a sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 20C – Lectionary 25]
Luke 16:1-13 and Amos 8:4-7
The stakes of the game are clear from the beginning, and they are addictively intriguing. Even though about a twenty or so people start off on the island, or in the jungle, or marooned in some location far from civilization—but with plenty of television cameras and host Jeff Propst—only one of them will be able to go home with the prize money of one million dollars. They compete in several different challenges and games, sometimes for food and other privileges, but sometimes for something called “immunity,” which means they will not be eligible at the tribal council to receive the fate everyone is trying to avoid: to be “voted off the island.”
I haven’t watched the game show in years, but “Survivor” on CBS is now in its 38th season. The first time it aired I was in seminary, and a group of us would gather around the TV the night it came on. We’d all have our favorite contestants by the second episode, the people we were rooting to win it all. And usually by the second episode you could also see the rapscallions emerge, the double-crossers, the ones who would act one way in front of the whole group and then confess their crafty strategy on camera. Those were the ones who would gain ground against all odds. You didn’t ever really like those contestants, but you had to hand it to them. The stakes, after all, were clear from the beginning. It wasn’t about going home with the most friends. It was about going home with the most money. Every once in a while someone whose motives are always pure and self-sacrificing wins the money. But more often than not, the winner is someone who is, well, let’s say a little shady. I remember the first season came down to two finalists who were called “a snake and a rat” by some of their co-competitors.
At one point in his ministry Jesus tells a story about a survivor who is, by almost all accounts, a snake or a rat. He is a manager of a rich man’s property and has been accused of misspending the rich man’s money. The stakes are clear from the beginning: he’s fired and he’s going to be turned out with nowhere to go. He doesn’t want to get stuck digging for a living, which was considered the hardest labor in ancient times, and he definitely has too much pride to beg.
So he devises a plan. It’s a long-shot attempt at immunity. Since for whatever reason he still has all the books and ledgers, he goes to people who owe the rich man money and starts slashing their debts. One by one he does this. He doesn’t care that his master is going to lose money. Remember, this guy’s a rat. All this dishonest manager cares about is his own hide. When he finally hands the ledgers and accounts back into his master, the dishonest manager becomes the unlikely hero. His boss, the rich man, rolls back in his leather wingback chair, props his feet up on the desk, throws back his head in laughter and says, “I’ve got to hand it to you! You know how to play the game!” You see, the manager formed a good alliance. All of those people who now owe less money to the rich man will be obliged to take the manager into their homes, maybe give him a job!
The story might seem a little strange to us because it describes a world and an economy a bit different from our own. But here’s the bottom line: the dishonest manager knew what was at stake—his livelihood—and he came up with clever steps to ensure it. By putting himself, even with the little power he had at his disposal, in the favor of a whole bunch of people in the community, he was now guaranteed to avoid digging and begging. He was a survivor.
Jesus does not typically tell parables where a rascal, a swindler, is the hero, but then again, we a lot of us like Survivor, don’t we? It’s in its 38th season. We clearly have an appetite for these characters. We admire those who can think quickly, who can see what’s at stake, position themselves to get ahead, and land on their feet. There is a bit of behavior here that Jesus wants his followers to imitate. Not the conniving, not the dishonesty, so much, but cleverness, the ingenuity, the grit. Jesus looks at the world and sees what we often do: people can be so laser-focused on getting ahead, excellent at arranging things to their own benefit, especially when money is involved. They quickly take stock of their own needs and get the world to revolve around them.
Jesus wants the same cleverness, ingenuity, and grit among his disciples but with a key twist: they should be focused on bearing Christ’s light, on advancing the kingdom. Like a shrewd “Survivor” contestant, the disciples should quickly assess what sacrifices are required in any given circumstance and readjust in order to get the world to revolve around Jesus. It shocks us a bit, but what Jesus is doing is piggybacking on one of the best motivators human beings have: the desire to get money. It’s like he says: “The same ingenuity that can fuel your greed—let it fuel your grace to others.”
