Sunday’s sermon: the dishonest manager

Amos 8:4-7; Luke 16:1-13.

You’ve probably, like me, had phone calls from personal injury lawyers asking if you’ve ever been in an accident. One person who received such a call had been in an accident – a minor fender-bender. He told them he was fine, he hadn’t been injured. But the lawyers were insistent – was he sure? Sometimes it takes time for an injury to become apparent. Has he ever had neck pain since the accident? They kept calling back and one day his neck was sore – probably due to stress. They said he should sue. No need to second-guess himself – let the court to decide. There was no downside: no win no fee. Come on, they urged, you have nothing to lose and you might get something out of it. Give it a go.

It was the promise of money that swung it, and he agreed. After all, it would only be an insurance company that suffered – and they could afford it. The process ground on over months and months, and eventually a court date was set. No need to go along to court, the lawyers said, but he felt he should. Come the day, he stood trembling in the courtroom, feeling like everyone could see right through him. His lawyer laid it on thick (which is okay – “this is expected in court” – “don’t worry, just let me do the talking”). The defendant’s lawyer slung it back equally as strongly – “the claimant is lying through his teeth” – “this is an egregious abuse of the system, insurance fraud”. The atmosphere was thick with recrimination.

Eventually the arguments concluded and the court awarded compensation of £300 (plus, of course, £1000 on top of that to cover the legal costs). Our not-so-hero just wanted to run away but to his terror he saw the defendant’s lawyer approaching. “Here it comes”, he thought, “this man knows I have just cheated his company out of £1300”. The lawyer marched up and began to speak to the man’s own lawyer, “Nicely played – I’m off to the pub – fancy a pint?”

<dramatic pause>

All those fierce arguments in court, the recriminations – they were just a game to the two lawyers. Like playing chess. The best player won. Next time, perhaps it will go the other way. No hard feelings.

What is that all about? Is that what the court system is for? What about truth? What about justice? Is money just a way of keeping score in an elaborate game? Where is the humanity? And this is the key, really. This is why the story has a surprising sting in the tail. We approach the story looking for justice and truth, but the lawyers are just moving about bits of money according to a set of complicated rules. For them, questions of truth and justice don’t feature – as long as you obey the rules of the system, you can do whatever you like.

Now, as it happens, I invented this story. But that doesn’t make it an untrue story. This is exactly the kind of thing that happens with money all the time, and has done since as far back as the time of the prophet Amos. In the reading from Amos today we see him lashing out at those who were supposed to be the people of God, who should be upholding justice and truth. But instead, God’s people had cast their lot in with those who play the power games and the money games, those who obey the rules, who buy and sell and manipulate the system while people starve. Amos cries out, demanding justice and truth.

This is the kind of thing that happens with money all the time. It happens today. I, myself, was working on a trading floor at an investment bank when the international banking system collapsed in 2007. I saw it from the inside. I can tell you that inside the banking system justice and truth do not feature. It is all about how we can manipulate the rules of the game to get out the most amount of money.

This is the kind of thing that happens with money all the time. It happened in the time of Jesus. I don’t know whether Jesus was telling a real story which he had heard about a manager who swindled his master, or whether, like me, he invented the specific details. But he was clearly describing how the money system worked in his own time. To people like the manager and his master, it was just a game. The surprise in the story is intentional and deliberate. We are supposed to react with shock. How could the master congratulate the manager who had defrauded him? Jesus is pointing out that the players of the game have a completely different world-view to ours.

At this point I have to diverge slightly and deal with a key problem people have with the gospel reading. We get into tremendous difficulty by calling this story the “parable” of the dishonest manager. Parables tell us something about God and his kingdom and about life in the eternal age to come. This story, on the other hand, is squarely set in this age. It isn’t about the way God works but about the way people work. It isn’t about truth and justice. It is about money. This story is not a parable, it is just a story about the sort of thing that happens in the world in which we presently live. It is not about God, it is about people. Commentators have got into extreme contortions trying to explain away the master’s actions in congratulating the manager. They have tied themselves in knots trying to derive a Christian moral from this story. Well, there is no Christian moral. In fact, quite the opposite.

