Sunday, 18 September 2016

Currency Exchange (Luke 16:1-13)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on September 18, 2016, Proper 20)


A Currency Deeper Than Dollars

It’s a familiar scene. Just a father and his son—and two tickets for the baseball game. The son walks through the turnstile with a sense of wonder, as though he knows he’s stepping foot onto holy ground. And no expense is spared as they make it a day to remember: popcorn, hot dogs, soda. An autographed baseball. And then the real glory of the occasion: the father and son sitting side by side, drinking the game in together. Enjoying real conversation together.

“There are some things money can’t buy…. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”

With that, MasterCard struck gold. This was the first commercial in what would become a timeless ad campaign that centered on what we might call holy life experiences. At the heart of each commercial was a “priceless” life moment, something that money could not buy—oftentimes something that involved family and friends, like building a sandcastle with a little child at the beach, or celebrating a graduation or a wedding.

Many of these commercials are touching. And if I might be so bold, I would suggest that this is because many of them bear the fingerprint of the Holy Spirit. They are marked by a deep truth that we all know, a sacred sense that we all share: there is a currency deeper than dollars. What ultimately moves us is not money but moments shared with others.

Caught in Money’s Currents

Now the more cynical among us might be rolling their eyes. To propose that these MasterCard ads are somehow sacred seems absurd. In fact, one could make the argument that they are not sacred but sacrilegious. They speak the truth, sure, but they do the opposite. These ads proclaim that there is a currency deeper than dollars, but they make this very proclamation in the hope that MasterCard might make more dollars. They praise what is priceless, all the while sticking a price on it. It seems a bit hypocritical to glorify meaningful moments over money, all with an eye toward making more money.

It is hard to think of a better example of how money runs our world, how even our most sacred moments cannot escape its gripping currents. Money truly is the “currency” of our lives, which is to say, its currents carry us, as an ocean’s currents carry boats or the air’s currents carry kites.

“The Money of Injustice”

The overpowering currents of money not only move our world today. They moved the world of Jesus too, and they seem to be the reason that he tells today’s parable.

Now if you found yourself scratching your head after hearing through the parable, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the good company of theologians and biblical scholars, who for once find themselves agreeing on something: this is one puzzling parable. Perhaps the most perplexing part of it is that Jesus advises us to handle dirty money, what he calls “dishonest wealth.” He invites us to “make friends for [ourselves] by means of dishonest wealth” (16:9). I have to admit: when I first read that, I did a double-take. Is Jesus counseling us toward dishonesty—toward things like fraud and deceit?

It helped me to learn that things look a little bit different in the original language of the story. In the Greek, Jesus is inviting us to make friends for ourselves by means of “the money of injustice” (16:9). “Ah,” I thought! “A loophole!” Maybe Jesus isn’t saying we should be dishonest with money, but rather that we can put bad money to good use. Maybe Jesus is saying that the rich master in the story had been exploiting his debtors with unreasonable charges, and so the manager—the middleman in the story—is redeeming this wrong by cutting the debts. The manager is making good on bad money. It would be a little bit like if the police run a drug bust, and not only do they find a load of drugs, they also find a load of money. That money is dirty, or dishonest, but now it’s in the hands of folks who can do good.

The Injustice of Money

But if I’m being honest, reading the story this way—believing that Jesus is talking about how we can make good with bad money—is just another piece of evidence that I am awash in the currents of money. In other words, I want to hear Jesus say to me, “Money’s not a bad thing, it’s just how you use it.”

But I am convicted that this story is saying more than that. In his explanation of the story, Jesus talks about two different ages: this age, this world that we live in, and the age to come, the kingdom of God, in which “the money of injustice” will be gone and all that will remain is what Jesus calls “true riches” (16:9, 11). It almost sounds like Jesus is saying that the difference between this age and the next, is its currency. In the one age, money is what runs the world. In the next age, that money is gone, and in its place are “true riches,” which I must believe are things like love and forgiveness, giving and trusting.

