The parable we have before us this morning makes a lot of people uncomfortable. The problem is, we cannot discern Jesus’ intent. We can take in his words, but what was he getting at? Was Jesus really praising dishonesty? It sort of sounds like it, but I don’t think so. That wouldn’t fit with ANYTHING else Jesus did or taught the rest of his ministry, so that CANNOT be it. But what is it? Lots of teachers and preachers won’t touch this parable with a 10 foot pole. I suspect there are a lot of sermons being preached on Amos today!
But we are going to cook with this text. It is one tough cut of meat, but it has been marinating in my mind all week. I put it in the oven to roast, low and slow, for a long time. We are going to see that this parable really can be a nutritious dish for us to digest. Let me read the parable of the shrewd steward for you.
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ “‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. (Luke 16:1-8a NIV)
That is not quite the whole lectionary text. That is the whole parable though. Then Jesus gives his bit of commentary about the parable. He goes on to say:
For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:8b-10 NIV)
This parable is about a manager who is “wasting” the owner’s property. It comes on the heels of a parable of a younger son who ‘wasted’ his inheritance living high on the hog. Letting these two parables ‘talk’ to each other is part of the interpretive process and gives flavor to the marinade. It is easy to understand forgiveness by the father who sees his son whom he thought must be dead after all this time coming down the road toward him. This manager deserves forgiveness just as much as the son does, but we naturally gravitate toward condemning him much more than the son. So remember he is a person God loves. He has made a mess of things and he has been caught. Can we show him mercy? Can we show everyone mercy? So that is one important ‘take-away’ from this parable.
Now for what Jesus says. This is one of the first passages where I figured out that Jesus’ words are not always straightforward serious. Sometimes he uses hyperbole and sometimes, like in this passage, sarcasm. No person has the power to welcome anyone to an eternal dwelling. That came to me like a thunderbolt one day. When I realized that. Lots of things fell into place…
So, what do we do if we do want to secure an ‘eternal dwelling’? We aren’t going to get it from pleasing people, that’s for sure. We aren’t going to get it by dishonest means either. That’s also for sure. We are only going to get it like the prodigal son got it. He was welcomed back into his home by coming home and confessing!
Jesus tells this parable to talk about money, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The rich man, the owner of the property praises the manager whom he as recently fired. That is part of what makes this passage so confusing. Why does the owner fire the guy for wasting his property, then seemingly praise the guy for stealing from him? First of all, I don’t think the manager was was stealing from him. Nowhere in the parable does it say he was stealing. He is only accused of ‘wasting’ the owner’s property. I do not think this manager was discounting the debts to the owner. I suspect this was his ‘mark-up.’ We don’t know for sure how the system was set up in which this manager worked, but it seems likely it was kind of like the process for the tax collectors. Remember, the Romans told them what the tax would be that they had to turn in, but with a wink and a nod, they could collect whatever amount they could collect. That ‘cut’ was their pay. In that kind of a system, the manager would have ‘padded’ the accounts with his ‘cut.’ That was his opportunity for adding to his own wealth and he took it. Now, he was eliminating that debt so that people would owe him in a different way. I don’t think Jesus was having the owner praise the manager for his dishonesty. HE WAS PRAISING HIM FOR HIS ADAPTABILITY! The manager was able to figure out a way to survive in his changing situation. That is a strength. We all need to be able to do that in life. THE CHURCH NEEDS THAT MESSAGE THESE DAYS TOO!
We need to figure out how to adapt to our changing neighborhood. We need to figure out how to change our practices to meet the needs of the people who surround us. Our needs are being met. It is time for us to give to others. We need to adapt to the world we live in rather than try to hold on to a way of being the church that is passing away. We cannot afford to be the church we have always been, just like the manager couldn’t afford to let the owner’s books carry his indebtedness to the people. He had to take his cut off the books and carry it in his relationships. We need to build relationships with the people who are not in church. We need to find out what they need. We need to let them know what we have to offer. Too many people don’t know the church has anything to offer. Far too many people don’t think the church is FOR them.
Jesus was telling this parable about money, wealth and value, but it was also about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ The Pharisees thought the wealthy, powerful people were in and the poor were out. They believed that Jews were ‘in’ and Romans were ‘out’ (except that the Romans were ‘in’ for now, anyway.) We would do well to consider who is really ‘in’ that we think are ‘out.’
The rest of the lectionary text reads:
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
This is the end of the assigned lectionary text for this week. I can understand why the lectionary committee wanted to end on that strong phrase “You cannot serve both God and money.” The original word was Mammon which was the name of the Canaanite god of wealth. That made it clearer for the people listening to Jesus. They would have instantly understood. You cannot serve both God and a false god. Wealth can be a false god. And so can the past. We cannot serve God both in the present and in the past. We can only serve God in the present. We HAVE to be adaptable and be responsive to our current situation.
The parable, and Jesus’ intended lesson in telling it becomes clearer if we read the two verses that come next, so I added them to the reading for today:
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight. (Luke 16:14-15, NIV) And that fits for us too. We can worship the false god Mammon in yearning for the past. We look back at the ‘wealth’ of a full sanctuary, a Sunday school with kids in it, days gone by when the church was full and going to church was the norm. It was expected and for the most part, everyone you wanted to be with was there.
That is no longer the case, and we yearn for those ‘good old days’ at our peril. Those days are gone. Just as gone as the manager’s position. Those ‘good old days were good for then, but they aren’t good for now. Trying to live in the past is detestable to God. A new day has come and we must adapt. We need to recognize that the church needs to be ‘out there’ as well as ‘in here.’ We are the church 24/7, the body of Christ, so we need to act like Jesus. We need to get to know our neighbors. We need to listen to them. We need to love them. We need to find out what they need. We need to recognize where they hurt and offer a salve. Each one of us gets to be the church for them.
So in this coming few moments of silence chew on this text. Consider what it means to let go of worshipping the past. Consider how to be the body of Christ; the church for the good of the world, and ask God to show you the way to be the church for your neighbors and friends everywhere you go.
(Silence for reflection…)
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Blessings to you,
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