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This sermon was preached at New Life Presbyterian Church in Sterling Heights, Michigan and was focused upon Luke 16:1-13. The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
This is an intriguing parable. And if you’re wondering, “What is Jesus really saying here, and what does it all mean?” you’re in good company. This parable about the dishonest manager is only found in the Gospel according to Luke. It shows up in the Revised Common Lectionary once every three years, and each time it rolls around, pastors all around the world scratch their heads, and wonder, “What does this mean? And what should I say about this parable?”
It turns out that pastors and preachers are in good company too because Biblical scholars are also unsure of what to make of this parable. They aren’t convinced about how to interpret it. There are many unique details in this parable which speak directly to the culture in which it was told and then later written, and we just don’t have a clear window to view how those details functioned.
But with boldness and humility, let’s just go ahead and dig in.
So a rich man had a manager, and he heard that the manager was squandering the property. “What is this I hear about you?” he asked. “Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”
The manager must have panicked, realizing he was going to lose this position. What could he possibly do next? What if his reputation was about to be ruined, and there would be no future opportunities? He 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.” So he came up with a plan, and this is where the parable becomes particularly interesting. The manager said, “I have decided what to do, so that when I’m dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” He comes up with an intriguing plan and then gets to work.
One by one, he contacts the debtors of the rich man and reduces their debt. “How much do you owe my master?”
“A hundred jugs of olive oil? Okay, take your bill and make it fifty.”
“A hundred containers of wheat? Okay, take your bill and make it eighty.”
One by one, the manager contacts all the debtors and puts this plan into place. Here’s something scholars simply do not know: How do these actions square up with the customs of the day? Is the manager doing something illegal? Is he reducing the debt by his own commission, relieving the debtor but taking the hit himself? Something else? We’re just not sure.
But we know what comes next in the story. The rich man discovers what the manager has been doing, and he commends him for acting shrewdly. We don’t know if he gets to keep his job or not, but we do know he is commended.
And here’s where we might get more confused. Jesus commends the manager too. He says, “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.” What does that mean? Is Jesus truly commending dishonesty? Surely not, so is he being sarcastic? Something else? Even scholars aren’t sure.
But his next words offer much for us to ponder. Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in very little, is also faithful in very much; and whoever is dishonest in very little, is also dishonest in very much.” Perhaps this statement reveals something about character. Or perhaps it encourages the disciples, reminding them that their faithfulness in the small things is truly having a large impact of faithfulness. Perhaps it charges the disciples to serve faithfully with what all that is before them, acknowledging that God is about to entrust them with larger things.
Then Jesus says, “If you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” If we’re not faithful with what we have in this world, how will we be able to enter a reality of deeper meaning and connection? How will we see, know, and participate in the Kingdom of God?
And Jesus finishes with this statement. Perhaps it is the culmination of where he is going and an interpretive lens for the rest: “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.”
This is one of those deeply convicting and deeply troubling statements of scripture because it’s easy to nod our heads in agreement but then struggle in our hearts with our own wealth or our ideas about how wealth should function in our world. Money is not evil in and of itself. It’s a resource and a valuable one. But it’s also a powerful one. Our relationship with wealth and our ideas about how wealth should function can become idolatrous.
So here we are. . . with a challenging parable. It’s challenging to understand and interpret, and it challenges us as we consider how God calls us to live our physical and spiritual lives. There are many directions we might go because the parable is so complex, and this is a reminder that we are invited to have a humble relationship with scripture. Before scripture, we are always invited to ask God, “What are you revealing in my heart today? Which part do I especially need to ponder? How are you calling me to act in the world? What are you asking of our church? How can we live faithfully as disciples toward our neighbors?”
And with all these questions swirling about, it’s also a good reminder that each one of us, and all of us collectively, are always part of the sermon on Sunday morning. The sermon does not belong ultimately to the preacher. It’s not something that can be fully contained on pieces of paper, or in my case today, an iPad. It is not encapsulated in a link or a recording that will be placed on the church website later. The sermon is a moment we all participate in, and every holy conviction in this room is a part of it. Every action lived in response to this scripture today is part of the sermon. You are co-preachers with your thoughts, words, and actions. We live this moment together. So how is God calling each one of us, and all of us collectively because we’ve gathered around this parable today? I wonder how that answer will emerge.
I will lift up one particular observation about this parable. Most weeks, I listen to a wonderful podcast. It’s called the Pulpit Fiction Podcast. The two co-hosts of the show delve into the scriptures which are about to appear in Sunday worship. They call their show a “lectionary podcast for preachers, seekers, and Bible geeks.” So if you fit into any of those categories, you are most welcome to listen sometime.
This week, Eric Fistler, one of the co-hosts, said something about this parable which got me thinking in a particular way. He made this observation: Even though the manager was ultimately dishonest in his actions, he chose those actions in the service of relationship. He hoped that reducing amounts of the debtors would gain favor and build the trust of relationship as he moved forward in a new direction. In this parable, Jesus says, “. . . the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Eric Fistler invited listeners of the podcast to consider how we might use our means – wealth, time, talents, convictions, commitments, love, and compassion – toward relationships. If this dishonest manager did so through dishonest means, how much more should the children of the light use good means to build and honor relationships with our neighbors?
And what would happen if we entered a season of pondering questions about relationships. How can we use our wealth, time, talents, convictions, commitments, love, and compassion toward relationships? How can we build and honor relationships of trust with our neighbors?
I believe this is a vital question for churches. In the next few weeks and months, many congregations will enter a time of stewardship – a season to consider faithfully how to use our resources and to consider prayerfully how we might give to support the ministries of the church. Eric Peltz, a good friend and colleague, is the pastor of a congregation in Silver Spring, Maryland, and he recently published an excellent article in the Presbyterian Outlook magazine entitled, “Trusting Stewardship.” He raises the point that many of our neighbors do not trust churches. Some do not trust that they will not be welcomed fully. Others expect poor ethics from leaders.
I know this personally in my own work. I’m the organizer of a community called Michigan Nones and Dones. We often describe ourselves as a community for people who are “spiritually curious but institutionally suspicious.” Our community includes people who are religiously unaffiliated (the Nones) and people who have left established, institutional churches (the Dones). In coffee shops and restaurants, we explore spirituality and the teachings of Jesus together. We talk about our life experiences. We’re not discouraging people from having a relationship with a congregation. But we are recognizing that many of them have had painful experiences with congregations, or they are very suspicious based on what they’ve seen. Very frequently, they have felt manipulated by Christians who want to grow their churches and may view them as just another number sitting in the pews for worship. . . or just another person who might give money to sustain the congregation’s budget. They want more than that.
It’s clear that the Church needs to build a stewardship of trust. How might we use our wealth, time, talents, convictions, commitments, love, and compassion to build healthy, trusting relationships? That is something that we will answer with our lives.
Responding to God’s call, where does this parable find you today? It is a complex one, hard to interpret and hard to live. But you are co-preachers every time we gather together before scripture. So how will we live in response?