Playing the Angles
NBC seems to be the place for quirky sitcoms lately. They don’t necessarily generate the biggest audience draws, but their fans are extremely dedicated. Some of you have probably either heard of or been a fan of many of them: The Office, Community, Parks and Rec, and more recently Superstore, and the newest offering, The Good Place. Now, I haven’t watched any of The Good Place yet, but from what I have read about it, if you can get past the enormously awful theology, it’s pretty funny. And with the lead acting duo of Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, along with the creator of Parks and Rec behind it, it should be. Speaking of that awful theology, the show is premised on the popular notion that our destination in the afterlife will be determined by the amount of good done here and now. This idea shows up all over the place if you pay much attention. I’ve been reading the big boys Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief for the last few weeks. Near the end of the book the characters go into the Underworld to pay Hades a visit. During their journey, they talk about how our destination in the afterlife is determined by our works in life. Now just exactly what kind of works and how much of them are necessary to wind up somewhere better than not once we die is a bit up in the air, but whether you’re talking about the Elysium Fields for the good and the Fields of Asphodel for the normal out of Greek mythology or NBC’s the “Good Place,” there is one thing fairly consistent with the various popular notions of our destination after death: If you want to end up in the good place (however you happen to define that), you’ve got to live the good life.
We all want the good life, right? Everybody wants the good life. We all want to live a life that is happy and healthy and wealthy and free from trouble or abuse. We want to live a life rich with friendships and not beset by overt materialism. Or if you happen to define the good life in some other way, then that’s the particular version of it you want. How we go about obtaining such an end in this life, however, is a matter of…debate. You see, what exactly constitutes the “good life” and how we come by such a thing is a question that every single worldview has to answer. And, most developed worldviews do have an answer to those questions. But, the answer in most cases isn’t as simple as it seems at first glance.
Let me offer a simplistic example as a way to make the point. In NBC’s The Good Life, again, a person’s destination in the afterlife is determined by a comparison of good deeds versus bad ones. If the good outweighs the bad, you’re in. If not, well, you should have tried a little harder. Now, at first glance, that sounds pretty fair. It’s reassuring too. We can always justify the notion that we’ve done more good than bad in our lives. There’s a reason why that’s a popular notion. But if you start actually thinking about…well…it doesn’t hold up very well. For starters, how does one determine whether a particular action is good or bad? Now, that may seem like a pretty easy question to answer, but it actually depends on which ethical system you happen to be using and then you have to justify why that particular system is better than another one. For instance, an action defined by virtue ethics as good and noble may be defined by a more utilitarian or even ego-centric system as bad. So, first you have the problem of deciding which ethical system you’re going to use to define good and bad out of the gate, but then you have the problem of determining how much good is necessary to outweigh the bad in order to tip the scales in your favor. It may be tempting to think that the best approach is for each action to get what amounts to one point, but then you have murder receiving the same ethical weight as speeding and it certainly doesn’t seem like that should be the case. The same problem pops up on the good side. It doesn’t seem right to weight holding the door open for someone on par with dedicating your life to serving the poor in a Third World Country. Furthermore, who determines how much weight each individual act should be given? What’s more, why should that person have received such a position in the first place? And we haven’t even brought up the question of what if there’s a goof and a person’s ethical calculus gets done wrong. After all, that’s the whole premise of The Good Place. Kristen Bell’s character was supposed to go to the bad place, but a clerical error got her admitted to the good one. How is that just?
You can change the specifics of the situation, but this is the basic problem that besets any worldview which offers up any kind of a works-based answer to the question of what gains us access to the good life. It is the Christian worldview alone that proposes a successful solution to this problem. Not only is it successful, but it’s also incredibly simple. Rather than trying to go through some rigorous ethical calculus to figure out who’s a good person and who’s not, we make it easy: There aren’t any good people. You’re not and I’m not. As for good works, they’re great, but they do absolutely nothing to advance us toward the good life. Nothing. Instead, the good life is obtained solely by grace which is given in response to faith in Jesus. Simple. And with grace, nobody gets what they deserve. Instead, if they are willing to receive it, they get what Jesus deserves. Now, this is totally unfair, but it is just. It’s just because Jesus satisfied the justice of God by His death and resurrection which set Him free to lavish on us the love of God…if we’re willing to receive it.
