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Pentecost 15C Sermon
Luke 16: 1-13
September
22, 2019

 

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Luke 16:1-13

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.’

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.

You know things are going to be challenging when you read stuff like this about the assigned lessons for the day: “If you like Amos, you don’t understand Amos!” “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!” AND … “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.” In a wonderful work entitled, “Kingdom, Grace and Judgement” about Jesus’ parables in Luke’s Gospel, Robert Capon calls his chapter having to do with this passage, “The Hardest Parable.” These are passages that make us scratch our heads at the very least, and more likely make us shake our fists at God for them being in the Bible in the first place!

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 writer 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? Maybe the lesson here is 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 we make things more confusing when we try to read the parable as a typical allegory, 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 after that the easy comparisons 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 by cheating him – the rich man – out of what others owe him. Even if we are told that according to the customs of the day, 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 is Jesus lifting up to us about this person that is virtuous.
The beauty (and challenge) of Jesus’ parables is that they cannot be understood as simple allegories – at least most of them cannot. Even if they are, 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. What are you getting out of this passage today, one day before autumn in the year 2019? Today, I don’t hear this as an allegory. Today, I hear this parable as an illustration of the final sentence, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” What do I mean by that?

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 wealth a person has, the more time and effort that person puts in to keep track of and protecting his or her wealth. This guy 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 trusted manager 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, he is to collect on all of his loans so he can audit his books, start anew and hire someone else 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 have 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 he is doing it is to get in their good graces so that they might take him in when he is without a job. All he knows is that he is going to retain his wealth without much if any loss. This story seems to me like a wake-up call to all 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 and to teach the manager that being shrewd in dealings might be an asset in a positive way in the world of commerce, as well as the world of personal relationships with others! And Jesus uses this story to encourage people to be just as passionate and shrewd in serving God as these people were in serving wealth. Instead of an allegory, this is a story of serving God instead of wealth.

I think I have told the story before that the first congregation I served began on a piece of land donated by local farmer in the early 1800s. It was moved to its current location because the farmer discovered that he made more money selling his corn in liquid form … corn mash, used to make whiskey … than he did on the ears. The pastor and congregation didn’t like the idea that their church was built on money gained from liquor production, and they bought another piece of land to build the church on. 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. Consider 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. God loves a shrewd disciple, because we live in a shrewd world! May we use all of our resources to love in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord; Amen.