Well Played, Sir. Well Played.

The following is the manuscript of a teaching given by Leah Martens on Sunday, March 22nd.

Let’s start with a pop quiz.  What do these characters from popular TV and film all have in common?

  1. Tony Soprano, The Sopranos
  2. Han Solo, Star Wars
  3. Walter White, Breaking Bad
  4. Scarlet O’Hara, Gone With the Wind
  5. Severus Snape, Harry Potter
  6. Frank Underwood, House of Cards

Who are these characters?  They’re the people you hate to love, but you kinda do anyway.  They’re often ruthless, they bend or even break the rules, they cheat to get their own way, but there’s something you admire about them.  You can’t help it.  In literature, as well as film and television, this type of character has a title: the anti-hero.  The anti-hero is generally defined as a central character, or a protagonist, in a story who lacks conventional heroic attributes.  Sometimes these characters can just be socially awkward, someone like Napoleon Dynamite, but often they’re socially quite appealing, they’re just renegade.  

John Haltiwanger wrote the following in an online business magazine about ruthless politician Frank Underwood of House of Cards recently.  It reveals the conflicted-ness many of us feel toward antiheroes: 

“Underwood might seem heartless and immune to compassion, but he’s also incredibly perceptive and emotionally intelligent. He uses these abilities to manipulate people, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable qualities. Frank Underwood is a man who should terrify and disgust all of us, but admit it: You admire him. He’s a sadistic, selfish and destructive individual, but observing his meticulous and deliberate pursuit of power is intoxicating. We all secretly wish we could somehow muster the uncompromising willpower he so effortlessly displays. Fortunately, most of us are decent people who aren’t prepared to deceive and kill people in order to achieve success. If you are willing to overlook his more sinister qualities, though, Underwood is a character who can teach you a great deal about what to desire in life and how to acquire it.”

Anti-heroes exist in a gray space, defying the simplistic black and white binaries of classic heroes and villains.  It’s a character type that feeds on cynicism.  The anti-hero has no appeal where good is clearly good and evil is clearly evil.   Students of literature and film have noted that the popularity of the anti-hero has been on the rise in recent decades.  Perhaps post-modernity and it’s disillusionment with black and white and embrace of the gray, is particularly hospitable to the anti-hero.

Whatever the case, when we watch O’Hara or Snape or Underwood in action we can find ourselves feeling conflicted.  It messes with us. We’re destabilized.  Do we want the bad guy to win or to come to justice?  Do we abhor someone for their evil actions, or do we still kind of admire them?

Well, the geniuses in LA aren’t the first folks to mess with peoples minds in this kind of way.  Tonight we’re going to look at a story that Jesus told: one that I’d argue was just as destabilizing for his audience as House of Cards is to many today. 

Throughout this season of Lent, we’ve been working our way through the gospel of Luke.  We’ve been focused especially on Jesus’ work of inviting his followers to break out of their social bubbles and we’ve been asking how we can be a part of that work.  So tonight we’re going to continue that conversation as we look at a particularly provocative story Jesus told.  Let’s jump in to Luke 16.

16:1 Jesus also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who was informed of accusations that his manager was wasting his assets. 2 So he called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Turn in the account of your administration, because you can no longer be my manager.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What should I do, since my master is taking my position away from me? I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m too ashamed to beg. 4 I know what to do so that when I am put out of management, people will welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So he contacted his master’s debtors one by one. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 The man replied, ‘A hundred measures of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ The second man replied, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their contemporaries than the people of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.

10 “The one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and the one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you haven’t been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches? 12 And if you haven’t been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

OK then.  That’s a clear one, isn’t it?  So the text here has two sections to it.  The first is the parable,  which seems to deal with issues around money, and the second contains some additional thoughts and instructions about money.  The second section seems like it’s actually pretty clear.  But the parable itself…is it just me, or is Jesus trying to mess with our heads?

Well, if you’re feeling a bit confused or uncomfortable here, the good news is: you’re not alone.  By many scholarly accounts, this parable just might be the trickiest of Jesus to understand in the gospels.  It’s commonly called the "Parable of the Unjust Steward" or the "Dishonest Manager".  Hardly the name for a role model, at least the kind of role model we’d expect Jesus to present.  So is that what he’s doing?  Let’s dig in and see if we can figure that out.

To review: the story starts with a man of great wealth, being informed that his manager was squandering his assets.  Whether the guy is maliciously managing his money poorly, or was simply incompetent we’re not totally sure, but the result is the same: the rich man is not pleased and wants to fire the manager and find someone else to take over his books.  But first, he needs the manager to pull the records together so he has something to turn over to someone else.  

