When I was growing up in the nineties, W.W.J.D. bracelets were all the rage. These cloth bracelets became popular during the time of friendship bracelets, but these special bracelets, asking that important question, “What Would Jesus Do?” were made especially for the Christian cool kids. They were a way to mark oneself as holy. These bracelets were originally made by a youth minister in Holland, Michigan in the late 1980’s, but the question was made popular by a Kansas minister named Charles Sheldon in his book entitled, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? His book is a compilation of his sermon series from 1886, where he would tell a story and when a character in his story came across a certain moral dilemma he would ask the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” As a way to keep his congregation coming back week after week, he would tell them they would have to come back the next week to find out the answer! I’m not thinking that will work in 2016! Youth all over the country got caught up in the fad; these bracelets were thought to help many teens to make good decisions when faced with negative peer pressure. Christian bands in the 90’s started writing songs using the slogan as well. One I remember well is Big Tent Revival’s song, called “What Would Jesus Do?” The chorus said, “What would Jesus do walkin’ in my shoes, workin’ at my job and goin’ to my school. And I hear people say, Jesus is the way? I believe and that is why I’m asking you, what would Jesus do?” Christian markets began to capitalize on this fad, and as you well know the phrase, W.W.J.D., is now plastered on cheap, plastic products everywhere.
Recently, many people have creatively used this popular question to influence public policy. In 2011, the Occupy London protestors flew a giant banner outside a cathedral that displayed the words “What Would Jesus Do?” as they gathered to draw attention to all the suffering brought about by the greed and injustice of the world’s wealthiest, the top one percent. Other spin-offs of this question that have prompted deep moral discussions have been “What Would Jesus Drive?”, “Who Would Jesus Bomb?”, “Who Would Jesus Deport?”, and “Who Would Jesus Torture?” As disciples of Christ, it is a question that we must certainly always keep before us: “What Would Jesus (Have You) Do?” As Jesus’ followers called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, we must decide what is required of us.
The manager in the parable from Luke 16 today finds himself in quite the dilemma and asks himself the question, “What will I do now?” The manager’s boss has accused him of squandering property. His boss is a rich farmer with a large estate run by tenant farmers. The tenant farmers work farming season after farming season and can never seem to catch up on the debt that they owe to the rich landowner. The manager has been making his own living by keeping track of all the landowner’s wealth, attempting to collect for him, keeping the tenant farmers strapped, and ensuring the landowner remains wealthy. The landowner does not give the manager a chance to explain; this accusation – whether true or false – leads to the manager losing his job, and now he finds himself faced with a huge dilemma. His inner dialogue reveals his desperation, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So he quickly gathered all the tenant farmers who owed a debt to his master and slashed their bills. That’s what we’d call white-collar crime nowadays! If only he had been wearing a W.W.J.D bracelet, he might have made a better decision! But in a confusing turn, his master commends him for his shrewdness. I mean, you do have to give it to him; he was pretty creative and smart. And when you’re down on your luck, the best thing you can have is friends, and this manager has made friends with the tenant farmers by relieving their debt.
Some of the most confusing words of Jesus come next: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Jesus holds up the manager for his shrewdness and calls us to be faithful with dishonest wealth so that we can be entrusted with true riches. He says, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” As Saint Augustine said, “I can’t believe this story came from the lips of our Lord.” Wearers of W.W.J.D bracelets gasp at the sound of these blasphemous words. What is going on here? Jesus is calling his disciples to imitate the dishonest manager? Jesus is calling them to make friends by means of dishonest wealth? Jesus is upholding something morally problematic?