So when Jesus talks about “the money of injustice,” I believe he is also talking about the injustice of money, the way that money easily sweeps us up into unjust currents. If we look closely at the story, money is what alienates people. It is what fragments society, what makes for an unjust society. The characters see dollar signs instead of people. When the master looks at his manager, he sees the squandering of his money. And when the manager looks at his clients, he sees a pile of debts.

This way of looking at the world is not bad, not if you want money. It will make you calculating and efficient, and ultimately it may make you rich. But it may also make you sad. My brother, who lives in Waco, Texas, remembers how when he first moved out there, a man in his church showed him around town. When the man took him to an upmarket neighborhood, he pointed to one of the streets, and remarked in his brusque, Texan manner: “That there’s the richest street in town. It’s also the saddest.” Each house on the street had an unhappy story: domestic dispute, drugs, escorts. When I hear Jesus’ phrase, “money of injustice,” I cannot help but wonder if what he meant is that the currents of money tend to sweep us toward an unjust society, tearing apart rather than bringing together.

How We Respond to a Currency Crash

Therefore, Jesus advocates a currency exchange. He says that in the kingdom of God, the currents that move the world are not money but friendship, and so if we want to be swept into the kingdom, we should do like the manager. We should swap the money that sweeps us into injustice for new friendships that will sweep us into the hospitality of others’ homes.

Imagine that you had insider knowledge that the US dollar would crash beyond repair. According to the logic of our world, the appropriate response would be to exchange it for a stable currency. That way we could hold onto what was ours. But according to the logic of the kingdom in today’s text, the appropriate response would be to exchange it for new friendships—to spend it, to let it go, to relinquish it, not on ourselves, but on strangers. In such a way, we enter the justice of the kingdom, where people care not for themselves but for one another.

It is foolishness, indeed, according to the world. But such is the kingdom of God.

Converting to the Kingdom Currency

Today’s parable is an antiquated story and difficult to relate to personally. What might it look like today when a person converts from the currency of money to the kingdom currency of making friends?

I read the story recently of a father and a son who were walking through the inner city. We might imagine it was the same father and son on their way to the baseball game. In any case, a homeless man approached them and asked if they had any spare change. The father dug into his pockets, and spread out in his hands all that he had. “Here,” he said, “Take what you need.” The homeless man was surprised. “Well, I’ll take it all.”

The father and son walked on, when the father suddenly realized that he still needed money to make a phone call. (Which dates this story to an age before some of us were even born, an age long ago, before cell phones existed.) The father turned and caught up with the homeless man: “I was going to make a phone call later today, but I’ve given you all my change. Could I have a quarter?”

The homeless man extended his hands in return. “Here,” he said, “Take what you need.”[1]

No longer were the men two strangers, one socially positioned above the other. They were friends, sharing what they had in common.[2] Like the manager of the parable, they had exchanged the currency of money for the currency of making friends.

The “Kin-dom” of God

MasterCard came pretty close. There is a currency deeper than dollars. But MasterCard stops one foot short of the kingdom, because its commercials nearly always feature family and friends as the deeper currency, as what is priceless. But according to Jesus, what is priceless is not the moment shared with family and friends, but rather the moment when no expense is spared so that a stranger becomes friend, a friend who in return also spares no expense. 

Today’s parable offers us a curious glimpse into the kingdom of God. We don’t see streets paved with gold or magnificent gates. Instead we see the homes of strangers-turned-friends. The kingdom of God, Jesus implies, is where strangers spare no expense for one another and welcome each other into their homes. It is where not money but new friends are being made all the time.

We might call this kingdom of God the kin-dom of God,[3] for it is a world where all strangers are treated as kin, to whom we extend our hands and say, “Here, take what you need.”


Sweep us up, God,
In the currents of your kingdom—
Exchange our currency. Convert us,
So that we see abundance of life
Not in money
But in making friends.
In the name of him
Who forfeited his life for friendship.


[1] Adapted from Thomas G. Long, “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers (2007): 56.

[2] In this, they resemble the intended way of living among the early Christ-following community (Acts 2:44-45).

[3] For more on the idea of the “kin-dom” of God, see Tripp Fuller, The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic—or Awesome? (Minneapolies: Fortress, 2015), especially chapter 3, “Abba Says, ‘Drop the G.’”

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