It’s … Complicated – Sermon on 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. 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.” – Luke 16:1-13

Scholars cannot agree on the meaning of this passage. Every commentary I consulted this week began with some version of  “This is a very difficult text.”  One preacher suggests that most people can do an adequate job of explaining most parables, but not this one. “This week,” he admonishes, “without a trained professional, you interpret the gospel at your peril. Welcome to Luke 16; don’t try this at home.”[1] It’s even hard to find a consensus on where the parable actually ends and the explanation – such as it is – begins. I wrestled with these words all week. I tried looking at them from top to bottom and from end to beginning. I tried dividing the chunks into smaller chunks. I examined individual words. All my study and pondering left me frustrated, unsure of the lesson Jesus was trying to teach. I kept struggling to identify what it is we, as a church, need to take away from this passage that we haven’t already covered, but my frustration only grew. So bear with me as we work through it together.

Let’s start at the top. At the very least, we can identify the original audience. Jesus is talking to his disciples. This probably refers to a larger group than the twelve disciples who followed Jesus most closely, but at least we know Jesus is addressing followers, and not opponents. Those Pharisees who have been giving Jesus so much trouble may be lurking around in the background, but Jesus is not dealing with them at this moment. He is teaching his own students, the sheep who belong to him. And that means that, if we claim to follow Jesus, he is speaking directly to us, too.

Jesus introduces us to two characters: a wealthy master, and the manager of his estate. Right off the bat, we see the conflict in the story. The manager has been accused of squandering his master’s property, and he is about to be fired. Before we can go further in the story, we need a little background information.

First, we need to know that a manager of an estate could act in every capacity as the owner’s agent. The manager had full authority to buy, sell, and handle the property of his master. His decisions were equal to the master’s decisions, and his character was considered to reflect his master’s character. The manager’s behavior was an extension of the master’s own behavior, if the master did not publicly object to it. Whatever the manager did was as if the master had done it himself.

We also know that Luke tended to represent wealth as a negative attribute, and this went against the commonly held belief that wealth indicated God had rewarded the rich for their righteousness. There are exceptions, of course, but usually Luke presents material wealth as a bad thing. Here’s our first question to ponder: Is the master a good guy or a bad guy? He clearly does not want the manager’s squandering to reflect badly on himself, but is this because he is an upstanding businessman who would never squander his resources, or because he wants to keep up appearances, and make himself look better than he really is?

Jesus doesn’t tell us.

Moving on.

When faced with the prospect of getting fired, the manager panics. “What shall I do?” he asks himself. He’s too weak for even the lowliest manual labor available, and he’s too proud to beg. At least he is honest with himself, even if he has been dishonest in his job. But he’s shrewd. He has street smarts. So it doesn’t take him long to come up with a plan.

This plan depends on that social structure we saw at work a couple of weeks ago, when Jesus was invited to eat at the Pharisee leader’s house. If you missed that sermon, here’s the recap:

Remember that the foundation of Roman class structure was Patronage, an intricate system of benefactors and clients. Favors were the currency of this system, and the more favors that were owed to you as a benefactor, the higher you could rank in society. That ranking was also affected by the number of favors you, as a client, owed to your own benefactors. Social advancement was everyone’s goal, and putting yourself forward by associating with those who were one rung above you on the social ladder, while making sure you were owed enough favors by others who were one rung below you, required constant maneuvering – and a good memory for who owed what to whom.

Our friend the shrewd manager had a good memory. He knew who owed his master the greatest debts, and a couple of quick calls put him back in business.

Now, this is where biblical scholars start to disagree with one another, as they interpret this parable. Some say the manager was clearing the books of overcharges. Overcharging was the most common means of collecting interest on a debt without calling it interest – which would have been a flagrant disobedience of Jewish law. If the master was in on the game, he would not want it known that he had overcharged his customers, so he would willingly go along with the scheme to save face.