Now a cultural note here: This is likely not a lowly slave brought on to do manual labor.  This guy is a white collar servant.  He is similar to a financial planner or stock investor today - someone the very rich hire to manage their assets, collect their debts, and so on.  The manager in this world had total financial authority.  He had the right to make purchases, collect debts, or forgive debts as if he were the master himself.  That is, as long as he’s working for the master.

Obviously if you had someone who could have total control of your assets, you’d want them to be someone you know you could trust to manage your estate well.  Clearly, the rich man has become aware of the fact that this manager is not proving worthy of his trust, so he rightfully chooses to sack him.  And this is where things get interesting.

The manager goes back to his office and devises a plan.  It’s a crafty plan.  He knows that once this gig is up, he has no marketable skills to make a living from.  He’s not a manual labor type of guy, so he thinks that’s out.  And he’s too proud to beg.  Maybe he thinks it’s unlikely he’ll find another job as a financial manager after word travels that he was fired from his current gig.  So what is he to do?

Well, the guy decides to pull out his first century iPhone and start working his way through the contacts list.  He calls on each of his employer’s debtors and with each of them engages in a little creative book-keeping.  Jesus uses two examples here, but we can safely assume they represent many more debtors.  

Now the sale of the quantities here is quite large, so much so that it is unlikely these debtors are personally indebted this much to the wealthy man.  These are likely business transactions with other business people.  The manager asks each of the debtors what they owe.  Maybe we get a clue into why he didn’t do well at his job, because he seems to have to ask them how much they owe his master.  Like, shouldn’t he know?  Anyway, the first guy says he owes 100 measures of olive oil, which is the equivalent of 875 gallons.  That would be equal to more than three year’s pay for a daily wage worker.  So a lot of money. But immediately, after the debtor tells him how much he owes the master, the manager says, “Quickly, make it 50.”  Quickly, let me chop that 875 gallons in half.  What debtor is going to object to that?  He’s being offered a great deal.  And for the moment, this manager still has the power to make it happen.  So the debtor agrees, and alters his promissory note to cut his debt in half.

Well, again and again the manager cuts deals with all the people who owe his master money.  And all would be well for him, except somehow the master finds out.  We don’t know how, but he finds out.  But rather than ream the guy for cheating him, what does he do?  He praises him.  He commends the dishonest manager for acting so shrewdly!  How does this compute?

So another important cultural clue might help us out here.  It has to do with ancient customs in regards to reciprocity.  Customs of the day dictated that if someone did something generous for you, you were socially expected to reciprocate, or repay the favor.  So this guy, for the moment, has control over these debts.  If he cuts them in half, which he totally has the power to do, the debtors will no doubt feel they have him to thank for cutting them a good deal. And when next month he doesn’t have any cash to pay the rent, he now has lots of favors he can pull in.  Favors he secured with his master’s money.  This is what he means when he devises the plan and says, “I know what to do so that when I am put out of management, people will welcome me into their homes.” Pretty crafty.

So why does the master commend him?  This is the part where it seems like Jesus is messing with our heads.  We’re all ready for the conclusion to be, “the master finds out the man has cheated him, he strips him of his cloak, he beats him severely, and he throws him into prison.  And so will it be with you, if you squander what your master has given you.”  But that’s not how Jesus wraps up the story.  Instead, the master finds out what the manager has done and this is his reaction: “Well played, sir.  Well played.”

The master is genuinely impressed at this guys shrewdness.  He might be a total scoundrel, but he’s smart.  He is shrewd.  And that deserves a bit of respect.  The guy has even painted his manager into a corner.  He’s changed the debts on behalf of the master.  The master’s own reputation is on the line.  This guy was acting on his authority, right?  If he turns around and tries to renege on all the deals the manager has just cut, his own reputation is tarnished.  In a reciprocity world, you don’t want all your business associates to see you as either out of control of your assets or someone who backs out of a deal.  So to cry “foul” makes the master look bad.  This guy has totally exploited him for his own gain.  He’s secured his own reputation, and likely increased the reputation of his boss, for cutting all these deals, even if he’s decreased his assets.  You gotta admit; like the guy or not, he knows how to get things done.

A few years ago the Guardian broke a story that took place in a US tech company.  The company was doing a routine security check when they noticed an alarming trend: their system was regularly being logged into by a computer in China.  The company called in telecom experts to help them sort this out, as they were clearly concerned they were victims of cyber-terrorism.  However, when the security experts checked into who was accessing the servers from China, they traced it to a mild-mannered family man in his 40s, an engineer with a cubicle idown the hall, one of their own engineers who the article referred to as “Bob”.  Turns out Bob had outsourced his own job to a software development firm in China.  He had sent his log-in information to Chinese developers and while he collected a six figure salary in the US, he paid that Chinese company less than a fifth of what he made to do all his work for him.  And the gig worked for a long while.  Every review, Bob was praised for being “the best developer in the building”, while all he was doing was surf the web all day.

