Sunday, September 19, 2010

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 25
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

In a commentary about the book of Amos, James Luther Mays writes, “The rise of urban culture under the monarchy led to the development of commerce and an economic upper class. As more and more small farmers were pressed off their land and forced to shift to service and labor, their dependence upon the market became acute. The urban merchants appear to have monopolized the market; they were able to sell to landless peasants at a high price. They had the resources for stockpiling grain, and in a time of poor crops were in a position to control the economy completely.”

As I read this commentary, I thought to myself, “Bigger is not necessarily better.” In every area of life, we can see the disadvantages of a growing organization. Oh, yes, there are advantages, too. But sometimes those advantages are far outweighed by the disadvantages.

I was scanning through the channels on the television and found a new show on one of the food channels about a cupcake business. They had begun with just one shop, but eventually grew out of one location. It is impossible for one person, or even two, to run multiple locations, so they had to hire managers. The girls complained that the growth meant that they had to stop doing the things they loved to do the things that were necessary. I didn’t watch the whole show, but as I switched channels, they were seeking advice from another entrepreneur who had dealt with similar problems. The key to their happiness and success was in finding the balance between doing what they love and doing what needed to be done.

The problem is, the bigger we get, the harder it is to keep that balance. We have to let go of the control and give the responsibility to others. In large families, Mom has to give some responsibility to the older children. In large corporations, levels of management are required to take care of every aspect of the business. In larger congregations, it is necessary to hire more staff, including separate ministers in charge of the different areas of ministry. This isn’t good or bad, but it comes with its own set of challenges.

A chef opens a restaurant, which becomes very popular in the town. They can’t keep up with the people who want to eat there, often turning people away because the crowds are too large. So, the chef opens a satellite restaurant, serving the same food and ambiance. He hires a chef and teaches him how to prepare his recipes, and hires a manager to give the customers the same service. As he continues to be successful, he opens new stores and hires more people; eventually the one store becomes a chain.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I go to chain restaurants, I go because I know the food and service will be consistent. I know I’ll be able to get my favorite dish and that it will satisfy me the way it satisfied me every other time I ate it. I know that the menu will be the same if I go in Texas, or in Pennsylvania, or in California. There may be a few regional variations, but I’m sure to be happy with the choices because I know every store is run by the same model. We go to that restaurant because we’ve seen the ad on the television and we want that sizzling dish exactly as they promised it would be.

But at what point does that first chef lose touch with his business. He has to hire directors to hire the rest of the employees. When do they stop hiring chefs and start hiring cooks who can prepare the food exactly according to the recipe? When do they begin hiring those four hundred pound store managers who fire waitresses because they don’t look perfect in a pair of shorts two sizes too small or who forces the waitresses to play games to earn the right to go home at the end of the night?

Not only does the owner lose touch with the people who work for him, but they lose touch with him. On the television show “Undercover Boss,” we see how distant the leaders of a large corporation can become. I was always surprised at how the people could not recognize the boss with his silly ‘disguise.’ I would hope that it would take more than a haircut and a change of clothes to make someone I know become unrecognizable. But that’s the point: the employees don’t know the boss because he is ensconced in a big office in a city far away. On the show with the CEO of Hooters, Coby Brooks was shocked to see his manger humiliating the waitresses. That’s not the way it was meant to be, and he made changes to the way he does business to be more hands-on and in control. Hopefully it won’t happen again, but it probably will because it is not always better to be bigger.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who leaves his business in the hands of a manager. It is pretty clear from the story that the rich man did not care about how the business was handled, as long as his accounts were correct. It seems as though it wouldn’t matter to him if the manager ensured his own wealth, as long as it didn’t affect the bottom line. However, he had heard rumors that there was a problem. He called the manager and ordered him to give an accounting of the business.

The manager knew he had to do something; he was out of a job anyway so he decided to get in good standing with the community. He used the resources available to make friends for his future. He knew that he would be unable to support himself without a job, so he did what was necessary. He cut the debts and hoped that the people would feel a new debt to him when it was all over. He reduced the debts to make payment more manageable: a debt of a hundred jugs of oil was reduced to fifty, a hundred containers of wheat became eighty. Notice that the debt reduction is not equal, he seems to ask for as much as the debtor can pay. He shrewdly made decisions that benefited all parties: the debtor, the manager and the rich man. In the end the manager made a good accounting before the rich man, the rumors were put to rest and the rich man commended the manager for his shrewdness.

But this story doesn’t make sense to us. I’ve seen several pastors ask the question, “Why does Jesus tell us this story? What does it mean for us?” It doesn’t make sense because the manager’s shrewdness seems dishonest. We are troubled that the manager would get away with it. Why is he commended? I think verse nine is probably the most troubling of all. Luke writes, “Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles.” Is Jesus really telling us that if we use our wealth to make friends, we’ll earn a place in heaven?