Others insist the manager was simply deducting his own cut of the profits that he had added to the debt without his master’s knowledge. Still others think the master knew full well that his manager was padding the books for his own benefit, but didn’t care because the master was just as crafty as the manager (we’re back to that business of an agent fully representing the character of his boss). Some think the manager was getting revenge on his master for firing him, by reducing his income while ingratiating himself with the people who owed his master the most. Everyone agrees that it would be easy to make friends among the master’s customers by decreasing the debts they owed. And everyone agrees that a manager who cheats his master in order to make friends with his master’s clients is anything but righteous.

It’s the master’s reaction to the scheme that takes us by surprise.

Instead of firing the manager first for squandering his wealth, or later for cutting his profits, the master commends the manager for acting shrewdly. Why on earth would he do this? Luke gives us no clues, and we must be careful to not read too much between the lines of this story.  But there are a couple of possibilities.

Perhaps the master praised the manager because the outcome was a good one, and the manager’s actions corrected the wrong he had done when he mismanaged the master’s business. The manager repents of his wrongdoing, the debtors are happy, the bill is collected, and the master’s conscience is clear. Or maybe the master praised the manager because the outcome was a good one, even though the manager and the master were both dishonest. The manager’s quick thinking makes the master look more righteous and caring than he really is. The debtors are still happy, and the bills are paid, but there is no repentance in this picture for either the manager or his boss. Either way, the master praises the manager for his quick thinking and his smart plan to provide for his own future.

This brings us to the moral of the story, and this is where things get really confusing. Listen again to Jesus explain this parable:

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.

What?

What does he mean? The parable itself is confusing enough, and now the explanation just makes things worse. Let’s look at it again.

Jesus is identifying two different groups of people: the children of this age –which surely includes the manager, and maybe even includes his boss – and the children of light – I hope that means you and me, as followers of Jesus. What Jesus is saying here is that the manager knew how to handle the system of worldly wealth to his best advantage. He got it. He knew the ropes. But we, as children of light, do not always know how to live within our “system” of the Kingdom of God. We do not always act like we know the kingdom is already here, already transforming the world, and we are already part of it. We fumble back and forth between two worlds, and can’t really move fluently in either one.

And it’s almost always money that trips us up. The word in older translations was “mammon” and I like this word, because it is rich in meaning. It says more than the words “money” or “wealth” can convey. Here’s why: According to New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass, “What is not obvious in Greek or English is that ‘faithful,’ ‘entrust,’ and ‘true’ in Hebrew and Aramaic all derive from the same root as ‘mammon’ – a word that means ‘that in which one places trust’ and is derived from ‘amen.’[2] So Jesus is playing with words in the native language of his hearers. We may think of Mammon as evil money, but it’s really whatever you trust when you aren’t trusting God.

Think about it.

What do you call that fund your wealthy parents set up for you, from which you could start drawing income after you reached a certain age? Right: a trust fund. (Don’t feel bad if you didn’t get one, I didn’t either.)

And who is the person that manages that fund for you? Right: a trustee. What is printed on our money in that fund? In God We Trust. Ironic, isn’t it?

Don’t put your trust in the wrong thing. Put your trust in God, because money won’t do you any good when God’s kingdom is fulfilled and Christ comes again in glory.

We could paraphrase that troublesome verse nine to read, “Put yourself in a good position through your wise use of money, instead of trusting in it, so that when this age is over God will receive you into his eternal home.” The children of the world might know how to manage earthly resources to their advantage, but we are children of light, and we need to manage our spiritual resources just as wisely, so that we are prepared to give an account before God.

The point Jesus is making is starting to sound very familiar. You cannot serve both God and wealth. If you want to be a disciple, you have to go all in, turning away from every form of Mammon, everything you trust in that isn’t of God. Yes, we have heard this lesson before – Hasn’t Jesus been pounding it into our heads over and over again?

Maybe that’s the point. Jesus has to keep teaching the same lesson over and over, getting more and more radical in his approach and crazier with the examples he uses, because we just don’t get it, any more than his original listeners got it. We still keep trying to live our lives according to the rules of this world, instead of living lives of total devotion to God. What will it take to get through to us? To make us change our ways and start questioning our motives and drastically changing our behavior? The stakes are getting higher and higher, and we still aren’t paying attention. Do we think this Word of the Lord doesn’t apply to us?

