Dennis Patterson Jr.: From Dishonest Wealth to Purpose

If you are like me, then this parable has blown your mind. It goes against everything that we have learned about what God has expected of us. The victor is the villain and the truth… it seems the truth has taken a back seat.

So, the story goes…

A rich man was approached by someone who snitched on the manager. He told the rich man that his manager was squandering his property. Wanting to hear it for himself, the rich man approaches the manager and asks him to give an account of his practices. He then fires him on the spot.

This manager, not knowing what to do, with his back against the wall and unsure how to move forward, comes up with a plan. He approaches each of his employer’s debtors, and reduces the debt they owe in hope of gaining favor with them and others in the future. So, not only has this manager potentially stolen from this rich man initially, he doubles down and only collects a percentage of the debt owed. Wow!

Surprisingly, instead of taking further punitive action against him, the rich man commends him. He commends the manager for being a shrewd businessman. In an attempt to justify his response, he says, “Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes.”

There is something disturbing and strangely intriguing about this story. Imagine that! Jesus using a story about a dishonest, shrewd businessman being rewarded for his actions. It should be no surprise that from the beginning of time scholars have argued if such an aberration from his familiar teaching can in fact be attributed to Jesus. Certainly, it cannot… or, maybe it can!

We don’t have to study the life of Jesus long to understand the kind of company he kept. The 2nd chapter of Mark says, “when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with tax collectors and sinners…, they told his disciples, ‘He eats with tax collectors and sinners… he told them, ‘Those who are well do not need a physician, rather those that are sick. I do not come to call the righteous, rather I came to call sinners.” (Mark 2:13-17)

It is not by mistake that Jesus spent most of his time around sinners. You know, the ones trying to get it right. The ones that do not follow what has been deemed normal or satisfactory. You know, those ones that don’t fit in to the majority, or they live on the edge or beyond.

This shrewd manager definitely fits this description. The fact is that we are not told much about this manager, only that he has squandered his master’s money and, because of it, he faces termination.

We should be careful, very careful, not to write anyone off too quickly. It would be easy for the reader to make a judgment on the life of this man without further examining who he is – to ask the question, why. Too often those in power, or those making decisions, make a decision aside from any further review.

The question that must be asked is, why. Why was the manager being reckless in this way? Was he having problems at home, was his relationship in shambles, had someone close to him died, was he mistreated, ignored, denied, or was there something else that contributed to this glitch in judgment? Or was he simply a dishonest thief? But we have to ask the question, why. As children of God, and as students of scripture, at the very least, we owe it to him and ourselves to ask why.

I’ll call him Johnny. To us he was just a normal kid. During the day we played sports together, we rode bikes together, we chased girls together, and all the things that teenage boys do. At night, however, it was a different story. While I went home to a more structured family, Johnny went home to a mother who was on drugs and a little brother who desperately was in need of love and affection.

Over time, as his situation became more dire, Johnny turned to selling drugs because he “knew” that that was the only way to eat. You see, when your back is up against the wall and your life and future depend on your next move, it is very difficult to say what you would do. And for this kid, giving up was not an option.

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to say, “how could he do that, how could he do this to his community?” But to those of us who knew him, he was a kid who was a victim of his community, motivated by the threat of losing everything that he held dear. As far as he was concerned, his job, his only job, was to take care of his sick mom, to keep a roof over their head, and to avoid Social Services taking away his little brother.

Said another way, and maybe a more familiar way in line with the scripture, Johnny found himself in a pivotal moment. Not sure about his future, he couldn’t get a job because he was too young, and he was ashamed to beg. But he needed to do something. So, he began to think to himself, “This is what I’ll do.” So, he went to these dealers, you see, and made a deal. If you give me this package, I will bring you back double. They agreed. Package by package by package he sold out. He thought to himself, “if I sell this much, I can take care of my family. I can make sure that they are okay. My future depends on me.” That’s a shrewd decision if I’ve ever seen one.

“Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes.”

You should know that over time Johnny figured life out and moved away from the world of drugs that he considered normal, into what God knew he was capable of the entire time… all while using what he had learned about being shrewd.

“Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes.”

Johnny is not the only person to move from victim to purpose. Kids are born into this situation every day not knowing which way to turn or which choice to make. Shawn Carter, better known to the world as Jay-Z, also succumbed to the temptation of the environment in which he was raised. He famously writes, “I went from bricks to billboards, from grams to Grammys,” highlighting how the bad choices of his childhood prepared him to become the artist and philanthropist and businessman that he is today.

And still, I hear the scripture, “Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes.”

If we are honest with ourselves, the world is full of dishonest managers. Stuck for whatever reason, trying to figure it out. Dishonest with their families; dishonest with their children; dishonest with their friends; dishonest with God; and yes, even dishonest with themselves.

The beauty of this strange and uncommon story in this 16th chapter of Luke is that Jesus understands his audience. He asked the question, why. While the example may be foreign to some, it is real to others, especially those with their backs against the wall. He takes into account all people. In this story, Jesus invites us to see our own journeys, and at the same time, the journeys of others. He understands what many of us try to forget, that most of us have made horrible decisions in our lives, and that all have fallen short of the glory of God.

Imagine with me for a moment - imagine a God who is not afraid to ask why. Imagine a God who is not afraid to consider your why; a God who is not afraid to speak directly to the darkness in your life. Imagine a faith that believes you don’t have to end where you started. Imagine a God who recognizes and celebrates the potential you have even when you are failing miserably. Imagine a God who allows room for you to transition from being dishonest to honest.

This is our God!

There is purpose in each of us dying to be discovered, and our God is with us while we are trying to figure it out. Little by little, we find our way. We do the best we can with what we have until we know better, and when we know better, as they say, we do better!

Howard Thurman, that great author, poet, preacher, teacher, and pastor, when talking about moving from innocence to knowledge, writes:

“But when knowledge comes, the whole world is turned upside down. The meaning of things begins to emerge, and more importantly, the relations between things are seen for the first time. Questions are asked and answers are sought. A strange restlessness comes over the spirit and the enormity of error moves over the horizon like a vast shadow.”

It is under this shadow that we, those who have been overlooked or ignored - it is under this shadow where we bring the gods that we have created before the God who has created us. It is under this shadow that we choose God over wealth, life over death, and integrity over dishonesty.

Thanks be to God! Amen.