I’m curious about your responses to this simple scenario. You go to Best Buy to shop for a new coffee maker. You find a model you’re happy with; it costs $50. You’re about to pick it up and take it to the register when the sales clerk says to you, “You know, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but there’s a special promotion running on this model at another store across town. You can get this exact coffee maker for $40 instead of $50.” The other store is about thirty minutes away. Do you make the drive?
Or consider this variation of that scenario. Instead of a new coffee maker, you go to shop for a new dishwasher. This is a higher ticket item, obviously, but you find a model you’re satisfied with for $500. You’re ready to check out when the sales clerk says to you, “Hey, I’m talking myself out of a commission here, but you should be aware that there’s a special promotion running on this model at another store across town. You can get this exact dishwasher for $485 instead of $500.” Are you more or less likely to drive across town for the discount on the coffee maker or the dishwasher?
Here’s the problem that most of have in evaluating these scenarios and making a wise decision. We look at the percentages: in the case of the coffee maker, we’re ‘saving’ 20% by driving an extra half hour. In the case of the dishwasher, we’re ‘saving’ a measly 3.75% for the same amount of time. In reality, though, what goes in our savings account is not percentages: it’s dollars. With the coffee maker, we save $10; with the dishwasher, we save $15. If we have to choose, it makes financial sense to take the drive for $15 rather than $10, even if somehow it doesn’t feel like that’s smart choice.
We make these kind of decisions all the time, and many of us get them wrong. Consider: economists asked consumers how much they would need to save, in real dollars, to justify spending an extra twenty minutes. For a $10 dollar pen, consumers on average needed to ‘save’ $3.75 to make it worth their spending the extra twenty minutes. For a $30,000 car, they had to ‘save’ $277.83 to make it ‘worth’ their time. Somehow, psychologically we tend to get percentages and dollars confused: $3.75 on a $10 dollar pen seems like a much better deal than $277.83 on a $30,000 car, but they’re both costing us the same 20 minutes of our time.
A final example, one I’m definitely guilty of. We’ll spend hours online searching for the best deal for relatively small ticket items and virtually no time at all looking carefully at our retirement investments. The result is I’ll save 30% on a pair of khackis, resulting in a few extra bucks, but put my savings in a mutual fund that charges .25% more in fees, which over time, costs me thousands of dollars in lost returns. All of this is neatly summed up in the title of a paper by the economist Ofer Azar: “Do Consumers Make Too Much Effort to Save on Cheap Items and Too Little to Save on Expensive Items?” The answer is an overwhelming ‘yes!’
The bad news is that this poor decision making seems to be hardwired in our brains. It’s related to our tendency to think in relative rather than absolute terms. For instance, we’re more likely to notice a drumbeat is loud if we’ve just been listening to violin music. The other day, I picked out a pot of asters that I would have sworn was blue, only to get it home to realize it is in reality a pale sort of purple. It had been tucked in with a bunch of deep purple asters at the store, and I mistakenly interpreted the lighter shade for a different color. Add a little weight to an almost empty suitcase and you’ll notice it; if you add the same weight to a full suitcase, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. We tend to think and evaluate in relative rather than absolute terms.
There is good news, however: correcting this tendency, at least when it comes to financial decisions, is fairly straightforward. When it comes to money, stop looking at relative values and start looking at absolutes. Dollars, not percentages, matter. And the interesting thing is that people lower down on the economic scale seem to understand this more than people who are relatively well-off. When every dollar matters, when each dollar could make the difference between eating and going hungry, you tend to see it for what is is: a dollar, not a percentage or a seemingly better deal. It’s not that poorer people pinch pennies more than folks who are wealthier: it’s that they’re better at it. They understand the value of a dollar in concrete, absolute terms, not as a percentage of something.