Of course, the problem is that the force of greed is strong. Wealth, in and of itself, is not inherently bad, but it can become an idol just like anything else can. We can hear in the words of the prophet Amos, who speaks to Israel in the seventh century before Christ, what things look like when greed and love of money run amok in a society. The health of the community is in shambles. People fiddle with the exchange rates and tip scales in their favor. They think of time chiefly in terms of opportunities to make a buck. Those at the bottom of society really lose out. They just seem like property to everyone else, or they feel like interest rates in a system designed to keep them down.
I was listening to one of the gentlemen at one of the men’s lunch groups this week talk about the low-level tension that always existed in his small prairie hometown between the farmers and the grain elevator operators. The farmers brought their crops in to store in order to get paid for their work, but were at the mercy of the elevator operator as to what the scales said they should get paid. Another gentleman said that cattlemen would make sure their livestock had full bellies of water whenever they came into the slaughterhouse. That was just in a small town. Imagine that kind of behavior on a national scale.
God gives us wealth and property as tools for helping our neighbor, for building and enhancing relationships with one another, and yet it can so easily become something we worship. and that breaks down community. Jesus thinks: if only the church could be as clever as money worshippers are in how it spreads the message of the gospel…if only the church could be so crafty in how it goes about advancing the kingdom’s goals of love, justice, compassion, healing, then community here, there and everywhere would be built up.
I can’t help but think of that young man who stood in the background of College Game Day on ESPN last week with a sign that asked for someone to send him some beer money. He actually put his Venmo account on the poster, which was made very simply with a black Sharpie. People watching the broadcast saw his sign and actually wired him money—way more than he needed to buy a case of beer. Very quickly he decided to use all the extra money (after buying one case of Busch Light) as a donation to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. By the end of the week, both Busch Brewing and Venmo had noticed the story, along with thousands of others, and they decided to chip in some funds too. At this point donations to the Children’s Hospital from his one handwritten beer sign total more than $300,000.
I’m watching the documentary on Netflix called “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.” It’s about how the multibillionaire software developer, Bill Gates, who at one time was one of the most maligned people in the world, has shifted his attention, along with his wife Melinda’s, to solving some of the public health problems in the poorest parts of the world. He is still the same focused, creative problem-solver he always was, but the object is different. Instead of amassing wealth through computer programming, he is sharing his wealth and ingenuity through the improvement of sanitation systems in slums, vaccines for children in developing nations, and the accessibility of AIDS medicine, just to name a few.
Some congregations in other states have figured out how to relieve the medical debt of fellow citizens they will never meet by raising money for a non-profit that purchases medical debt for pennies on the dollar.
And I think of the pioneers of the Virginia Synod who, almost 70 years ago, decided to snag a piece of old farm real estate at the end of an unpaved Monument Avenue to start a congregation that might grow right at the time when people would be moving by the droves into the West End and beyond. And I think of the people involved in that congregation’s ministries now and how they’re always thinking, always solving problems—how can we reach more through HHOPE and LAMB’s Basket, how can we get more free material to make quilts for Lutheran World Relief, how they can pull of a VBS when half of the building is under construction, and so on.
So many of those examples involve money, which is a powerful influencer, but the resourcefulness and cleverness Jesus calls us to really involves our whole lives. One does not need to be financially wealthy to become shrewd. God has blessed us each with immense gifts of time and talent, and we can use them to the glory of God or to the glory of something else. As American author David Foster Wallace once said, “There is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice is what to worship.” We can’t choose whether or not we want to donate our lives to something. We only get to choose who or what receives our donation.
God’s donation, of course, to the life of creation, in the life of you and me, is not a just financial one, either. The Father gives us his own Son—“Himself human—as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). The stakes are clear from the beginning. It’s about going home with all the friends, all the people. He is going to be a survivor, but first he is going to be a loser. He loses his life—his energy, his vision, his hopes—he loses it all—because he loves all the friends so much. He loves us so much he allows himself to get played, voted out, single-crossed all just to free us, to set us free from all the other gods who bind us so, the gods who will tie us down to death, including our own selves.
This is the truth, the force that lies at the center of all things: a Creator who gives himself up for his creation, a God who renews us everything with the gift of his own life. These, my friends, are the true riches, and they have been placed right in our hands. They have been placed right in our heart.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.