Desperate Times

 Desperate Times 

“There was a rich man”. We hear that phrase and there’s nothing real special about it, right? We might think Jesus is just describing an ordinary man who happens to be “rich.”

There is nothing particularly noteworthy, in our minds, about a man who happens to be rich. This is true, because there are lots of legitimate ways for someone to become rich in our world.

For example, someone could go to school forever and become a doctor, or a lawyer, or they can put their heart and soul into their business and work hard at it for decades, right? These are all ways to increase your earning power, and there’s nothing ethically wrong with being a doctor, or a lawyer, or a businessperson…there’s nothing ethically wrong with earning more money than somebody else because of your education or your expertise.

So being rich…we could say that it’s kind of an ethically neutral thing today.

In the first century, in the places Jesus walked, this wasn’t the case.

I’m no economist, so my understanding of this is pretty limited…but the basic idea, as I understand it, is that the economy in Jesus’ time was just so big. There was like One Big Pie, and especially in the rural, agricultural communities that Jesus spent a lot of time in…the size of the pie was pretty fixed.

Everyone had a piece of the pie…and all the pieces were more or less the same size.

I might give you a few chickens in exchange for a goat or something…we’d both end up with what we need, but at the end of the day neither one of us was getting rich.

The size of the pie hadn’t changed…we had just re-shifted some of the ingredients to meet the needs that each of us had. There’s a term for this type of economy. It’s called “Zero-Sum”.  

Zero Sum means basically, nobody gets too far ahead, but nobody falls too far behind, either.

Our economy is different. It can grow…apparently…or shrink, as we saw a few years ago.

Our pie can change size, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. And that means people can actually ‘create’ wealth (I know, it’s hard to believe, and I don’t know if I’ll ever really understand it). So the idea is that in our economy, if the pie gets bigger, everyone involved can potentially benefit.

Again, in a Zero-Sum economy, the pie never changes size.

So if you want to get rich in that system, there’s really only one way. You’ve got to take other people’s pie.

“There was a rich man”, Jesus says. And that wasn’t an ethically neutral statement.

In fact, this man was rich enough that he needed to hire a manager! Here’s another detail that’s easy to hear with 21st century ears.

Lots of businesses have managers today. Being a manager is just another job for us, right? In fact, it’s a respectable job.

Typically today, if you’re a manager, it means you’ve proven yourself. You must know your business. If you’re a manager, it must mean you’re a good, hard worker (at least that’s what I think when I hear the term “manager”).

Once again, this wasn’t necessarily the case in the first century.

Let’s say we’re all part of a first century community, out in a little village where agriculture was all we knew and a zero-sum economy was all we had to work with.

We might trade our livestock or food within our community, so we had some good years and some bad years, so life was hard, but overall it was pretty good.

Well, let’s say one year Scott and Renee had something go drastically wrong. Let’s say their crops failed or their chickens were mauled by a fox or something like that, and suddenly their means of livelihood went way down.

I might have had a good year that year for whatever reason…maybe I was raising foxes…I don’t know. 🙂 But Scott and Renee had a really big need, and I had resources to help them out.

So I did.

But I’m cunning, and I’d really like to leave this village and move to Wooster sometime, which is going to take more money than I have in this zero-sum game.

I need a bigger piece of the pie.

So I loan Scott and Renee a piece of the pie, with the understanding that next year they’re going to owe me two pieces of pie.

The next year comes along, and all they can give me is a pie crust…so I tell them the next year they’re going to owe me three pieces of pie…you get where this is going?

After awhile, we all know that eventually Scott and Renee are going to owe me big-time.

So I’m going to take their land in order to satisfy their debt, and I’m going to turn them into something like tenant farmers.

So now I’m even richer, and they have even less of a chance of breaking even or standing on their own two feet.

Now, if it was just Scott and Renee I was taking advantage of, that would probably be simple enough for just me to keep track of.

But if I’m taking advantage of everyone in this room, it would become kind of complicated to keep track of all the debts, all the payments and partial payments from one year to the next.

