A sermon preached September 18, based on Luke 16:1-13.
"Know Your Limits" by Rev. Michael Precht
Well obviously, my point this morning is to win your heart to Christ with a lot of razzle dazzle. Go tell it on the mountain, everybody! You're gonna walk out of this place and blow up Facebook; you'll be grabbing strangers by the collar just to tell them - "You won't believe what you missed in church today - our preacher *brought it * with the 'parable of the middle management." Thank God, too, if I'd wanted to hear about demons or battles or second chances I'd've stayed home and watched Stranger Things, but whew, when Precht got to that part where the guy scratched out the commodities invoice, and then gave his client a 20% discount - That's when I'd made good choices for a Sunday. Oh! and then there was the moment when the boss said he was going to bring in an auditor... When Michael read that, you could tell he really meant it." Next week, I hear he's going to talk about Jeremiah 29:8 - "The Lord said give up on your dreams," the excitement just doesn't stop.
Actually, I don't know about you, but I find it kind of reassuring that Jesus is taking a moment to talk about the middle class. Jesus is always telling folks to "leave everything and come follow me;" the apostle Matthew left his tax collecting booth, Peter, Andrew, James, and John all left their fishing boats - it's kind of nice to get a parable where the hero is actually trying to *get* a job. That's a little more relatable for the rest of us. It's a nice change of pace from Jesus' usual characters, who are either "rich" or "poor." Not much room for the middle 33% with Jesus. Like the parable that follows this one - much more famous than today's parable, I might add - the "rich man and Lazarus." The rich man wears expensive suits every day and eats a five course dinner every night; Lazarus sits on the streets outside the guy's gated community, and every day dogs come to Lazarus to lick his sores. Lazarus goes to heaven, the rich man goes to hell - I'm thinking this is why the Catholics invented purgatory. "Jesus, what can I get if instead of a suit, I wear a clean shirt 5 days a week, and instead of dogs, I have enough money to buy bandaids?"
I don't think I'm crazy for thinking that this is what most of us want - a nice, wide middle way to Jesus. Every so often, someone - usually somebody in their twenties - wants to talk to me about their career choices. They're trying to choose between majors, or figure out where to apply for a first job. And I've learned that when someone wants to ask a preacher for career advice, they will always apologize when they mention money... "It's not all about the money..." they say. Or, even better, "there's nothing wrong with making good money is there?" They wouldn't ask if they weren't pretty sure of the answer, but still there's trepidation in their eyes. They know their own limits - surely Jesus won't ask them to something they're not ready for. I understand, and I sympathize so I let them off easy. "Of course there's nothing wrong with making more money. Money itself isn't good or evil; it's what you do with it. So take the better salary, and give the difference to the church."
I am beyond sympathetic with the manager in Jesus' story today. I straight up love this guy. This fellow is no idealist, walking around telling folks it's not about the money. This is a guy who knows the score. And this is a guy who knows his own limits; the pink slip is coming tomorrow and he knows exactly where he stands: "i'm too weak to dig and too proud to beg." I love that! Most of us walk around pretty sure that we could do everybody else's job better than they do. A cashier at McDonald's charges us for a large fry instead of a medium in the computer, and we're like "What's their problem?" Meanwhile, we just made the third pocket dial of the day. I walk around a cough for two weeks because, I know there's nothing a doctor can do about it. But once it becomes full-blown pneumonia, I submit to a prescription and two days later I'm well. This guy, though, the manager knows. "i'm too weak to dig and too proud to beg." He knows his own limits, he knows full well there's some stuff he can't do.
For some of us, that's the appeal of money. Money can be so many things that its power seems almost limitless. We all know the saying "time is money" and in a very real sense that is true. Some of us want to spend our money on anything that would save us just a bit of time each day. For others of us, money is security - we only want enough to know that we'll be ok if the worst happens. For some of us, money is laughter and fun and memories with our friends - and if you don't believe me you should go check out Taylor Swift's instagram account. Money can mean freedom or status, it can mean comfort or our basic needs. It can buy gifts to delight the people we love and it can get them through a difficult time. It can buy life and health from a doctor or a gym. Everyone with half a soul knows that money isn't everything, but most of us don't want to have everything.
No wonder that wealth is the second-most common topic Jesus discusses in the gospels. He mentions it more often than sin or forgiveness, more often than sex and marriage, more often than love or prayer or what happens when we die. Jesus continually challenged his hearers to think about their relationship with money. Jesus understood that money has tremendous power, and the real question is does that power belong to us, or do we belong to it?
