Luke 16:1-13 CEB
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
“The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.
“One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.
“Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Parables make a return this week, and this one about a dishonest manager is a doozy, to say the least! Here we have a manager, who upon hearing that he is about to be let go decides to slash the debts others owe his master. He reduces their debts so that when he is cast out perhaps these folks will owe him a debt and keep him off the street. What’s truly odd about this parable is that when the master hears about his manager’s shrewdness in discounting debts, he praises him rather than condemning him! Confusing to say the least! However, perhaps we are disconcerted because Jesus directly addresses our love of money in this parable in ways that make us uncomfortable as we move into our third week in our sermon series, “Having Words with Jesus.” We might find ourselves, after hearing this passage, reacting like the Pharisees in verse 14, who “were money-lovers, [and having] heard all this [...] sneered at Jesus.” The truth is that we too are money-lovers, more than we care to admit to ourselves and to others. In our words from Jesus today, we have this challenge to change how we handle what the NRSV translation calls “dishonest wealth” and the CEB translation recognizes as “worldly wealth.” Like the dishonest manager, can we use wealth in ways that is was not intended in order to build up the kind of treasure that really matters, the currency of community and relationships needed in the kingdom of God?
Our passage today in the gospel of Luke continues to confound and confuse readers and interpreters alike. How can Jesus praise the dishonesty, the cleverness or shrewdness, of this manager when it comes to money? As I mentioned last week, parables are strangely good at resisting our attempts at giving them simple meanings, and I am relieved that even the gospel writers struggle with what to do with this parable! Looking at the text, it is clear that verses one through nine appear to be the original parable from Christ, while verses ten to thirteen probably come from the gospel writer trying to come to terms with what Jesus has said. You can see this where these latter verses almost seem to contradict the parable’s possible message. Jesus says in verse nine, “‘use worldly [or dishonest] wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes,’” and so we have Christ praising the kind of behavior the dishonest manager takes. When we look to verse ten, things seem to have changed as it then says, “‘Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much,’” so we are left wondering whether we should be dishonest or not!
What can we do? Well, like I said last week with the three parables, we have to get up and delve into this parable as it demands we do the work to try and understand it. We have to ultimately lean into the text, allow ourselves to listen, and let it speak to our hearts.
What can we say about this parable then? I think we can say that Jesus is reminding us that we give money a lot more importance than it deserves. Jesus reminds us that we have a problem with money. As one preacher was said to have put it: “We print the words ‘In God We Trust’ right on the god we trust.” We have allowed ourselves and our relationships to be defined by money. We don’t like it when anyone, especially Jesus, talks about money, and we would much rather it remain a taboo subject in most spaces. Henri Nouwen, author and priest, explains our reluctance best, saying:
“The reason for the taboo is that money has something to do with that intimate place in our heart where we need security, and we do not want to reveal our need or give away our security to someone who, maybe only accidentally, might betray us.”
We trust this god, this mammon (as riches are rendered in Aramaic) as the source of our security in our world and in our relationships with others. We have made it an idol, and God always strikes at our empty idols to remind us what matters. In this parable, Jesus asks us to take a risk, rather than be independent with worldly wealth, we should be dependent on God for our security. This involves taking a risk on a different economy, the economy of the kingdom where wealth is measured by the love of God and love of neighbor.
The problem with worldly wealth stems from the fact that when we earn wealth, we find ourselves caught up in the very economic systems that produce that wealth. Unfortunately, our worldly economy with its capital and resources comes from many different vendors, clients, and consumers. For example, Caitlin and I watched a documentary a few years ago called Rotten which looked at the realities around food production. We sat back after each episode (whether it was about avocados, chocolate, or even honey) and wondered how we could ever purchase something without the possibility that it has harmed or will harm someone down the line, and after a while, we realized we never could. There was simply no way to be a just consumer. Dishonest wealth comes down to a question of whether we can ever be entirely just in earning or spending wealth, and the answer is often ultimately a no as we cannot possibly understand all the long-term consequences of using the world’s wealth. However, luckily for us, God can, for our God can see where everything stretches into eternity.
When Jesus talks about worldly wealth, dishonest wealth, and unrighteous mammon, he is talking about all currency in our world today. The currency of our current world is from a world that is passing away. It is the money in our wallets, in the offering plate each week, and the money we spend and invest on a daily basis. The wealth and currency around today springs from a broken and sinful world, so it too is broken. Think about it, what value will any of this money have in the world to come? Will it matter if you were a pauper or a prince in this world? Will our wealth now really determine whether we live in a hovel or mansion in the world to come? Perhaps this is why the “‘master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly.’” Our manager was dishonest with the currency of the world. He cheated the systems of wealth all around him in order to build up the currency that really mattered, the currency of the kingdom. In so doing, he made the wealth of this world worthless, and our manager actually showed that he served not mammon but God in his actions even if this was not his intent.
While our parable is perplexing, I do not think we should be completely surprised by Jesus lifting up the most absurd kind of character as the one actually doing the work of the kingdom. Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus praises a neighbor who reluctantly responds to persistent knocking late at night to share some bread (Luke 11:5-13), and again in Luke 18, Jesus lifts up an unjust judge who finally gives justice to a widow because she kept harassing him (Luke 18:1-8). These dubious characters did the right thing even though they were somewhat less than righteous. Our manager seems a peculiar model for us to follow, but Jesus says this dishonest manager gets it where we often don’t. As Jesus says, “‘People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light.’” In other words, we should be even more shrewd than the dishonest manager! We should be even more contrary to ways of wealth in this world than this character from our parable this morning!
While we may find ourselves trapped in economies of dishonest wealth and we may seem helpless, but this parable is not about what binds us but what frees us. We are reminded that “‘You cannot serve God and wealth,’” as no one can serve two masters. It might seem we are in an irreconcilable dept to mammon, to worldly wealth, but our shrewd manager shows us the way out. We can always choose who to serve, and we can be dishonest with the world’s wealth by defying its expectations to instead invest in the world that is coming, the kingdom that is being built. This kingdom has a different economy altogether. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, makes plain what has worth in his kingdom, namely to love God and to love neighbor. In fact, God’s kingdom could also be called a kin-dom since it values the good fruits of relationships: family, hope, joy, justice, peace, and the small irreplaceable everyday things that make up our lives.
Our manager invests accidentally, so how much more good could all of us do since we actually want this kingdom to come? How much more can we use dishonest wealth honestly for the kingdom? How about it? Let’s use dishonest wealth to build community and value people. Let’s use worldly wealth to rescue and lift up people when they are in trouble. Let’s give away unrighteous mammon rather than hoarding more than we need to live. Let us build riches that moth and rust cannot touch, let us store up the currency of kingdom and kin-dom to find our true wealth and treasure in the economies of love found in Christ. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman