This is the sermon I preached last Sunday, 9/22/19 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Luke 16:1-13.
Jesus’ parables are never easy to understand, but today’s is a doozey. It is so difficult that Luke attaches no fewer than four different lessons to it. Remember, too, that these are fictional characters in the parable and only after hearing the whole story could the audience determine its relevance to their situation, much less its relevance to our situation.
This confusing parable can be divided up into four sections: the shrewd manager (vv. 1-8a), worldly wisdom (vv. 8b-9), trust in trivial matters, (vv. 10-12) and serving two masters (v. 13a).
The majority of the parable concerns the shrewd manage, vv. 1-8a. The steward or manager may be a crook, but he was shrewd and knew how to get ahead. By reducing the debt of the debtors, the manager is making those that owe socially indebted to him. Therefore, he can drop by for free meals. The point of the parable is not his dishonesty, but his wise decision-making in the time of crisis.
There’s also some humor here in the parable. The manager builds his future by what he was accused of doing in the first place. He was wasting his master’s profits, then he also puts the master in a position of accepting the reduced amounts or being stuck with losing face with his debtors.
And I’m wondering, if the unjust manager could act justly or shrewdly then could unjust wealth be used for just or righteous causes? It would seem from the Greek that it is possible to faithfully use what is unjust wealth, which would lead one to be entrusted with the true riches.
This parable is not the first or only one in which Jesus has made use of unsavory characters. It is only the most outstanding of this class of parables.
The next section concerns worldly wisdom. Does it seem like Jesus is siding with the dishonest manager? How odd is that? However, given the dilemma that slaves face and since this slave is not the owner of the dishonest wealth, it makes more sense. After all, Jesus in Luke often sides with those who are considered “sinners and tax collectors” (5:30-32; 7:34).
But how can Jesus ask his disciples to make friends by means of dishonest wealth? Rather than using our money to create a group that owes us favors, make friends with our money. Friendship involves equality, not indebtedness. To “make friends” by “dishonest wealth” was the opposite of enslaving people in need. To “make friends” by giving to those in need had a liberating effect. It put people on the same footing.
What specifically makes wealth dishonest? Maybe because it enslaves the greedy or because it is transitory and not “the true” riches. One interpretation of the parable is that the audience is urged to an allegedly unauthorized use of God’s forgiveness, rather than other people’s property.
The last three verses offer us assurance that Jesus isn’t advocating fraudulent behavior. In fact, the morality portrayed is diametrically opposed to that of the parable. The third section concerns trust in trivial matters, vv. 10-12.
Jesus is not advising his disciples to be cynical or duplicitous in their dealings with the world. He is advising them and us to deal astutely with this world just as it is, on its own terms, but recognizing also that it is temporary and failing. We are to reach through this passing world to embrace the coming world of God’s kingdom. Jesus calls his disciples to faithfulness in little in order to be faithful in much.
The final section, contained in the last verse concerns serving two masters, v. 13. One cannot be controlled by God and dishonest wealth or greed. This verse relates to the first commandment. People can have only one God—and it shouldn’t be wealth.
This last verse goes back to and sharpens the point of the ninth verse, which says to “make friends…by means of dishonest wealth…” We live in two worlds. This life is temporary and passing away, while the Kingdom of God is eternal and coming into being. We have to be committed to one or the other. We can’t serve both. Instead, we are to use the one to serve the other, in other words, use the things of this earth to serve God.
The parable seeks to persuade a certain audience, Jesus’ disciples, to adopt a specific mode of behavior—to get up and do something!
What’s this got to do with us? As disciples of Christ, we occupy two spaces at the same time. We live in this world, which is passing away AND we also live in the Kingdom of God which is here and yet still coming into being. How shall we live this dual reality? Jesus is telling us to not be stupid. The wealth of this temporary world WILL fail us, but in the meantime, we can use it for eternal, unfailing purposes—building enduring relationships.
Perhaps the biggest temptation to dishonesty is the desire to please or be liked by others—in essence, letting others control our lives, rather than standing up for what is right, what God demands. In the past, I’ve fallen into this category. I like to be liked. I like to please people.
This parable and Jesus’ subsequent statements and questions leave us with some questions to ask of ourselves. Are we being trustworthy (and shrewd and wise and astute) with the wealth given us by others? If we cannot properly care for the spiritual riches we receive from others, how can we be trusted with the spiritual riches that belong to us? And a corollary; are we being trustworthy (and shrew and wise and astute) with the goods of this world thereby demonstrating that we can also be trusted with the riches of eternal life?
After all, what is our purpose in life? How do our finances, gifts and talents serve our greater purpose? Have we figured out our individual purpose in life? If service to God is the hallmark of our lives, everything else will fall into place for us.
If all we have is God’s, which is quite different from what many people believe, how are we using the gifts entrusted to us? Wealth is not bad, but the worship of it is. How can our wealth be used to build God’s kingdom?
What is St. Timothy’s purpose? Our mission statement states, “As a Christian fellowship, empowered by God’s love and saving grace, we seek to serve our neighbor in word and deed.” Through “God’s love and saving grace,” in other words, through God’s power, not our own, we live to serve our neighbors. Our congregation is involved in numerous ministries here and abroad, among them the 5 Loaves and 2 Fish Ministry and the Honduras ministry. We have to continually keep before us the vision of who God has called us to be. As Proverbs says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).
Maybe the parable of the shrewd manager is simply a grim, but truthful portrait of the world as it is—the real world in which we are called to be “children of light.” Maybe the story is an acknowledgement that the calling is both radically counter cultural and painfully hard. Maybe the story is Jesus leaning in towards us and saying, “I know. It’s bad out there. I get it.”
Even the smallest decisions we make—where to shop, how to invest our money, what to eat or wear in this age of corporate greed, child labor, climate change and globalization—have far-reaching consequences. This parable reminds us to hold our complicated reality close to our hearts and consciences all the time. To not do so is to succumb to the darkness.
Where and how can we be shrewder, cleverer, more creative and more single-minded in our vocations as children of light? If the manager in Jesus’ story can work so hard for his own survival, how much more might we contend on behalf of the world God loves so much?
Let us pray. Almighty and eternal God,…draw our hearts, … guide our minds, … fill our imaginations, … control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, but always to your glory and the welfare of your people, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ we pray. Amen. (ELW, p. 86)
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C
David Ewart, holytextures.com
Eric Fistler and Robb McCoy, pulpitfiction.com
Mitzi J. Smith, workingpreacher.org
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com
Debie Thomas, journeywithjesus.net
Lauri Thuren, Parables Unplugged: Reading the Lukan Parables in Their Rhetorical Context86)