"YOU GOTTA SERVE SOMBODY" (Bob Dylan)
© Rev. Dr. Rhonda MacLeod
You Gotta Serve Somebody (Bob Dylan) Our gospel reading this morning is a bit of a head scratcher. Jesus is telling a parable and it seems like He is saying that it is ok to be dishonest and cheat others, even to cheat a former employer. There is even a line that says “And 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.” During the story, we hear that the rich man who had fired the manager “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know. So, what is going on here? Why is Jesus saying these things? This parable is a very good example of what happens when we try to make sense of scripture through the lens of our language and culture, forgetting that what we have in the Gospels was written about two thousand years ago, in a different language, and spoken to and meant to be read by a culture that is very different from ours. The people who heard Jesus tell this parable would have known exactly what He was talking about, as would have those who read Luke’s gospel. Let me explain.
The people who were listening to Jesus that day would have instantly formed a mental picture of the rich man. You see, during that time there were only really two classes of people, the rich who owned the land and most of the wealth and poor folks who were barely getting by. There was really no middle class, at least not the way we think about middle class today. The people listening to Jesus would have understood that the rich man in the story was corrupt, and that the debts owed to him were over inflated, increasing his profits at the expense of those who owed him money. They would have understood that the manager, who had just been fired was about to lose everything. Without his job working for this rich man, he would go instantly from being among the wealthy and privileged to being homeless. Further, he was going to have a hard time finding other work or even friends to take him in because of his association with the rich man. So, following in the footsteps of the person who just fired him, he acts dishonestly and in doing so he accomplishes a couple of things. First, by reducing the debts owed he gets revenge on the man who fired him. Second, by reducing the debts to something reasonable, he is hoping to ingratiate himself with those his former employer was cheating, and so perhaps be able to find work or a place to stay. The people listening to Jesus that day would have understood this from the perspective of their culture. They would have been smiling and perhaps even laughing at this point in the story. The tables had been turned and the rich guy got his, didn’t he? Serves him right! You see, the people listening that day knew what it was like to live as tenants under and work for corrupt people like the rich man. The other piece of this story that seems to make no sense to us comes next. Jesus says that the rich man who had fired the manager “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” This is actually an issue with translation. As anyone who has tried to learn a second language knows, there are times when words, and especially phrases, don’t translate out one to one. That is the case here. The phrase used here in Greek doesn’t really translate out to “commended” it translates more to something like this “The rich man was astounded that the manager had the nerve to act shrewdly and cheat him.” Somewhere along the way, that phrase got translated as “commended” and the translation became what was used. The closest thing we have to this is the saying “there is no honor among thieves.”
Then Jesus says something else “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of the light.” Again, the translation from Greek to English is not one to one because it uses the culture of the time when it was translated. A better translation using the language and culture of Jesus time might be closer to this “There are people living now who are dishonest with each other, unlike those of you who seek to be good Jews and worship only God.” The people listening would have understood the that next thing Jesus said, “And 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.” as being sarcastic. The people listening would have known that only God can grant you eternal life.
Hopefully the parable is starting to make sense. What Jesus was saying is that society is full of corruption. The rich drain the resources of the poor. Those who work for the rich are out for only themselves and will only help others when they can gain something from it. The next few lines talk about how if someone is dishonest in little things, they will be dishonest in big things. “If you are not faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will give you true riches? if you are not faithful with what belongs to another who will give you what is your own?” What Jesus means by this is, if you think it is ok to © Rev. Dr. Rhonda MacLeod tell little lies, or cheat, even just a little, this will become a habit and a way of being and the lies and the cheating will get larger and larger. He is telling the people that if they are working for someone who they know is dishonest they are to not act that way. It’s not about the attitude of “But everyone else is doing it” Rather, it is about personal responsibility, maintaining your sense of what is right and fair, so as to be a good person and follow the teachings of Judaism which are based in the ten commandments. “Do not lie. Do not steal” Then we get the point of the parable. What started out as a parable that might have had us wondering what Jesus was talking about, really comes down to this last statement and in the end, becomes personal. “A man cannot serve two masters he will love one and hate the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
This was a powerful message for the people listening to Jesus that day. He was assuring them that by not serving wealth, by being honest, hardworking people they were doing the right thing and, in the process, they were being good Jews and serving God. At the same time, He was also saying that those who were only interested in getting richer through dishonest means, those who cheated others and had no compassion for the poor were not serving God and were not being good Jews. Anyone who was rich like the man in the parable went home that day with a lot to think about and might not have been too happy with Jesus. He was attacking their way of life, their way of being in the world and asking them to choose between wealth and comfort and God. In effect He was saying “you gotta serve somebody” which will it be God or dishonestly gotten wealth that serves to make you richer and the poor people suffer even more?