Bob was fired for his little scheme, but some folks in the tech world argued he should be promoted.  In a world that values efficiency and automating the mundane tasks in life, hadn’t Bob just totally excelled? Hashtag “Well Played”.

So back to the parable: what are we to do with it?  Why is Jesus giving this teaching?  Why use this example?  Is he now the God of prosperity?  Is he a fan of chasing wealth?  No, not at all.  This is the same Jesus who spoke clearly to the rich young ruler and said if he wanted to follow Jesus he needed to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor.  This is the same Jesus who then said “It is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  This is the same Jesus who said, “blessed are you who are poor for the kingdom of God belongs to you”.  And this is the same Jesus who says at the end of our passage, “you can’t serve God and money”.  It’s in that broader context of Jesus’ teachings on money that this parable appears. 

Does this story mean we should cheat others and buy favors?  Not exactly.  But I do think there is something Jesus wants us to emulate here.  And it’s summed up in Jesus’ first comments after the parable is done.  “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their contemporaries than the people of light.”  I don’t think Jesus is asking his people to become “people of this world” rather than “people of light”.  I don’t think he’s asking them to throw integrity out the window and cheat and steal.  But he is asking them to pay attention to the smart way that those who have less scruples go about their business.  He does seem to believe that there’s something they might learn from them.  It’s kind of like what John Haltiwanger was saying about Frank Underwood.  Pay attention to the anti-hero.  He might be a scumbag but he’s doing something right.

And the key to what that is comes at the parables’ end. “And I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.”  Make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth.  Use your money to make friends.  Why?  Because money runs out and it’s impermanent.  But relationships have eternal value.

You see, I think Jesus is being shocking and a bit cheeky to make an important point.  Money is tied to this life and of no value in the next.  Just like the old cliche says, “You can’t take it with you.”  Whatever money we hoard or spend on ourselves is of little use to us in the end.  Jesus has made this point through different parables and sermons before.  But here’s the new twist:

If you can’t take it with you, might as well spend it on something you can.  And apparently that something is friendship.  Relationships.  People who will welcome us into eternal homes, just like the forgiven debtors welcomed the manager.  Our money might not be permanent, but apparently our friendships could be.

I think Jesus uses this cheeky story to teach a lesson because he knows his audience. He was speaking to mainly poor and working class folks.  These folks are not of the world of the master or the manager.  They likely look with disgust a bit on all of them, even if they envy their money.  To them Jesus is saying, “Sure, their is plenty to critique here.  I’m certainly not endorsing the dishonesty.  But there’s something here you could learn that could be useful to you.  Reciprocity is a powerful ally.”

A number of Jesus’ core followers were originally fishermen.  When Jesus first called them, he told them he would show them how to fish for people.  In this story, I think that’s exactly what he’s doing.  The bait for human beings isn’t worms, and they can’t be caught with nets.  But money, for all it’s dangers and faults, can actually be very useful in the work of “catching people”.

Now it sounds a bit crass to say it that way.  Is Jesus saying we should buy friends?  Or bribe people into the kingdom?  That’s a pretty reductionist way of looking at it.  What I really think Jesus is saying is that generosity is powerful stuff.  It has a profound ability to open up relational opportunities.  Generosity disarms us; it puts us on friendlier terms.  Think of how you feel when someone shows generosity toward you.  And the ministry Jesus is calling his followers to, to share the blessing and fullness of life that Jesus brings is a generous ministry that happens best in the context of personal relationships.  Why not blow some money as part of that endeavor?

So how exactly does Jesus want us to respond to this crazy parable?  If Jesus’s parables are always “stories with intent”, what’s the intended reaction he’s trying to provoke in his listeners, as well as in us?

I think the first thing is to remember that whatever assets we have, we are only managers.  From dust we came and to dust we will return.  Whatever we have to spend is what God has entrusted to us.  We are controlling assets that have been to given us to control, but which have only been given to us for a season, and at some point will be taken back from us.  Ultimately, this is not our money.  It is God’s.  But he is giving us authority and agency.  He is giving us permission to spend on his behalf.  We see in other places, like the parable of the talents, that God expects us to invest what he gives us, not simply bury it in the ground and keep it safe.  With this parable, I hear Jesus saying, “Go ahead!  Spend my money.  I want you to. Just make sure you spend it on the right thing; something that will pay off long term. When you do, I will say to you my friend, ‘Well played.’”

