"House Money"

Sunday sermon from September 22, 2013
Text: Luke 16:1-13
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

So it turns out there's nothing like a totally confounding, totally mystifying, utterly confusing parable to make me wish for the good old days of preaching through Genesis. We've returned to the lectionary, which deals us out a series of Luke's parables for a few weeks, of which this is undoubtedly the muddiest and the grimiest, and it's enough to send me on some flight of fancy, like you does if you drive past the house you used to own or wander through the school you transferred away from. You kinda wonder what things would've been like if you'd stayed. And so I find myself stealing furtive glances at Genesis, like searching for an old flame on Facebook. But you know what, by my count if we were still preaching Genesis, this Sunday we'd be squarely in the desperation of Sodom and Gomorrah. So maybe we should just stay here in Luke and stick it out.

The parable of the dishonest manager. Or the parable of the shrewd steward. It goes by both names, depending who you ask. A fabulously wealthy man finds out that his financial manager, the guy who runs his investments, has acted dishonestly, before the parable ever begins. We never get to find out what he's done. After being confronted, the manager begins to panic; after all, being a financial manager is all he really knows how to do, and his job comes with room and board, so if he loses it he will be out on the street without any of the physical or technical skills that could otherwise land him a new job. So, desperate for shelter, and as a hedge against this looming disaster, while he still speaks with the authority of his master's fortune, the manager goes door to door checking on the loans he had made as a function of his office. But rather than just check on the loans, he goes through town and, door by door, he slashes the value of each loan. You owed my master a hundred jugs of oil? Let's make it 50. A hundred containers of wheat? Let's make it eighty. And so on and so forth, until he had made so many new friends throughout the city that he no longer had reason to fear for being out on the street. Now, no matter if he did lose his job, he'd have somewhere to land.

The master's response is hard to figure out. Much to our surprise, he commands his steward for acting shrewdly, presumably because the amount of the reduced loan obligations was less valuable to him than the cleverness of his steward. Maybe our friend even got to keep his job; we don't know and we have no way of knowing. Without that final resolution it's hard to draw clear conclusions about the master's response. But that's nothing compared to the strangeness of Jesus's response, of the editorial comment that he appends to the end of the story. He says to the disciples, "I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they will welcome you into the eternal homes." What? I mean, what? I mean, could you run that one past me again? "I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they will welcome you into the eternal homes." So, I have some questions. Is this lying/clever/cleverly-lying manager the moral hero of the story? Is Jesus telling us to be dishonest? Is Jesus telling us to get our hands on some dirty money? And more than that: in a Gospel that puts such a premium on the needs of the poor and the outcast and the oppressed, is Jesus really telling us to take the dirty money of the world and just use it to make friends?

Let's try this again, this time in the twenty-first century. A few months ago The Washington Post reported a story about a young man named Jason Trigg. Jason is an MIT graduate in computer science and could be writing software almost anywhere in the world, but he's chosen to work in the technically-demanding world of high-frequency stock trading, what the Post calls a "hedge fund on steroids." Of course it's not that unusual that a young whiz kid would get drawn into the world of high-end finance; he's probably making more money there than he would be in almost anything else that would suit his set of skills. In fact that was entirely the point, but Jason Trigg is doing it for a very different cause. Sure, he still takes home a nice paycheck. But Jason chose the world of high finance so that he instead could give away as much of his salary as possible. It's very calculated: the more he makes, the more he can give. And what he gives is no less calculated than the money he earns. He's not randomly writing checks to whatever charitable cause shows up at his door. Instead, Trigg works with the Against Malaria Foundation, which estimates that every $2,500 they receive can in and of itself save a single life. That probably sounds cheap. It probably is. But for Trigg, it means that he's maximizing the value of his charitable giving. For some tens of thousands of dollars a year, pulled from the coffers of the most notorious kind of investment banking, Trigg is literally saving real countable human lives. He's getting the biggest ethical bang for his buck.

So, again, questions. Jason could have gone to work for some NGO or some 501c3 and done direct Malaria prevention work. I suppose the calculus would suggest that he's more valuable to them as a source of constant contribution than he would be as on-the-ground support. But then, at least his paycheck wouldn't be coming from a hedge fund. So is Jesus really telling us to get our hands on some dirty money? If the rich man in the parable is in fact lending out money with interest, which could potentially be a violation of Jewish Law - it gets complicated, quickly - then it's possible to read this parable and conclude that the steward is doing just that: he's taking the dishonest wealth held by his master in the form of these loans and, by reducing them, transferring that dishonest wealth to those in the community who can do some good with it. By this reading, the whole thing is like Robin Hood without the swordplay. But that implies that, for Luke, there's "dishonest wealth" and then there's the other kind, the kind you wouldn't steal, the kind you wouldn't pass under the table. Unfortunately the Greek word that Jesus uses here has a very particular thrust. It's actually an untranslated Hebrew word, the word Mammon. Dishonest mammon. Or in better translation, unjust Mammon. The problem is that for Israel all Mammon is unjust, as a very particular legacy of Jewish law that would exclude things like financial lending from happening within the temple. In a community largely based on bartering, with the expectation of temple sacrifice largely based on agriculture, money for its own sake, currency for its own sake, was viewed with extreme suspicion, and not allowed inside the temple. You remember Jesus pushing the money-lenders out later in the Gospel? It's the same value that underscores this parable: by Luke's logic, all Mammon is unjust because it's not welcome in the house of the Lord. So is Jesus really telling us to get our hands on some dirty money? Quite to the contrary: he's telling us that the money in our hands is dirty by its very existence, no matter the source.

