This lesson follows the very well-known parable of the prodigal son. I think we will be well served if we keep that story in mind as we hear and consider this one. Where are the similarities and where are the differences. I think they will help us to understand what’s happening here, at least in part.
Gospel Lesson Luke 16:1-13
1Then 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. 2So 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.’ 3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then 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.’ 8And 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. 9And 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.
10“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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.”
Can we be any more confused? Jesus’ parables are supposed to make us think. They are supposed to help us consider the way God’s initiative turns our world upside down and inside out. Luke’s gospel repeatedly shows us this world:
- The proud are “scattered” (which translates the same word for “squandered”). *
- The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted. *
- The hungry are filled and the rich are sent away. *
- Those in need of hospitality find it is often provided by those who are considered religious outsiders or lower down on social hierarchies like the Good Samaritan, or tax collectors, or Cornelius. *
So what is happening here?
We have a wealthy man whose business manager has been less than honest in his handling of his boss’ money – a fact which the wealthy man hears about from other employees. When he confronts the manager, he fires him.
And here’s where it gets weird. The manager, before he leaves the office, calls a few of the clients who still owe his boss money. When they meet with him, he has them adjust their accounts downwards – You owe him $1,000? Make it $500. Do it quickly!
You owe him $5,000? Mark it down 20% – you only owe him $4,000.
And the manager packs up his office, knowing that if he needs a reference or a good word, the clients will step up and help him out.
Well, the clients can’t believe their good fortune. The manager saved them so much money they’re giddy with joy and have to talk about it.
And talk about it they do… of course, word gets back to the rich man. Rather than fly off the handle and bring his former manager up on charges, he smiles a wry smile, nods his head, and honors the changes to his clients’ statements.
Now let’s consider this in light of the Prodigal son. How can these two stories possibly related even though this story follows that one? Yet if we look closely, we find that there are elements in common.
- Both the younger son and the business manager betray one who trusts them. ‡
- Both are described as “squandering” the wealth that had been entrusted to them. ‡
- Neither offers any excuses for their misdeeds. ‡
- Both receive unbelievable, almost inappropriate, mercy. ‡
- Neither story is actually resolved. ‡
And that would be that – the grace of forgiveness manifest in the rich man’s actions. But Jesus doesn’t let it end there. He follows the story with seemingly contradictory summations that appear to have little to do with the rich man’s forgiveness.
- The children of the light need to act more shrewdly. †
- Christians should make friends by “dishonest wealth.” †
- If you’re not faithful with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with the true riches? †
- You cannot serve two masters. †
If we understand that the children of the light are the disciples of Jesus, then we need to understand what Christ means by the word “shrewd”. I wonder how much confusion might have been avoided if the translators of this passage had used words like prudent, or wise, or clever – other meanings for the Greek word used here.*
And what if Jesus had explained what he meant by dishonest wealth. The Common English Bible suggests that the phrase might also mean “worldly wealth”. Worldly wealth – the money that is used to exploit the inequities in our economy and social systems. How many people have lost their homes due to unwieldy mortgages or loans? How many people are trapped in low paying jobs or jobs with few benefits because owners and CEOs are wringing the last penny they can from the profit margins?
And if that’s the case, how do we use worldly wealth in a prudent, wise, or clever way so that we will be trusted with the riches of the age to come?
How can we be faithful with dishonest wealth? With worldly wealth? How are we to treat the wealth that we manage, the wealth that we have?
Perhaps we think this passage doesn’t apply to us because we aren’t wealthy. But I suggest that anything you possess qualifies as wealth. We may not be rich. We may not shop on Michigan Ave. We may not have a 3,000 square foot house or sports cars in the driveway. But we do have material goods and we do have some money. What matters is what you do with what you have – no matter how much or how little there is.
And here, I think, might be one of the keys to this passage.
What do we do with what we have?
It’s hard to talk about money, isn’t it. You’ve just come through some very lean years. Through your own hard work and a couple of key partners, you’ve managed to turn around your budget and your bank accounts.
David Lose reminds us that there is a strong cultural taboo regarding talking about money with others – actually NOT talking about money with others. Yet most people struggle with questions about money: how much is enough, how much is too much, how much do we need or keep and how much should we give away. How do we raise children and grandchildren who are both wise and generous. I don’t think this parable gives clear guidance to any of these questions, but it does present characters who also struggle with money, characters with mixed motives. Yet the rich man and the manager change over time in relationship to their circumstances. Characters, perhaps, not unlike ourselves. †
And maybe that’s what Jesus’ goal was. Not to give us a moral or life lesson, but to leave us with questions about how we manage the gifts God has given us. Perhaps it is a cautionary tale about being good stewards and what that means. Perhaps it reminds us that using what we have to benefit others is not only honorable but holy. And certainly Jesus wanted us to consider how money can become an end in itself, a destructive and selfish end. For if we become servants to money, to wealth, to material goods, rather than to each other, we lose the light of faith. We lose compassion. We lose what makes us human. We lose our ability to care for one another.
Caring for one another – through the righteous use of what we have – if we can bring ourselves to do that, if we can be happy with what we have rather than always wanting more, then I think the Rich Man in this parable will smile at us as well, will forgive us our mistakes, and trust us with his will, his riches, his love.
May it be so. Amen.
* Lois Malcolm. Commentary on Luke 16:1-13 at WorkingPreacher.org.
† David Lose in “Money, Relationships, and Jesus’ Most Confusing Parable” at WorkingPreacher.org.
‡ Facebook post on Kimberly Knight’s wall by Jon Altman, Sept. 18, 2013 at 9:04 p.m.