Any preacher following the Revised Common Lectionary stared at Luke’s text this past week about a dishonest man and wondered just what in the world she would say. A Facebook colleague shared that theologian Rudolf Bultmann called Luke 16:1-13 a problem child. Another chimed in: “It’s obviously not the parable of the Shrewd Rector, or I would have scheduled someone else to preach.”
Jesus’ parable is often called “The Shrewd Manager” or “The Dishonest Manager.” Whatever you call it, this one’s hard. Here’s what I said.
Proper 20 — Year C — Based on Luke 16:1-13
Three years ago this Sunday a group of four people from this parish trekked out to Colorado to come hear me preach. You can imagine my personal terror when, a few weeks earlier, I realized that I would need to preach on this difficult text from Luke’s gospel. It’s nearly impossible to comprehend. For me, knowing a new calling was on the line, raised the stakes considerably. But what I said then to those four and also to my congregation at that time is even more true for me today.
Jesus has just finished his story about the prodigal son, when he begins to spin another tale. “There’s a manager, a steward, who’s cooking the books,” he tells his disciples. “And soon enough, word gets back to his boss—the owner of the company—that this guy’s a cheat. So the owner calls him, demanding to know what’s going on. And before the manager can get a word in edgewise, the owner fires him.
The manager is freaked out. He hasn’t been keeping up with his gym membership so manual labor isn’t really an option. The thought of getting a handout makes him cringe with embarrassment. And then he has a brilliant idea. Before word filters out that he’s been fired, he makes a few phone calls. “How much do you owe my boss,” he asks one client. “A hundred grand,” is the response. “Quick, make it fifty.” He calls another customer, again slashing the amount he owes.
“It doesn’t take long for the owner to hear what the manager is doing,” Jesus says, and you can imagine the disciples are waiting on bated breath for the fury this shyster will endure. Jesus continues, “Then the owner says to him, ‘Even though you just harmed me, I have to give you your due. I hired you for your shrewd business dealings. It seems like you’ve done it again—albeit at my expense—and set yourself up nicely for the future.’ Ultimately,” Jesus says, “people like this trickster are more shrewd—more perceptive—than the children of light.”
You can hear it, can’t you? The disciples’ thoughts churning furiously in their heads. “Um, Jesus, are you sure that’s what you meant to say? You’re saying this cheater is better than the children of light, but aren’t we the children of light? Aren’t we the followers of God? Is he better than us?”
Luke has Jesus follow up with this: “If you can’t be faithful with earthly money–with worldly possessions–why should you be trusted with true riches? And if you haven’t been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? No one can serve two masters; in the end, you’ll be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Money.”
I’m sure stunned silence followed. If nothing else, I know it does for us. This parable, even with the explanations that follow it, is a true head-scratcher. There’s no doubt about it, the manager’s a cheat. Yet somehow Jesus commends him; Jesus seems to hold his actions up for us to model. But then Jesus says that if you’re dishonest with very little, you’ll be dishonest with a lot. Wasn’t this guy dishonest through and through?
One commentator explains it this way, “This manager, this person of questionable character, understood something that the children of light have had difficulty grasping: dishonest or not, this man understood how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger goal. Believers, take note. How much more, then, must the children of God understand the riches entrusted to their care? … With the end in mind, the manager redeemed whatever he could about his present situation. He understood that, in order to be where he wanted to be in the future, how he handled today counted.”
Have we, the children of light, forgotten the connection between today and eternity? Has it been lost on us that what we do now with the things we’ve been given has eternal implications?
In his fable The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis shows how far apart good and evil are from one another when a busload of Hell’s inhabitants embarks on a daylong visit of Heaven. The protagonist—a resident of Hell—sees that he and the others on the bus are wispy, transparent creatures mere phantoms when they arrive. In Heaven they are met by friends and loved ones, people who are much brighter and are solid and substantial figures. They implore the ghost-like ones to let go of their anger and bitterness—the control of their own lives—to give themselves over entirely to Christ’s love. Many refuse, running for the bus, preferring the familiarity and comfort of the Underworld.
In his Introduction, Lewis remarks that there is a pervasive belief that we can avoid “either-or” scenarios, that eventually all things–including good and evil–if given enough time, will converge together, so we’ll be able to have our cake and eat it too. Lewis emphatically states that such a belief is a disastrous error. “Evil can be undone,” he writes, “but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, ‘with backward mutters of dissevering power’—or else not. It is still ‘either-or.’ If we insist on keeping Hell,” he writes, “we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven, we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”
“No one can serve two masters” was Jesus’ way of saying the same thing.
Over time, we begin to think that we can have it both ways. We think we can serve both God and our own interests. Oh it doesn’t happen all at once, the powers of this world are much more sneaky than that. But sometimes we allow things to become cloudy; rather than intentionally deepening our walk with Christ, we tend to slip. We get muddled with our priorities, and our faith takes a back seat. We know what we’re supposed to do, of course, but we get distracted.
What Jesus is getting at, I think, is that we should continually focus on the eternal in our lives. How often do we allow our schedules to dictate how much time we can offer God? If we, or our kids, are too busy, church and opportunities to grow in faith are often sidelined.
God loves all of us, but we so easily forget this, and unintentionally push God away. I do not think you all who are gathered here on a Sunday need to be made to feel guilty. Rather God deeply loves you and desires more time with you. God wants you to take what has been given you—your time and the wonderful skills you have and yes, even your money—and to think for the long term. Not to set yourself up for a cozy retirement, but to think about the eternal. To recognize that this life of ours can lead to a dead end if we are not careful.
God wants us to be faithful and trustworthy with everything we’ve been given. Because, quite simple, God wants the message of love God has for us as a parent to be spread as broadly as possible. I think this because Jesus has just finished telling us the story of the Prodigal Son. God, in that story as a father, loved. Period. God loved the wayward son and the one who refused to party. He turns directly from that parable about celebrating to this one about using our resources for that which is eternal.
And what’s eternal is this: relationships with one another. Going deeper. Reaching out to those in need and standing beside them to fight against injustice. We are to live in heaven, not in hell. And we do this by being faithful in all the small and big opportunities that Jesus presents to us in this life.