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Faith Lens

September 15-21, 2010–Doing Good by Doing Well?

Contributed by Eric Ullestad, West Des Moines, IA

Warm-up Question

When have you been given more responsibility than you thought you could handle?  How did it turn out?

Doing Good by Doing Well?

What’s it like to head up the world’s biggest company?  Mike Duke knows.  He was named CEO of Wal-Mart in 2009.  This was a daunting task for Duke.  He inherited a major improvement plan, Project Impact, from his predecessor, which gave a face-lift to nearly every Wal-Mart store around the world.  This multi-billion dollar project came on the heels of the nation’s biggest economic crisis in decades.  Duke soon discovered that, though shoppers liked the fresh look of the stores, they were visiting less frequently and spending less each time they came.

Wal-Mart has also endured its share of public-relations setbacks in the past few years.  “Big Box Stores” like Wal-Mart are often cited as reasons why smaller retailers are closing up shop.  Wal-Mart also came under fire for shady employment practices that required close to full-time labor from employees, but offered no benefits beyond an hourly wage.  Some people have called for a boycott of Wal-Mart stores because some of their products are manufactured in countries that don’t provide safe working conditions for farmers and textile workers.

Despite these, and other, obstacles, Wal-Mart continues to set the pace for global commerce, topping $408 billion in sales for 2010.  Being entrusted with the responsibility of running a company of 8,500 stores and 2.1 million employees is a task that Duke welcomes.  He is already looking to the future in the hopes of building a “next-generation Wal-Mart.”  This won’t be easy, as economists consider the possibility of a “double-dip” recession in the months ahead.  Duke believes that enhancing the company’s participation in social programs, ensuring living wages for employees, and adding stores in growing markets like China and India will be benchmarks of Wal-Mart’s future.

Discussion Questions

  • Would you want to be CEO of Wal-Mart?  Why or why not?
  • What challenges (financial, ethical, legal) would you encounter as the head of a major corporation?
  • How would you demonstrate your leadership abilities if you were given this kind of responsibility

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 19, 2010 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Amos 8:4-7

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

The Parable of the Shrewd (Dishonest) Manager, found in Luke 16:1-13, is one of the most perplexing tales in all of Scripture.  It has confounded scholars for centuries.  So, if you’re not quite sure what Jesus is trying to say, you’re in good company.

Jesus begins by telling his disciples, within an earshot of the Pharisees, about a manager who wasn’t taking good care of his master’s property.  The master is about to fire the manager, but before he is relieved of his duties, the manager has to turn over the accounting books to the master.  Quickly, the manager goes to the people who are indebted to the master and reduces their debt.  By doing this, he has built a relationship with the lowly servants in the community; a relationship that he may need to rely upon once he is unemployed. 

The odd thing about this story is that Jesus concludes by praising the tactics of the dishonest manager.  He even encourages the disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.”  Fortunately for us, he goes on to talk about faithfulness and responsibility.  Jesus calls his followers to be “faithful with what belongs to another,” indicating that if a person is responsible with caring for someone else’s possessions, they will prove themselves trustworthy to handle their own riches.

In many ways, the easiest verse in this passage to comprehend is also the most difficult verse to implement.  “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  It’s an interesting choice of word.  Notice he doesn’t say “money” or “possessions.”  Jesus says that wealth is the “master” that is in direct opposition to God. In other words, focusing on acquiring a lot of stuff isn’t the way that God works.

Consider the debtors in the parable.  A hundred containers of wheat and a hundred containers of oil were crippling debts to the poor people, but likely didn’t mean much to the wealthy master.  This is not unlike the world we live in today.  We currently have the highest concentration of wealth in recorded history.  The wealthiest 20% of the people in the world have 83% of the wealth, while the poorest 60% have only 6% of the wealth.

Perhaps this story can teach us that God rejects the systems that make it possible for wealth to be accumulated at the expense of the poor.  God doesn’t appear to be anti-stuff, God just wants to make sure everyone has enough to live.  Serving God, therefore, might mean doing what we can to bring about economic justice and equality to all of God’s people.  

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think Jesus praised the shrewd / dishonest manager?
  • How would you interpret this parable?
  • What can this parable teach us about faithfulness and responsibility? 
  • What do you think about what Jesus says in verse 13?
  • How do you find yourself serving the god of wealth? 


Activity Suggestion

Use your phones, computers, iPods, etc. to do some research on companies that are giving back to their workers, helping to reduce debt, or helping to lessen the gap between wealth and poverty.  (Examples include Fair Trade products, American Apparel clothing, Tom’s Shoes, and Justice Clothing.)  Discuss ways to support companies, especially locally owned businesses that reinvest their wealth in responsible ways.  Consider sharing your findings with people in your congregation.  Be creative!

Closing Prayer

God of abundance, thank you for the many blessings in our lives.  Help us to turn away from the false comfort of wealth and serve you by caring for those in need.  Amen.