I don’t think that Jesus tells this story of the dishonest manager as an example of how we should live.  Not really.  It’s not a “go and do likewise” kind of parable.  No, I think it’s a “how much more…” kind of parable.  This is another one of Jesus’ favorite devices.  If this is true, how much more is that true.  “If God feeds the ravens, how much more will he feed you.”  “If he clothes the flowers, how much more will he clothe you.”  In this case, I think he’s saying this:

The shrewd manager only cared about money.  His pursuit of money led him to play the system, so that he’ be financially secure.  But in the end, his security was reliant on having positive relationships with others.  He used money to bless others which forged relationships through which he’d benefit as well.

If this guy, who was only motivated to be generous to save his own skin could experience blessing and reciprocity for his hospitality, HOW MUCH MORE can you, who seek genuine relationships experience the fruitfulness of hospitality? If this guy, who is only motivated to look after himself understands that it’s in his own self-interest to invest in others, how much more should you put that into practice?  For the manager, relationship was a means to an end.  But for you who care about others and seek their welfare because I, Jesus, myself do, the relationship is the end.  The money is the means.  So how much more fruitful could your efforts be when you take a page from the shrewd manager’s book, and bless some folks in your sphere with money?  It’s my money anyway, so go out and spend it on something that will pay off long term.

So that brings us to the next thing Jesus is inviting us into: to actually share what we have to bless others.  Give things away.  At the beginning of Leap of Faith, I asked you to consider how you might blow money on one or more of your six. This is why.  This is the invitation Jesus has for us, to share our resources as a means of blessing others practically and opening up relationships.  Now we may not always feel like we have the means to give a lot financially, but I think the invitation still holds.  We’re looking for practical ways to bless others.  So it could be taking someone out to lunch, or offering to pay a bill you know that they can’t manage right now.  Having someone over for dinner. But it could also be offering to watch their kids for a few hours or offering to give them a ride somewhere.  The point is giving practically of whatever resources we have, remembering that they are not ours to possess but to steward, and Jesus is inviting us to steward them towards others.

Guys, Jesus is having fun with this story.  I think he liked presenting this Frank Underwood anti-hero type character and inviting us into a bit of playful discomfort.  But in the same way, I think he is inviting us to have some fun.  This isn’t an onerous task.  It should be a freeing one.  Here’s some money! It’s not yours - just give it away.  Make some people happy.  Make some new friends.  Have fun doing it.

A team of psychologists recently did a study about what they called prosocial spending, meaning spending on other people.  They wanted to find out if there was a correlation between how people spent their money and how happy spending it made them.  And they found a very strong one.

In experiment after experiment, in culture after culture, among laborers in third world Uganda or affluent college students in Canada, the results were the same.  Despite what people predict will be true of themselves, when they spend money on others, they feel happier.  Many of the experiments went something like this.  You give someone an envelope of money.  Sometimes its $5, sometimes it’s $20.  You tell some people to spend the money by the end of the day on themselves. You tell others to spend it on someone else.  At the end of the day you call and ask them what they spent it on, and how they feel now as a result.  Person after person who was given money for themselves bought a coffee, or some earrings or makeup and say they felt fine, but it really didn’t do much for them emotionally.  But the people who took the money and bought their friends a coffee, they felt much happier.  Similar experiments in the workplace yielded interesting results.  If you gave every member of a team a bit of cash and told them to spend it on themselves, they’d each go out to lunch or something but there would be no net positive effect.  You essentially lose the money.  But have them spend the money on their team-mates and things change.  Teams are not only happier, they are markedly more productive, meaning the financial investment more than pays off, it makes you money.

One of the researchers, Michael Norton, summed it up in a TED talk on the findings in this way: “If you think money can’t buy happiness, you’re just not spending it right.”  

This is a big part of why we who are excited about what God is doing in Haven and what he’s going to do, are committing to financially backing that effort.  We want to pool our resources and watch how together we can do things we couldn’t have pulled off on our own to bless folks around us.  So we get to throw a big Easter party.  We get to buy balloons and Easter eggs and lots of lamb for lamb kabobs and we get to invite our neighbors and friends, because, united, we have the money to do so.  We get to show up the night before at the men’s shelter and bless them with yummy, homemade food.  Each time we’ve been there, the guys who’ve eaten with us have expressed how grateful they are to have a home cooked meal.  We get to stock up at Costco, we get to put our cooking gifts to use, and we get to make that experience happen  for them because we have the resources to do so.  Because we’re spending what God has given us pro-socially. 

