Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
A friend of mine was a missionary for many years in various parts of Asia. One Sunday while on furlough she told a story about one particular country in which she had worked. The government had forbidden Christians from assembling; indeed, no citizens could have more than one other guest at their apartment at any time to preserve “order.” In defiance of political authorities, believers surreptitiously sought to get around the law; they were determined to meet together for fellowship, prayer, and worship.
Unfortunately, the local policeman saw the staggered comings and goings and figured out that they were gathering. At that point, my friend did what was socially expected in such circumstances: she paid the policeman a bribe. And as long as she kept paying, Christians kept gathering in this apartment for the sustenance they for which they longed and for which they risked severe punishment.
When my friend told this story in front of the congregation, she was a bit sheepish – even ashamed – that she had bowed to the dishonest system of payment and the black market economics common in much of the world. My friend Scott – trained by Jesuits with a PhD in philosophy (and the most likely of my Mennonite circle to be canonized if we ever decided to institute the practice) loudly and quickly retorted loudly before the entire congregation, “Ah, well, but what else is money for, really? Seems like a pretty good investment to me.”
I recalled that statement as I reflected on our texts for this week. The parable of the shrewd manager has flummoxed many, who become happily caught up in ethical dilemmas and in appalled shock (and implied self-congratulation?) at Jesus’ putative affirmation of dishonesty. My philosopher friend certainly has all the intellectual tools to make this parable about moral dilemmas, waxing eloquent about the need to balance goods, excusing her actions as necessary evil, or abstractly pondering when mammon becomes “unrighteous” or whether it is so in its very nature. However, being the Christian he is, Scott interpreted her action as we are encouraged to do by the prophets through the epistles. That is, he read it through the lens of God’s assured future. From this angle, money obviously must be placed at the service of making friends with God and with people, particularly God’s forgotten or neglected, for these alone are treasures that last and offer us life.
The focus of the parable lies in the only imperative Jesus offers in this section. “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” The shrewdness or practical wisdom Christ chides us to emulate insists that we creatively, fully engage in our lives now by investing in concrete ways in the economy and politics of the kingdom of God. Faced with the inevitability of YHWH’s determined friendship with humans made in his image, social barriers of race, gender, class no longer hold sway, for the companionship with God recognizes no such walls. If we truly seek wealth, security, and joy, we shun balanced portfolios and place the egg of our resources – particularly mammon but also our energy, talents, time, effort, even perhaps our tears – into the single basket of the peculiar but wondrous reign that is already upon us.
Amos’ prophecy recalls the parable of the rich fool told just a few chapters earlier in Luke. With scathing accuracy, the prophet displays how easily money turns from a means of serving others into serving ourselves. “Market sense” replaces wisdom, and we stupidly yet gleefully envision our future through our consumptive present, blind that we are trampling beneath our feet those friends of God who could welcome us into their never-ending feast. Both Amos and Luke illuminate how utterly predictable and brutish enslavement to money and to what money secures for us (comfort, influence, social cache) becomes; it robs us of our humanity and exposes our thoughtless arrogance before a just and all-seeing creator. But in the missionary’s story as in Jesus’ parable, they also remind us that money as a servant creates unexpected circumstances, new sets of relationships, and invites possibilities – albeit sometimes even subversive, unsettling ones.
The vivid viciousness that enraged Amos continues. Yet my friends – one a missionary, one a philosopher – consistently place their resources at the service of the gospel, confident that worship and proclamation of Jesus as Lord does not fetter us but rather sets us loose to play with our many resources in provocative ways. How do we, too, re-imagine what our money is for? How can our many resources and gifts be used to foster the new society, the alternative politics of the reign of God? How do we improvise in our distinctive moment like the shrewd manager and make friends with that which does not last, so that our own odd, rag-tag fellowship might continue into eternity?
Lastly, I suspect that the missionary and those gathered with her prayed for that bribed policeman. As the text from Timothy reminds us, God’s disruption of society in a crucified Lord blurs the clean line dividing enemy and friend; thus we work and pray for those whose power is as temporary as the mammon often utilized to secure and maintain it. Against the competitive instinct rampant in both capitalism and our version of democracy, we actually hope they might one day come into our circle, join in our worship. We not only prophesy like Amos but also pray like Paul, hoping that all those with power accept the freedom made possible by the cross, that we all might open-handedly use money and power to befriend God and neighbor.
Seeing our daily lives from the inevitability of God’s future requires all of us – rich and poor; powerful and seemingly powerless – to be interrupted amidst our dull patterns of competition and fear. Might these texts awaken us to the wisdom of underwriting Christ’s reign with our mammon, suddenly at liberty to imagine unpredictable and shrewd ways to invest our many resources. In doing so, we begin to enjoy dividends: companionship with God and his surprising, delightfully diverse group of friends.