I think that if Jesus were alive today and he told this parable it would be aimed at for example, the big pharmaceutical companies. An example of that is the Epi-Pen. It is a needed, life saving medication. It costs about $5 to make. It costs $300 per Epi-Pen, making it virtually unattainable for anyone without insurance and driving up the cost of insurance for those who are insured. I am sure there are other examples of this greed as well. This is exactly what Jesus was talking about, selfishly serving wealth with no thought for anyone else. Or, perhaps He would have aimed it at the corporate farms who hire migrant works, many of whom are undocumented, and pay them substandard wages while requiring them to work long hours. This is not a new practice. Woody Guthrie wrote a song in 1948 about a plane crash in California in which the names of the Americans on board were listed in the news but not the names of the migrant workers being © Rev. Dr. Rhonda MacLeod deported back to Mexico at the end of the growing season. They were listed as deportees. Or perhaps Jesus would have aimed it at the 10% of the world population that controls 85% of the wealth, while the remaining 90% of the world’s population share the remaining 15%. As you can see, not much has changed in 2000 years.
This parable has a strong message for us as well. It asks us to examine our lives and to choose who we serve. Do we really serve God, or is it just lip service? Yes, we are all here this morning and we all contribute to this church and to the denomination. Keep in mind, however, the rich folks in Jesus time went to the synagogue. They even gave lots of money to the local synagogue and the temple in Jerusalem. They were what we would refer today as “the big givers” in the church. Yet, they lived lives grounded in selfishness. No matter how well off they were, it wasn’t good enough. They always seemed to want more; more power, more control, more money even if in the process they hurt others or were dishonest.
This morning’s scriptures asks us to take an honest look at our lives and ask ourselves if we are really serving God. Are we really living out the teachings of Jesus. Now, I know that those of us gathered here are good people and I would bet that each and every one of us is trying our best to live a good life. But we are human. We fail. We don’t always act from a place of generosity. We don’t always live in a way that gives up power and control. We don’t always live in a way that is humble and puts others before ourselves. But yet, as Dylan said, you gotta serve somebody. This means that as part of our daily self-reflection we need to honestly look at ourselves and ask ourselves who were we serving during the course of the day. There will be plenty of things that we did where we can honestly say we were serving God and following the teaching of Jesus. But I would bet that there will also be times during the day where, if we are being truly honest, we would realize that we were serving something or someone other than God. Perhaps it was our ego when we argued a point even though we knew we were wrong. Perhaps it was going along with the crowd when we knew that their actions were not in line with what we profess to believe. Perhaps we are ok with it when we tell what we call “white lies.” Perhaps we make excuses to ourselves and rationalize it when we are being “just a little dishonest.” As I said, we all do things which serve someone or something other than God. Serving someone or something other than God is yet another way to define sin. And, try as we may, we are human and we all sin.
So, where is the good news of the gospel in all of this? If we are truly followers of Jesus. If we really strive to choose to serve God, if we can be honest with ourselves about our actions and, if we spend time in selfexamination and prayer each day, asking for forgiveness for all the times we chose to serve something or someone else rather than God, the good news is this – As long as we continue to turn to God with a truly humble and contrite heart we are forgiven. God knows we are human and not perfect. God know us better than we know ourselves. As long as we realize and accept that the core, the center point of everything is God, we are standing in the light. God loves us. God wants to pour grace on us. As long we make the conscious choice, each day to serve God and work each day to live in a way that is a reflection of God’s kingdom, grace will be there to strengthen us. If we do this, then each day we will come closer and closer to living into God’s kingdom
© Rev. Dr. Rhonda MacLeod