Jesus upholding a dishonest manager for his cunning wisdom is disorienting to us, but sometimes there are no clear, straightforward, morally good decisions to be made when the whole system is broken. Every time Jesus uses the word “wealth,” he puts the disclaimer “dishonest” in front of it, assuming that all wealth is dishonest. This is hard for us to grasp. We think of ourselves as hardworking people who earn what we have, but even if we’ve never done anything unethical, we have to recognize that our systems are broken and our economy is full of injustice. But the more privilege we have, the harder it is for us to grasp this. I think we are starting to see the cracks. We are having more conversations about predatory payday lenders and the standards for living wages. We think more about how what we buy affects other people. We talk about who makes our clothes and who grows our coffee beans. Though we often forget that people like me who insist that buying fair trade coffee is the best moral decision are people of privilege who can afford to have these moral stances. And we often shame people who use their cunning wisdom like the dishonest manager to get by in our broken economic system. When we meet desperate people who spin stories, producing fake medical bills, telling lies about their family’s needs, doing anything for a little money for food or gas or the drug they self-medicate with, we judge them a lot like we judge the dishonest manager. But the dishonest manager understood something the children of light did not: how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger goal.
The Jewish rabbis tell a story about a man once caught stealing who was ordered by the king to be hanged. On the way to the gallows he said to the governor that he knew a wonderful secret and it would be a pity to allow it to die with him and he would like to disclose it to the king. He would put a seed of a pomegranate in the ground and through the secret taught to him by his father he would make it grow and bear fruit overnight. The thief was brought before the king and the next day, the king, accompanied by the high officers of the state, came to the place where the thief was waiting for them. There the thief dug a hole and said, “This seed must not only be put in the ground by a man who has never stolen or taken anything which did not belong to him. I being a thief cannot do it.” So he turned to the Vizier who, frightened, said that in his younger days he had retained something which did not belong to him. The treasurer said that dealing with such large sums, he might have entered too much or too little and even the king owned that he had kept a necklace of his father’s. The thief then said, “You are all mighty and powerful and want nothing and yet you cannot plant the seed, while I who have stole a little because I was starving am to be hanged.” The king then decided to pardon him.[i]
We live in a broken world where there are not always clear ethical answers to the question, “What Would Jesus (Have You) Do?” As someone who graduated from divinity school a year after 2008 financial crisis, I’m well aware that people in my generation went into one of the worst job markets in recent history. Millennials are starting to be called the 1099 generation, making their living from side jobs or gigs instead of salaried jobs. Keith Anderson says, “While a ‘gig economy’ in which people create their own paths has a certain romanticism to it, and does afford certain new opportunities, it leaves many workers vulnerable, insecure, and stressed. American workers are industrious and productive. But even so, many are falling farther and farther behind.”[ii] He imagines that the modern day American worker might have a lot in common with the dishonest manger in Luke 16. Anderson writes, “Like many, the manager finds himself on the verge of being laid off. He knows it’s coming, so before the HR department fills out all the requisite paperwork and he is locked out of his office and escorted from the building, he hurriedly makes amends with his boss’ clients, so that when he moves on and looks for another job they will be inclined to help him. It’s the first-century equivalent of freshening up his LinkedIn account and sending emails with copies of his CV to his networks of colleagues and friends.”[iii] Just like first-century Palestine, we have our own versions of exploiting the poor and getting ahead through unjust practices. Anderson cautions us that our versions might take the form of shiny new apps that bring us services like Uber, a service that depends on people willing to do freelance work and at the same time takes business away from taxi companies that are required to pay their workers fair wages.
These injustices also play out globally. The financial crisis of 2008 and Brexit vote, among other things, remind us that our economy and the economies of the rest of the world are interdependent. Sometimes our prosperity comes at the expense of others that we cannot see, or that we refuse to see. There is always another side to the coin, the tenant farmers whose labor has made wealth possible. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “All of us are interdependent. Every nation is an heir of a vast treasury of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead of all nations have contributed. Whether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally ‘in the red.’ We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women. When we arise in the morning, we go to the bathroom where we reach for a sponge which is provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a European. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese person or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are already beholden to more than half the world. In a real sense all life is interrelated.”[iv] King was making a plea for wealthy nations to give of their wealth in order to end poverty and create a system where all can reap the benefits of human labor and creativity.
