Proper 20 C -2019
Years ago I took Tory and a couple of friends to a local carnival. You know the kind that takes over a church parking lot with rides and games and funnel cake. It was a splendid evening in the early fall. My charges ran around from ride to ride, stall to stall, wasting money but having fun. Me, not so much. Carnivals are not my kind of thing: The chaos, the noise, the abundance of sugar and fat, shrieking kids, is all a bit overwhelming. And, there’s a fakeness about carnivals that I find off-putting.
If you’ve ever been to the shore, you know what I mean.
Rows of stalls on the boardwalk filled with games of chance, misnamed as games of skill. The deck is stacked against you that the odds of winning are slim. If you do win, the prizes are… less to be desired. There’s a lot of time, money and effort that goes into winning chintzy toys and cheap gifts, and somewhere in your brain you know that you can just go to a store and buy the item for less. But caught up in the moment, people plunk down their money to see if they can win something. It begs the question, if the game is rigged, why do people play? Because it’s there, it’s a distraction, it’s just fun, no real harm done. Or so we think.
At this particular carnival two things happened to confirm my distaste. The first was a game in which you had to complete a task with accuracy. The girls were so fixated on doing this that they didn’t notice the attendant shaking the bar every so slightly, making them miss every time.
The second was worse. At a stall run by an organization that shall remain nameless, the adult making change shorted them by a quarter. I can still see this man turning that quarter over in his hand, deciding what he was going to do. The girls, in their excitement, scampered away. Then he realized I had watched it all. Before I could say anything he winked at me.
Today Jesus tells a rather puzzling parable today about a dishonest manager.
The manager, about to be fired upon being found out –rather than repentant– becomes very resourceful. Notice he doesn’t try to appeal to his boss, he doesn’t try to make amends or ask for forgiveness or another chance or the opportunity to make restitution. Rather he assesses his situation in realistic but cynical terms: “I’m not strong enough to dig and ashamed to beg.”
So he devises a plan to secure his future: manipulate the accounts so that people now owe him. These are favors he will gladly call in once he’s terminated. Problem solved. No job? no matter. With a nod and a wink, it’s all taken care of. Surprisingly, when he puts his plan into motion, he ends up being commended by his boss rather than reviled.
Though it seems disturbing that the manager would be praised for his dishonesty, actually he’s being praised for knowing how to work the system. You see, he knows the people are going to go along with his fraud rather than turning him in. He knows he can get away with it. He knows that people will respond to his proposition because it’s advantageous to them, and in the end, they are no better than he is.
So Jesus is not congratulating the manager for his dishonesty. What he is saying is that we should put just as much effort at being honest as we are at being deceitful. He adds, “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?”
Honesty and trust. Neither of them are for sale.
The sad truth is that there are people who will put a lot of time and effort into making the world run like a carnival, fun and appealing and wonderful under the bright artificial lights. But it’s all a show, a con-job of sorts, trying to reel you in: “Don’t think about how much it costs, just enjoy the ride.” And often we play along, losing not just our dignity, but our very souls.
Think of the man at the carnival. An upstanding citizen, I imagine, a volunteer trying to raise money for a cause, a father, yet here he was willing to put everything on the line for a quarter. I imagine him thinking, “it’s only a quarter.” not realizing that it was really so much more. What kind of adult is willing to steal a quarter from a kid?
How do we value honesty, integrity, community? Today we are being invited to be a part of something totally different. Because “no one can serve two masters.” and we need to figure out which one it is we want to serve.
What if we pursued other things, godly things, the ‘true riches’ with the same enthusiasm and commitment as we pursue wealth? What if we were creative as opposed to manipulative in our relationships? What if we invested energy and devotion to doing good the way we invest our wealth? What if our efforts were less self-serving and more community oriented? What if we tried to live as “children of light”?
Jesus knows that the world is corrupt and that people are dishonest. He’s not so much condemning it as trying to help us see where our actions lead. We think we can get away with it. We think that nobody notices what we do. We think that -wink, wink- everything is going to be just fine, we go along to get along.
What we fail to take into account is that when we do this, we’re creating an increasingly self-centered culture where good deeds are only measured by “what’s in it for me,” and “I take care of my own,” and “what have you done for me lately,” and “charity starts at home,” and on and on.
Where is God in all those statements?
I can still see the man flipping the coin in his hand. I wonder how it felt. I wonder how he made up his mind: “serve wealth,” turn, “serve God.” “Serve wealth.” “Serve God.” Caught up in the moment, under the glare of the lights and the din of rides drowning out the crowd, he made his choice and put the coin in his pocket –not even in the till! It was then that he looked up, saw me, and winked. I walked away, angry. It was only a quarter, but still!
The great irony is that if you decide to serve wealth, a quarter is all you need.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.