September 19, 2010

Luke 16:1-13

The parable of the dishonest manager is a tricky one. I suppose that parables aren’t supposed to be too straight-forward. After all, Jesus told parables knowing that some would understand them and that others would miss the point.

Sometimes Jesus’ parables are followed by several verses of explanation or interpretation. His disciples didn’t always get the point right away either, or perhaps the Gospel writers wanted to make sure that those who read the parables years later would understand what Jesus was getting at.

As you know, a parable is a story that has two levels of meaning. On one level, today’s parable is about a dishonest manager who comes up with a sneaky plan to take care of his financial needs after he loses his job for squandering his master’s money. On another level, the story is about something else. But with this particular parable, that “something else” is not immediately obvious.

Let’s just review the parable briefly. Jesus tells his disciples that there is a rich man who had a manager. It seems that the manager is taking care of the rich man’s property. He rents out land to a variety of people and has them pay with a portion of what the land produces, whether grain or oil.

But the rich man finds out that the manager is “squandering his property.” Maybe he’s not passing on all the payments from the tenants. Maybe he’s taking a larger commission for himself than was agreed upon. Maybe he’s just not finding good tenants to work the land and pass on the profits to the rich man.

The point is that the manager is about to lose his job. The rich man demands an accounting of his management, and the manager is going to get fired. The manager has to think and act quickly. What’s he going to do when he loses his job? He’s not strong enough to do manual labour, and he’s too ashamed to beg on the street, so he needs some kind of plan. Fortunately, he’s able to think of one very quickly, and he’s confident that when he loses his job, people will welcome him into their homes and take care of him.

The manager summons his master’s debtors – the people who owe his master money – and he adjusts their debts. While he still has the power to do it, he gives them a break, reducing the amounts they owe to his master, making friends for himself for the time when he will soon need them. And the parable ends, saying that the master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly.

The main difficulty in interpreting the parable concerns the manager’s action in reducing the debts. The manager seems to be doing something dishonest to benefit only himself, and so we wonder why the master commends the manager’s action. And even more so, we wonder why Jesus seems to approve of his action as well. Was the manager dishonestly falsifying the records in order to gain the favour of the debtors, or (as some have suggested) was he shrewdly sacrificing his own prospect of short-term gains for long-term benefits?

In order to make sense of the approval the manager receives, some interpreters have suggested that there are three alternative interpretations of what the manager was doing.

  • The manager was cheating the master by reducing the size of the debts.
  • Or perhaps, the manager was acting righteously, by excluding the interest that had been figured into the debt. Charging interest was forbidden in Jewish Law, so taking off the interest portion of the debt would have been an honourable last act for the manager before he got fired.
  • Or a third alternative (that makes the manager look even better) is that he reduced the debt by the amount of his own commission, which had been included in the debt.

The suggestions that maybe he was either taking out the interest or his own commission are tempting theories because they explain how Jesus might have given approval to the manager’s action. But neither suggestion is likely to be correct. These solutions require information or assumptions that are not provided in the parable. The parable says nothing about exorbitant interest being charged, and it doesn’t mention a commission for the manager either. Also, the master calls the manager “dishonest.” It doesn’t seem likely that he only cancelled his own commission or the illegal interest being charged. He wouldn’t be called “dishonest” for doing that.

The simplest solution, and the one that gives the parable the greatest punch, is to take the first alternative: the manager is dishonest, and he continues to squander the master’s goods by arbitrarily slashing the amounts owed by his debtors.

So, why then, does the master praise him? Why wouldn’t the master be angry with him for reducing the debts? Although the master will lose a little money, he recognizes that the manager’s decision in reducing the debts will make the master look good, as if the master himself had given the debtors a break. The master is impressed by the manager’s foresighted, shrewd action. He casts an aura of honesty and goodness on his master, and shrewdly provides for his own future as well.

The difficult part about this parable is that Jesus is saying “act like this manager” – be shrewd, think ahead, and act decisively when time is of the essence. At the same time, Jesus is not saying “act like this manager”. He’s not telling his disciples to cheat other people in order to take care of themselves. He’s not telling them to lie or to look out for their own needs only. And Jesus is not Robin Hood. He’s not instructing his followers to steal from the rich and give to the poor.

