9/18/16: The Business of the Kingdom, Luke 16:1-13
The Business of the Kingdom
First Lesson: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
Second Lesson: Luke 16:1-13
One of the hardest parts about reading the parables of Jesus is their familiarity. Parables are meant to surprise and shock and destabilize our assumptions about the world, about ourselves and about God, because it’s often only when our world is disrupted that we allow ourselves to encounter something new. So it’s a challenge to hear many of these parables from Jesus—that if you were raised in church are as familiar as bedtime stories—again for the first time.
But the good news for us this morning is that this parable before us, which tradition has handed down as the “Parable of the Dishonest Manager,” is not one of the parables.
In fact, there’s a distinct chance that for many of us, this is the first time we’ve really considered this parable. It does show up in the lectionary cycle every three years, but most preachers (at least, preachers wiser than I) usually read it and think, “You know, this might be a good week to hear from the Old Testament.”
This is not a familiar parable because it’s a confusing parable. There are no easy interpretations are clear ways forward. We’re not sure just how we’re supposed to feel about it—which is frustrating in a way, and perhaps a little disorienting, but then again, that’s how we know we’re open to a new word from God.
Jesus is there with his disciples on the road to Jerusalem. They’ve been traveling for a while, stopping in the different villages and towns along the way, teaching about the Kingdom, telling parables, challenging the region leaders of the day. But here we’re told that he’s talking privately with his disciples—which is instructive. When Jesus talks privately with the disciples it’s intentional. It usually means he’s about to pass on some insider knowledge to prepare them for what’s coming, when they will have to take the reins of this ministry for themselves. And so we in the church should pay close attention to these passages because they’re directed especially at us.
He’s speaking to the disciples and he tells them about a rich man—and right from the start we need to have our guard up. Jesus talks about rich people a lot in Luke and it’s almost never a good thing. The last time he talked about a rich man was in the “Parable of the Rich Fool” who was given abundant wealth as a gift from God and didn’t know what to do with it; he tore down barns and built new ones so he could save it all for himself instead of seeing it as the miracle it was and sharing it with the people around him. Just a few verses later, Jesus will tell the “Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus,” where the rich man will pass by the destitute man at his gate day in and day out, never stopping to attend to him, only to find that when they both die Lazarus is taken up to sit with father Abraham while the rich man is sent down below. When he cries up to heaven for mercy, father Abraham tells him that he received his good things in life, and again did not know what to do with them.
But this rich man, we’re told, has a manager, a steward if you will, who’s been accused of mismanaging the rich man’s money. So the rich man summons this steward and says to him, What’s this I’m hearing about you mismanaging my estate? Pack your things and close up your books, you’re through. This manager is stunned and says to himself, What will I do? I’m no manual laborer, and I’m too proud to beg. I need to some friends—some people in my corner to help me out once I’m canned. So he starts settling his master’s debts—calling in the different debtors, asking them how much they owe, and then settling for much less, so that, in a sense, they will now owe him.
It’s not a bad strategy. Now, we’re never told whether or not this steward really was mismanaging his master’s finances, but we at least know that he’s pretty shrewd—maybe even impressively so. In fact, when his master hears about all this, he’s very impressed. In fact, he even commends this manager, who he’s just recently fired, because he admires his shrewdness. And all of this is wrapped up for us with these enigmatic concluding thoughts: 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 eternal homes.
Is it too late to read from the Old Testament?
What on earth is this supposed to mean?!
Who are we to identify with here—the rich man who apparently values shrewd dealings? Or the manager, who has a reputation, warranted or unwarranted, for shady dealings but who’s clearly quite shrewd, quite apt in looking out for himself? It’s like choosing between the lesser of two evils. Are we to value deception or self-interest or shrewdness?
And shrewdness may be too loaded a term, here. The Greek word simply means “prudent” or even “wisely.” This steward was wise in his dealings—even if it was for his own benefit. And this may actually be the crack in the door to let us inside.
We’re told that the steward had acted wisely with his master’s finances, but we’re not told just how this is true. Was he wise in a way that would benefit his master? Possibly. It could have been that his master was simply happy to have some of the debt paid—“a bird in the hand,” as they say. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe things had been tight. Maybe it had been a hard year and the savings were running low. Maybe this was why the steward had been fudging the numbers in the first place—or maybe that accusation was just a front on the part of the rich man to trim some staff—not an impossible scenario, with health insurance costs rising and rising, pensions what they are, benefits…
It seems as though the steward acted doubly wise because he acted in a way that benefitted them both: his master had debts repaid, and he had made friends to ensure his own future.