What do we do as Christians who live in this world in which this unjust money stuff holds such great sway? The temptation is to shy away from it, to wash our hands, to have nothing to do with it. But Jesus has something different to say. We find his response in verses 9-13. You have in front of you the NRSV translation. I am afraid it captures what Jesus is saying very poorly. The NRSV has, for verse 9, “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”. I want to make some observations about this verse.

To start with, this verse is not, as it appears, a “moral of the story”. It does not sum up what has gone before with a helpful platitude. No, it stands in contrast to the worldly story which Jesus has told about the dishonest manager and his master. It is not “and I tell you…”, but “now, I tell you…”. And Jesus goes on to pick up some of the themes of the worldly story and subvert them. The dishonest manager made friends for himself, if you can call them friends, for the express purpose of serving himself in this age. Jesus says to make friends – true friends – for the purpose of building community in God’s eternal age to come.

The dishonest manager sees money as a game to play. He has no concept of justice or of truth. Jesus, contrastingly, calls money “unjust mammon” (the NRSV translation soft-pedals it as “dishonest wealth”). And Jesus says that while unjust mammon is the stuff of this age, there is an age coming when it will no longer exist. And, yes, sigh, the translation, once again, fails us: “when it is gone”. No: “when the system of unjust mammon is abolished”, “when it fails”, “when it passes away”. In the age to come, the time of money will have passed.

Which brings us to the final contrast. The dishonest manager’s eyes are entirely on this age – what will happen when he is dismissed from his post. He plays the game of this age with the unjust money of this age, as though this is the only way it will ever be. Jesus looks to the coming age. The unjust manager makes fair-weather-friends so he might have a place to live for just himself now. Jesus wants as many people as possible come into his kingdom. He says to make true, abiding, friends so that they might have an eternal home.

I hope you begin to see, now, what verse 9 is saying. It says that while we live in this age of unjust mammon, we need allow ourselves to get our hands dirty. There is work to be done and, to some degree, we have to play by the rules of the system of this age. We need to interact with unjust mammon. We cannot just stand on the sidelines wringing our hands. But we are not to play the game the way the manager and the master do. Our job is to subvert the system. Our focus must be on the coming age. We must uphold truth and justice. Our target, in the end, is to take with us into the eternal age as many people as we possibly can.

This is what the people in the time of Amos got wrong. They heeded the first part of the advice, to get their hands dirty, to play the game. But they forgot the second: that we need to follow not just the rules of the game, but also God’s laws of truth and justice. Jesus goes on to lay this out quite clearly in verses 10-13. We must be trustworthy with profane worldly wealth. If we cannot be trusted with that, how could God ever trust us with true riches? And, beyond all, as we get our hands dirty, remember: we serve God. The people in the time of Amos began to serve the system, to serve money, mammon. Jesus says you cannot do that while also serving God.

Well, that’s a lot to take in. Let me give one practical example to help illustrate the point. Some years ago I was on the PCC of a church which needed a large amount of money for a building project. One possible source of funding was the national lottery. We, as a PCC, were uniformly agreed that the lottery is evil. It is founded on the principle of greed. It is a system that makes a few lucky people fabulously rich at the cost of the vast majority whom it slowly impoverishes week by week. And, perhaps most insidiously, it seduces people by claiming that money, not people, is where true value is to be found. By accepting lottery funding, we as a PCC felt we would be tacitly supporting this system. So we decided not to apply.

Set against this, I know of other PCCs which have agreed just as strongly that the lottery is evil, but who have applied for lottery funding. They took the view that the unjust mammon from the lottery could be redeemed by God. That the net benefit, in terms of proclaiming the kingdom, of winning people to God, would outweigh the downsides.

In both cases, the PCCs in question were quite well aware of the need to get involved with unjust mammon. Both were willing to get their hands dirty. Both prayed and reasoned in the light of God’s coming kingdom. Neither was enslaved by money – God came first. As it happened, they reached different conclusions. But in both cases money was involved and friends are being won for the eternal age to come.

Money dehumanises. The money system knows nothing of truth and justice. It is just a game and we have no choice but to be part of this game. But Jesus tells us we must play the game as servants of God, with an eye on what God is doing in the world, with an eye on God’s perfect age to come. We must play the game, but be very sure that you play it in a way that builds God’s kingdom.

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