“A Rock and a Hard Place”

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In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

“What will I do?”

“What will I do?” asks the manager in the story Jesus told that we heard in today’s Second Lesson.

The manager is in trouble. The rich man he is working for has accused him of doing a bad job; the wealth he is supposed to be looking after is being wasted.

So the manager is petrified that he will get fired. He wouldn’t know what to do without this work; as he says, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” A laboring job is too hard for him physically. His pride keeps him from sponging off of others.

Yet the agent also knows that he’s not very good at what he’s doing! He’s never going to make money for his boss.

So what does he do? Unbeknownst to his boss, he decides to reduce the debts that various people owe to his master. As I read the text, because of this tricky and unethical maneuver, the clients will save on the loans they have to pay off. As a result, in the future, the manager can count on these clients to give him some money if he needs it when he is finally fired by his dissatisfied boss!

Scholars have puzzled over this story. I got an email from a hedge fund manager this week who asked if the lesson meant he was going to hell! It’s complicated, unlike most of the parables of Jesus that bear a single, simple message. And the “hero” of the story is obviously dishonest.

But Christ doesn’t tell this story to cast the manager as a role model. Instead, he suggests that a certain amount of craftiness is needed if we’re going to survive in a risky and imperfect world. As Jesus said in another place, Christians have to be “as wise as serpents.”

You will notice, however, that the second part of the lesson seems to go off in a different direction. In this section, Jesus repeats a warning he often made about the dangers of wealth. The implication here is that serving riches in any form is a problem for all of Christ’s followers—not just for those who happen to be incompetent at their jobs!

Yet the two parts of the lesson can usefully be considered together. They are aspects of Christ’s theory about how we approach the material world.

Basic to the theory is the recognition that we need food, we need clothes, we need physical shelters to live and sleep in. But our dependence on the physical world is so all-encompassing that we often find it hard to sort out what exactly our relationship to that world should be.

Think of two kinds of addictions: alcoholism and eating disorders. A person who is addicted to alcohol can give up alcohol and thus be free of her problem. But a person who eats too much can’t give up food entirely. He still has to consume something in order to survive.

Possessions are like the second addiction to food. We can’t do without them. Unless we live in a very warm climate, for example, we need shoes. Yet we can still worry about how many shoes we really need?

I fear that I have too many pairs of shoes—basically because they look almost exactly alike (clergy black, of course!) I’m sure that I could make do with fewer pairs; I could certainly throw the old ones away!

I don’t think that there are deep psychological issues in play here—I didn’t grow up in a family where shoes were scarce!

But I’m sure that there are spiritual issues involved. I have stuff that I don’t need. I ought to think about discarding things that clutter my living spaces. And that process involves a re-ordering of priorities in my soul.

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, Jesus talked a lot about material goods because possessions can possess us as much as we possess them. We can’t live with money, and we can’t live without it!

After all, things are one of the main ways we interact with the world and as Jesus said, no one can serve two masters. If we are totally caught up in the realm of the physical, we will be unable to connect properly with the realm of the Spirit. In Christ’s words, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

But since we live in a physical world, we’ll always need possessions. Christ’s point really is, that we shouldn’t “serve” things.

And any kind of “serving,” too, is complicated. Another reason that our relationship with things is difficult is that we are prone to self-deception when it comes to what we own. We all know of wealthy people who accumulate expensive houses and cars and clothes just to impress others. If they say they “need” these things, they are kidding themselves.

But we can also kid ourselves even if we’re not wealthy. Careful consumers who try to live simply and minimize waste and damage to the environment can wind up as obsessed with material things as big spenders are! These careful consumers can devote large amounts of time looking for bargains or they can buy allegedly “green” objects that really aren’t environmentally friendly. Most troubling of all, these frugal souls can make themselves miserable and guilty!

Perhaps the first part of the parable is relevant here. Maybe like the dishonest manager we need to be crafty – spiritually crafty.

In theory, I could do without some of the things that make my life more enjoyable. I could then give the money I didn’t spend on these things to an international relief organization. In that case, though, my life would be full of discomfort.

“What should I do?” asked the dishonest manager. Like him, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. We discover the perils of life in a world of compromise. And we need to make the best decisions we can when we serve God and when we spend money.

Pledge cards are going out in the mail this week to members and friends of Incarnation. As we reflect on our support of the parish in love, this is a good time to reflect on how we relate to the material world.

We can’t pretend that we are purely spiritual. Nor can we get by merely with good intentions.

The commitment of a portion of our money to God’s work was called in the Bible a “tithe.” “Tithe” is an old word for “tenth;” farmers in Israel were supposed to give a tenth of their crop to the poor. In England, centuries later, farmers sometimes were required by law to give a tenth of their harvest to their local clergyman.

This idea of giving a proportion of one’s income away not only provides operating funds for the good work of churches and charities. The practice also encourages us to look at how we spend the rest of our income—the other 90%.

Will we waste it? Will we try to spend more than we have? Will we hoard it fearfully?

Or will we see our use of the money God has given us as part of a positive strategy? Will we use what we have to be good stewards—to celebrate the material realm God has placed us in, the rich world he has made for us?

Amen.


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