I think one reason we get hung up on difficult biblical passages is that we read the subtitles. I wrestled with this passage a LOT last week, and in retrospect I would have preferred not to go into it with the preconceived idea that this was a story about a dishonest manager. It limits original thought from happening… But with the help of the NIB and lots of Facebook discussions, here is what I ultimately came up with:
16Then 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.”
Well, who’s confused? I think that if we took a vote, this parable would be chosen as one of the hardest stories in this entire book to understand. When you hear it read, it’s confusing, isn’t it? I mean, at first blush, this story seems to tell us that God wants us to cheat in our business dealings in order to win favor with folks and ingratiate ourselves to others. This seems pretty antithetical to the Christian message, and thankfully, this is not what this story is advocating.
The reason we may think at first that this is what Luke is saying is because we’re used to reading the Bible a certain way. We try to substitute God and Jesus and us into the story as the different characters to make it an allegory. We then interpret the parallel meanings of what happens in the story into our own lives. Generally, this method of reading scripture is helpful, and even encouraged. In fact, this method of reading the Bible allegorically is by far the most common method of interpretation.
But today we have stumbled into a great example of the dangers of always reading our Bibles this way. It’s hard to switch gears, though – Luke has just done this 3 times right in a row – used allegory to teach us about God’s relationship to us. We’ve just learned about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son – the prodigal one. We’re being set up for today’s lesson by learning the core values that we need to understand it.
What do those other 3 stories teach us? That we are each and every one of us precious to God. They are about table fellowship and how everyone is invited to be an insider – the socially marginalized, the poor in wealth, the poor in spirit, all of us. That’s an important value for us to learn. And I think we can all agree that sounds very Christian, right? Very important to our lives. Love your neighbor and all of that.
Well, the problem with learning purely allegorical lessons is that we don’t always know how to apply them. They’re great theories, but when it comes to living our actual lives, we don’t always follow through because sometimes they’re hard to translate into our day-to-day lives. But lucky you, that’s what sermons are for!
I was taught in seminary that every sermon should have at least 1 real life application. Well, apparently, Luke went to my school before he wrote his gospel, because here it is.
Chapter 16 is one big real- life application. Jesus ripped this one right from the headlines of his day. And while it at first may appear to be an Enron-type headline, let me reframe it for you a bit – think Robin Hood. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Criminal? Perhaps by the government’s legal standards – but there’s a reason why there are 20 different Robin Hood movie remakes. Deep down, we not only understand it, we also kind of like it don’t we?
Robin Hood’s a hero! I mean have any of us ever really found ourselves cheering for the Sherriff of Nottingham? Probably not. The Sherriff isn’t helping folks –he’s hurting them for his own gain. And while what he’s doing may be legal, it’s certainly not moral.
So Jesus has been teaching us about what IS moral, and now he’s showing us how to BE moral. The moral choices we’re faced with are rarely cut and dry – they’re difficult decisions, and they’re not always going to be popular ones.
It’s true that Jesus talks about money more than any other single topic. Here is no different. Here he is grounding what we’ve learned previously about gracious welcome into his teaching about money and possessions – real life. He’s saying that possessions are to be used to welcome people to the table. That we need to use all of the resources at our disposal to carry out our God-given mission of radical hospitality. Even if it’s out of the mainstream ideal of the norm. Even if it’s outside OUR ideal of the norm!
Christianity is by definition counter-cultural, so it’s inevitable that when we make a decision to live our lives for God we’re going to be faced with some tough choices, and some of those choices will be judged by society as weird. Volunteering at a soup kitchen instead of going to the game. Tithing to your church instead of upgrading your car.
These choices are nonsensical from society’s perspective, but it’s what Jesus is challenging us to do here. We’re not ultimately talking about our pocketbooks, bank accounts, and cars. We’re talking about being faithful stewards of that which God has given us. Money, yes, but also opportunities, relationships, and life itself.
It sounds like a big responsibility, and it is. But God trusts us with it, because we’ve learned our lessons well. Luke reminds us that whoever is faithful in very little is also faithful in much. We don’t have to be Robin Hood – we don’t have to be Jesus Christ – but we each have been given something – some resource in our lives to reach out to people with. To invite people to the table with. To share God’s radical love with.
Beloved preacher Fred Craddock writes, “Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday School class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much”.
We are called to create a community dedicated not to wealth and accumulation for ourselves, but dedicated to faithfully using our resources to support each other and those outside our walls: to offer hope and grace and kindness to those who have none. We are called to live our faith in real and tangible ways that shape and change our actual daily lives. It is in this way we experience our faith in ways that bring joy, transform our lives in ways that we cannot accomplish alone, and share the joy of serving God with those who have yet to be welcomed into the experience of having true riches.
God has made us perfectly and wonderfully. We can’t be unloved, and God’s grace is always available to all of us. We are not the same, thank God, but we are all called to be somebody. We are limited only by our imaginations and our courage to embody the love of Jesus Christ. God has called each of us to faithful service in this way. Whoever we are, we are called to serve with what we have. So who will you share this joy with today?
Holy God, we give you thanks for the joy of knowing that we are your beloved children. Help us accept this fact wholeheartedly, and to even have the gall to ask for more from you. We have been tasked with sharing this love you have given us, and sometimes that happens in very unorthodox ways. Help us to find the opportunities to touch, even in small ways, the hearts of those we encounter every day, so that through us they too may experience the joy of being loved, known, and called by you. Amen.