A few years ago my church in Iowa was doing a similar Leap of Faith to us now, working their way through Luke, and especially as we considered this passage, our staff had this thought:  we’re asking people to consider blowing money on someone in their life, maybe one of their six, but how, as a church, could we do something similar?  What kind of impact we could make in our community if we gave away a good chunk of money?  And so on top of the regular social services we supported, we decided for Lent, we were going to choose an organization and a project to which we could give as a church $10,000 and bring blessing to a group in our community.  We ended up having folks in our church submit ideas, and in the end we narrowed it down to three choices, all of which were worthy projects which someone in our church was involved in, so we had assurance that we could not only give a check, but also find ways to personally come alongside and partner with the group we gave the money to.  On Easter Sunday we invited everyone in our church to vote on one of the top three options.  The church chose to partner with a local school to fund a literacy camp for the summer for at-risk youth.  It was a program that wouldn’t have been able to happen without our support, but because we blew some money on that school, wonderful things happened.  The camp happened and folks from our church showed up every day during it as volunteers and got the chance to meet the kids involved and read with them.  It was such a positive experience for our church, that the Lenten $10,000 blessing has now become an annual tradition.  It’s been a super-fun experience for that church to spend prosocially as a community together.

So God is inviting us, like a manager, to spend his money, and he wants us to be shrewd about it, and spend it on others.  But I think there’s one more important take-away here, and it’s found in these words from Jesus at the end: “If then you haven’t been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches?”   The reality is that the true riches of life, that which is of the greatest value, do not come in cash, credit, or even BitCoin.  True riches are beyond that.  What’s he talking about here?  I think it has to be the currency of the kingdom.  

If we want to be a part of seeing God’s reign, his sovereignty, his blessing break through the death and decay around us, bringing life and beauty and renewal, we need to be stewards of the king’s true riches.  If we want to speak words of life that set people free, we need the king’s true riches.  If we want to lay hands on someone and pray and see supernatural signs and wonders take place before us, we need the king’s true riches.  If we want to lead others in kingdom work, we need the king’s true riches. If we want to live the mission Jesus proclaimed of himself when he read in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth these words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”..we need the king’s true riches. But money, worldly money…cash, credit, check, and even BitCoin, these are the training wheels.  How we spend God’s money is the testing ground to determine whether we can be trusted with true riches.  We cannot compartmentalize.  Jesus makes it clear that the practical and the spiritual are profoundly connected.  If we hoard what we have in the natural we should not expect the supernatural. 

I don’t think this is a punitive thing.  It’s God’s wisdom.  We do the same thing with our kids.  It’s why we’re giving our kids an allowance.  We want to help them learn how to think about their resources.  How to save for what they want.  How to spend wisely.  We have them give a tenth of their allowance away because we want to help instill in them even now a realization that their money is meant to be shared.  We’re doing all of this with the hope that by the time they’re old enough to have real jobs that make real money these habits will be natural.  We’re allowing them to practice with a few dollars a week before they need to manage a lot more.  

I think Jesus is telling us here that God is doing the same with us.  God wants to be sure we’re ready for the responsibility he wants to entrust to us. As Jesus said to Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom.  What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  I am giving you authority to make choices with eternal consequences.  That authority wasn’t just for Peter alone.  Jesus wants to give it to us, to Haven, but if we’re not ready for it, it will be destructive for us and for others.  

Many folks who win the lottery end up finding it to be a horrible experience, because they’re not ready for it.  They blow the money on themselves and it ruins all of their relationships as everyone comes after them asking them for a handout.  They feel isolated by their winnings, and eventually they end up alone and in debt for spending too much.  The power of God, the power to heal, the power to bring freedom, the power to transform lives is even more potent stuff than cash.  If we try to hoard that power for ourselves or for our insular little faith communities, what was meant for good becomes toxic.  It’s meant to be shared.  God pours out his true riches to bless the world he came to redeem.  He did it first through Jesus who exemplified an entire life of selfless generosity.  I believe he wants to do the same thing with us.  I believe he wants to do the same thing with Haven.  

But it starts with letting go and being willing to share what we have. Whatever we have.  Sharing our money, sharing our time, sharing our homes, and reaping the blessings of a richer, fuller, more connected life.  A life that’s not filled with stuff but with people, and ultimately, with more of Jesus.  So go buy your coworker lunch this week, treat that neighbor down the hall to coffee.  And as you eat or drink with them, listen for that still small voice of Jesus in our midst.  It just might be saying “Well played” to you.  Amen.