A few years ago I decided to start keeping track of my money. Well, you ask, doesn’t everyone do that? It’s not what you think. There’s a website called Wheresgeorge.com—that’s George, as in, George Washington, as in, the face on a one-dollar bill–where you can enter the information on a bill of any denomination. After you register it you go ahead and spend it as you normally would. If someone else gets the bill and records it online I can track where it’s been. Sometimes it’s months or even years later that someone records the bill. Sometimes the money travels locally, sometimes long distances, and even overseas.
On Wheresgeorge.com I can track where the money has gone and when–but that’s all. That money, and all money, has a story behind it far more complex than where it’s been and when it was there. Each bill has a story of who’s handled it, what it’s been used for. Of course, it’s been used for good purposes: for food, for clothing, paying bills, gifts to charity—it can end up in church offering plates! But our money is dirty, and I don’t mean just from hundreds of hands that have touched it. I mean, those bills have a darker side. The bills that buy food for children, the bills that end up in the church offering plate are the same bills that have been part of drug deals. They’ve been used to buy pornography. They’ve been squandered on God only knows what illegal or immoral transactions!
If you think about it in this way, all wealth, as Jesus puts it, is “dishonest wealth.” In today’s reading from Luke he tells a story. A rich man discovers that one of his managers is corrupt and fires him on the spot. So the manager cuts deals with the rich man’s debtors. The idea is that out of gratitude they will take care of him when he’s no longer employed.
Where do you think God is in this story? Which of the characters represents God? I’m guessing most every one of us would say that the rich man—the master–in the story represents God. But wait a minute. The rich man fires his manager on the basis of hearsay. He doesn’t even ask the manager to tell his side of the story! The God we worship is one who shows mercy and compassion but this rich man shows no mercy. It’s the manager who has mercy. He’s the one who gives debtors a break! Is he dishonest? Is he doing it for selfish reasons? Yes! But–he shows mercy.
We are tempted over the course of a lifetime to divide the world into the good guys and the bad guys, the honest and the dishonest. But today’s story reminds us that life is a little more complicated than that! Money is used for good. That same money is also used for evil. Likewise, in the course of a lifetime each of us makes choices for good. We also make choices for evil, sometimes justifying ourselves, often making those choices without even being aware of their consequences.
In response to all this Jesus makes some strange statements. Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. And, Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much; if then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?
Jesus may be saying a number of things here. One of them is surely this: Each and every human life is a messy mix of good and bad, honest and dishonest, clean and unclean. Not one or the other but a daily mix of both. This upsets the world we want to believe in, where my team, my country, my church, my race, my group is better than everyone else. And if we can believe that, then we don’t have to deal with the messier, darker, uglier parts of our lives that remind us that we’re just like everyone else.
So—what is the way forward? This past week the new Roman Catholic Pope, Pope Francis, spoke out. Specifically, the Pope said that the Roman Catholic Church had become “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception. He didn’t say these conversations are not important. What he said is essentially what our gospel story teaches: When we become obsessed with clean and unclean, right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral, we become distracted and lose sight of our work in the world. And what is that work? Our scriptures are clear, and Jesus by his example and his teaching are clear. And Pope Francis seems to get it: working for dignity and justice for all people, which includes confronting the rich: In today’s first reading the prophet Amos shouts words of warning against those who “trample the needy” and “bring to ruin the poor of the land.” These are those the Psalmist points to when he says, “The Lord takes up the weak out of the dust and lifts up the poor from the ashes, enthroning them with the rulers.” What priorities, do you think, do our nation’s policies, laws and attitudes represent?
Jesus himself says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” And that is the truth of our messy human lives. We can’t—and don’t—consistently serve God. Every one of us serves wealth just as much, or more, than God. Today’s readings implore us to stop obsessing about moral and immoral, right and wrong, honest and dishonest. Every last one of us is a messy mix of all these things. But by paying attention to our mission, distractions fall by the wayside, our focus is clearer, our purpose is renewed, and we may even discover our common humanity, even with those we don’t like or agree with.
Our faith invites us to stop obsessing about our goodness. All of us benefit from dirty money. We all participate in structures and systems that harm and degrade people. Human beings, our faith stories teach, are not “good.” What we are is something better. We are beloved. We are forgiven. Despite our moral messiness, we are gifted and empowered to be Christ to a world in need of hope, in need of healing, in need of knowing that—even if they don’t want it—they, too, are beloved and forgiven!
Our readings invite us to ponder three questions this morning: First, Where’s George? This money I hold—who knows where it’s been and how it’s been used? Who knows where it will go and how it will be used? Then, Where’s God? God is everywhere this dirty money goes. God is present in every messy life touched by this money, including the rich and the poor, including your life, including mine. And finally, Where are you? Are you spending your life separating people into good and bad, honest and dishonest, worthy and unworthy? Or, is your energy invested not in judgment but in service?
Remember–the dishonest manager in Jesus’ story was commended by his master, even after he was fired! However corrupt he might have been, however self-interested, still he practiced mercy. Let us as individuals, and as a congregation, also be focused on mercy, both toward others and toward ourselves. Let us practice forgiveness. Let us be focused on our God-given purpose in life, devoted to equality and justice, compassion, and service of the neighbor in need. We can do these things because we are abundantly blessed! Let us therefore, like the psalmist, and like the author of our second reading, be people whose lives include generous portions of gratitude and praise toward the one who has been boundlessly generous and merciful towards us! AMEN
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