Last Spring there was a news story about a pastor down in Atlanta named Creflo Dollar (I’m not making this name up) who was fundraising to purchase a $68million private jet. Let me repeat that…he was fundraising to purchase a $68million private jet!
The pastor says he needed such a vessel so that he can share the Gospel message with the world. A statement from the WCCI board, which Pastor Dollar founded, stated:
“We plan to acquire a Gulfstream G650 because it is the best, and it is a reflection of the level of excellence at which this organization chooses to operate. We, the World Changers family, so value the lives, the safety and the well-being of our pastors and leaders that we wish to provide to them the best air travel experience possible,”
Many people were understandably stunned by such a news story. Why in the world does a pastor need a private jet to fly around the globe? Isn’t there any better way to spend such money? Some people in social media openly derided this story as yet another example of how corrupt Christianity can be. Some spoke about the abhorrent nature of the ‘prosperity gospel’, which according to wikipedia is ‘the belief among some Christians that financial blessing and physical well-being is always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations will increase one’s material wealth.’ Still others suggested other means by which this pastor can share the Gospel message with a more modest budget. ‘Jesus rode a donkey; why can’t you?’
At the end of the day, this pastor was able to purchase this jet, and the news cycle continued on as it always does. Little mention was made of the many others who fly private jets, people like famous Hollywood actors, our favorite musicians, professional athletes, and even our presidential candidates. Pastor Dollar continues to share the prosperity gospel with people around the world, and thousands of people continue to give money to this cause every day.
I’m not here to speak about whether or not this money is warranted according to this story, but it did get me thinking about how we, as Christians, think about money in today’s world. The reality is that most of us in this room will not have the option of purchasing private jets in the near future, but we do make decisions every day how we spend the money that comes across our possession, as short lived as it may be.
How should we be spending our money? Why aren’t we making more? What happened to the money we had? And why in the world do I need to take out a loan in order to take the family to see a movie these days?
Compounding this issue is the very real problem of debt. A recent study according to the website ‘nerdwallet’ shows that the average family in the United States has:
- $15,000 in annual credit card debt
- $172,000 in mortgage debt
- $28,000 in auto loans debt, and
- $49,000 in college loans debt
- The average American family has around $132,000 in total debt each year.
There is a real problem with how we think about and use money in today’s world. So what is the answer? I’m not here today to give you the ‘five steps towards financial success’; there are plenty of videos and speakers on the subject. What I am here for today is share with you these encouraging words: you are not alone. In fact, most of us in this room today are dealing with some sort of financial issue.
Part of the problem is that our financial life is often kept in private. Whether it’s out of embarrassment, humility, or simply a lack of understanding on some of the issues, most of us, especially in the church, tend to tighten up when we talk about money. I’m more than aware right now that many of us physically become uncomfortable when there is a sermon on such a topic (I’ve been sitting in the pews for plenty of such messages). But you know who wasn’t afraid to talk about money? Jesus. That’s right, some scholars say that nearly 40% of Jesus’ teachings were about money. So what did he have to say? Well, our lectionary text (this is the pre-determined text for each Sunday—believe me, I did not think to myself, ‘now this is a great text to preach on as a guest preacher!’) takes on this topic of finances in a most interesting way this Sunday. So let’s look at the scripture.
‘Wait…what?’ This was my first response after reading our Gospel lesson this morning from Luke. Parables (which are the stories with lessons that Jesus loved to use in his teaching) can be confusing sometimes, right? I know for me it takes a few times reading through the story to begin to understand what Jesus is trying to say, and even then there may be more questions than certainties. Let’s chalk this one up to the ‘more questions’ side.
This parable from Jesus is no different than many of his teachings; it leaves those listening challenged by the peculiar perspective that is taken, and possibly with more questions than answers. We pick up with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, once again talking about wealth, and talking about the Kingdom of God.
Just previous to this chapter Jesus shared the story of the rejoicing over lost sheep and coins, and the Prodigal Son, and the warm embrace of a forgiving father welcoming his son back home.
Now this parable…what is going on here? We pick up with a wealthy land owner who is holding an annual job performance review of his underperforming manager. The manager is told in no uncertain terms that his future is limited, and he should start looking for a new job. So what does the manager do? He uses his current position and power of managing his boss’s wealth to create future relationships with the other debtors to his boss. He really helps them out; here you have tons of people who are living in debt suddenly given a discount to get back into good financial standing.
He’s thinking to himself, ‘Well, if my job is done here, maybe I can get on the good side of some of these people, and they can help me out in the future.’