But here's the thing. The money's not just dirty. It's temporary. "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they will welcome you into the eternal homes." I swear, this verse is like a kaleidoscope, and every time you turn it the pieces fall into a new light. When it's gone. Again, more translation: where Jesus says "the eternal homes" he doesn't use the Greek word for house, which is the word he used earlier in the parable when the steward was going door to door. Instead, he uses the word for tent. The word for tabernacle. It's the temple even before there was a temple. So this verse isn't about what happens when the money runs out; it's about what happens when we run out, when we are confronted with leaving the regular homes and regular houses of this regular life and crossing that threshold into the eternal temple of God and we can't take the dirty money with us. Time runs out before the money does. We run out before the money does. And so the moral judgment is not about whether or not we have dirty money on our hands but whether we can spend it while we still have it.

If you've ever wandered through an international airport you'll occasionally find those huge plastic tubs where you can leave behind your Pesos or your Rubles or your Euros, whatever small coins you have - presumably they weren't enough to buy a cup of coffee before takeoff. So instead, you drop your coins in the tub before you go, and some charity will compile them into something and some agency somewhere will get a check and maybe it will do some good. And of course you do it, because who wants to carry the spare change on the flight, and, frankly, because the alternative is that two weeks later you're standing in front of a vending machine and the quarter keeps not working and keeps not working until you realize that it's not a quarter and you're just trying to put a Euro coin in the slot over and over and the machine won't take it, of course, and it's frustrating on one hand because that Euro coin is absolutely worthless in your current quest to get a bag of Fritos and on the other hand because it's actually worth a heck of a lot more than a quarter and you could have done so much more with it if you had only spent it when you had the chance.

So we're playing with house money. All of it. The cash in your wallet. The money in your checking account. The nebulous market value of all the stuff we carry around. Even the investments we save and cultivate and build and plant, the stuff that our most elaborate dreams are made of. But even while we dream of a home beyond that threshold into tomorrow, this confounding text presents us with the deep conviction of the day at hand: we have to spend it while we have the chance. All of that money comes with its own little countdown, right there underneath the signature of the Secretary of the Treasury. If you look carefully, if you look faithfully, you can see it. It's counting down, day by day, and when it gets to zero, we run out.

So, then, what to buy with this money counting down in our pocket? Jason Trigg is paying $2500 for each human life he saves; think of the good we could do with just a checkbook and a sense of timing. But then every time you think this text has settled it keeps turning. "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they will welcome you into the eternal homes." It doesn't say "heal the ills of the world," but make friends for yourselves. My original question still lingers: why, in a Gospel so taken with concern for the poor and outcast, why are we spending our money on friends? And Luke's answer makes the claim of this text even yet more challenging. Because Luke's version of friendship takes quite a bit of putting yourself on the line. In Luke's Gospel, friends wake each other up in the middle of the night; friends take the lowest seat at the table; friendship doesn't just make everyone better off. It takes something. It takes sacrifice. It takes vulnerability. It takes relationship. It takes this steward going door-to-door and yes, cutting everyone a deal, but also standing in front of them and exposing his own mistakes and his own dishonesty. Friendship puts us in dangerous contact with one another. It breaks us down, it exposes us, it makes us vulnerable, but precisely so that it can build us back up as community, as a community of faith, as a community of justice, as a community of wholeness. It's not that Jesus has forgotten about the needs of the poor and the outcast. But in this verse he's not just out to save them. He's out to save us. He's out to call us into community. To call us into vulnerability. To remind us that the Christian life asks us to encounter the world not just with the expiring contents of our checkbooks but also with the everlasting contents of our hearts. We can always write checks. We should write checks. There's no theological justification for not writing checks. But with apologies to Top Gun, our bodies have to cash them.

So here's the outline of a dream. Or really the outline of an invitation. I'd like to invite us as a congregation to imagine all the things we could do with the resources slowly counting down in our pocket. Yes, I know, budgets are scarce; budgets are very often scarce, and the bottom line can be an anxious place to be. It will not always feel like we have the money to spend. But the reminder in this text is that the real limit on what we can do with the resources we have is not the amount of money left in the account but rather the amount of time left for all of us to dream and do together. We can't take it with us. So in the meantime, I invite you. I invite you beyond these walls, with the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, I invite you beyond these walls - we can go door to door if we have to - to discover what new friendships are there for the making. Are there, in the forgotten corners of this community, friends in need of another hot meal, of a newly stocked fridge, friends in need of a new way of sitting at table together, friends we haven't met just quite yet? Are there, bustling across the quad at Sweet Briar, friends in need of worship, friends in need of fellowship, friends in need of a new way of being in the presence of God together, friends we haven't met just yet? Are there, strung halfway across the globe, friends in need of justice, friends in need of liberation, friend in need of a new way of beholding the peace of Jesus Christ together, friends we haven't met just quite yet? I invite you to this open-ended dream, as I hope it bounces around the corners of this sanctuary and the corners of our hearts and minds as we begin to tell this chapter of the story of Amherst Presbyterian Church. And when that chapter is written, by time it is set in stone, my hope is that it will be the story not just of the way we changed the world with the money we spent, but rather about the way the world changed us. The way God changed us. The way the Holy Spirit changed us. The way we were transformed by all the friendships we haven't made just quite yet. That's the bottom line. Amen.