The other level of meaning in this parable is about something else all together. Jesus is not talking about being dishonest and cancelling debts. He’s talking about the same thing that Jesus so often talked about – the kingdom of God. All along, he’s been talking about the kingdom coming. He’s been talking about a new era in which God’s reign is here – and he’s been inviting his followers to turn their lives around and start living like God is in their midst and God is in charge.

Jesus’ message in this parable is no different. Jesus is admonishing his listeners to cast caution aside, to seize the moment of opportunity, and to make provisions for their future before God. The kingdom is at hand. The manager in the parable is not praised for his dishonesty, but for his shrewd response to the urgency of his situation.

It seems to me that we rarely realize the urgency of Christ’s call to us, and so we rarely act as quickly or as decisively as we ought to. I am thinking of the response that is required when someone is having a medical emergency. Last night, during the concert here at the church, a member of the audience had a minor medical emergency during the first intermission. Of course, the people sitting near her rushed to her aid. But it was her friend who quickly decided that some more help would be needed. The friend leapt from her seat and said to me, “Someone needs to phone for an ambulance.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And within just a couple of short minutes, the paramedics had arrived to give the help she needed and to get her checked out at the hospital.

Similarly urgent situations are springing up all around us every day. When we see people who are lonely or hurting, we are called to respond with care and compassion – assuming that we are the only ones who will respond, that if we don’t care, no one will.

When we see people who are hungry or homeless, we are called to respond with concern and generosity – assuming that it is our responsibility to make sure that everyone has enough to eat and an adequate place to live.

When we hear about people in another part of the world who are suffering, we are called to do what we can to help. It doesn’t matter whether the people affected would help us in return, or whether their government may have the capacity to help or not. We must assume that it is our responsibility, as stewards of God’s gifts, to share what we have.

When we have children, or grandchildren, or nieces or nephews, or children connected to our church, we are called to pass on our faith both in word and in action. Becoming a follower of Jesus is not something that is inherited or that is just picked up by osmosis. And so we must assume that if we don’t share our faith with the child in front of us, that no one will.

When our relationships are in trouble, we are called to humility and patience. We are called to forgive as God forgives, to take the initiative to seek peace before it’s too late.

When our own relationship with God is in jeopardy, we are called to turn our lives away from sin and selfishness and self-absorption, to seek God’s will for our lives, and change the way we live. Jesus teaches us that our God is loving and forgiving, but he also calls us to repentance. We are urgently called to turn our lives around, because God’s kingdom is coming.

The parable of the dishonest manager is a tricky one. The fact that from the beginning interpreters have struggled to make sense of this parable is evident from the series of interpretations that follows the parable itself. In verse 9, we are invited to be as shrewd as the manager in using our material goods, so that when our “dishonest wealth” fails, we will have an eternal home. In other words, money doesn’t last forever. Give it away for the sake of others, and receive God’s blessing – an eternal reward.

In verses 10-12, we are told that whoever is faithful over a little will be faithful over a large amount. We are encouraged to be faithful with the material or worldly goods that we have, so that God will give us treasure in heaven.

And finally, verse 13 points out that we cannot serve both God and wealth. The money and possessions we have can be used generously for the sake of others, but wealth can easily become our master if we’re not careful. Since one cannot serve two masters, one cannot be devoted both to acquiring wealth and to serving God. The way we use what we have reveals who we serve.

Christians are to be faithful whether we deal in little things or vast resources. Whether we are as shrewd as the dishonest manager depends on whether we use our material goods and our time and our talents, great or small, to help those in need. Our responsibility is to be faithful to God, even in small things – to act quickly and decisively for the sake of God’s kingdom.

I end today, with words from the American preacher, Fred Craddock: “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 neighbour’s cat. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”

May God help us, as we seek to respond to God’s call in our lives, to use our material goods, our time, and our talent for God’s kingdom. May God help us to act quickly and decisively to do God’s will and to serve our neighbours, that we may be the faithful servants of God. Amen.