Well, the chances are pretty good that I’m wealthy enough by that point that I can hire someone to do the dirty work for me.

So I’d hire a manager to handle my accounts.

Once I had my manager, I’d probably move away. I’d choose a bigger city, like Wooster or Jerusalem, where I could enjoy my money. I could enjoy the conveniences of city life, and let’s face it, I’d be a lot more anonymous there.

After all, I probably wouldn’t be the most welcome among you all, would I?

There was a rich man.

Indeed.

And he had a manager.

And a charge against the manager came to the rich man.

And the rich man acts immediately. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

He’s fired, no ifs, ands, or buts. No excuses.

That’s one way to deal with problems, right? The rich man is impulsive, and acts on what he thinks are his best interests right now, in the moment.

So what’s his manager do?

…I can say after spending the week looking at this story, this manager has become one of my favorite characters in scripture! 🙂

He gets fired, he’s got maybe a couple of days before the boss will be there to send him packing, and so he gets to work.

Let me tell you, this guy knew what he was doing.

If the rich man was impulsive, the manager was anything but.

He was deliberate. He was intentional. He was focused on the future, not the present.

In ancient times, when a loan was made, it was the borrower who made the note.

The borrower would write out what they took and the terms they had agreed to when they took the loan, and the lender would hold onto that note.

This was so that if there was a disagreement later on, the lender could pull it out and say “look! it’s right here in your own handwriting!”

So that’s why the manager goes to the people and had them change their terms…it was so the forgery would be perfect, it would be in their handwriting, and his boss would have no way of telling the difference! We don’t know if the charge against him was true or not at the beginning, but what we do know is that he acts it out perfectly by the end.

He’s making friends and influencing people, to steal a line from the best-selling book from a long time ago.

But let’s not just leave it there.

The obvious thing he’s doing is trying to create a life for himself after he loses his job.

As Jesus notes in the story, he’s too old to dig, and he’s too proud to beg.

So he uses his mind to leverage his position and the resources he’s been entrusted with, to hopefully build some relationships with the people he would have to depend on after he gets sacked.

But the truth is, what he does goes way, way deeper than that.

I’ve talked about it being a zero-sum game, right?

Their culture also had a lot invested in honor and shame, just like many cultures still do today, (unfortunately ours isn’t one of them).

So one way honor-shame plays out is, everyone wants honor, and nobody wants shame.

Keep in mind, that while the rich man is off living it up in Jerusalem or wherever, this manager is acting on his behalf. It’s like the manager stands in for the rich man…he’s seen as an extension of the rich man.

In fact, his actions are seen in the community not as his actions, but rather the actions of the rich man behind him.

The manager was like a puppet.

So when he reduces all these debts for these people, in their minds it wasn’t him who was doing it; it was the rich man!

Sure, the manager was standing in, but this gift of reducing the debt; that came straight from the big man himself, at least in their eyes.

Would it be honor, or would it be shame, to take back a gift once you’ve given it?

It would have been really shameful to take back a gift.

It’s a sign of honor to give a gift, it’s a mark of shame to take one back.

That’s why the rich man praises him.

He had been outsmarted, outmaneuvered.

He was bound by honor to maintain the forged agreements, even though everything about the way he made his living was shameful.

Now, the whole thing still smells fishy, right? What’s Jesus trying to get at by using this story about these guys who are just so crooked!?

He explains the parable like this “the 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.”

I get that…there is a difference between how the ‘children of this age’ interact with each other, and how we who are ‘children of the light’ interact with each other.

We’re held to a higher standard, right?

We’re supposed to always take the moral high ground, to be honest in our dealings, and never to take advantage of other people.

In other words, we children of the light, we wouldn’t get rich like this guy did, would we?

We wouldn’t even take the job to do his dirty work, would we? Wouldn’t that be unethical?

