This column should probably come with a Content Warning: minister writing about money.
Relax, I won’t be asking for it, telling you to give it to the church or telling you it’s bad. Jesus never did any of those things so why would I. I also won’t be reminding you that money can’t buy you happiness. It can. And I’m pretty sure Jesus would say that.
Hear me out.
Jesus tells a parable that goes something like this. A wealthy person discovers their business manager was dishonest and squandering their property. So they call the manager in. Knowing they were about to get fired and afraid that they’ll be kicked out on the street - or worse, the manager goes round to all the people who do business with the wealthy person and starts telling them to make their bills less, even half, what they owe the wealthy person. “You owe for 100 of these,” the manager tells them, “change it to 50.” “You owe 20, make it 10.” The manager does this with all the clients, knowing that when they lose their job, they’ll have friends they can connect with in the business community. The wealthy person hears of this and commends the dishonest manager for being shrewd.
Jesus seems to also commend - and recommend - this behaviour, then leading to the well known saying “no slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:1-13)
I really scaled back the story and focused on what Jesus says at the end there. That’s often where we go, I think, because it’s a tricky story and, fascinating though it might be, we can easily get lost in the nooks and crannies of it. So, money bad, God good, serve God.
Yes, but … that’s way to simplistic. Why is money bad? How do we serve God?
I think this parable is about the Big Picture and you need the story to understand that profound pronouncement at the end. Here’s where I think Jesus wants us to go.
First off, let’s not say just “money.” Let’s talk about “currency” because yes, just like we do when we talk about stewardship, it’s not just about money, it’s about other things of value like talents and time. Even then, if currency is the object of your affection and the purpose of your life, you are worshipping it and it controls you. That’s when it’s bad. That’s when money can’t buy you happiness.
Second, to serve God means to live the life that Jesus shows us, to love one another. And to love your neighbour, you need to love yourself. For Jesus, that means living from the good which is in your heart. You know, the “image of God” that is in you. When we do that, money, talents and time become tools to serve that good. That’s how they can “buy” you happiness - true happiness. And when the church, for example, asks you to give, it shouldn't be just because the institution is "The Church." It should be for what being church is about: love and care and grace for all. And you should be discerning about whether or not that's happening.
It’s all about our relationship with that currency, with our wealth, with our sense of abundance.
Clearly the manager is also self-centred and cares about their own self. Jesus seems to be okay with that and even says we could all learn something from his shrewd behaviour. Sure, that doesn’t seem very Jesus-like at first. But think about that in the context of living true to what’s in your heart and serving God. In Jesus eyes, living true to yourself and serving God is about your own self and how you share it with others. And the shrewdness with which the manager engages his dilemma recognizes that the world is not a perfect place and we may need to engage it and be astute and ingenious, shrewd even, in how we do that.
That really is Jesus: it’s about your relationship with wealth. It serves you, not the other way round. And when we live as Jesus shows us, it serves us serving God, bringing life and love to the world.