The problem with our questions is that we assume Jesus is telling us to earn the wealth dishonestly. But in reality, we see the master commending the manager for compensating those he had cheated by using his own wealth to make everything right. In the process, the man restored his relationship with the master and the community. The dishonesty in this story is not what the man did to escape the wrath of the master, but what he did before he repented. His act of repentance might have been poorly motivated by fear instead of remorse, but in the end he took his unrighteous wealth and made it right.

So, in this passage, Jesus is asking us to look at the wealth we have: how did we come by it? Did we do what was right or what was wrong? If we did what was wrong, how will we make it right? What will we do to restore the relationships we have with our master and our community that have been broken by our dishonest pursuit of wealth?

The Greek word used in this passage for “dishonest” can also be translated “unrighteous.” Unrighteousness is about broken relationships, about being in ‘un-right’ in one’s associations. The manager was not right in this relationship with the rich man, and not right in his relationship with the people. Unrighteousness means that we are not right in our relationship with God, but we also have other relationships in which things are “not right.” Dishonest pursuit of wealth might not just manifest as thievery. When we are lazy, we are “not right” with our boss. When we are incompetent, we are “not right” with our customers. When we are greedy, we are “not right” with the owners. Any wealth that comes from doing our job poorly is dishonest wealth.

It is so easy for us to look at the rich man with disdain because he is rich. Yet, this is not a parable about rich verses poor. It is a parable about doing our work well. We aren’t taught that we should take away the wealth of the rich and give it to the poor, but that we should do our work in a way that is good and right and true, because when we work faithfully with our gifts and resources, everyone will be blessed. That is what Amos is calling for us to do. As the world in which we live gets bigger, the opportunities to lose touch with our neighbors is greater. We also lose sight of the God who has given us the gifts and resources to use in the world.

It is so easy for us to go the wrong way, especially when get lost in something that has grown too big for its own good. Would Coby Brooks have ever discovered that one manager was humiliating the waitresses if he hadn’t gone on the show “Undercover Boss”? Would the rich man have ever discovered the problem if he hadn’t heard the charges against the manager? We fail to do what is right when we lose touch with the boss and with the community.

That’s why Paul encourages us to pray for those in power. They, of all people, have the best opportunity to abuse the gifts and resources they have been given. They, of all people, are more likely to earth unrighteous mammon, especially when they are lost in an organization that has gotten too big. Paul also reminds us that no matter how many rulers we have over us—whether it is a boss, a politician, a pastor—there is only One who is truly in charge. And when we keep our focus on Him, we are more likely to stay in good relationships with everyone else. So our prayers, for ourselves and our leaders, should be that they see God in all their resources, opportunities and those who are less, so that they will always do what is right.

We aren’t right with God or with one another. We are unrighteous people doing dishonest things with unrighteous mammon. We have never been very good stewards of the resources that God has given to us. We are wasteful, greedy and dishonest. We fail at using those resources in a way that will build up the kingdom and take care of the needs of those who do not have enough. We are so much like that unrighteous manager and God calls us to account. How will we make use of our resources to heal broken relationships? We are put in charge of earthly wealth for a time. Will we use that wealth in a way that makes us right with one another?

Will we pray like the psalmist, praising God for His mercy and grace and keeping Him in His rightful place? He is above all rulers, all hierarchies, all bureaucracies, no matter how big they become. He sees our work, and how we go about doing our work, and He calls us to task when we do not do it rightly. He shows when our wealth is dishonest and calls us to use it to do what is right, restoring all relationships, including the one we have with Him.

We find it difficult to understand how Jesus could use the parable of the unrighteous steward. There are so many lessons we could learn, but many of them seem contrary to what we expect Jesus to teach. It seems wrong for Jesus to encourage the type of behavior we hear about in the parable; the manager was dishonest in his dealing with the people and the rich man gave him a pat on the back for doing what seems so wrong. Yet there is so much about God’s kingdom that is a mystery to us. The psalmist asks, “Who is like Jehovah?” There is none like Him.

He is a knowable God who has been revealed throughout the ages, but in this age came to dwell amongst us. Yet, even to us who live by faith He is still a mystery. God is the Creator of heaven and earth. He is the Deliverer who brought His people out of slavery in Egypt. He is the Redeemer who set His people free from the burden of their sin. He is as living and active in our world today as He was in the beginning when He brought light out of darkness and order out of chaos. He still creates and recreates the world, guiding His people in His ways and gifting us with all we need to join Him in the work of creation and redemption. That is the greatest mystery. Why would the Creator, Deliverer and Redeemer of the world give authority and power to people like you and I to help with His work in the world. We who have so often squandered the resources He has so graciously given have been chosen to share God’s grace with the world.

And so, it is up to us to keep everything in its right place. Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” The final, but perhaps most important question we ask ourselves is, “Which is most important: God or mammon?” When the answer is mammon, we might prosper, but we’ll destroy our relationships with God and our community in the process. When the answer is God, we’ll do our work well and hear the commendation of our own Master, who will be pleased to entrust us with the true riches.

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