September 22, 2019
Last week, we heard Jesus use the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin to introduce the story of the Prodigal Son. I mentioned to you that these three stories are always linked together. Today and next week, we hear two parables that begin with the words, “There was a rich man…”
It’s not coincidence that Luke sandwiches the Prodigal Son between the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin at the beginning, and two “rich man” parables at the end. If you look at them as a unit, all five of these stories are about repenting from misplaced values. They’re about getting our priorities right.
Jesus talks a lot about money – how we use it, how we waste it, how we try to hold onto it. And while Jesus usually speaks pretty clearly when he’s talking to just his inner circle of disciples, this particular passage gets pretty confusing pretty fast.
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. So 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.’
Then 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’
So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then 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.’
And 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. 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.
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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 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.” (Luke 16:1-13)
Scholars cannot agree on the meaning of this passage. Every commentary I consulted 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.” So let’s work through this together.
Let’s start at the top. At the very least, we can identify the original audience. Jesus is talking to his disciples, so we know Jesus is addressing followers, and not opponents. Those Pharisees who have been giving Jesus so much trouble might be lurking around in the background, but Jesus is not dealing with them at this moment. He is teaching his own students, the ones who belong to him. This 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’s favor. Most people believed that the rich must have done something God liked, to receive material blessings from God. Luke turns this idea upside down.
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.
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. And he has thought through the possibility that this crisis would one day arrive. He has a Plan. This plan depends on that social structure of first century cultures living under Roman occupation.
Roman class structure was built on 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 associating with those who were one rung above you on the social ladder, while staying ahead of those a 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 he knew how to use that information to his own advantage.
This is where biblical scholars disagree on the best way to 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 – because charging interest violated 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 have willingly gone along with the scheme.
Others insist the manager was deducting his cut, which he’d added to the debt without his master’s knowledge. Still others think the master knew his manager was padding the books, but he didn’t care.
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 would he do this? Luke doesn’t say. But there are a couple of possibilities.
Perhaps the master was glad that the manager’s actions corrected wrongdoing. The manager repents of his error, the debtors are happy, the bill is collected, and the master’s conscience is clear.
Or maybe the master appreciates that the manager’s actions make 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 does he mean?
Jesus is identifying two different groups of people: the children of this age – such as the manager, and maybe even his boss – and the children of light. I hope that means you and me, as followers of Jesus. Jesus is saying that the manager knew how to handle the system of worldly wealth to his best advantage. He got it.
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 this word is rich in meaning. Klyne Snodgrass writes, “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.’
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 don’t trust God.
Think about it.
What do you call that fund parents set up for their children, from which the children can draw income after reaching 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? Right: a trustee. What is printed on the money in that fund? In God We Trust. And yet, it seems we make this same mistake over and over again – we trust in the money, instead of trusting God.
We could paraphrase verse nine to read, “Build friendships 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. If you want to be Christ’s disciple, you have to go all in, turning away from everything you trust that isn’t God. You cannot serve both God and wealth. God’s value system is not the world’s value system. The world values stuff and status. God values you.
Brian McLaren writes that the real problem of the Pharisees was a problem of misplaced values. “The reason they didn’t properly value people is because they improperly valued money.” God’s economic system says everybody matters. And if you love God, everything else will have a new value. You may be expendable in the world’s economic system, just as that dishonest manager was expendable to his master. But you are of prime importance to God in Kingdom economy.
God’s radical love for us demands a radical response. 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 wealth” – whether that “wealth” is money, or your own shrewdness, or anything else that prevents you from trusting God.
There it is again. Trust. Christ calls us to trust him, and also to be trustworthy stewards who show the same character as our master, Jesus Christ.
Last week, Jesus taught us about repentance as a change of heart and mind. He showed how God’s focus is on finding us, because we’ve already been forgiven. Next week the rich man and Lazarus will teach us about the urgency of accepting this good news. I mentioned earlier that the story of the Prodigal Son sits in the very middle of these five parables, and yet we don’t hear that story now. We heard it back in Lent.
But there is something I want you to remember about that prodigal. He squandered what his father had entrusted to him, just as today’s dishonest manager squandered his master’s wealth. Both of them were scoundrels.
Do you remember why the Pharisees criticized Jesus, and got this whole series of parables started in the first place? Because he welcomed sinners, and ate with them.
Jesus was a friend of scoundrels just like the prodigal at the center of these stories, just like the dishonest manager, and maybe even his boss. Just like those Pharisees who trusted more in their status and their wealth than God’s grace. Just like you and me.
Jesus identified with scoundrels, so that all us scoundrels could know how deep and high and broad God’s love for us really is, and so we would put all our trust in Christ alone.
 Snodgrass, Klyne. Stories with Intent, 414.