In the Christian worldview, then, living the good life is characterized not as an attempt to gain anything for ourselves, but rather as an expression of gratefulness for what has already been given to us. Because we have received what Jesus deserved, that is, eternal life, we strive to live out of that eternal life (which has at least as much to do with the quality of life as it does its longevity) in every area of our lives as a way to say, “Thank you,” for the gift we have received. The doing of life well, in other words, comes out of our being in a relationship with God, rather than leading us to such a state.
Be that as it may, we live in the context of a culture that doesn’t do life this way. In fact, we can see great examples in our culture of life done every way but this one. The net effect of all of this is that doing life well as a follower of Jesus is hard. We are everywhere surrounded by bad examples. We see them on the television, we see them at the movies, we read about them in popular magazines, we encounter them in popular books, they’re in almost every one of the thousands of advertisements we see on a daily basis. It’s no wonder that some followers of Jesus get confused and fall into patterns of doing life like their non-Christian neighbors.
Starting this morning, then, and for the next few weeks, in a brand new series called “How to Do Life,” I want to take a look with you at some ways we can better live our lives as an expression of gratefulness to God for what He has done for us in Christ. If, as we talked about last week, Jesus has broken the power of religion over us and opened the door to a relationship with God, what does it look like to live in that relationship? The truth is that it is something that touches every single part of our lives. There is not a single part of your life that cannot be lived as an expression of gratitude for the good life you have received if you are a follower of Jesus. And, if you’re not a follower of Jesus, my contention to you is that living like you are one will lead to a better life for you even if you never become one. All of that is to say that the next few weeks are going to have something for everybody. We are going to look at how to do life as a follower of Jesus when it comes to a number of important areas of life including money, sex, our families, our words, and more.
Well, of all of the different areas of life we could start with, the first two on that list were a bit of a toss-up in terms of their centrality in our lives. I decided to go with money since leading with sex felt a little odd to me, but next week we are indeed going to be talking about sex. As for money, we’ve talked about it a few times fairly recently, but this morning we are going to take a look at it through a different lens than we’ve used so far. Earlier this year we talked about money in terms of stewardship and giving and making sure we know who its real owner is. This morning, I want to get really practical with you on the matter of how we should approach using our resources.
In order to do this I want to take you to an odd little parable Jesus told the disciples as they were journeying slowly in the direction of Jerusalem for what would be the final time. If you’ve heard this particular parable before it was probably in the context of marveling at just how weird it is. More than likely this is one that, unless you’ve done a read through the Gospel of Luke, you probably haven’t encountered. Bible study writers and preachers alike don’t want to touch it because at first glance it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Commentary writers have to deal with it because it wouldn’t look good to skip it, but even they seem divided enough that you get the sense they aren’t totally sure what to do with it either. None of this is to say that I have the answer they’ve all been looking for—I don’t. Rather, what I want to do with you this morning is wrestle through the story and share an insight I came across recently that makes a lot of sense to me. My hope is that this will do two things: First, it will help you see that when Paul said that all of Scripture is breathed out by God and useful for making us more like Him, he meant it, even for the parts that seem weird at first glance. Second, and more importantly, I think it offers us a great insight on how to do life well when it comes to our money.
The story can be found in Luke 16. You can turn there with me in your own Bibles or follow along up overhead. Check this out: “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’” Are you with me so far? A rich guy hired somebody to manage his money for him. Later on, though, he found out that the guy just wasn’t up to the task. He was wasting money and otherwise not handling the books well. So, he does what anybody who’s smart with their money would do: He fired the guy. So far, so good, yes?
