Sermon on Luke 16:1-13 & Amos 8:4–7
Sunday September 22, 2013
Shrewdness is often an honored virtue.
When I was a kid, I met a whole bunch of adults who thought that if they could get away with something – if they were smart of enough to think of it or hear of it from someone else and finds it useful - then it was just fine. In the great struggle to make it in the world, if one could get away with something, if the risk was low and the benefit meaningfully high, then that was enough. It served the bottom line and the greater good of the family balance sheet.
And so wet bunches of newspapers were wrapped inside dry bundles before they were brought to the recycling center for weighing and payout. Electrical meters were turned to run backwards. And in the early days before cable signals were scrambled you could buy an inexpensive box from a friend of a friend and have all the free cable you wanted. Even the premium channels. Screw HBO and Showtime, right? It was all free, baby.
We kids, playing in this yard or that one, noticed such things, but never spoke of them. These none-of-our business things. These mind-your-own business-things.
Then in one high school social studies class it came out in the open, no longer whispered. A guest came in to share with the class how he and his wife had started a church and they were the church and all of their income became church income and how the church then paid them, absolving them under those early 1980’s laws from having to pay any income tax (these laws are no longer in effect, the loophole closed, so do not try this at home, people). The presenter smiled at his own shrewdness. He had found a loophole and it had saved him and his wife real money.
The manager in our parable today was certainly shrewd, charges being brought against him, allegations of impropriety, a negative judgment on his service declared valid by his boss, and a pink slip pending. So what was the manager to do? He reached deep inside himself for every ounce of shrewdness that he possessed and began to curry favor with those who did business with his boss. He cut their debts, figuring that one favor deserved another – that they would remember him in the future as the guy who saved them some serious bucks. Maybe they would welcome him into the homes when he needed a place to stay. Maybe they would open their wallets and slide him a few dollars in gratitude. Maybe they would offer him a job, trust him with their books as shrewd as he was – who knows?
And Jesus’ commentary on the story points us to ponder which god we will serve with the whole of our heart, mind, soul, and strength: money or the God of all creation. Will our legacy be the pursuit of wealth or embodiment of selfless love, the way of the cross, the way of Jesus?
A group of scouting fathers standing around while their sons work on merit badges a distance away, the men talking about this and that, their weeks. What they were up to. One father offered how happy he was on the deal that he just made, a house purchase. It went something like this:
“She had to sell, you see, divorce. And I knew this – she told me. Can you believe she told me that? So I made an offer much lower than the one that she wanted. She countered, but I knew I had her. I stood firm knowing that she had a week or two to unload the house and I ended up saving like 50 grand. That was a sweet deal.”
The men grunted their assent, a few backslaps, the usual stuff, me trying not to let my disgust at his gloating show on my face, wondering if I should challenge the general feeling of a shrewd job well done. I have told the story before but it bears repeating because I believe it is typical of the dilemmas we face. Dilemmas that demand that we choose, to act or to not act.
I know this sounds black and white, while our lives and the decisions that we face come at us fast and with layer upon layer of complication and fraught with moral ambiguity. What then are we to do? How are we to let our faith guide us?
Paired with our gospel this morning is a powerful text from Amos 8, in which the Israelites are declared to be exploiting their own people; the rich taking advantage of the poor, the powerful over the powerless. As we try to navigate the complexities of God and money, of having a shrewd faith or just being plain shrewd for our own sakes, the scriptures provide us with the yardstick of justice to assist us. Not just any justice, but God’s justice.
The images from Amos paint this picture starkly: The righteous being sold for silver; the needy being sold for a pair of sandals. Institutions arrayed against the poor, cheating them time and time again, extending and deepening their poverty. Those Israelites of means were only doing what the law allowed them to do, weren’t they? Doing what the power of their relative wealth gave them the opportunity to do? They saw the opportunity to take advantage of the poor who were forced to take loans to pay for land and crops and who fell into debt when those crops failed due to famine and the like. As they say, it was just business. But by the measure of God’s justice repeated over and over again by the prophets, business is not just business and never will be. The choices we make that provide advantage to ourselves, our shrewdness in life and in business, must always be measured against God’s justice embodied in Jesus’ call to us to show our love for God in loving the other, especially the most vulnerable. To be as shrewd in our dealings for the sake of the other as we are in our dealings for ourselves, if not more so.
As people of faith then, we need to educate ourselves about God’s justice so that we may more faithfully live it out in our lives. Our community’s participation in BOLD Justice along with 15 other congregations and synagogues provides one such opportunity -and I invite you to take advantage of it through participation in house meetings this week either by attending today’s meeting with Janean Baumal at 12:15PM or the meeting with Ron McCoy on Wednesday that will take place in his home.
But regardless, as we try to navigate the complexities of God and money, of having a shrewd faith or just being plain shrewd for our own sakes, the scriptures provide us with the yardstick of justice to assist us. Not just any justice, but God’s justice.