What an economy

JPMorgan Pays $920 Million to Settle London Whale Probes was the headline on Bloomberg News on Thursday.[1]

Senior executives had evidence by late April 2012 that traders in the chief investment office in London were pricing a derivatives portfolio in a way that reduced reported losses (…) The losses at the unit, which was supposed to help reduce risk and manage excess deposits, forced the bank to restate results for last year’s first quarter.

It was a loss of over six billion dollars. Didn’t anybody notice? Executives at the biggest U.S. bank engaged in what watchdogs called a “pattern of misconduct” by maintaining poor internal controls, failing to keep their board informed and allegedly misleading regulators. 

There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.

God obviously has a great sense of humor. The London Whale is on the news, we’re meeting in Sunday school to talk about business ethics, about honesty, respect, stewardship, and fairness, and Jesus tells us a story that has puzzled his disciples for as long as records of disciple puzzlement have been kept.

Charges were brought to the rich man that his manager was squandering his property. So he summoned the man and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Show me the books, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

It starts like a story about holding management accountable, but who would use it as a case illustration in a class at the business school or the law school? Or who would dig it up in Sunday school in a class on business ethics? Jesus does. He loves this kind of stuff. Messing with our expectations. Flipping over the tables. Changing the conversation.

We know he can be quite clear and directive in his teaching, saying things like,

When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

Love your enemies.

Turn the other cheek.

Sell what you own. Give it to the poor. Follow me.

His stories, though, are different. His parables look like small fry at first glance, two verses, eight verses long, but every time you turn them, they grow bigger. Big as whales, and very playful whales at that. They invite us to talk, to consider, to reason together, to look from this angle and that, to keep wondering, and – perhaps most important of all – to resist the urge to wrap things up neatly with a simple moral.

Charges had been brought, and the rich man asked for the books. That’s all we’re told. Jesus doesn’t tell us if the charges were true or who brought them. He doesn’t tell us if the manager had been charged for being inept or corrupt. Squandering could mean he had missed his earnings goals for five consecutive quarters or that he had been quietly lining his own pockets with what belonged to the master.

“What will I do, now that my master is firing me as his manager?”

Perhaps you’re alarmed that this is a world in which a manager can simply be sacked on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, but that’s not the story Jesus wants to tell us. He wants us to see a man running out of time, making urgent decisions under the pressure of a world coming apart.

The manager doesn’t have the back nor the arms for manual labor. He’s ashamed to beg. He worries, he agonizes, he thinks, his options are very limited, but suddenly he has a bright idea. He makes a few phone calls. One by one he meets with each of the rich man’s creditors and writes off their debts of olive oil and wheat. Again, Jesus doesn’t tell us if we’re looking at lease agreements or loan documents, but the rates are awesome. If you’re trying to renegotiate your mortgage because home values have plummeted, a 20% adjustment of the principal is pretty significant, and a 50% cut is, well, hello sweet Jesus Hallelujah it’s Christmas.

“How much do you owe my master?”

“Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.”

“Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.”

Some who have read this story have suggested that the manager was cutting the interest, others that he was cutting his own commission, and again others that he spent his final day on the job doing what he had done before, squandering his master’s property. Plenty of angles to look at this scene, but whatever it was he did, one thing is clear: he scratched some backs; he feathered his nest; he made sure there would be some open doors when the door to his office closed behind him. He may have been a crook, but he sure knew how to make the best of a critical situation! Only that’s not the end of the story; there’s one more line:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

Now the cat is out of the bag, he was dishonest – but he’s being commended by his master! Now if you want to tell stories to encourage honesty and accountability among managers, the last line should probably go something like,  “And when his master found out, he threw him in jail until he had payed back every ounce of olive oil and every grain of wheat he owed.” And if you want to tell stories that stick it to the man and bring smiles to the faces of share croppers, the last line to wrap things up nicely would be, “And the rich man in the city never knew that the books had been cooked.” But this is Jesus’ story and he ends it with a master praising a crooked manager for acting cleverly. And then he takes a half step out of the story and says, “I wish the children of light were as clever with things of the kingdom as the wheeler-dealers in the world who get up every morning scheming for a buck, focusing every ounce of energy on scrambling to the top of the heap. I wish God’s people would be just as focused, creative and energetic for the beloved community.” And he adds, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

What is he saying? Use dirty money for godly causes? Some people, and not just in London or New York, made a lot of money with mortgage-backed securities in the years before the collapse, so now they are to make friends with it by building shelters for the homeless so they may welcome them into the eternal homes? What does he mean by dishonest wealth? And why would he encourage his followers to use it?

“Dishonest wealth” sounds too much like money made by cheating, and it is not a good translation of the Greek. A better translation would be “the money of this unrighteous age.” Jesus is not talking about “dishonest money” versus “honest money,” but about the currency of this age versus the currency of the kingdom. When we ask questions about management or business ethics, he talks about kingdom ethics and a whole new economy of righteousness.

The gospel helps us see that we are standing on the threshold between the age of unrighteousness and the age to come where righteousness is at home. The manager in Jesus’ story had just been shown the door, was standing on the threshold, realizing that the world as he knew it was coming to an end, and he jumped into action. Cleverly he used the tools his master had put at his disposal to make friends among the master’s creditors. He invested in the world to come.

And that is, Jesus hopes, what the clever ones among the children of light will do. This world and all of its glory – and unrighteousness – is dying right before our very eyes, and God’s new creation, the kingdom of rightousness, the city of peace is at hand. The clever ones among the children of light realize that a new wisdom, a new ethic, a new economy is being summoned, and they invest all they have in the world to come.

What might that look like in our daily life? Tom Long, for several years now has loved to tell the story of one of his students, and I have retold it before. It has a pay phone in it, and I want to tell it one more time while a good number of you still know what a pay phone is and how it works.[2]

Tom’s student was the son of a city pastor. One Christmas vacation, he was at home with his family and spent an afternoon talking to his father about ministry. They talked about seminary and about the challenges of ministry in the city and the struggle for justice. As the conversation continued late into the day, father and son decided to get some fresh air by taking a walk around the neighborhood. As they walked, they continued to talk together until they started to get hungry. The father said, “Let’s call the pizza place and order a pizza. If we’re lucky, it’ll be there by the time we get home.” So they walked over toward the nearest pay phone, only to encounter a homeless man blocking their way.

“Spare change?” the man asked.

The father reached deeply into his pockets and held out two handfuls of coins.

“Here, take what you need,” he said to the homeless man.

“Well, then, I’ll take it all,” said the surprised man, sweeping the coins into his own hands and turning to walk away.

Before he had gotten far, though, the student’s dad realized that he no longer had any change to make the phone call.

“Excuse me,” he called after the homeless man. “I was going to make a phone call, but I have given you all my change. Could I have a quarter?”

The homeless man turned around and walked back toward father and son, extending his hands. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”

A glimpse of the kingdom, if you will squint to see it. A view of the old world passing away, and the world to come emerging. Strangers making friends for themselves, each saying to the other, “Here, take what you need.” What an economy that is.


[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-09-19/jpmorgan-chase-agrees-to-pay-920-million-for-london-whale-loss.html

[2] Long, Thomas G. “Making friends.” Journal For Preachers 30, no. 4 (January 1, 2007): 52-57.