Look at what happens next. The manager panics. Verse 3: “And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.’” Got that? He’s not in good enough shape to go get some job that’s mostly just grunt-type physical labor. But, he was too proud to be reduced to begging which would have been his only alternative in a society without any kind of a social safety net in place. Another management job wasn’t going to happen because his credibility was shot from this gig. After thinking about it for a while, he finally hits upon a solution. Verse 4 now: “‘I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’”
So, this guy who was going to be fired for being a terrible manager of his master’s wealth decides the best way to handle the situation is to essentially double down on his failure and cheat him out of even more of it. But, this last cheating is done with his future in mind. He is making friends who now owe him favors on which he can call when his source of income dries up in the near future. This is where things start to get weird.
If you were the rich guy, how would you react to this? You’d be furious, right? I mean, you’re firing this guy because he’s losing your money and he responds by essentially going into overdrive and losing even more. What’s more, the rich guy can’t go back and recoup the losses here without a major loss of face. His manager probably did not tell the debtors that he was slashing their debts because he was getting fired and wanted to engender some goodwill for himself on the way out the door so he wasn’t left totally high and dry. Think like a businessman here. For him to have gone back now on the word of his manager and demand the people give him more money would have hurt his reputation in the community and done injury to future business prospects. This, though, is where Jesus drops the bomb on us that so many of His parables do. From v. 8: “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.”
Huh? Why on earth would this behavior that was both immoral and illegal receive a commendation? Did Jesus suddenly forget the commandment about not stealing? No. Look at the rest of the verse here: “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”
Umm…huh? What on earth does that mean? Well, let’s start with what is fairly clear. The “sons of this world” are probably people who are not in any meaningful sense followers of Jesus. To the first century Jews they would have been pagans. For modern followers of Jesus, we can settle on them being secularists of some variety. “Son of light,” on the other hand, are just the opposite: folks who are followers of Jesus. So we have Christians and non-Christians. What about them? Jesus says that non-Christians tend to be more shrewd in dealing with other non-Christians than Christians are with other Christians. Okay…what does that mean? Well, what does it mean to be shrewd? That’s kind of an old word that we don’t use much anymore and don’t really know what it means. The connotation is of someone who is mean or spiteful, but that’s not really it. Someone who is shrewd is wise and clever. They are street smart and know how to play all the angles to their advantage or the advantage of whoever happens to be the beneficiary of their shrewdness. To state it plainly, then, non-Christians tend to be better at playing the angles to their advantage than Christians are.
The ironic truth is that the more committed a follower of Jesus a person becomes, the worse he usually gets at working things to his own advantage. This is especially true when it comes to money. Because of the weight of Christian-tinged cultural assumptions about wealth, we tend to think that using it for our own advantage as Christians is wrong. We should use it for the good of others. Using our resources for our own benefit is materialistic. Now, I suspect some of you are sitting there thinking, “Umm…that’s exactly what I’ve been taught my whole life. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do as Christians?” Well…yes and no. It all depends on how you understand the notion of what is to our advantage and what isn’t. You see, when most of us—Christian or non-Christian—think about what is too our advantage, we think in very much worldly terms. In worldly terms, the fruits of materialism are clearly to our advantage. It is too our advantage to have more and better than the next guy. It is too our advantage to have plenty saved up for a cushy retirement. It is too our advantage to not have to rely on anyone else. It is too our advantage to be able to pursue all the leisure we want as often as we desire. Christianity, though, clearly teaches that we are to live our lives for the benefit of those around us, and so if we are going to be faithful Christians we must make decisions—again, particularly as they pertain to the use of our resources—that are not to our own advantage.
But. What if that’s not right? What if we have been taught to think about what is to our advantage in the wrong way. You’ve probably heard of the idea that we are to store up treasures in heaven and not on earth, yes? When we do something that is not to our material advantage, but is nonetheless consistent with the teachings of Jesus, we say that we are storing up treasures in heaven. But, it seems to me that we often offer that like it’s an excuse. What we really seem to mean is, “I know this isn’t really to my advantage, but I’m going to do it anyway because Jesus said to.” Yet what does that idea say about what we think about the teachings of Jesus? It says we don’t really think they’re right, but we’re doing them because it’s what we’re supposed to do as Christians. What ends up happening, then, is that we stink at looking out for ourselves whereas the non-Christians around us excel at it. This does two things: It leaves us in a place where we feel like we are always playing catch-up to our non-Christian neighbors in terms of getting the most out of life; and it destroys our witness because what clear thinking non-Christians wants to start advancing the interests of others at the expense of his own?