Maybe if we were desperate for a job…after all the rich man is the one who has to answer to God for his business…so if I work for him and just try to follow the rules…(you see where this is going?) I’m not as guilty as my boss, right?

If I need a job, and the only one open is ethically questionable…then what choice do I have?

Maybe the lines between “children of the light” and “children of this age” aren’t as clean-cut as we might wish they were.

Jesus goes on to say “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.”

What Jesus is teaching with this parable is that wealth, resources, how we accumulate stuff, how we use stuff and how our stuff impacts our relationships…it’s never as clean as we might hope.

Even in this setting, in this Zero-Sum economy where cause and effect is fairly simple and straightforward, there are even ethically gray areas there.

Today it’s not much different, but there are a lot more levels to it.

Today we might depend on 5 or 6 multinational corporations, a couple of wars, some wage theft, a few deportations and a sweatshop or two before we even get to church in the morning!

The shirt on my back, the car I drive, the gas in my tank, the banana on my cereal, the phone in my pocket…I might not be the rich man, but I am a manager of sorts.

I am benefitting from dishonest gain in one way or another.  

So am I a child of the light? Sometimes I wonder.

I could do more to avoid the it. I could boycott certain companies and support others.

I could make my own clothing rather than risking supporting a sweatshop somewhere.

I could ride my bike more in order to avoid using ill-gained gasoline, and I could even build my own bike to make sure it was manufactured fairly as well.

I could go to great lengths to ‘purify’ my lifestyle…and I actually know there are a lot of small steps I could and should take towards that end. (Riding my bike more often, for example, would benefit my health, my wallet, my community, and my world in more ways than one).

But I could probably get very depressed very quickly if I really tried to purify my life from every semblance of ‘dishonest wealth’.

But the good news is that Jesus doesn’t tell us to avoid dishonest wealth.

In fact, he tells us what to do with it. He tells us how to use it.

Now, don’t hear me wrong. I’m not suggesting that Jesus is giving us permission to gain wealth with shady ethics, or to benefit from other people’s misfortune.

I’m suggesting that even dishonest wealth, or resources that have been unethically attained…they can be redeemed in the service of relationships.

“Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes”.

A fairly trivial example of what I’m trying to say might be coffee.

I like a good cup of coffee, like many of us do.

I like drinking coffee with friends.

And within the last 10 years or so, I’ve come to learn more about where coffee comes from, how it’s produced, and who’s making money from it.

The things I’ve learned about all that have led me to value fairly-traded coffee, which is basically coffee that might cost a little bit more, but it’s coffee that I can trust that the farmer is getting a fair wage for the work that he’s done.

So that’s a value I have, and if you look in our cupboards at home, you’ll find a range of coffee choices that we believe we’ve paid a fair price to enjoy. It’s not the cheapest price, but it’s a fair price.

Now, just because I have formed those convictions over a period of time, that doesn’t mean I never drink Folgers or Maxwell House. If I go to someone’s house, or if I meet someone for coffee out somewhere, I don’t make it a point to question where the coffee came from or whether it’s been fairly traded.

Rather, I buy the coffee, and I drink it.

The relationship is more important than my being ‘pure and clean’ from dishonest wealth.

I think that’s what Jesus is getting at.

I think this is a hard teaching for most of us cradle-born Mennonites to hear.

A large part of our identity has been our simple lives, our work-ethic, and our emphasis on having integrity. We like to think of ourselves as a people ‘set apart’, ethically pure in an impure world.

It’s hard for us to think about being faithful with dishonest wealth, because we spend so much energy making sure our wealth is the honest kind.

And yet that (being faithful even with dishonest wealth) is exactly what Jesus is saying to do.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; 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?”

Relationships should be our priority.

Even the most shameful, dishonestly gained wealth can be redeemed in the service of Christ.

Are you the rich man in this story, or are you the manager?

Neither one is innocent, let’s keep that in mind. Neither one is pure.

But one has an eye to the future, where one has an eye on only the present.

Where are you looking?

No slave can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and wealth.

Amen.   

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