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 accounting 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.”
Not long ago we wrapped up a series on questions. Well, I’m sorry to say that the next few weeks of preaching are going to raise some questions for all of us. Through what I have to hope are the machinations of the Spirit and not just simple bad luck, I have planned our preaching through Advent to be stuffed with scriptures you do not often hear from the pulpit. We enter, therefore, a sermon series in miniature, a bizarre look at the texts we do our best to ignore. From the ghost of a prophet to Jesus seemingly supporting business fraud, we are going to practice from the pulpit what we should carry into our life – an inquisitive faith that allows for uncertain answers.
The scripture we are looking at today is a triumph of weird and difficult interpretations. In my studying for this week, I found a quote that matches my own feeling exactly. An article in Neotestamenticum opens by saying, “As far back as in the sixteenth century, Cajetanus declared that it is impossible to expound this parable…” Impossible! How do we come to the opening of a chapter from the Gospel and find something impenetrable! Do we rush to find someone who does offer us an answer, or do we struggle with this to find a more fulfilling understanding of what Jesus has to offer us? Can any good come out of weighing good and evil and finding that which is dishonest, can have some utility?
I want us to go into our discussion fully understanding what is happening here. Jesus wraps up the Parable of the Good Samaritan, everyone is thinking about the ways they have been the older and younger sons to those around them, and how they have known the love of their heavenly father. Suddenly, Jesus begins a new parable. All ears open up, all eyes turn to Jesus, and then something strange follows.
A man deals in property – he gives people resources and money for them to make their own money and then asks for some amount of it back. It is unclear what the trade exactly is, but he seems to accept product as payment. He gives you the money to start your olive oil business, you give him some of the product to sell at a premium. He gives you the axes you need to start a lumber company, and you give him some amount of lumber. Money and supplies and this and that. He is a big mover and shaker and he is making money moves to make any shark blush in their tank.
One of his clerks, the people who actually write the bills and settle accounts, is doing a bad job. His deals are not bringing in any profits and he has shown himself to be more trouble than he is worth. The master says that he has to bring all existing contracts up to date and turn them in to be turned over to another manager. The clerk wonders how he can survive without this job and makes a plan. If he can underwrite all his contracts before they are turned in, then maybe the grateful contract holders will help him out. Suddenly, the $100 dollars you owe becomes $50. “That lumber contract? What lumber contract?! While we are at it though, can I stay with you for a little bit?”
The master gets the managers paperwork and is suddenly left with the realization that he has lost a lot of profit. The master holds his head in his hands and says, “Well, I could be angry, but in all honesty I’m mostly impressed.” Jesus ends his story by saying that worldly people are better with money, and more willing to cheat than Godly people. Thus, we should use dishonest money so that, when the money runs out, we still have support networks that are somehow holy.
What? I will say it again. What? What do you mean that scam artists are out there lurking, so I might as well play the game? Am I supposed to embezzle money from the office so that when I’m caught embezzling, I can have friends to take care of me? That is bad advice! If Jesus means that then I have to take issue with this teaching, because we you get caught embezzling money you go to jail, you don’t get to sleep in someone’s guest room. Thus, taking the lesson at face value is the wrong idea, there has to be more going on.
Some, like the article I mentioned earlier, have taken this parable and make it a story built upon sarcasm. The obvious duplicitous nature of the manager means that we who hear the story should never think that this is the right kind of thing to do. You cannot steal and not have it come back to bite you. Also, distantly I remember there being a commandment that says “You shall not steal.” Unless we make up, as some people do, an explanation that the manager was just dropping his commission from the bills – these rewrites are theft from the master’s pockets to the benefit of the manager.
Part of me, in this age of megacorporations, honestly wants to say, maybe that is not such a bad thing. Companies get insurance so that they can account for theft. They can lose lots of property and not feel it at all, meanwhile people who need baby food and diapers live another day. That feels just! People over profits! But it looks to the wrong answer to the question. The problem is that mothers cannot afford to care for their children. Our answer should not be that they have to resort to theft – it should be that the world supports them more and companies do not price gouge so that those mothers feel the need to steal.
Similarly, I think Jesus is asking us to reroute our thinking through this parable. Jesus is well aware that it is easy to scam church people. It just is. Tell them that the world is ending, and they will probably buy your book. Tell them you saw heaven for 5 minutes and they will go see your movie and all its sequels. None of it has to be true, it just has to sound true. Jesus does not endorse scamming and say the church should follow suite. He highlights that there are many scammers out there, that they are very good at what they do, and then says that money is in itself tainted.
Next week, we’ll go more into what that might mean, for money to hold some evil to it. For now, though, let us look into this parable as a question to be answered. Jesus closes his thoughts by telling us that being faithful with our possessions is important. We cannot, after all, serve God and wealth. So why then, are we constantly chasing after money at any cost? We vote, not base upon our conscience, but upon our wallet. We plan how we can help our community, not based on what is best, but on what balances the checkbook effectively. We work hard in our offices, and with our investments, not for good in itself but to make sure we get all the unrighteous wealth we ever could want. We dishonestly manage our lives, and to what end?
The parable is a question, the answer is found somewhere in not being so money-minded in our lives. Yet, Jesus’s words still remain obscured. Next week, delving into the idea that “The love of money is the root of all manner of evil,” we will find some of the fog lifted, but still some other words of Jesus here are further blurred. Digging deeper, we find more living waters than we can imagine, but also blockages that seem impenetrable. I do not, standing here preaching, or as a devotee reading, think I have a good grasp of what Jesus is going for here in Luke 16, but I know that it made me think a lot about the world, and money, and companies, and poverty.
Today, as we close our reflection. Let us take this parable as a nucleus we can use to grow from. As hard as it is to break through and understand, maybe God gives it to us to simply make us think harder what we do with money, and how we get it. Let us take time to think, let us take time to question the shrewdness of the world and the righteousness of God. – Amen.
 I J Du Plessis. “Philantrhop or Sarcasm?” in Netestamentica 24 (1) 1990.