Sometimes when I tell this parable, people want to know "So who's the good guy in this one?" Is it the manager, or his boss. The truth is neither of them are the hero here. The hero of this story is Jesus, and what Jesus is saying is look! Even the people of the world know that they need a right relationship to money. The dishonest manager could have fretted; he could have hoarded; he could have made his money his idol. but instead he put it to work. Bible scholars read this story and they disagree over how the manager put the money to work. When he re-wrote all of those debts, was he paying part of the debt himself or was he taking money out of his employer's pocket one last time. Lots of folks make great arguments on either side, but I don't know how much it really matters. The point, as I see it, is that in the end both the manager and the boss say it was a pretty smart move. They both understand the the power of money can serve a more powerful purpose - namely, to win the favor of our neighbors. Whether the money comes from the manger, or the boss, they both understand that it's powerful, but it isn't every thing.
In the ancient Jewish understanding of things, the world was full of powers and those powers are at work on and in every person. Most translations these days say “a person cannot serve God and wealth.” But some of you will remember that older translations like the King James leave a funny word in there instead of "wealth", and they put a capital letter on the front of it. In those translations, the choice is between serving God and _ Mammon_. Mammon is not an English word. Why don’t translators just do their job and say “Man cannot serve both God and money”? Because Jesus was talking like an ancient Jew. He is personifying money as a power; Mammon is a spiritual force or authority at work in the world. Today when we hear people on the news talking about “the market” as this invisible force that decides our fate, we get the same feeling. We might say that “the market” possesses our culture. And the desire to consume things for ourselves, the desires that drive the market, can possess us just as easily.
Some of you might be from a generation old enough to remember when folks talked about "the money power." Abraham Lincoln once said "The money power preys upon the nation in times of peace and conspires against it in times of adversity. It is more despotic than monarchy, more insolent than autocracy, and more selfish than bureaucracy."
And so, Jesus says. Put your money to work, don't let it work you over. Know your limits, and limit it's power to control your life. Generosity is about setting the limits of the power money has on us.
We all know that credit cards are incredibly powerful, they can put great power to work for us, or they can become a power that works us over. This week, a bank in Arizona found that a simple rule helped limit the power credit has over their customers. For six months the bank sent twice monthly reminders to some of their customers, each reminder carried the same message: "Don't swipe the small stuff. Pay cash for anything under $20." Just by sending out that reminder, the bank managed to help their customers reduce their monthly credit card bill by an average of $50.
The people of Israel had their own rule of thumb for limiting money's power over them. They called it their first fruits. When the harvest came, the people would take the first 10% of everything they harvested and they would give it to the temple, for the use of those who worked there and all who would come there in need of aid. In our own church, we carry out that same discipline. Whenever someone commits to join this church, they pledge to support the church with their gifts - and I tell all of our new members that our goal is to grow in our giving so that every member is giving a tenth of their income - which is called a "tithe." We don't tithe out of fear of disappointing God or because we think 10% is good enough. We tithe for the same reason that even friendly nations have borders - the tithe is our way of saying to money, "your power in this relationship only goes this far." It's our way of saying - here's the limit.
And, in the mystery of grace, when we know the limits of money's power, we unleash it greatest power. When we realize that all of us are just manager's of God's gifts, we discover that God's power is putting all the powers of this world in order. Notre Dame's Science of Generosity Initiative just conducted the largest, most comprehensive survey ever of American giving habits, and researchers discovered lower depression rates among those who donate more than 10 percent of their income (41 percent say they rarely or never experience depression versus 32 percent for everyone else.), and they are much more likely to be in excellent physical health (48 percent) than those who are not (31 percent).
It's not only about us; it's about our relationships, too. Those who give also exhibit greater hospitality and emotional availability to other people, and I'm not guaranteeing a return, I'm saying it gives you your best shot.
And it's not just being generous that makes a difference. Even merely observing acts of generosity improves your health. One of the Notre Dame studies observed a phenomenon they called "the Mother Theresa Effect," when observing increased immunoglobin levels - those chemicals which boost our immune system - in those participants who simply watched videos of Mother Theresa helping others.
Clearly, being generous helps the recipient, the giver, and even those around them. It unleashes power in us and around us. And we discover, that there really is nothing more rewarding, more exciting, than to be a manager of the power and grace that God is pouring out on the world.