Jesus, Debbie Downer and Your Money
Have you ever had any friends with a negative side?
Like you’ll just be ready to bite into a big juicy hamburger,
and they’ll recite all the unhealthy statistics on eating red meat.
Or you will be commenting about the beauty of the day,
and someone will tell you how the sun got in a truck driver’s eyes and caused a huge accident.
It’s the kind of person spoofed in the old Saturday Night Live skits, ‘Debbie Downer.’
You know what I am talking about--
The kind of person who just takes wind out of your sails and the joy out of life.
I have always felt that Jesus was a bit of a Debbie Downer when he says,“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
I mean, I always felt good when I got a paycheck.
but this saying made me feel guilty, like money was a bad thing.
I grew up in a middle class household.
My parents were good savers, generous with their time and money, tithers at church.
But somehow I still got the impression that though people with money
were lifted up as the models in society,
the church saw people with money as wrong, greedy, and morally misguided.
I never liked this passage.
But as I began to study scripture as a preacher, I noticed the context in which this saying of Jesus occurs.
It’s in a parable about something everyone would recognize: a shrewd businessman.
A money manager gets called on the carpet for laziness and poor investments.
Knowing that he is about to get fired, the manager goes to all his boss’ creditors
and says, “hey, Christmas has come early; I’m cutting your bill in half.”
What he really is doing is making friends for himself so he can call in favors later.
Now at this point in the story, none of Jesus’ listeners would have been impressed with this businessman.
He is unscrupulous, looking out for his own neck rather than taking care with the money entrusted to him.
None of Jesus’ listeners would have been surprised, either.
Our reading from the 8th century prophet Amos shows that people who cheat to make a quick buck
have been around for a long time.
But then Jesus delivers the punch line:
“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly.”
By now the disciples were listening, because this didn’t seem right.
God is a God of justice, and stealing is definitely not on the list of just behavior.
But notice, the master commended the dishonest manager
not because he cheated the master out of his money like a first century Robin Hood
but because the manager was shrewd.
Jesus lifts up the manager’s clear focused goal of making the most of what he’s got,
his using money for a bigger goal.
A modern example of the kind of shrewdness that Jesus is lifting up with the civil rights attorney Morris Dees.
Larry loaned me Dees’ autobiography and I read it this summer.
Dees always had a gift for making money
As a kid he raised hogs and made mulch from the leftovers of the family cotton gin
by the time he graduated high school in 1955 he had saved $5000.
He followed his father’s advice and went to law school, but upon graduation went into business instead.
He and his college buddy Millard Fuller got in at the ground floor in the direct mail business
they built a multimillion dollar company called the Fuller and Dees Marketing Group
promoting businesses and raising money through what you and I now call “junk mail.”
Now there is clearly a downside to this endeavor, which can easily see now 50 years later.
Besides the endless solicitations and scams that have grown out of this industry,
there is the ecological implication of so much wasted paper.
However, like Jesus’ story of the unsavory manager, both Dees and his partner Fuller
made the most of their situation and used their business gifts and money for a good end.
You see, Dees grew up outside Montgomery, AL, and unlike many of his white peers,
he had black friends growing up whose families worked on the Dees farm.
He was a student at University of Alabama when the courts ordered that the school must be integrated
and the school’s first African American student Autherine Lucy attempted to attend classes.
Dees witnessed the white mob that verbally and physically harassed Lucy,
preventing her from getting to class.
As disturbed as Dees was by the violence, he was even more disillusioned by the fact that when he brought
the matter to his bible study, no one at his church would organize with him to stand against the injustice.
A fire began to burn within Dees, but it wasn’t until a decade later that he sold his business to create
the Southern Poverty Law Center to try civil rights cases that no other lawyer would touch.
Dees found he could apply the direct mail techniques from his business days
to raise funds to sustain the work of the Center, which often took on cases pro bono.
His group defended people who were charged with trespassing on the Edmund Pettus bridge
he took the city of Montgomery to court for closing down the public pools and parks instead of integrating them
and finally he tried the murder case that bankrupted the United Klans of America and put them out of business.
Dees provides me a new context for me to consider Jesus’ words,
“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
He didn’t looked at money as something to feel guilty about
instead he was clever in his use of money and made a lot of it
and then did something good with it.
He never would have had the capital to begin the SPLC without selling his multimillion dollar business.
As a Christian and moral man, he decided to serve God with his wealth.
The truth is, money is neutral.
It’s what we do with it that matters.
IN fact money can be a powerful tool to make change in the world.
That’s because money allows us to make choices.
Think about what can happen when we give generously to those in need
through opportunities like Reach the beach, Walk Away Homelessness
Consider the power of our dollars if we were to band together
to buy products made by companies that treat workers fairly.
Just our congregation could support farmers livelihoods from here in CT to Guatemala
through local CSAs and fair trade organizations like Equal Exchange.
The truth is, the economic system is set up to make a buck for some—not all
but we can alter that system by organizing ourselves and money with different priorities.
In the end, Jesus was telling his disciples
that he wanted them to use their street smarts, their book learning, their business sense for a larger cause.
They didn’t need to hold back with some aspect of their life—Jesus wanted them to use it all.
Likewise, Jesus is telling us, his modern day disciples to put our passion/energy/talent/money to good use
Have God priorities in all you do
your church life, your economic life, your every day on the job life
When we turn our resources on God’s justice mission, there is nothing we can’t do.
And we find that Jesus’ words, you cannot serve God and wealth
are no longer a Debbie Downer—just a reminder of what we already know:
We are here to serve God, and in that there is joy
there is human connection
there is meaning
there is life for all.
Show off scale, ask what it’s for.
Pretend you are at the fish counter; weigh fish fairly, then weigh again with finger on scale.
What’s wrong with the second approach?
Amos—prophet who saw people doing crooked business practices, cheating the poor
He told the people that God is a God of justice, and that they should be people of justice.
Justice does not mean Just- Us.
It is justice and life for everyone.
God calls us to live in such a way that everyone has a good shot at what they need in life.
God calls us to be people of justice.