September 22, 2013
One of the ways that I would start discussions in my Intro to Ethics class was to show episodes from television shows that highlighted an ethical choice or an aspect of a moral theory we were learning. One show that I turned to was my favorite British comedy, "The Vicar of Dibley."
An episode that I found particularly helpful when it came to discussing Moral Relativism and the question of ends justifying the means was The Window and the Weather. The premise of this episode is that a stormy night in village of Dibley results in the stained glass window of the church being destroyed by a lightning-struck tree branch. The parish council, their version of the session, faces the challenge of wanting to replace the window but finding that the cost to do so is exorbitant -- 11,000 British pounds. The council doesn't see how the money can be raised, but the Vicar gives a rousing speech about finding a way to raise the money. Acting on a suggestion from one of the council members, she decides to find a wealthy business person to sponsor the church and cover the cost of the window.
This sounds straightforward, but from the first moment the idea is conceived the Vicar lies in order to make the plan happen.
When she asks the council chair, David Horton, for the names and numbers of his richest associates, he refuses. So she lies to his son, Hugo, saying that his dad asked him to give her the names and numbers.
She does try to go the honesty route with her first phone call, but the business person at the other end turns her down immediately, as well as offering a suggestion as to where she can put her request. So, looking at the picture of Jesus which hangs over her desk, the Vicar confesses to him that she is going to have to fib but it's for a very good cause. On the next phone call she tells the business man, Daniel Frobisher, that she is part of a start-up investment company. She wrangles a lunch with him, then shows up for the meeting in her clerical collar throwing the poor man for the proverbial loop. She apologizes for lying to him, but still manages to get him to commit to sponsoring the new window.
The twist in all this is that from the beginning of the episode the viewer learns that a terrible earthquake has happened in Chile. After the Vicar has secured the money from the wealthy man a second earthquake strikes. It exacts a terrible cost in life and worsens an already devastated area. The Vicar is visibly moved by this and takes down a number for donations.
Yet it is not until the end of the episode that we learn how devious the Vicar has actually been. Once the new window is installed, the council and Daniel gather for the great unveiling. Before the cover is taken off the window, the Vicar thanks Daniel for his generosity and tells everyone that that he has pledged that any money not spent on the window can go to the earthquake recovery fund. So without further ado, Daniel pulls the covering off and ... it's clear glass. Nothing stained about it. It cost about 500 pounds, meaning that over 10,000 pounds will go to help the earthquake victims. The Vicar confesses that had she gone ahead and gotten the stained glass, whenever she looked at the window she would have only seen the children from the earthquake. The response to her decision was not anger or outrage, not even from Daniel. The council admired her decision. David, the council chair and her toughest opponent, proclaimed it a good decision. Through the new clear glass they could see the beautiful sunset and the rolling hills of the countryside. As one council member put it, “after all, what's better than a view of God's own creation?’
All's well that ends well, right? But let's review the "fibs" the Vicar told to get to this happy ending. She lied to Hugo to get the numbers. She lied to Daniel to get an appointment. She lied by omission to everyone by making the decision to replace the window with clear glass. But what started out as a good cause for the church became something that contributed to a much greater cause of helping people in another land recover from a devastating earthquake.
I know that this is an imperfect illustration into the passage we have from Luke. In spite of her fibs, the Vicar's motivation from the beginning was good; good for her church, good for others; while the dishonest manager does what he does because his dishonesty was found out. Had the master never heard about how the manager was mishandling the master's money, maybe the manager would have just kept on living the way he was? But the master did hear and he called the manager on the carpet for it. The manager, knowing the jig was up and realizing that he wasn't strong enough to dig ditches and too proud to beg, decides to make friends so that when he was dismissed he would secure a place where he would be welcomed. So he goes to the people who owe debts to the master and reduces them. "You owe this much? Cut it in half."
When the master finds out what the manager has done, you'd think he would be in even greater trouble. But no, the master commends him. The manager has acted shrewdly. That's a good thing. Then Jesus says some of his most confusing words ever, "And I tell you, make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."
Right about now is probably when you get the reason for my peculiar title, "Huh?" As I told some members on Friday, this was the most appropriate and bulletin friendly of all the responses I had to this passage. The response to the manager’s actions by the master and certainly Jesus' response to them seems counter-intuitive to everything we think about discipleship. Dishonesty, even though it is used to do something good, is still dishonesty. But in this passage the dishonesty and quick thinking of the manager is praised. Even though there's no reason to believe that the manager was acting out of anything but self-interest, the way he deals with the situation he finds himself in is not condemned but lifted up as an example. Huh?!
In the last few verses Luke's Jesus seems to be explaining why he thinks this dishonest manager's actions are praiseworthy. But quite frankly, the explanations leave me more confused than ever. If you're faithful in a little, you're faithful in much. If you're dishonest in a little, you're dishonest in much. If you can't be trusted to do the right thing with someone else's wealth, how can you be entrusted to do the right thing with what you've been given? It culminates with these words. A slave cannot serve two masters. You'll love one and hate the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth.
Another way to translate the word that is used for "shrewdly" is "worldly." The dishonest manager was worldly in how he dealt with his situation. Again, this seems counter-intuitive. Aren't we as believers supposed to be in this world but not of this world? Aren't we supposed to stay outside of all that is considered "worldly," because we have been taught to believe that "worldly" is wrong or bad or tainted? But here's the thing, we are in this world. And in small ways and large, the world is in us. We live in a world where money matters. Maybe it's wrong that it does, but it does. Will any of us upon leaving here today repudiate what wealth we have? Will we sell all that we have and trust that we'll be taken care of? No. We won't. Because even if we don't have firsthand experience with being homeless, we have a ringside view of it don't we? Homelessness and poverty isn't glamorous or spiritual. It's hard. It's dangerous. It's suffering. So I doubt that any of us would gladly surrender all of our wealth. I wouldn't. But perhaps the point that Jesus was trying to get across was not that being dishonest was okay, but that when it comes to wealth we have to be realistic, not idealistic. The dishonest manager was praised for his shrewdness, his worldliness. What does it mean, then, for us to be worldly when it comes to wealth?
Maybe what it means is that we have to recognize that we are going to be thrust into situation after situation where we have to make a decision. Are we going to serve wealth? Or are we going to use whatever wealth we have to serve God? As a dear friend of mine put it, in the end the manager used wealth to build relationship. Are we enslaved to wealth or do we find a way to use our wealth to build up the kingdom? Do we use our wealth to further relationship, with others and with God? It becomes a question of stewardship. How do we use our wealth to serve God?
The question I express in my title is still there. I'm not sure that I'll ever fully understand or grasp the meaning of this parable and the explanation Jesus gives. But I do believe that the discussion of wealth has to begin here, in the church, the place where we like to talk about it the least. Yet it seems that one thing we might glean from this passage is that not talking about it, not being realistic, even worldly about it, is not serving God. It's not building up the kingdom. It's not creating relationship. Perhaps when it comes to wealth, we must be shrewd in how we use it in order for the gospel to be proclaimed and God's kingdom to be realized. So confused as we may be, let us trust that God is working to guide us even through our confusion. And let all God's children say, "Amen."