The 17th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 20C (September 19, 2010)

A Shrewd Tale

Lessons: Amos 8:4-7 Psalm 113 (7) 1 Timothy 2:1-7 St. Luke 16:1-13

Semicontinuous Series: Jeremiah 8:18–9:1 Psalm 79:1-9 (9)

Prayer of the Day: God among us, we gather in the name of your Son to learn love for one another.  Keep our feet from evil paths.  Turn our minds to your wisdom and our hearts to the grace revealed in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Text

16.1 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. 2 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.’ 3 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. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 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.’ 8 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. 9 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.

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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 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.”

[14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15 So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.]

St. Luke 16:1-13. New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Message: This week’s text is a classic example of the parables of Jesus. Parables are puzzling stories – sometimes even troubling stories. They intend to disturb the reader’s (or listener’s) sensibilities. Parables get the audience thinking – they get the audience asking questions, like: “Did he really mean to say that?” or “Did I hear him correctly?”

When Jesus told a parable, a common reaction of his listeners was to argue about its meaning, to reflect on what he said, or to speculate as to what it might mean for them. But most of all they remembered what he said, and that is why the parables are such an effective way to teach. The stories are strange enough – disturbing enough – that they stay with us for some time as we roll them around in our minds.

In their original context, the parables of Jesus must have left people shaking their heads. But many of them have become so familiar to us, that stories like The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, and The Workers in the Vineyard have all but lost their scandalous character.

That is not the case for this one. The Dishonest Manager is unfamiliar enough still to shock us a bit. This manager’s desperate dishonesty is commended by his boss (perhaps even by Jesus?), and it leaves us puzzled, speculating as to what in the world Jesus must have meant by it all.

I’ve read countless efforts to make sense of this parable, but none of them seem quite up to the task (perhaps that is why we don’t know this parable very well…). I suspect that there really is no way to make complete sense of what Jesus says here. It may very well be that he told this story with a bit of a smile on his face. In verses 1-9 he refers to the ways of the world, where shrewd managers impress one another with their dishonesty. In the final verse Jesus suggests that the best thing that could come from all this chicanery is that friends might be made – people who will be there when the bottom drops out. “When dishonest wealth is gone” Jesus says, not “if.” We imagine that with riches come peace and security, but Jesus knows otherwise.

There are any number of takeaways from this parable. Is Jesus commending the shrewdness of this manager’s behavior (and commending it to us)? Is Jesus lifting up a spirit of generosity (even though the manager is being generous with someone else’s money)? Is Jesus stressing the importance of relationships over money (after all, with limited time left the manager didn’t cheat more: he made friends)? Is Jesus acknowledging that life is full of compromises – it is messy – and so none of us are perfect?

The dishonest manager joins a number of characters in the parables of Jesus that are scandalous in nature: the publican (who made a living by cheating people out of money); the Samaritan (one of Israel’s most hated enemies); the Prodigal Son (who wasted his father’s inheritance and came back for more); the Unjust Judge (who didn’t care about a widow’s plight. We may not fully understand all that this story has to teach us, but we’ll certainly roll it around in our minds for a day or two.

Perhaps that’s what Jesus had in mind after all…

Amen.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What was the manager’s dilemma?
  2. Why did Jesus (or at least the owner) seem to commend his behavior?
  3. What might Jesus be trying to teach us with this parable?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What examples have I seen of people who have been shrewd with “dishonest wealth?”
  2. When has it been important for me to be faithful in small matters?
  3. What do these words of Jesus say to me about faithfulness in big things?