you just made my day.” And then it hit me – I just tipped her $15 – a 50% tip. Now, I would like to think I’m a generous guy, but believe me, that wasn’t out of my generosity. That was out of my inability to divide properly.
I learned two lessons from that fateful night. First, always let Maggie figure the tip. Second, I know how to make somebody’s day. Because money has this extraordinary way of defining a relationship. That’s the point Jesus is making in this terribly confusing parable.
See, there is this rich man. And this rich man has a guy working for him, a manager for all his money. And this manager is squandering the rich man’s property; mismanaging his funds. So the rich man gets fed up with his manager – “clear out your desk, and give me your final report. You’re fired at the end of the day.”
Now, this manager, he’s a sneaky dude. He doesn’t want to dig ditches for a living, and he doesn’t want to beg either. He’s got a good life as a money manager, and he would hate to lose it all. So he summons the rich man’s debtors, and reduces their debts. One debtor owes the rich man a hundred jugs of oil, so the manager makes it fifty. Another debtor owes the rich man a hundred containers of wheat, so the manager makes it eighty. In other words, the manager is using money to make friends. This means that when the manager is out of a job, he will be able to call in some favors.
We would assume that this would get the manger into even more trouble than he was before. Not only would he lose his job, but he’d end up in jail with the Enron and Arthur Andersen guys for cheating the numbers. But no. The parables of Jesus don’t work that way. The exact opposite of what is supposed to happen, happens. The rich man is pleased with his manager because he has acted shrewdly. The manager saw what was coming, and by hook or by crook made sure that he would have some friends. And this guile, this prudence, is what the rich man commends. This is the kind of money manager we want to have – somebody who is shrewd and prudent, somebody who knows how to use money to make a relationship work.
This parable speaks to the power of money. Money is not an inherently bad thing, but money has a way of defining a relationship. In this case, the manager uses money shrewdly to ensure that he has some friends down the road. These are the relationships that the manager wants to invest in so that he won’t be digging ditches.
This idea is nothing new to us. We know very well that how we spend our money on somebody else defines our relationship with them. It’s like going on a date. If you aren’t so sure about the girl, well, then maybe you’ll just take her out for a cup of coffee. If you are interested in the girl, then you’ll take her out to dinner. If you are head over the heels for the girl, if you are going to propose to her, then you won’t keep back a dime and you’ll splurge on the fancy steak house. What we want out of a relationship is in proportion to how much we invest in a relationship.
So, yes, the same is true in our relationship to God. I’m sure all of you saw where this was going. But remember, I do not preach about money just to preach about money – I preach about money because Jesus talks about money; because where we spend our money is an indicator of which relationships we value. Again, you already know this. You are going to spend a lot more on that Christmas present for your beloved grandchild than you are for your distant cousin you never see.
I am not standing here, making a plea for you to give more money to the church. No, I am standing here, making a plea for you to consider your relationship with God. And to call on you to ensure that you are giving the money to God that is in proportion to how much you value your relationship with God. Really, look at what you spend. If you are spending more money per month on your cable television package than you are on your relationship with God, I ask you to consider which relationship you value more: television, or the Lord Jesus.
Now, many of you are probably thinking in your head, “he’s not preaching anymore, he’s just meddling.” Perhaps. Perhaps I am meddling. But perhaps I am only reflecting on what the Lord Jesus says, “No 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.”
Maggie and I have found this to be true. We give ten percent of what we earn back to the church. We earnestly believe that our money is a sign of the value we place on our relationship with God. So I say these words, not as a cry for you to give more to the church, but as an honest reflection from my own life: the more Maggie and I have given to God, the more we have experienced the love of God. Just like a relationship. Just like going on a date. Just like choosing which Christmas gift to buy your beloved grandchild.
Finally, I want to bring us back to the parable at hand. Notice the grace in this parable – the backwards grace in this parable. Immediately, we think this manager is going to be carted off to jail for being a dishonest scoundrel. But we take a second look, and we see that the manager is commended for his deeds. This parable turns the world upside down.
What I’m saying it this – all of us owe an incredible debt to the Lord Jesus, a debt we can never repay. For who could ever repay the death and resurrection of Jesus? But the grace in this parable is all pervasive and world-shattering. In a way, what is happening here is that the Lord Jesus is sitting us down and reducing our debts. For all intents and purposes, we owe Jesus everything. But Jesus has reduced our debt and made us into his friends. He used his life as a sign of the value he places on his relationship with us.
And now Jesus is calling in the favors. Jesus bids us to follow him, to give our lives to the Church, and yes, perhaps even to die for him. To me, it seems a small thing to respond with my money in light of such an astounding sacrifice made by the Lord Jesus. To me, giving my money is all about saying “thank you” to God, in hope that my money can turn around and bless somebody else in the name of God. This is not so much about what you get out of your relationship with Jesus, but what you are investing into your relationship with Jesus. Jesus, your friend, the one who has reduced your debt. It is a light thing indeed to repay the favor; not with guilt or coercion, but with gratitude.