Jesus tells the perplexing story we just heard about a rich man and his manager to people who almost certainly were the expert penny pinchers of their day, the folks at the bottom of the economic ladder, the people who knew the real, concrete value of a dollar. They had to know this, because they were poor, really, really poor. Nearly everyone in Jesus’s day was really, really poor. You’ve heard the news stories about the growing gap between the 99 and the 1 percent, how wealth in this country is being consolidated in the hands of the very, very few super rich. I’m not saying it isn’t a problem for us to today, but it was an even bigger problem in Jesus’s day. As Jesus traveled around the countryside, most of the people he talked to were subsistence farmers. You’d lease a bit of land from a landowner, you’d grow your crop, and at the end of the harvest, the landowner or his manager would show up to collect their ‘rent.’ The rents are exorbitant, usually 90% or more of the harvest. If you’re lucky, after you pay the rent, and set aside seed for the following year, you have enough to provide for your family. But you don’t get lucky most years. It’s a brutally hot, dry summer, not enough rain, and the crop yield is lousy, or the locusts swarm through and devastate the fields, or some kind of blight you didn’t spray for causes the fruit to wither on the vine. When the landowner shows up to collect the rent, you don’t have quite enough, and so you beg for a little mercy, beg for a little more time. The landowner makes a great show of his generosity and magnificence and says, “That’s alright, I understand. You can pay me the 20 bushels you owe me next season, but of course, it’ll have to be 30 bushels: I’ve got my own family to feed, a business to run. After all, this isn’t a charity.” A few seasons of this sort of thing, and pretty soon you’re so far behind that there is no chance of ever catching up. All hope that you once had of saving up enough to buy your own plot of land and working for yourself dries up. You come to face the depressing, soul-crushing reality: You’ll live your life the way your parents did before you and their parents before them, breaking your back to barely put food on the table, always wondering if there will be enough to feed your children.
That’s life for the people who first hear this parable firsthand from Jesus. They know the situation well. They can picture the rich man living far off in his big comfortable house overlooking the sea of Galilee. They might get a glimpse of people like him once in a blue moon, at a festival or religious holiday. He’d be dressed in fine robes, surrounded by servants; he’d travel in a covered caravan with his beautiful wives. This guy is so rich his tenants may never have met him face to face. He’s more of an idea than an actual person. It’s hard to hate an idea; in fact, most of them envy the rich man. They dream about what his life must be like, the fancy food he must enjoy, and the parties with famous people, and all that time he has to play golf and go skiing and travel and do whatever he pleases without the pressure of tending to the fields. Deep down inside they dream of somehow becoming rich themselves and enjoying that kind of life for themselves.
They know the manager, too. The manager is not an idea of a person, he is very, very real. The manager shows up randomly throughout the year, acting cheery and asking how things are going. He commiserates with them when the weather is bad, congratulates them when they have a baby, sometimes even manages to remember their birthdays. It’s all fake, though, and it’s all they can do to keep up that inane small talk without punching the guy in the face. He doesn’t care about them, not one bit. The only visit that is real is the one in the fall, after the harvest, when the manager shows up to collect the rent. It’s always more, more than it was last year, more than they can afford, more because the landowner built a new pool this summer and wants to pay it off, more because the manager adds a little commission for himself so he can feed his family. They never have enough to pay it all, and they have to swallow their pride and their bile and do their best to grit their teeth and act grateful when the manager agrees to hold off collecting what they can’t pay until the following year, with the extra tacked on. They don’t envy the manager, or dream about having his job: they just hate him, hate that he lives off of their hard work, hate that he tries to cozy up to them when all he’s really doing is working for the rich man, hate that they’re never sure if he’s taking more off the top than he should. Jesus’s hearers know all about the rich man; they know all about the manager.
Then the story takes a delicious twist: the manager is in trouble! He’s going to lose his job! Maybe he stole something, maybe he was cheating the rich man, maybe he had skimmed too much off the top, who knows, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is he’s out, he’s fired. Jesus’s listeners imagine the tenant farmers raising a glass at the pub to his unlamented memory: it couldn’t happen to more deserving fellow, what do you know, guys, sometimes people do get their just desserts after all.
Then Jesus’s story really takes a turn. The manager calls the tenants in, one by one. He asks them how much they owe his master. One says a hundred jugs of olive oil, and he slashes the bill to fifty. Another says a hundred containers of wheat, and he slashes the bill to eighty. One after another, the tenants come in and the manager cuts their bill. Jesus doesn’t say whether the manager is just taking off what he had added on for his own take, or if he’s removing the interest from past years when the tenants couldn’t pay the full rent, or if maybe he’s got some sort of other calculus in mind. Maybe the manager has figured out who’s more likely to help him after he’s lost his job and he’s trying to butter them up. All of his life, the manager has had to figure out how to keep the rich man happy; now, overnight, he’s got to figure out how to keep everyone else happy. These tenant farmers will hopefully remember what the manager did and they might give him a little something to eat, maybe even find a job for him. Anyway, the rich man is so impressed by the dishonest master for figuring out how to deal with his situation, he commends him.
