What Is Money For? SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Fifteenth Week after Pentecost
Fifteenth Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 16:1-13
1) In a nutshell, with this parable Jesus urges us to be resourceful and pragmatic in our spiritual lives - just as shrewd, in fact, as we often are in our economic lives. Show some chutzpah, he says. Be as crafty and creative in finding ways to be generous to your impoverished neighbors, for example, as you are in finding ways to advance your own careers, or build relationships that might help you down the road. Apply that same acumen to the love and justice for which you were born!
2) This emphasis on savvy ingenuity - even if it means subverting conventions or taking risks - is a common theme in the Bible. Jacob, for example, is a wily rascal (his name means “the supplanter,” since he tricks his older brother and steals his birthright), and as we’ve seen, Jesus has a bold and subversive streak, too. Many of his teachings and actions involve bending or flouting rules, brazenly calling out the powers-that-be, or lifting up supposedly questionable characters as admirable role models: a Samaritan, for example, or a marginalized woman, or a “dishonest manager.”
3) As we saw two weeks ago, according to Luke, Jesus has already made clear the proper use of worldly wealth (in this week’s passage, “dishonest wealth” is adiko mamona, literally “unrighteous wealth” or “the mammon of wickedness”). “Give up all your possessions,” Jesus says, so they may be shared in community (Luke 14:33 and Acts 4:32-34, also written by Luke). And again: “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:33-34). In this week’s passage, Jesus rather boldly takes things a step further, as if to say: And by the way, as you use “dishonest wealth” in this life-giving way, sharing and giving alms, take a page from the playbook of the “dishonest manager:” he may be traveling in the wrong direction, but his chutzpah, practical wisdom, and moxie are worth emulating!
1) The passage’s pivotal line is when Jesus says, “the children of this age” - that is, the “dishonest managers” who run the world of mammon - “are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Luke 16:8). The word translated as “shrewd” in this passage is phronimos, “wise” - the same word Jesus uses in an earlier teaching about a “faithful and prudent [phronimos] manager” (Luke 12:42). It’s related to the Aristotelian notion of phronesis (“practical wisdom”), the judgement, savvy, and verve required to get things done. In this regard, Jesus says, his followers can learn a thing or two from even the unrighteous ways of the world.
2) But aren’t those “dishonest managers” crassly self-serving, and shouldn’t followers of Jesus be focused on serving others? Here Jesus takes the down-to-earth view that self-interest isn’t the problem; rather, the problem is understanding what’s actually in your genuine self-interest, and what isn’t. Genuine self interest is served through generosity and justice, sharing resources and taking care of one another. Tight-fisted greed, as it turns out, isn’t truly self-serving at all - it’s corrosive and destructive. So go ahead, Jesus says, act in your “self interest” - only make sure you really do! Love and fairness enrich us by way of “a purse that does not wear out”; clinging to possessions, on the other hand, distorts our hearts and our communities (Luke 12:33).
3) And to those of you, Jesus continues, who think money matters are less important than spiritual ones - well, those who are faithful in small things will be faithful in larger ones. So while “true riches” are indeed most important, what we do with money tells a bigger tale about our spiritual maturity. Are we pursuing mammon like an idol, accumulating and grasping it for ourselves and our innermost circle? Or do we see mammon for what it is: a resource for sharing with others, following God’s call to help create wider communities of generosity and justice? The choice is either/or; we can’t do both. You cannot serve God and wealth (Luke 16:10-13).
1) Imagine if we pursued “true riches” with the same vim and vigor, the same commitment of time and energy, and the same savvy creativity - even chutzpah! - we devote to financial pursuits. Jesus wants to push us in that direction.
2) Genuine self interest, Jesus insists, always involves the health of the broader community, and so while sharing our resources may on the surface seem to make us individually poorer, in fact, on another level, we thereby receive “true riches,” “unfailing treasure in heaven,” “a purse that does not wear out,” “welcome into eternal homes” - not just later on, but right here and now. Like God’s dawning realm, which Jesus proclaims is both “near to you” and “among you” (or “within you”), eternity is in mysterious parallel to time as we know it, so close we can reach out and touch it (Luke 10:9; 17:21). So when Jesus talks about “treasure in heaven” and “eternal homes,” he’s talking about later - and also about now (Luke 16:9).
3) Once we understand this, we can see what money is for. It’s not to be served as an idol, or pursued as if it’s an end in itself or merely a means to narrow pleasures or self-aggrandizement. Rather, it’s a means for far-reaching generosity and justice, for being fully human, which is to say, for being children of God. Money isn’t the most important thing - but it is an important indicator, and at the same time a gymnasium for developing our maturity. Show me a person’s checkbook (or bank statement, as the case may be), and I’ll show you where their heart is. It’s an imperfect test, of course, but a telling one. And the good news of the Gospel is that God, far from merely judging our test performance today, calls us to stretch and improve and grow, to reach out and build up the beloved community - and to do it with gusto, insight, chutzpah, and nerve!