There’s a story that goes around the operatic world of an American tenor who finally realized his dream of singing at La Scala in Milan, Italy. La Scala is considered the greatest opera house in the world, and when you get to sing there, you’ve really made it. You’re a star. So this tenor performs at La Scala, and his big aria is met with thunderous cheering. “Encore!  Encore!” the crowd yells. So the tenor nods to the orchestra conductor, and the music begins again. He sings his big aria, and again the crowd goes wild. “Encore! Encore! Sing it again! Sing it again!”  they scream. The tenor is deeply moved at this reception, and he obliges. He sings it again. And again. Finally, the tenor quiets the crowd and steps to the front of the stage. With hands on his heart and tears streaming down his face, he thanks the audience. “But my friends, I cannot sing it again. My voice is nearly gone from all these encores, and we still need to finish the opera!” In the very back of the opera house, a little man gets to his feet and says, “You’ll sing it till you get it right.”

Jesus is asking us to rehearse this lesson over and over, until we get it right. The parables he uses may get crazier and crazier, but until we get it right, he keeps repeating the lesson for us.

So here it is again.

God’s radical love for us demands a radical response.

If you want to call yourself a follower of Jesus, you have to give up everything you think is important, and start living a radically different life.

If you want to be ready for the Kingdom of God, you have to give up everything that matters most to you, and start living a radically different life.

If you want to be seated at the head of the table, you have to give up your pride, and start living a radically different life.

If you want to recognize the signs of the times, and be ready for the time when we are all held accountable to God, you have to be willing to focus all your energy and attention on following Jesus. You have to give up everything, and start living a radically different life.

It isn’t easy. It doesn’t make sense. It costs everything.

But when we turn away from trusting our money or our own wits, and we start trusting God to save us and to provide for us, we find that our real debt, the debt for all our sin, has been paid in full by the One who loved us so much he died for us. And when this age, this earth is done, God will receive us into his eternal home, where we will live with him forever.

Jesus says, “If then you have not been faithful with earthly wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches of heaven?  And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?  You cannot serve both God and Mammon” – whether that “mammon” is money, or your own shrewdness, or anything else that prevents you from trusting God.

How you take care of a little will be a good indicator of the way you take care of a lot. If you can’t manage a small amount entrusted to you, you can’t be given your own wealth. God’s claim on us is an exclusive one. You can’t serve God on Sunday and ignore him the rest of the week while you serve whatever your personal “mammon” happens to be. Because you are a representative of Christ, just as surely as that dishonest manager was a representative of his master.

When Paul was writing to the church at Corinth, he told them: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.”[3]

There it is again. Trust. Christ calls us to trust him, and also to be trustworthy stewards of our faith, the mysteries of God. As faithful stewards, we are called to show the same character as our master, Jesus Christ. We are called to serve.

Next week, the nominating committee will be meeting to recommend some of you to serve in particular ways within the congregation of this church. I know that several of you already hold multiple responsibilities, and others of you may have gifts and talents that are going unused. This is not really good stewardship of our energy and time, of our gifts and abilities. So I urge you, if you already serve on a committee or give more than two hours of your time each week in church work, say “No” when the nominating committee calls you. We don’t want any member of this congregation burning out. But prayerfully try to think of someone else in this church who might be able to do what you are being asked to do, and encourage that person to participate in the life of this congregation in that way. And if you haven’t yet been asked to serve, but you sense God calling you toward a particular area of ministry, go ahead and volunteer before someone asks you!

Together, as faithful and trustworthy stewards of God’s mysteries, we can share the good news that Christ died for our sins, Christ rose from the dead, and Christ reigns in glory. He invites us to accept him as our only Lord and Master, so that we may have eternal life with him in the Kingdom of God, but he also invites us to live into that kingdom reality here and now as children of the light. When Christ comes, will he find you faithful? He’s trusting you to be a good manager, a good steward. Will you trust him?


[2] Snodgrass, Klyne. Stories with Intent, 414.

[3] 1 Corinthians 4:1-2

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