There was a time in my life when I went to a lot of movies. Not now. In the 1980’s and 90’s I went to a movie a month. Now I am lucky to get to one a year. I don’t think movies are getting worse. Rather, I just that I have less free time. Movies are great for preachers, they tell stories in powerful ways, stories that are not only compelling in terms of the people we meet in the movie and follow till the ending but what these lives and these stories tell us about our lives, others’ lives, the world around us. Often when I am trying to explain someone, a family, a community, a culture, the best I can do to describe them is to refer to a film or scene from a film or character in a film.
When I think about common narratives or themes in film there are a few that stand out as most popular. There is the classic “boy meets girl” (sadly even now most movies are about boys), then “boy loses girl”, and finally “girl and boy get back together”. The end. But another common theme is boy (again most movies are all about male characters) has plenty of relationships, enough resources, and a loving home BUT still he is not satisfied. He searches in the wrong places, places our world offers up as enticing and seductive; popularity, power and prestige, and ultimately gets the rush he is looking for. Having chased fame and fortune the lead character eventually gets what he wants. BUT having climbed the mountain the character discovers it is a lonely, empty and meaningless place.
Eventually after some miserable times the character meets some folks who have much less than he ever had. Yet these folks are happy, satisfied and grounded. In a relationship that is characterized by humility and openness the lead character grows, matures, and moves to a place of connection and learns what life is really all about. There is joy and the joy is deep.
If you think about the access point for the popularity, power and prestige, the most effective means to the temptation, it is clearly money. In all of those movies where the lead character is thrashing about looking for joy in all the wrong places it is money that fuels their desire. And there is no book in our Bible that has more to say about money than the Gospel of Luke, it’s not even close. The Gospel of Luke is filled with references and teachings about how the followers of Jesus are to regard money. Preacher and scholar Fred Craddock says, "Luke has used practically every literary vehicle available to him to put the subject before the reader: the song of Mary (1:46-55), the sermons of John the Baptist (3:10-14), the prophesy of Isaiah 61:1-2 (4:16-30), blessings and woes (6:20-25), and the parable of the rich fool (12:13-21)" Jesus is neither oblivious to wealth, or naïve about it, according to the gospel writer, Luke.
Verity A. Jones of Union Theological Seminary says of the text:
The concluding verse, "You cannot serve God and wealth," brings to mind several stereotypes about Christians and money. First, there is the vow of poverty taken by some men and women when they enter certain religious orders, including Pope Francis, a Jesuit priest. They promise to forgo monetary concerns and turn over their earnings in order to avoid the potentially corrupting effect of wealth accumulation. Another stereotype is similar: That Christians are overly naïve when they espouse an ethic of wealth equality such as that described in Acts 2. A redistribution of wealth is not possible, nor desirable, critics say. Both stereotypes about Christians and money assume that Christians are not, nor should be, shrewd with wealth. Despite all the potential ethical and practical pitfalls and dangers of wealth accumulation, Jesus is suggesting in this reading that it is possible to manage money in ways that can lead us into life with God. The key, the starting point for knowing how to do this, is to know the endpoint – to know what life with God is like. And if we use possessions to gain that life with God, Jesus may commend us, as he did the dishonest manager in the reading. Being shrewd, in this case, means using what we have for God's purposes, rather than squandering what we have for no gain at all.
Luke features several parables in which characters of relatively high status encounter a crisis. In every instance their help lies below them on the
Social-ladder. The anonymous Jew on the road to Jericho would seem to be superior to a Samaritan, but lying half-dead in the ditch he will accept any neighbour who passes by (10:25-37). The prodigal finds himself desperate enough to join the hired hands; his superior older brother cannot join the party until he reconciles himself to his scoundrel sibling (15:11-32). In this age the rich man ignores lowly Lazarus, but in the next world he would beg for Lazarus' help (16:19-31). These parables suggest a world in which status is fleeting, even dangerous. The manager, who once controlled the accounts of his master's debtors, must now hope for their hospitality.
Some have regarded the manager as a slave, but his plight rather suggests that he is a free person. When he loses his position, he is both free and compelled to find a new situation. We should understand that the manager is indeed being shrewd (or wise or prudent or astute), in that, knowing that he is incapable of earning or begging a living, he uses the time and resources at hand to ensure a social obligation. By reducing their indebtedness, the manager is making the debtors socially indebted to him, and therefore will be able to drop by for free meals.
Like this manager many of us here today are people of neither riches nor poverty. We find ourselves tempted by the Master’s wealth, power and prestige. We are not told what this manager did with the money he was given to manage, all we know is that it was squandered. We might speculate he blew the money trying to accumulate the resources of the wealthy Master. Many of us here can identify with that kind of envy.
Jean Vanier was a man of power, prestige and wealth. He was the son of a Governor General, a decorated veteran of the Second World War and a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Vanier did not mismanage funds but he did double-down on accumulating a star-studded career so that others would look up to him, put him on a pedestal, and think he was a wonderful and brilliant man. It did not work. There was an empty feeling deep in his soul. So he called on a friend, a Priest, to confess to his social climbing, desperate for the mountain of success. The Priest listened. Later the Priest called on Vanier with an offer. Would Vanier consider leaving his successful life behind and moving into a house with two profoundly physically and mentally challenged adults? Vanier wanted out of this rut, to find deep joy so he accepted. What Vanier learned quickly was that these two men who could not speak were not impressed or aware of who he was or what he could do. All these men wanted from Vanier was a connection and that connection would come on a basic human level, through eye contact, the tone of voice, the warm physical gesture. It took Vanier years to unlearn the temptations of his world. But Vanier never renounced completely what he had gained. He used his power, prestige and privilege to promote a new way of being, L’Arche. Through Vanier’s mammon, his treasure, his wealth, this movement grew and grew and grew.
I go back to Verity Jones of Union Seminary, what all of these Biblical characters have in common is a newfound solidarity with those of what was considered by the world to be a much lower social and monetary position. By observing people with little or no means and witnessing how they found happiness these “managers” became awakened to a new vision of life. Can we? Are we able to put aside pride and certainty and resist the temptations of popularity, power and prestige, of money as an end, not a means, and be the humans God made us to be?
Being shrewd requires knowing what rules your heart, knowing whom you serve, as Jesus suggests in verse 13. If you serve wealth for its own sake, you will fail. But if you serve God and shrewdly use what you have for God's purposes, you will enjoy the blessings of life with God.
And collectively we inhabit a Church that desperately clings to a status long gone, but cannot acknowledge the crisis that will require us to change. What would the "children of this age" do, were they in our place? Are we as a church able to put aside the temptation to go back to the days when this church was a place of status, when belonging to this church meant something in the community, when our pride in belonging had less to do with our mission and more to do with our size, our collective wealth, the majesty of our building? Can we not learn from other churches, with much less than us, who have found a way to be, to pray, to sing, to care for each other, to care for others, and not worry about our size, our wealth, our majesty?
We need to choose. We cannot serve God and wealth. As Bob Dylan once sang, “You gotta serve somebody”. Who do you serve, whom do we serve? It really does make all the difference. Amen.