But again, what if that’s not the right way for us to be thinking? What if Jesus really was right when He told us to major on storing up treasures in heaven by way of selflessly advancing the interests of others, even if it is temporarily at our own expense, because those are the treasures that will last forever, whereas the things we gain for ourselves here and now will last only a little while and then will be gone forever? If that’s the case—and you’re going to have to take up your argument with Jesus if you don’t agree—then using our resources primarily to benefit those around us is the thing that is most to our own advantage because such efforts are ultimately benefitting us in the long term. I think that’s exactly where Jesus is going here. The dishonest manager gets praised, not for his dishonesty, but because he had the foresight to do what he clearly recognized was going to be most to his advantage in the long run even if it didn’t make any sense to anybody else at the time. He used the resources at his disposal to make friendships that would be to his benefit years down the road even though it was going to make things harder on himself in the short term.
That’s exactly where Jesus goes in v. 9 here: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Now, I don’t think Jesus is making some commentary on money here. He’s not saying it’s bad. He’s not talking about a particular kind of money either. I think He’s probably just taking on a particular view of wealth as a potential spring of unrighteousness in its vying with God for our devotion for the moment to make His point. Let’s take His point and filter it through the lens of His broader message and teachings. How will we be recognized as followers of Jesus? By loving the people around us. The way we make investments in the kingdom of God that will be there for us to enjoy when Jesus returns is to love the people around us. The more we commit ourselves and our resources to intentionally see the people around us become more fully who God designed them to be, the more investments in the kingdom of God we will make. Making those investments may very well be to what seems our disadvantage in the short term (especially if you use the view of what is or isn’t to our advantage we talked about just a second ago), but in the long term, we will have friends who will receive us gladly into their arms for eternity. I don’t know about you, but that seems more advantageous than an extra vacation or new hobby or a bigger, better toy we can only enjoy until it breaks.
You see, the world around us is caught in the throes of materialism of some kind. And this makes perfect sense because if you aren’t worshiping God, then you’re probably worshiping stuff of some kind. The point, though, is that in this kind of a situation, people are merely a means to getting more stuff. The material is the master. People are just the pathway. The result is that most folks think in terms of loving money and using people. That’s a shortsighted approach to life, though, because money is temporary and people are not. If we are going to do life well in terms of our money and our resources generally, then we need to do exactly the opposite. We need to love people and use money.
Rather than letting money be our master, we should treat it as a tool to be used to our advantage just as this dishonest servant did. This working to our own advantage is something the world tends to do a whole lot better than we who follow Jesus do. And again, this is because we play by their rules. Think about it. If you’re playing one game by the rules of another, you’re going to lose. If you go out to play baseball, but your team is restricted to using the rules of soccer there’s no way you’ll win. If we are a part of the kingdom of God, but we do life according to the rules of this world how well is that going to work for us? We aren’t part of their kingdom anymore. We are to live by a different set of rules. In our kingdom, people matter most. Money is to be treated as at best a despised servant who lives at our beck and call and whom we send out anytime such a move looks to be to our benefit. We love people and use money. We use it every chance we get to do some good for someone else—even if such a move means we miss out on what the world around us sees as a golden opportunity for gain—because we know what’s really to our advantage. Love people and use money.
And lest I leave you thinking otherwise, this is really practical stuff. What Jesus gives us in this otherwise mystifying parable is a lens we can use to see through every time we find ourselves at a decision point when it comes to the use of our money. We ask over and over again this simple question: Is this expense really to my advantage (in kingdom terms, not worldly ones)? By this expense am I loving people and using money, or using people and loving money? In doing this am I investing in people who will love me later, or investing in stuff that will leave me later? If you want to do life well when it comes to your money, this is how you do it. You love people and you use money. Love people and use money. That’s the good life.