Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “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, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master 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. 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.
‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
Who Do We Really Serve? Luke 16:1-13
You know that it's going to be a rough week of sermon prep when you consult literally eight different commentaries and all of them tell you how difficult this particular scripture is to interpret. Some call this story from Luke, often known as the Parable of the Shrewd or Dishonest Manager, the "most perplexing of Jesus' Parables." Other scholars quoted one of the most renown theologians and New Testament scholars of the last century, Rudolph Bultmann, calling this story the "Problem Child of Parabolizing Jesus." Much to my consternation, I am inclined to agree with them. I mean, it's not like I'm expecting every teaching example that Jesus shared to be easy to understand. After all, Jesus taught in parables and parables are notoriously dense and complex stories. They often turn conventional wisdom on it's head. In these parables, Jesus often stretched and bent common imagery with uncommon grace, creating brand new metaphors for the reign of God. Folks who are usually villains become heroes. People who usually live on the margins are become the center by God's unfailing love. Silly sheep and simple coins become prizes worth risking life and reputation for. If we have been paying attention, we should know that when we read the parables, we should expect a surprise. The issue here is that the surprise is a little different. The surprise seems like it might be Jesus praising dishonest actions. That seems kinda weird, right?
Let's turn back to the story and walk through it a bit more slowly to see if that helps. There's a rich guy, a guy rich enough that he has employees to help manage his money. Someone accuses that manager of squandering the rich guy's money. The rich guy seemed to believe the accusations. First, he asked the manager for an account of his actions and then he fired him. The manager, who is not actually shown refuting that he has been really bad at managing things, is shown trying to figure out how to make a living after being fired. He decides pretty quickly that he's too weak to get a construction job and to proud to beg people for help. Instead, he decides to cut down on the amount of debt people owe his former employer in hopes that one of them will help him when he needs it because they feel a sense of obligation. It should probably be noted that Jesus explicitly said not to do things like this a couple chapters back. The guy in the story doesn't seem to be worried about that at this moment.
He quickly went to two of the people who owed the rich guy money and changed the records of their transactions to say that they owed much less than they actually owed. He still had one more meeting with his boss... an exit interview, I guess. The boss saw that the manager had reduced the bills of these two people. In our first surprise of this reading, the rich man saw what the manager did, an action that actually lost him quite a lot of income, and, rather than berate him, the boss commends him. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm not seeing a lot here that is commendable. I mean, if you admire sneakiness, I guess you might call this guy commendable. Or, if you're one of the people who got some debt relief, you might call him commendable. But, I don't see how this boss, or Jesus, for that matter, would want to commend the manager.
In verse eight, Jesus offers some kind of explanation for the rich man's commendation. Jesus said that "children of this age," that is, people who have not decided to live according to God's will, are much more adept at gaming the unjust system they live in for their own gain. What is happening is that the boss recognizes that man's skill at gaming a system that should have gotten him in trouble. I think this is one of the first parts of this story that gives people pause... or, at least, this gives me pause. I'm pretty sure, in other parts of the Gospel, Jesus has critiqued manipulative and oppressive system. I can't think of somewhere where he recommends playing by their rules (with the exception of paying taxes). I'm pretty sure that Jesus' typical recommendations for behavior has been to live by God's rules and not the rules of empire. This verse seems strange, counter even, to Jesus' typical teaching. Things get stranger in the next verse. Jesus seems to tell his followers that if they have wealth from shady sources, they should use it to buy influence with people who will take care of them later, just like the manager did. What? Why would he say that? I don't understand.
Now, scholars have offered several explanations for these two verses. Some commentators have said that Jesus is taking this moment to explain to his followers how unethically-gotten possessions can be used for good purposes. After all, in the last couple weeks, Jesus has spent a lot of time justifying his close relationships with people who have plenty of dishonest money: tax collectors, other sinners, the occasional woman of ill repute. Maybe this is a story for folks who might think they can't take this money that they earned from the empire's systems and then turn around and use it for God's purposes. Or, maybe this is a story that is kinda like those verses in Matthew where Jesus reminds his followers to be wise as serpents and innocent and doves. Wisdom comes from using what you have to make do, like this manager tries to fix his mistake by being merciful to people that he might have cheated.
My favorite reading of this scripture is from a scholar who suggested that these two troubling verses should actually be read as Jesus making sarcastic statements about the state of the world. Maybe Jesus was saying these two things with a wink and a nod. "Oh, of course the unethical landlord would commend a sneaky manager for finagling his way into the good graces of the people he'd once tried to cheat. Of course someone unscrupulous would suggest that we all could learn something from him... finally use our ill-gotten gains for something good. Right? *Wink*Wink*" This scholar wonders if maybe these two lines of scripture aren't actually recommendations for behavior but, instead are being held up as ways not to behave. When we look to Jesus' actual recommendations for proper Gospel behavior, we should look to the next four verses instead.
In the next four verses, Jesus describes a relationship with wealth that sounds like it is more in line with his mission to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and proclaim the year of Jubilee. In this final portion of the reading, he says that the wealth that we have right now, ultimately, is not the most important thing with which we are entrusted. In fact, our access, or lack thereof, to wealth is far more likely mirror the oppressive system that we live in than it is to mirror God's intentions for creation. Furthermore, according to Jesus, our material wealth is not actually our "true riches." Our relationship with God and neighbor is. However, the fact that we are called to value our relationship with God and our neighbors above all else does not actually mean that we get to ignore what we do with our money. Our relationship with God is to guide our relationship with money.
Jesus said, "Whomever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; whomever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much." Ultimately, as difficult as it is to imagine, our money is the small thing that has been entrusted to us. Our relationship with God and neighbor is the greatest thing that can be entrusted to us. Jesus knew that then, just as now, it is too easy to become trapped in a system that tells us to value small things, like our money, more than big things, like our relationship with God. It can also be too easy to forget that as our primary concern, our relationship with God, should be helping to guide how we use our money. When we forget that God is our true riches, we can believe the lie that our wealth is the most important aspect of our lives, and we will turn our attention towards protecting it at all costs. We can develop an unhealthy, untrustworthy relationship with things that aren't ultimately the most important things. Jesus calls us to remember our right relationship with the small things, our wealth, in order to better express our relationship with the greater things, God and our neighbor.
Now, you may say, "Chrissy, it seems a little too easy to make sense of a difficult parable by suggesting that Jesus didn't really mean the two lines that make clear interpretation the most difficult. Can it be a good interpretation if you basically ignore the lines about learning to be shrewd like this terrible manager was shrewd and skip over to the parts of Jesus' teaching that seem more clear?" If you said that to me, I'd tell you that I think you'd be right. It can always be tricky to assume tone in a piece of writing when you have no access to the original author and come from a drastically different time and culture. However, despite some misgivings I might have about the ways I have suggested for addressing theological incongruities in the parable, I don't really have a problem with taking the last four verses as the authority on how to use our wealth as a reflection of our greater relationship with God. These four verses seem much more like the mission of justice and love that Jesus described at the outset of his mission in Luke. These four verses help me remember that everyday we are afforded a million small opportunities to allow our behavior to reflect our connection to God, including our behavior with money. I pray that we can each as ourselves, "When I make this choice, who am I really serving? The small things? Or, my God?" These questions merit a good answer.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Barbara Rossing: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2982
Lois Malcolm: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1783
Greg Carey: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=675
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4713
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2016/09/pentecost-18-c-wealth-and-relationships/
Phyllis Tickle: http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/lect25cgospel/
The Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=794
Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.