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Pentecost 18C Sermon
Luke 16: 1-13

September 18, 2016

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

“Any commentator will tell you, this is a difficult text.” “If you’re not sure what to make of this parable, take comfort – I’m not sure Luke was either!” “Commentators routinely remark that the parable of the dishonest manager stands among the most challenging texts of the New Testament, often regarded as the most perplexing of Jesus’ Parables.” Those three quotes were taken from commentaries that THIS preacher turned to as I looked for something to shed some light on the meaning and importance of our Gospel reading this morning. Indeed, in a wonderful work by Robert Capon entitled, “Kingdom, Grace and Judgement” about Jesus’ parables in Luke’s Gospel, the chapter having to do with this story is entitled, “The Hardest Parable.” It just doesn’t seem fair to have this as the assigned Gospel text on the morning following a big late-night college football game for those of us living in central Ohio?

To tell you the truth, I don’t think it is possible for me to fully explain what this parable means in about 12 minutes time when Luke – the Gospel write himself – seemed to have at least four messages or “lessons” imbedded in the text. Are we to take from this that the children of light are to act more shrewdly? Or that Christians should make friends for themselves by dishonest wealth? Or is the lesson here that if you are not faithful in dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And what does the final admonition that you cannot serve two masters – God and wealth – have to do with it all?

Personally, I think that all of the confusion comes when we try to make the typical allegory out of this parable, likening the rich man to God and the dishonest steward to us. At the beginning it makes sense to us – after all, Jesus just told us another parable before this about a rich man with two sons, one of which also squandered his inheritance just like this steward squandered his boss’ property. But then the easy likenings between God and us fall apart. We cannot figure out why God would commend someone who is obviously just trying to save his own skin, and who is cheating him – the rich man – out of what others owe him to begin with! Even if we consider that the part of the debts that the manager forgave might have been his own cut, thus only demanding from the debtors what was originally loaned to them without interest, we are still left wondering just what about this person is Jesus lifting up to us as virtuous.

The beauty (and challenge) of Jesus’ parables is that they cannot be allegorized – at least most of them cannot, and if then it cannot happen very easily. Jesus’ parables in Luke always turn the world upside down, and often we get different things from them at different times in our lives based on our own circumstances. So let me tell you what I am getting out of this difficult, perplexing, hard parable today; and maybe you can understand it as I do … or maybe it will speak to you in a way that helps the gospel come alive in the light of your current life-circumstances.

Today I don’t hear this as an allegory. Today, I hear this parable in light of the final verse of the passage, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” I don’t think that the rich man is supposed to be God in this passage; I just think he’s supposed to be a rich man. And as such, he would be very interested in what was going on with his resources. The more a person has the more time and effort a person puts in to keeping track of and protecting his or her wealth. He is rich enough to have a full-time manager of his affairs. One might say that he is a servant of his wealth!
So when he receives word that this man is squandering his property, he gets angry. He is on top of things right away – he’s going to nip this problem right in the bud! He fires him and asks him to give him an accounting of his management. In other words, collect on all of his loans so he can audit his books and hire someone new to manage it all. He cannot have someone who is dishonest handling his affairs. He cannot have someone taking his property from him and squandering it! He must keep it under control at all times. So when word gets back to him that this dishonest manager is telling the man’s debtors to take their bills, slash them 20-50 % and pay up, he admires this. He doesn’t even mind if the reason he is doing it is to get in their good graces so that they might take him in when he is without a job.
This story seems to me like a wake-up call to all people who get so possessed by their own possessions that they lose sight of what is really important in life. So what if the debtor only paid him back half of what he owed him – he would never miss what he didn’t have, and it is probably doing both the debtor and his old manager some good that he isn’t getting the full amount back. It’s a lot like the conclusion of the story of Joseph and his brothers. When they finally realized that the same brother whom they had sold into slavery was now the Pharaoh’s right-hand man and was going to determine their fate, Joseph tells them that what they had intended for evil, God intended for good. In the same way that which the dishonest, shrewd manager intended for a selfish reason, God used to teach the rich man that his riches aren’t all that important to teach the manager that being shrewd in dealings might be an asset in a positive way in the world of commerce, and in the world of personal relationships with others! And Jesus uses this story to encourage people to be just as passionate and shrewd as they serve God as these people were in serving wealth. Instead of an allegory, this is a story of serving God instead of wealth.

The first congregation I served in my career was First Lutheran Church of Donnelsville, Ohio – a small town a few miles west of Springfield on the old National Road. In the history of the church I found that around 1828, one of the area farmers donated a corner of his property so that the new Lutheran congregation could have space to build a church building. While things were still in the planning process, a change was made. Property was purchased elsewhere because, as the historical writings put it, “It was evident that the town was going to be a few miles east of the land which the farmer donated.”

One Sunday morning during my ministry there, some descendants of that farmer’s family were passing through, and they stopped in to greet us. It was really rather pleasant talking with them about the history of the church. And when I mentioned this nugget of history behind the change of location for the church building, they chuckled and said, “Well, that’s not quite accurate.” While it is true that the town was going to be located a few miles east of the farmer’s land, the real reason for the move was that the farmer discovered that he made much more money selling his corn in liquid form than he did in solid form. In other words, he was selling corn mash whiskey, and the folks in the congregation didn’t like the fact that their church would be on land paid for by selling liquor.

In light of this parable today, I wonder if that would really be a problem in God’s eyes. I wonder if we couldn’t lift that up as an instance where someone was profiting off a vice, but God used that profit to spread the gospel. Rather than allegorizing this confusing parable, just read it as a story about a rich man and a shrewd manager and think about how it turns things upside down for us. Think about how it encourages us to serve God and not our wealth. Think about how Jesus commends everyone who is faithful in whatever has been entrusted to them, so that we may serve God with everything we have – including our wealth - instead of serving our wealth with all of our efforts. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.