I imagine Jesus’s original hearers, the subsistence farmers, the fishermen, the shepherds, the peddlers, the craftspeople, heard this story as good news, every way they looked at it. The rich man ends the story with a little less, but he can afford it. The manager is out of a job, good riddance. And the little guys, the tenant farmers, the ones at the bottom of the ladder? They finally catch a break. Their bills got slashed; the dream of someday being free from the rents is once again tantalizingly in reach: just a couple of good growing seasons, and they might be able to pay off everything they owe and buy a little plot land for themselves. True, the manager is going to come around looking for a little handout, a little quid pro quo, but he’s doesn’t have any power or authority anymore. If he shows up on a day when the tenants are feeling good and light-hearted and generous, maybe they’ll ask him to stay for dinner. If not, they’ll send him on his way without feeling too guilty about it.
But as they walk away, I’ll bet they start to think a little. Wait a minute, they think. Did Jesus just say that justice came to the farmers through the dishonest actions of the manager? Is that how justice works? Is that really how God’s kingdom works? Is God sneaky? Does God work the system to God’s own advantage? And if God works that way, maybe I could, too. I loaned my neighbor a measure of grain last year on the condition that he pay me back a measure and a half this year. I mean, it seems like that’s the way the system works. But maybe by buying into that system, I’m no better than the manager or the rich man. Maybe I’ll slash that half measure from my neighbor’s bill and let a little justice prevail for once, help my neighbor out in a pinch. Maybe I can help God’s kingdom break in today, sneak in under the radar. Maybe that little seed of justice will grow into a tree.
How do you hear Jesus’s story today? Is there good news here for you? As I lived with this story this week, I began to hear a bit of good news for myself. I think about the manager. He’s caught in the middle: he’s not a wealthy guy like the landowner. Probably he was born into a poor family, and somehow caught the landowner’s attention at some point, who gave him this job. It’s a lousy job, really. He knows all the tenants hate him. He tries to be friendly because it just seems like the nicer thing to do. He envies the landowner, desperately wants the life that he has, but knows deep down inside he’ll never have it. And here’s the thing: I’ll bet he feels compassion for the tenants. He sees their living conditions, he sees how hard they work, he sees how the system that he’s a part of is rigged against them. He hates the harvest season, hates having to go collect he exorbitant rents, but that’s his job, he and his family have to eat. He wishes there was something he could do for the tenants, someway he could make life better. But the problem is his compassion for the tenants is drowned out, squeezed out of him by the fear he has of being forced to someday live like them. He knows he’d never survive that kind of life, he couldn’t do the back-breaking work. And so he plays his part. He tries to convince himself that the tenants deserve to live that way because they’re lazy, or they lack courage to set out on their own, or they’re too stupid to do anything else, but really, he goes to bed every night feeling ashamed, feeling sick to his stomach.
When the rich man fires him, it’s the most amazing feeling. What should feel like a death sentence instead feels like the chains holding him place are broken. Freed from having to keep his position, freed from having to collect the rent, freed from working for the rich man, the manager can finally do something for all those tenants, take a little pressure off of them, give them a little hope. Jesus ends this story by saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Freed from serving wealth, the manager can serve God by making life better for the tenants, for the people no one is trying to help.
Maybe you feel caught in the middle yourself. It would be great to make the world a better place, great to change life for those in need, great to really do something about the big problems of poverty, hunger, racism, you name it. But we’ve all got to have someplace to live, we all have to put food on the table, we all need to provide for our families. That’s alright. Fred Craddock, a preacher I like a lot, says, “Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to write a note, visit a nursing home, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, and feed the neighbor’s cat.” May we prayerfully consider how best we can serve God, how we can plant seeds of justice, how we can help the kingdom of God sneak in in unexpected ways. May God give us the wisdom to make good decisions, courage to do the right thing, and the strength to do the work set before us. Amen.