In any case, the steward acted wisely with what he’d been instructed with, this much we’re told—and this could be enough. As we’ve noted, when it comes to sins concerning wealth in the Gospel, the sin sometimes has to do with how it was acquired, in a dishonest way, but more often it’s the sin of mismanagement—not using what’s been given to you in a way that God intends. In a way that maximizes value not for share holders, but for everyone, and promotes relationship and community and makes sure everyone has enough. This steward made the best he could out of a bad situation—this is important. At least in this situation, and as far as the master was concerned, he had been faithful with what had been entrusted with him. He had been “faithful with very little,” as Jesus would say, and so we know he would be “faithful with very much.” And if we rush pass this, we’ve rushed bast something essential.
Living a life of faith is first of all about paying attention to the small things. If the Gospel promises anything, it promises the value of small things. In the birth, life and death of Jesus we’re assured that small things, faithfully done can change the world. Even more than the world, they can change a life; your life, or the lives of the people around you.
Small things make all the difference. If we have trouble believing this, then it will be hard to make peace with the gospel—which is okay! Making peace with the gospel isn’t a prerequisite to living a life of faith, it’s the goal of living a life of faith—or maybe the fruits of it. In fact, if the gospel story seems too much for you—and I mean this—if it seems to much to believe that God crammed God’s-self into a baby, into a poor woman’s womb. Or that this God would be executed by the authorities for preaching about things like justice and forgiveness and love—which when you think about it sounds strange, but you don’t get executed for preaching hate, you only get executed for preaching love— only to rise again in newness of life—if this seems outrageous (and by the way it should). Then start with something else. Ask yourself if small things make a difference. And once you make peace with that, go on to the whole God-as-baby thing. Then go on to the cross.
Fred Craddock, used to say, We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table—“Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.” But the reality for most of us is that God sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there…Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time. (1)
I love that. But I think they’re more here in this parable than being faithful with the small things. I think the steward acted wisely because he discovered the proper place of material things in his life—especially his master’s material things.
In that strange moment, after he’s been told to pack up his things, but before he’s actually left, he realizes that this money—at least for him—will soon be meaningless. When he was working for his master, his master’s money meant everything—it was all the thought about: How to take care of his master’s money. From the master’s perspective, this is essential to finding any good manager: they have to care for your things as if they were they’re own, while also understanding that they are most certainly not their own. But maybe in that moment, this steward had a stroke of clarity. This money was not his money. It didn’t belong to him, he would soon no longer benefit from it. It would soon be meaningless to him. This must have been terribly jarring. But it also must have been unbelievably freeing. The yoke had been lifted.
Jesus is there with his disciples. They’re getting closer and closer to Jerusalem, where he knows his life will end. He’s preparing them for life when he is gone, but more than that, he is preparing them for life in the Kingdom of God—this odd new creation which is already breaking forth in the world—where things are turned over on their heads, where the last are first and the first is last, where the hungry will soon be made full and the full must go hungry, where the riches of this world will soon mean nothing. I heard Tom Long say once that for Jesus, all money, any money, is like Confederate money in 1863: sure it looks great now, but pretty soon it’s not going to be worth anything at all. A new world is on the way, so it might be prudent to start divesting yourself of it, and storing up other treasures.
And this may be what Jesus means by “dishonest wealth.” The word here is mammon, which has a strong negative connotation in Scripture, but really means “worldly wealth.” Material wealth. It’s not dishonest in the sense that it was earned dishonestly—although all money is dirty in one way or another—but it’s dishonest in the way it tricks you into believing it will last forever, and if you have it that you’ll last forever, too. That’s what’s dishonest about wealth. I had a mentor once who liked to say that you never truly own anything in life until you give it away. Until you muster up the strength and discipline to divest yourself of something, it doesn’t really belong to you; you belong to it.
It’s been said that the parables are meant to do more than destabilize and disorient and shock us into considering something new. They’re meant to provoke us into acting on this newness. We’re not meant simply to consider them, but to act on them. So the question lingers upon hearing any of these parables of Jesus, is the same question that lingered in the salty Galilean air when Jesus first uttered them: What, then, shall we do? How shall we respond? What small thing has been entrusted to you to care for faithfully? What small relationship, small task, small business? Might that small thing be, for you, the door to the Kingdom of God? How would that change things?
But perhaps more pressing: where is your heart, when it comes to the treasures of this world? There’s no single question that Jesus asks more in the Gospel of Luke. Are you willing to commit yourself fully and completely to the Kingdom that Jesus says is at hand? What would it mean to prepare yourself for this Kingdom? What assets would you have to liquidate? What debts would you settle? Would it help to know that the treasures of this world don’t belong to you until you give them away? And to know that only then, in God’s humor, will you find just how little you needed them at all? Amen.
(1) Fred Craddock, cited in Leadership (Fall 1984) 47, found in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Pheme Perkins, p.629