Can’t buy me love?

RCL Year C, Proper 20


Well, I confess I was tempted to leave that parable right there. Today in our celebration of ministries we’re focusing on pastoral care and fellowship, ways we care for each other and enjoy our community. The beautiful lament in Jeremiah we heard today led us directly into that lovely hymn, ‘Balm in Gilead’ – so I thought of talking about the healing balm those kind of friendships and care are for us, and how we can be balm to others. And we’d all be quite comfortable hearing that.

But that would just be too easy. So instead, let’s face directly into what some people call Jesus’ most confusing parable ever: the parable of the dishonest servant. You all heard it – you got it, right? There’s a servant entrusted as his master’s steward, or manager, and he’s been embezzling money from the accounts. His fellow servants have turned him in, and now he’s in a desperate situation. So he goes to all his master’s debtors and forgives or reduces their debt, meaning his master won’t get all his money paid back. And that way he buys himself friends to watch out for him after he’s fired. The manager gets wind of this and commends him. Great job! he says. And that’s where Jesus ends the story.

So what do you think this means for us? Anybody?

If you’re confused, you’re in good company. Even Luke the gospel writer seems confused about what to do with this parable. He gives no fewer than four interpretations right after it:

  • The children of the light need to act more shrewdly, and be like the children of this age.
  • Christians should make friends by “dishonest wealth.”
  • If you’re not faithful with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with the true riches?
  • You cannot serve two masters – you can’t serve God and wealth.

Now, Luke has a lot to say in his gospel about wealth and our relationship to wealth. Elsewhere in this gospel – in next week’s parable of Abraham and Lazarus, to pick one example – the message is pretty consistent that rich people may have a problem. Here’s some of what we hear in Luke: Get rid of your possessions, don’t try to increase your salary, blessed are the poor, be on your guard against greed, don’t keep striving for financial security, it’s really hard for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God…etc. etc. Jesus in Luke talks about money far more than we’re comfortable doing, that’s for sure. Dealing ethically with money, and not letting money get in the way of our spiritual life with God, seem to be what a lot of the teachings are about.

But compared with all that teaching, this parable is even more confusing. I suppose money is confusing for all of us, when it comes down to it. What are we supposed to do with it exactly? Save it, spend it, give it away? Well, if we’re looking to scripture for a clue, it’s mostly #3, it seems: give it away. How about loan it to others and expect it back? Well, no.

Here’s one thing that may be hard for us to swallow: scripture is notably less interested in debts being paid off than we are. The Levitical code of ancient Israel provided for a cyclical forgiving of debts: every 50th year was named as a jubilee year, restoring land to its original owners, releasing people from their debt, and wiping the slate clean. And loaning money at interest was expressly forbidden. In the New Testament, Jesus’ prayer in the gospel of Matthew asks God to forgive us our debts, as we forgive the debts of others – still the language our UCC brothers and sisters use in the Lord’s prayer, while we use the more ambiguous ‘trespasses.’ We tend to see a moral dimension to debt, that everyone needs to repay what they owe. The morality even extends to our thinking about public debt and macroeconomics – it seems to rub people the wrong way when there is talk of forgiving the debt of other countries or of people in our own country who are underwater on their mortgages. When I lived in France, I often heard the proverb, ‘good accounts make good friends’ – the idea being that not having clear boundaries about money with your friends damages your friendship.

And yet scripture, and maybe even this strange parable, seem to be saying that getting your money back is much less important than your friendship – much less important than your relationship and the well-being of the other person. The teaching here seems to be this: when we’re in doubt about what to do with our money, we should opt for what builds relationship and helps others over what enriches ourselves alone. The dishonest steward originally messed with the books to benefit himself – but when that is revealed, he messes with the books in order to benefit others also. All those who owe his master are immensely relieved to now owe less. Is this the exact behavior we’re supposed to follow? Well, maybe not – and yet there is something to replacing the debt of money with a debt of gratitude instead.

The thing is, money is meant to be a tool of relationship – a useful stand-in for bartering goods and services. The money I earn comes from what you spend and give; the money you earn comes from what I spend and give. We’re bound together that way, in a system of mutual dependence. It should be a pretty fluid system of give and take, none of it piling up too heavily anywhere. But we tend to make money not a tool, but an end in itself – something to ensure our own safety and security and sense of self. More of it, we think, will make us happy. Not enough of it, we know, makes us scared. And in doing so, we entirely drop the connection to other people and their well-being. What should bind us to others instead becomes yet another way to wall ourselves off from others.

That is, I think, the peculiar message of this parable, strange as it is. We need one another; we need God. And that need goes much deeper than our clinging to financial security. In the end, of course, all we really have is our relationships to God and other people. Pastoral care and fellowship – the church words for caring for each other, even sacrificing for one another, in love. May we let go of what matters less in order to love, which matters more. Amen.