Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’Then 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.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.“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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.”
A number of years ago my cousin and I were visiting my younger brother, who was living in Atlanta at the time. While we were there, we were doing a little sightseeing downtown, and as we were, we kept getting hit up by panhandlers. It seemed like every fifty feet, someone was hitting us up for money – a dollar here, spare change there, another dollar over there. It was really getting to be a bit much, when at one point a panhandler came up to us and tried to strike up a conversation. We kept trying to get away from him, but he was persistent, following us, and he started telling my cousin, “Hey man, how’s it going? Hey, those are some really nice shoes you got! Yes sir, those are some really nice shoes!” My cousin thanked him, and the guy said, “Yeah, you know, you can’t get a nice pair of shoes like that just anywhere. … Hey, you know what? I bet you I can tell you where you got your shoes at!” We kept trying to get away from him, but he was persistent: “I’ll bet you… I’ll bet you five dollars I can tell you where you got your shoes at!” Now, my cousin knew that he’d bought the shoes at a store in Columbus, and there was no way this guy could know where they came from, so finally, just to shut him up, my cousin said “All right, all right – I’ll take that bet!” And at that, the panhandler said, “You got those shoes… on your feet… on the sidewalk… at the corner of 15th and Peachtree… in Atlanta Georgia! And you know I’m right! Now, you’re a fair man, you gotta pay up, come on, pay up!” And we all laughed, and my cousin gave him the money, because even though he knew he’d been had, it was worth it for the entertainment and the sheer creativity of the guy’s con.
Every time I read this story of the Dishonest Manager, I think about that day in Atlanta, because I think there’s something similar going on here. Sometimes we might scratch our heads wondering why the boss in the story – and by implication, Jesus – might compliment his crooked manager, who was clearly robbing him blind. He was commending him not for the con, but for the ingenuity and creativity behind it.
There’s an interesting theme that runs through the scriptures, Old Testament and New, and that’s the idea of honoring and respecting the “trickster”, and this story is just another example of the theme. The trickster is a person who leverages deception, guile, all the resources available to them, in order to achieve their goals – usually, the goal of obtaining justice from some more powerful oppressor. It shows up in story after story in the scriptures. We don’t have time to list them all here this morning, but I’ll bet that if you thought about it for just a moment or two, you’d remember a number of those stories.
Now, in most of these cases, it’s clear that the trickster actually has the moral high ground, and that they’re being treated unjustly, so it’s easy for us to cheer them on. In this particular story, the trickster – the manager – clearly doesn’t have that same moral high ground, so it’s true, we’re a bit more uneasy about appreciating his ingenuity.
But despite the particular details of the story, I think Jesus’ real point is the same: understand and appreciate the resources that you have available to you, that you’ve been entrusted with, and use them wisely and creatively to achieve your goals. Now I’m sure that Jesus would be the first to point out that those goals should be to further the Kingdom of God, and to live as a member of that Kingdom; and something like the far less honorable goal that the manager in the story had, but the idea is the same.
And yes, this is particularly true when it comes to our financial resources. Jesus drives that point home very clearly in his ultimate punchline in this story, that a person can’t serve both God and money. He’s definitely talking about money here.
But it’s also clear that he isn’t talking only about money. It’s about all that we have at our fingertips, and whether we’re using them to the best of our abilities in order to advance God’s will in this world.
A lot of us often struggle with a deep-seated concern that our lives actually have some meaning beyond ourselves. What’s our place in the grand scheme of things? Do we even matter? From the standpoint of us as followers of Jesus, that’s simply a way of saying that we have a deep-seated need to know whether we’re known and loved by God. I think that a big part of resolving that deep need within us is to recognize the good news embedded in this story. There is some good news in here for us, even if you can only see it sideways, peripherally, in Jesus’ words. That good news is found in the fact that Jesus is saying these things to his disciples, and by extension, to us, from the understanding that we aren’t outsiders trying to earn God’s love – but rather, we’re already insiders. We’re in the club, as it were. That God does indeed love us and accept us. We don’t have to worry about that question; it’s asked and answered. God has told us without question where we got our shoes at – we got our shoes on our feet, in the middle of the street, at the corner of Here-and-Now and Eternity, in the Kingdom of God. And now that we don’t have to stress over that question any more, we’re free to consider how, in a spirit of gratitude, and even joy, we can use the fullness of all that God has provided us with in order to advance this Kingdom that we’re part of.
Holly was a client of my architectural firm, way back in the day. She was a project manager for a large development and construction firm based in New York City; she was based in the company’s Manhattan headquarters. She’d been assigned to be the company’s project manager for a major new development they were involved in in Columbus, a very large project that my firm had a very tiny piece in, but that’s how I met her. Just before this assignment, Holly had managed the complete renovation of Madison Square Garden. She was an extremely knowledgeable, gifted, talented woman in what was, and what remains, a predominantly male environment, and I’ve got to say that I’ve never met anyone who was her professional equal. Holly knew her stuff. She could be as tough as nails; She was hard driving and hard driven. She was fair, but she wasn’t going to put up any unjustified crap from anyone. During the time we worked together, she became one of my favorite and most respected clients. She also became a good friend.
Then, something happened. I don’t know if it was just time for a change for personal reasons, or if it was burnout from working at the fast pace at that rarified level of the industry, or if she just got tired of fighting the challenges of commuting in and out of the city every day. I never wanted to pry, but I always wondered if it was partly because she’d last a close family member in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Whatever the reason, or reasons, she took her life in a different direction. She left the construction world, and she began working with various charities. Coordinating disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Working to help veterans through the Wounded Warriors project. And a number of other extremely worthwhile efforts helping others. And in all of them she used the considerable gifts and talents that God blessed her with, using them with creativity and ingenuity to achieve as much as she possibly could, in order to advance God’s work in the here and now. Holly matters. And whether she knows it or not, she’s also one of my heroes.
What has God gifted you with? What are the skills, the talents, the gifts that you’ve been blessed with? In our Reformed tradition, we believe that we’re *all* called to some form of ministry as God’s people. And those gifts are the resources that God has given us, and wants us to put to good use, in our own personal ministry, whatever that might be – clearly to put them to better use than the dishonest manager did, with just as much determination and creativity.
My friend Holly does what she does with her life because she knows where she got her shoes at. Since we know where we got our shoes at too, let’s all think about how we can best move those shoes down the street, together, as the people of God.
Thanks be to God.