the transactional value of a relationship

A sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Luke 16:1-13

The financial value of our lives, the financial value of our relationships continues to be at the forefront of the gospel this week. Last week we heard of the shepherd and the woman who stop at nothing to find that which is lost. And, in their finding, the great rejoicing and celebration that comes with the return of that which was lost. This value, this knowledge that Christ, that God, will stop at nothing to save the life of the one sinner, is our comfort and motivation in faith. We know that we aren’t that one sinner at this point, we’ve already been found, that’s why we are here at church. Sometimes we might slip and fall, but every time we come back through these doors, we are welcomed and rejoiced over once more. There still remains however those who are lost, those who need to be found and rejoiced over. It is in the perceived transactional value of our relationships then that we turn to understand how we are called to create that space for them to be enfolded into the family of God, for the first time or the first time in a while.

The value of relationship is set up today to be understood in a transactional financial nature. The Rich Man oversees all, employing a manager to take a cut from the laborers as payment for his supply of land, of seed. Disparaging news reaches the Rich Man about the Manager, and the Manager is informed that his services will no longer be needed. The Manager, aware that he is only suited for this specific type of transactional middle-management position, acts shrewdly to benefit himself by lessening the debt of the laborers. By reducing their debts, the laborers are in effect indebted to the Manager, and thus when he is relieved of his duties, they will owe him the weight of the debt that he has shrewdly “forgiven.”

But, someone goes to the Rich Man and informs him of what the manager is doing. In understanding the transactional nature of relationship within this stratification of society, this person hopes to garner favor with the Rich Man for exposing the great loss that is coming his way. But, the Rich Man applauds the Manager for acting shrewdly. Why? Why would he approve of someone who is actively working to take away what is owed to him?

There’s likely a number of reasons and layers to this. First, while the debts have been reduced, a debt still remains and the Rich Man can likely absorb that which has been forgiven, even if what has been forgiven is valued at a much higher rate for the laborer, or even the Manager. The Rich Man will still get richer, for he is taking a lion’s share of what has been produced, and these are not the only debts that he is owed. Second, the Rich Man likely sees within the Manager the same drive and shrewdness that allowed him to prosper off the work of others. By removing the humanity from the relationship and treating others are purely transactional, as being able to provide a return on investment, the Manager has protected himself from falling from his current position to the lowest rank in society, finding a safe landing spot among those who are at least trusted to labor and work and earn a modicum of a living.

So, we have the Rich Man and the Manager in harmony with one another in understanding that relationships are transactional and to be used to benefit ourselves through our own shrewdness and intelligence. Then Jesus flips the story on its head. This parable is not about people to model one’s self after, about how to navigate a world of power structures, of social status based on wealth and position, this parable sets up the following point: while the Rich Man’s applause of the shrewdness of the Manager is what those of faith expect to be applauded for by God, according to the religious authorities of the time, that transactional understanding of the value of our relationships, placing a financial value on our connections with one another, is not serving God.

Neither the Rich Man nor the Manager, not even the laborers, are to be applauded in this parable. None of these actors actually are living into the understanding of faith and relationship that Jesus is trying to get us to understand about how we are viewed by God and how we can interact with God. Instead, the actors of this parable are stuck on this understanding of what is the financial value of our relationships, how can we protect our own financial interests through using others. Christ speaks to us today, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

This is a reality that we still constantly wrestle with.

Who among us hasn’t ever dreamed what we would do if we won the lottery? 

I know I have when the lottery breaks through into the public conscience with record-breaking jackpots making the regular news cycle. I’ve dreamed about the good that could be done by utilizing those winnings as seed money to serve God in perpetuity, but also I cannot help but think about also paying off my house and buying a few toys, the new all-electric Porsche Taycan Turbo S (a car priced at $250,000) has been the latest to catch my eye.

Wealth, even the taste of wealth, tempts us to focus our time and energy on serving those needs, on serving the daydreams, on serving the machine that may one day break in our favor. Of course, it won’t. That’s not how the world works. But, we are told that it might, that if we work hard enough, we too can build a multi-billion dollar industry from scratch ala Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. This is the world tempting us to serve wealth, or worse yet, the pursuit of wealth, which enslaves us and keeps us from seeking God, from serving God. This is the world that rewards us for being shrewd and cheating the system, or put more positively (as I’m sure the Rich Man and Manager would) “gaming” the system, to benefit our own financial bottom line. Moving us away from an understanding of relationship founded on faith and love and acceptance to one of a transactional nature, an understanding of relationship that then makes it hard to accept the offer from God to have a relationship that’s only transactional value is not extrinsic, monetary, but rather celebratory of that which is intrinsic to us all.

I have spent the past few weeks gearing up for our 2020 Stewardship Campaign. Working together with the vestry, we seek to meet the challenge laid out to us in the concept of the Way of Love which is currently permeating the formation programming of the Episcopal Church and how our challenge to meet each component of this way is informed through our stewardship. Now, I won’t spoil too much of the campaign here as we will officially launch our campaign on Sunday October 13, but I do want to make a note within the context of this gospel how we are to understand our stewardship within this gospel framework today that challenges the financial and transactional nature of our relationships that is still applauded by our society today.

The Church is the place where we come to serve God, and it is through the Church that opportunities to serve God through each other and in the outreach to our neighbors, not just through feeding or clothing or housing but also in the simple acts of creating space to meet, of being an open and welcoming place of regularly occurring worship, a place of committed and passionate people ready to share the gospel of Christ. Our stewardship must be a reflection of our understanding of what it means to serve God in this place, what it means to be a slave to God in terms of the fully giving of ourselves over to God when we accept Christ and live fully into our faith. Our stewardship is not about the financial value of what we give but rather a reflection of the selfless giving we offer because God provides us something different, church provides us something different, then we can get from any other club or organization or gathering of people.

When we begin to accept the intrinsic value that is inherently within each and every one of us, and see that value celebrated and held up with our relational interactions with one another, we begin to serve God and not wealth. When we allow the financial, extrinsic values of the world dictate to us how we are to interact with one another, how we are to view our own lives, how we are to judge our success in this life, then we are serving wealth and not God. This gospel today challenges us to see the story of our reality and understand that it is not to be celebrated. Rather, the lesson lies in the reality that this parable is not a model but rather a cautionary tale. When we live into this understanding today, we can begin to move past that call to service of wealth and fully give ourselves into the service of God. We can begin to live into this reality through our stewardship to the church, but that is only a part of what is on offer today. Today, we are offered a chance to give up a burden, to give up a transactional expectation we place onto others and is often placed upon us. We are offered a chance to follow in the footsteps of Christ to live a way of love that challenges us to make the giving and receiving of love the centerpiece of our understanding of self and relationships. Today we are called to walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.

Amen.

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