Let’s be honest, this happens in today’s world as well. We learn early on, especially in the corporate world, that it’s more of a ‘dog eat dog’ than a ‘puppy best friends’ world out there, so the idea that someone would take measures to possibly protect himself in the future is not a huge surprise in the business world, or in biblical Israel.
But this seems like an unusual story for Jesus to tell. After all, what about forgiveness and embrace like those stories we heard about in the previous chapter? Well, what happens next is even more surprising:
8’And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly…’
Again…what? Doesn’t this kind of fly in the face of all that we have been taught about the evils of wealth and consumerism? Aren’t we to be rejecting such practices that the rest of the world is dealing in?
Jesus then confirms all of our fears about what he may be saying with this punchline:
9And 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.
So what is Jesus trying to teach us here? Are we to adopt the Wall Street practices of dishonest business and consumerist priorities? Are we to make sure to cover our butts first before looking out for others? Is this what the ‘prosperity Gospel’ that we have heard of is all about?
Before we get disheartened enough to walk out on following Jesus all together, let’s take a moment to breathe…and look at this again. There are three teaching points I’d like to highlight:
- Jesus has been pretty consistent throughout the Gospel of Luke that wealth and possessions are greater distractions from the kingdom of God than helpers. In order for us to properly learn from this particular scripture, we need to embrace the entirety of the story; not just one or two verses. So if wealth is not what we should be aspiring towards in this story, there has to be something else.
- Shrewdness is not communicated by Jesus as a bad quality in this world. There are several other teachings where we are taught to be wise in our dealings with others. Following Jesus does not mean that we have to be naïve. So is there something to be said for acting shrewdly?
- Jesus is focusing on the larger picture of God’s Kingdom rather than the smaller picture of worldly financial security. The master at the end congratulates the manager for his actions, as Jesus compares dishonest (or one might even be bold enough to substitute the word ‘dishonest’ with ‘earthly’) wealth to eternal homes.
So given these understandings, what are we to make of such a story and message today? Does this mean that we should all turn our efforts towards profit and wealth instead of charity and compassion? I don’t necessarily think so. But as Jesus does so in so many other ways, he challenges us to think differently about this world, and our actions within it.
If we are to see and act differently in this world, what is he getting at? Where is the Good News in a story about a shrewd manager? Well maybe the focus should not be so much on the practice of the manager, but rather the perspective of the master. If we are to take on the lens of the Kingdom of God, we hear a message that transcends the business ethics of the day. The Good News this morning is that God calls us to this short sighted thing called ‘financial wealth’, and to use it towards building eternal relationships.
Let’s call this ‘kingdom-centered investments’. Can we imagine a life where our finances are directed more towards God’s eternal goals rather than our earthly goals? What does this look like in the denomination if our priorities were more about God’s mission than institutional survival? What does it look like in our church if our wealth was focused towards the kingdom rather than maintaining buildings or meeting budgets? And what would kingdom-centered investments look like in our personal and family life if wealth was more a means to eternal peace and stability instead of the dreams of a luxurious retirement that we are asked to imagine in many of today’s advertisements?
We are not advocating the prosperity gospel. We are not advocating taking on vows of poverty. Today we are advocating a theology of ‘enough’.
Is financial wealth a good thing? Yes!…and potentially no. Wealth in itself is neutral state, just like where one lives or how old we are. Now, is the drive for financial wealth distracting us from God’s work in the world? Then it’s a bad thing and needs to be reevaluated. However, Jesus reminds us that we are not simply called to be irresponsible with our finances either. In fact, shrewdness can be celebrated just as much as generosity if such characteristics and actions are focused towards God’s Kingdom here on earth. Jesus calls us to prioritize our life and our finances towards the eternal with kingdom-centered investments.
The challenge for us today is this: will we allow this parable to break our hearts, and if so, what does it look like? Will we allow the teachings of Jesus to authentically change how we see this world, and ultimately how we live our lives? Will we go back to our committee meeting and reevaluate how we allocate our budgeted money? Will we go home to talk with our family about how we are spending our pay check each month? Will we speak with our spouse about reimagining our retirement years? Will we, as Christ’s Church, use our earthly wealth towards our own survival and comfort, or will we manage our wealth towards building relationships in God’s Kingdom?
Thanks be to God our Creator, who challenges us, and then inspires us to walk more faithfully each day. Thanks be to Christ, who calls us to follow his lead as we navigate the uncertain waters of our daily lives. Thanks be to the Spirit, who whispers within our hearts and minds with boldness and imagination God’s deepest desires. Amen.