We all knew, in the old westerns, who the bad guys were by the colour of their hats. These days, if you go to a movie and a smooth character speaks to you in a somewhat refined British accent, you are going to keep an eye on that character: he’s probably up to no good. From Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, to Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Wars, even the voice of Jeremy Irons as Scar, the wicked uncle in the Lion King, it’s a pretty good bet that if you hear an English accent, the movie maker is trying to semaphore to you a message: this is not the character you want to be rooting for. [If you are reading this online and don’t know me, imagine, if you will, that I sound something like Helen Mirren. Or maybe Judi Dench. If you do know me, humour me.]
In Luke’s gospel and beyond, the phrase, “a rich man,” serves something of the same purpose. It is a marker, an indicator that tells you more than the simple presentation of a man with a lot of money could. It is not clear that having possessions is in itself enough to make you the bad guy; after another “rich man” parable, Jesus speaks of those who store up treasure for themselves, but are not rich towards God (Luke 12:21). That is the kind of person that we are meant to imagine when a parable begins with the words, “a rich man:” those who store up treasure for themselves, but who are not rich towards God.
Remember that Jesus was sitting at dinner with the Pharisees, then he went out and was eating with the tax collectors and sinners, to the Pharisees’ chagrin. He told them all some stories about who was lost and how they were found, and how delighted God was to welcome them home. Now, he tells a different story.
Jesus, never one to flatter much, describes the character of the manager in weak and whiny terms: oh my, what shall I do, I could never hack manual labour, I couldn’t bear to beg … all I know is how to manipulate money to make it do what I want. So he continues, despite having lost his job over it, in the same vein as he has been going all these years. He calls in his master’s debtors, falsifies their loan documents, and tells them they owe him one. He is the opposite of the model of repentance, of seeing the light and amending a life; despite his protestations, he does know how to dig and he is digging in ever deeper.
The surprise twist comes when the master returns and is pleased with what the manager has done; actually, I think that he laughs at him, and slaps him on the back, and says, “Well played, my son!” Remember, this master is “a rich man,” not only wealthy but one who stores up treasures for himself without regard to God or his neighbour. He is not a model we want to follow, but he sees that his manager is out of his same mould, he knows the game, he is “one of us.” The student has pleased his master after all, although we are not told if he gets his job back.
A man was incarcerated in a high security prison on the Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England. Whilst there, he had fallen under the wings of one of the most notorious criminal families in England, the Krays, south London gangsters with a fearsome reputation. This young man somehow charmed the brother of the infamous Kray twins and entered his circle of protection through the prison drug programme. It was always the same way with the family: they looked after their own. Even while they were causing menace and mayhem in south London, the gangsters were known for their kindness to their old mum. If you were one of them, you were safe. If you were one of them, you were protected, for at least as long as the friendship lasted.
“Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes.” Making friends by means of dishonesty – like the corrupt manager, like the Parkhurst prisoner – will earn you favours with those in the know, and this may come with real and tangible benefits. But this is not a story of repentance, of seeing the light and amending a life, and it does not have the same happy ending. Look at the home into which they welcome you: a top security prison; a lifetime of servitude to a selfish rich man, or worse. It’s hardly the loving and joyful embrace that welcomed the lost sheep, the lost son.
No, Jesus tells the tax collectors and sinners, and the money-loving Pharisees, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t make money your priority at any price, and still consider yourself servants of God. You can’t treat your neighbour dishonestly and turn around to God and say, “I didn’t mean it, honestly.” To quote Shakespeare, “All that glisters is not gold.” God longs to give us the true riches of life within the divine embrace, life in the light, life in full, but if our gaze is fixed on filthy lucre, we will only see its dim reflection.
Here’s what I hear Jesus saying: Be dazzling as children of the light. Be so astonishingly upright and transparent in your dealings that you blind the children of this generation with your honesty and leave them bewildered. You can’t serve two masters, you can’t have it both ways, so choose the way that leads to eternal life, to the eternal home that is worth inheriting, not a top-security prison but a loving home with a warm embrace and a fatted calf.
When I was a student, the first time around, long ago, juggling financial forms, a priest told me, “You know, there is such a thing as being too honest.” I have to tell you, according to this parable, according to Jesus, he was just plain wrong. You can’t have it both ways, no matter what wise men and Pharisees might say!
The Church of England had a little public embarrassment recently when the new(ish) Archbishop of Canterbury blasted short-term lenders and vowed to drive them out of business with ethical investments, only to have the Financial Times reveal the following day that the Church, in fact, had investments in just such a company within its portfolio. To his credit, the Archbishop admitted the error and launched immediate action to correct it, but it just goes to show, no matter how high and holy you may be, you can’t have it both ways.
The bottom line is that Christians are called to scrupulously ethical dealings with money; they are called to engage with economic justice, fairness, and even generosity; they cannot claim to play the worldly games of chance and trickery, of greedy acquisition and sharp dealing and still serve God. The law of Deuteronomy warns, “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought” (Deut 15:7b,9a).
It’s a tough line, and it must have sounded as high-minded and unrealistic to the tax collectors as it does to us today; it’s certainly a tough line for our politicians, fighting over budget priorities, where food stamps and health insurance fight against bombs, bailouts and bureaucracy; it’s a tough line, but it is our calling. It is our choice every day, in every transaction we make, to serve God, through means of honesty and fairness, supporting economic justice and true generosity; or to serve money, letting it control us, making the bottom line the boss of us. We cannot have it both ways, says Jesus. Each decision that we make, of where to spend our money, where to shop, how to save, to whom to give our money is an ethical choice, a decision to serve God or our own bottom line.
It’s a tough line, but if you were in the movie, which hat would you want to wear; what accent would you want to use to deliver it?
The reward of repentance is so much richer than a night on the couch in the home of a crooked friend developed by dishonest means and shrewd dealings. The reward of repentance, of seeing the light and amending a life, is that loving embrace that rushes out to meet the prodigal son on his return home, the party of angels celebrating the return of the lost lamb, the delight of the One who made us when we finally turn our face towards heaven, even heaven on earth.
You can’t serve God and money, warns Jesus, but trust me, God is worth more, lasts longer, never runs out and is never overdrawn. And you can take that to the bank.
 William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene viii, line 65