Homily, God and Wealth
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20C, 2022
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF
Today’s Lectionary Readings:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever gone to a movie with your spouse and at the end came out hating the movie only to find your spouse loved it?
Or have you ever taken your friend to a favorite restaurant only to have them not care for it?
Or have you ever recounted a memory to someone only to have your sibling recall it completely differently?
Isn’t that frustrating? How can two people experience the same thing and come to wildly different conclusions about it?
That is the challenge of our gospel passage today, which includes one of the most perplexing and interesting parables in all of Scripture.
I have to admit, I don’t entirely know what to do with it. And this week as I studied the passage carefully, I found that biblical scholars are all over the map about its meaning.
Today’s parable veers away from traditional storytelling with clear protagonists and antagonists, and instead offers the messy story of a rich man, a manager, and some debtors with just enough detail for us to wonder about what we might be missing in the narrative. At the end we’re not quite sure who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy, and who we’re supposed to be imitating.
So what do we do with this parable? How do we find its meaning? Let’s take a look at a couple possibilities.
At first glance this parable seems to be simply about the dishonesty of a bad manager. The manager is accused of squandering his boss’ money and when he is confronted about it, he goes and reduces the debt of his boss’ customers without his boss’ permission just so that he can have some friends to take him in when his boss fires him. The manager is clearly in the wrong.
But just when we’re ready to condemn him, the boss commends him for his shrewdness and Jesus seems to lift him up as an example to his disciples. So is the manager the good guy? But how?
Another reading of this text lifts up its historical context and says that Jesus is pointing out the corrupt economic system of his day where wealthy landlords preyed on poor debtors with high interest rates, which were explicitly forbidden in Jewish law. In this context, the rich man is the unjust one, exploiting those in debt in order to increase his wealth. When the greedy landlord accuses his manager of wasting his money without any evidence, the manager, in an act of resistance, forgives a significant portion of his customer’s debt in solidarity with the poor debtors.
But then again, the manager’s words to himself, “What am I going to do now? I’m not strong enough to work or humble enough to beg,” are not exactly the inspiring words of a social justice warrior.
So what do we do? What does this passage mean?
It seems to me that in either of these interpretations there is a similar underlying question: how do we use the wealth given us?
In the first interpretation, the manager has been entrusted as a steward with his master’s wealth but he squanders it. He has been dishonest, unfaithful, and ungrateful with the generosity of his boss. How often do we act in similar ways with all that God has given us?
In the second interpretation, the rich man is so focused on making money, he mistreats and abuses his customers by profiting off their poverty and firing his manager without even corroborating the accusations. The rich man uses his wealth solely for his own gain, neglecting his obligation to care for those around him. How often do we neglect to use what we have for the betterment of the poor and others in need, thinking only of our own desires?
And so while the interpretive possibilities for this parable are endless, in the end, they all converge into this last line of Jesus in the passage: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The message of this parable is that the things we have—our wealth, our property, our things—do not actually belong to us. They belong to God and they are given to us with the responsibility to steward them in the ways which best affirm the dignity of those around us.
The message of this parable is that the things we have—our possessions—can all too easily possess us if we cling to them too tightly.
So whether it be the manager who schemes to cheat his master out of money, or the rich man who exploits those around him, the message of this parable is that all wealth is dishonest wealth if it is not put to the service of others. You cannot participate in God’s gospel message to the world if your main focus is on making wealth for yourself.
And that’s a hard message to hear in our consumeristic society.
Despite what some prosperity preachers might tell us, God is not interested in making us rich.
God is interested in making us generous. God is interested in making us just. God is interested in making us loving.
That’s what Jesus means then when he says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.” He’s not saying if you are good with a little money you’ll be good with more money. He is saying if you can steward your material wealth faithfully and generously, then you’ll also be able to steward the greater wealth of God’s gospel message for the world.
Money itself is not the problem. Wealth itself can be used for good. But who does it serve?
The invitation for us then is to reflect on our own priorities. Am I more focused on making wealth or sharing wealth? Am I more focused on my wants or the needs of others? Am I more focused on serving the bottom line or serving God?
Let us be faithful stewards of all that God has given us to the service of others. Amen.