“Paying for Gifts”
a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, UCC
September 18, 2022
Luke 16: 1-13 NRSV
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 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. 10“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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.”
How much would you normally pay for a gift? No, I don’t mean something you bought for someone else. I mean a gift someone gave you. What do I mean, you say? Who pays someone for a gift someone has given them? I want to suggest to you that for many people everything in their lives is an economic exchange, even what was given as a gift. Let me explain what I mean and how that helps us understand this passage of Scripture.
First, off, can we admit this is a strange and difficult reading? What is Jesus saying?! A man rips off his boss, then when he’s caught, instead of making things right, it seems he rips him off even worse. To make it all more confusing Jesus says the boss praises his employee for his chutzpah! He gave him “props” I think used to be the street term. He commended him for what I think most of us would call unethical behavior, and in most cultures would be illegal behavior! The verses that follow – attributed to Jesus – say the people who operate that way are better at living by their values than those of us who claim to live by a higher ethical standard are at living by our higher standards. Ouch!
Let me break it down a little more. The economic system of Jesus’ day worked like this: the owner would hire a manager and pay him. But it was normal for that manager to increase his own profit by charging the buyer more than the owner charged. When the manager gets fired by the owner, it wasn’t for making a profit off the buyer, it was more likely because he was cheating the owner as well. So, by cutting his part of the profit off the buyer he is gaining appreciation from the buyers. This is why the owner commends him. The owner has not lost money on this. The fired manager manipulated the economic system while he was employed, and he also shrewdly manipulated it when he was fired so that the buyers he had been ripping off would be indebted to him for cutting their prices.
The follow-up comments may also seem confusing. Perhaps the one that is most confusing is “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Why would Jesus recommend dishonest wealth? Here is the point of this passage I believe. Jesus is challenging us to choose what system of economics and values we live by. If we are going to live by a system whose first and only commandment is “make a profit,” then we better realize we will both live and die by it.
Here’s what I mean: we are constantly told that “free market, consumer-based capitalism” is the Holy Grail of economies. But we are never told that if you live by this to the fullest then everything is a commodity whose only value is what it can be bought and sold for. That is true not only of products or services but of human beings. So the end result is people are only worth what they produce or what they can be bought and sold for. This is why it was so difficult for the United States to end slavery. Slavery was an economic system that benefitted the owner with free labor. Now, while we no longer have slaves in bondage literally, many human beings live lives of such poverty they are little more than slaves. Of course we just say, “too bad, you’re just lazy.” Or we say, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” By the way that saying was originally a critical comment on that economic expectation because if someone couldn’t afford boots, how could they pull themselves up by them?
The result is, we devalue any human being who doesn’t produce a profit for someone. Now I’m not going to go any further in critiquing this system, I am simply pointing out its nature and consequences. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying this is “dishonest” wealth. I am simply saying that if the highest value of a nation is profit, then anything that is not profitable is devalued. But if we measure relationships by economic values we will miss the true riches of relating to others with love.
Here’s what I want to get to: this kind of thinking can cause us to live constantly measuring whether we are in debt to someone or are on equal footing. To illustrate: If someone gives you a gift, and you immediately worry about how to do something equally nice then it wasn’t a gift, it was an economic exchange. If everything is measured by profit or loss then when someone gives me a gift I have to calculate it and determine whether I am now in debt to that person. If so then I either need to give an equal or greater gift - or do something equally nice to rebalance the scale with that person. Otherwise my self-esteem suffers. I feel like I have to “pay” for the gift at a subconscious level. Gift – giving becomes a matter of measuring the price. We essentially end up feeling we have to “pay for gifts.” But this makes it an economic exchange, not a gift.
Here's where this matters in our faith. If we as people who claim to believe in God’s grace “buy into” this thinking we will never understand or be able to accept God’s grace. Here’s what I mean. We say God’s grace is God’s love. We say that it is a free gift. In fact, when I typed “free gift,” the grammar elf in my computer pointed out that “free” and “gift” are redundant and recommended I delete free. But we often operate as if love is an economic exchange. This is why some believe that God had to kill his son Jesus to pay the debt we owed God for being sinners. If that is true then it is not grace because then salvation is not a gift, and it can’t be love because it involved killing someone to satisfy a debt. Then we are told this is what makes it such a great sacrifice. But a sacrifice to a God who is angry is a concept that goes along with virgins and volcanoes. Our God, YAHWEH by name, destroyed this concept as an operating principle when Abraham brought his son Isaac up to a mountain to be sacrificed and God said, “whoa, stop, I will provide.” God doesn’t say I will provide a human sacrifice or even a goat or any other living thing. It simply says “YAHWEH will provide.”
Now, when you live in and by a system that is based on grace it changes everything. We no longer measure people by their economic value. We define “true riches” the way Jesus did – by love and compassion. We don’t send immigrants from Venezuela to Martha’s Vineyard as a smart-aleck move to “own the libs” and score political points with your base because they are human beings. They are children and parents and human beings. If we were really wanting to be a “Christian nation,” instead of measuring immigrants by whether they are “legal” or “illegal” we would remember that the Bible tells us 22 times to welcome the foreigner because our spiritual ancestors were once foreigners in a foreign land and they suffered for it and God doesn’t want human beings to suffer. It is a concept called “compassion.”
God’s love is a compassionate love, and God’s love is a gift. We can not repay God, nor do we need to pay God back for the gift of love. When we discover and appreciate this gift, this compassion, we discover the “true riches” Jesus speaks of in this passage. When we show others the same compassion God has given us we are not paying for the gift. We simply giving others what has been given to us.
Perhaps another way to look at this comes from Margaret Meade the great anthropologist. Dr. Paul Brand, a famous heart surgeon, in his book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made writes, “early in my career I heard a lecture from the anthropologist Margaret Mead. ‘What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?’ she asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? ‘These are all early signs,’ she continued, ‘but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.’ High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had been fractured, and then solidly healed.
“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find clues of violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice. In other words, the first step to civilization is an act of human compassion, and it becomes the foundation to all the great achievements of humankind.” [ quoteinvestigator.com/2021/07/25 ].
We might say every gift is an act of compassion. God’s compassion for us permeates everything. Most of all it is the mark of grace – the free gift of God’s love. To whatever degree we choose to live by that ethic we will be saved. Our compassion for others saves us from greed, from hatred, from death itself, because to live without compassion is to live in hell, separated from all love because it is only love if it is a free gift – given and received.
Children of light know the true riches of compassion and love. They will always know the gift of God’s love is free. No payment required. But as children of light we will always be inspired to give the same compassion to others that God has shown us. Let us go and be children of light. AMEN.