In a complex economic system like ours, how do we serve God and not wealth? Perhaps, one of the first things we have to do is admit that our systems of wealth are dishonest, and we have to care more about one another than we do about upholding our broken systems. Interestingly, while the shrewd manager was hoping to be welcomed into the homes of those whose debts he was forgiving, when Jesus says we should make friends with dishonest wealth so that we will be welcomed into the "eternal homes," he uses a different word for homes, that is better translated as tents. Jesus doesn’t promise us economic security or the safety of a home. Instead, Jesus welcomes us into eternal tents. I imagine them to be similar to the tents of the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness and the tents of the disciples who first went out and shared the gospel. Tents are the homes of wanderers and refugees and pilgrims. To be Jesus’ disciple means that we are called to not place our security in the things this world values above all else, being homeowners or landowners or people who acquire property of all types. To be Jesus’ disciple means to be pilgrims in this barren land. We are to give up dishonest wealth so that we can receive the true riches of the kingdom of God, a kingdom where our friends welcome us into their tents and see us as God sees us, as beloved.
When Zacchaeus, the notorious chief tax collector in Jericho, decided to serve the right master, he gave half of his possessions to the poor and paid back those he defrauded four times as much as he stole from them. Jesus tells us that Zacchaeus’s decision to serve the right master saved his life. Writer Robert Lupton imagines what went through Zacchaeus’s mind after Jesus left his house; he says, “It wasn’t until Jesus left that Zacchaeus began to understand the implications of his commitment. That was a lot of money. Four-to-one on all of them would virtually wipe him out. He wouldn’t have any disposable wealth left to divide. He’d have to sell his summer home in the mountains and most of his investment property in the city. For the first time the issue of tithing on net versus gross income arose in Zacchaeus’s mind. For the first time he began to question the practicality of his commitment to Christ.”[v] Lupton imagines asking Zacchaeus a few questions: “How did you do it, Zack? How did your commitment hold up? Did you end up deferring your giving? Did you retain control of your wealth through ‘dedicated’ funds? Did you spiritualize away your commitment rather than actually disburse cash? Tell us you made it, Zack. Be our example of a rich man who broke free from the grasp of greed. Tell us you won the struggle with mammon and abandoned yourself to the Christ who touched you. Tell us, Zack, that we can be liberated from the power of privilege.”[vi]
What Would Jesus (Have You) Do? Christians cannot sit around and say, “Life is short. You can’t take it with you, so enjoy it while you have it.” We, like the manager, have been put on notice. We are stewards of things that do not belong to us and perhaps of things we did not come by honestly. It all belongs to God. Are we willing to cheat the present distorted order for the sake of the kingdom? Or will we keep upholding the system, gaining the whole world but losing our souls? What will we do with unrighteous mammon? We cannot serve both God and wealth. We must commit to serving the right master. And Jesus tells us we could use a lesson from the manager. We should be as shrewd in advancing God’s kingdom as the manager was in dealing with his circumstances. We have to be as creative as he was cunning. God’s kingdom is a place where we find a way, with the help of the Spirit, to forgive each other’s debts because we realize we are all debtors. If we commit to serving the right master, we will not be anxious about our economic affairs. If we commit to serving the right master, we will use the wealth that we have to make our community look a little more like God’s kingdom. If we commit to serving the right master, we won’t have to keep having stewardship campaigns to keep our budget afloat. If we commit to serving the right master, we will care more about our friends than collecting on our debts. If we commit to serving the right master, we will be welcomed into God’s eternal home.
[i] From Moses Gaster, The Exempla of the Rabbis, (London: Asia Publishing, 1924).
[iv] As quoted by Wolfgang Mieder in Making a Way Out of No Way: Martin Luther King’s Sermonic Proverbial Rhetoric, 237-238.
[v] Robert D. Lupton, Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America, (New York: Harper Collins, 1989), 84-85.
[vi] Ibid, 85-86.