Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture Reading: Luke 16:1-13
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
16 Then Jesus[a] 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[b] so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.[c]
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,[d] 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.”[e]
- Luke 16:1 Gk he
- Luke 16:9 Gk mammon
- Luke 16:9 Gk tents
- Luke 16:11 Gk mammon
- Luke 16:13 Gk mammon
Grace and peace to all of you, beloved children of God from our Creator God. Amen.
When I was 14 years old, my aunt took me to see my first-ever Broadway musical. Not in New York, but instead at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. The theatre is so grandiose, so opulent…I think so now still as an adult. I love the Fabulous Fox! The grand lobby of the Fox is designed in the style of “Siamese Byzantine” which if you are a world traveler or a lover of architectural history, is meant to allow visitors to think they have been transported to an ancient Indian religious building. Rows of towering columns align each side of the lobby which soar to 90 feet tall. Designers intended it to resemble a rock-cut Buddhist monastery hall, and in 1927, when the theatre was built, the terrazzo lobby floor was covered with a crimson and gold chenille carpet imported from Czechoslovakia. They certainly spared no expense at the Fabulous Fox….to the point of excess. But I digress…
I knew nothing about the show I was going to see. All I did know, was that it sounded French and I couldn’t pronounce the name properly. Les Misérables doesn’t exactly “roll off the tongue.” Although I can say it properly now. Even with a French accent! We Americans shorten it to simply “Les Mis” when we are casually referring to the musical. It’s harder to mess up that pronunciation. The musical is dark…after all, Les Misérables means “The Miserable”…and yet is also filled with the power of the indominable human spirit. In 2012, and after the success of the musical movie version of “The Phantom of the Opera” in 2004…Universal Studios took on Les Misérables and chose their own Hollywood royalty to play the leading rolls of the film. Hugh Jackman played the lead character, Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe played Javier. The story is about the period of history leading up to and immediately following the French Revolution. People were being imprisoned for the slightest of crimes and eliminated by being literally worked to death. I have a clip here from the opening song and scene of the movie. Valjean is imprisoned and is working alongside other inmates, and in true musical fashion, they break into song. Let’s have a look and pay close attention to what Valjean has been imprisoned for and how long he had been imprisoned.
Did anyone catch what he had been imprisoned for? Stealing bread.
Why did he steal the loaf of bread? To feed her sister’s dying child.
How long had he been imprisoned? 19 years
That’s harsh. Nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving, dying child. A starving, dying child…his niece or nephew…a member of his own family was starving and dying because of lack of food. Now…I am in NO way condoning stealing…I don’t want anyone to leave here this morning saying, “the student pastor said it’s ok to steal…what exactly are they teaching her at that seminary?!?”…instead, my hope is that when you leave this place of worship today; that you continue wrestling with the moral and ethical tension that is brought to light when we hold it next to the parable that we heard from this morning’s scripture reading from Luke’s Gospel.
I love Luke’s Gospel. The message that wraps around and through the book concerns salvation for ALL of God’s people. What people are those? ALL THE PEOPLE! The gospel writer proclaims this message by illustrating Jesus’ interactions and advocacy for the poor, in need AND on the margins of society. There are A LOT of people that live on the margins for one reason or another. Racial inequities, gender inequality, physical and invisible disabilities, classism, heterosexism, ageism…there seems to be an ever-expanding list of “isms” not just in these United States, but around the world. Even our beloved earth…that God entrusted to us…that we are charged with caring for…is being marginalized more and more every day.
So…the parable message from this morning was crystal clear, right? HAHA! Not…at…all… When my classmates and professors inquired about what scripture I was preaching about this morning you could hear a pin drop in their silence that followed….then I got a, “hiss…ooooohhhh…good luck with that!” It is a difficult parable to understand for EVERYONE. But here this morning…at St. John’s United Church of Christ…this is happening! Buckle in folks…it’s gonna be a bumpy ride????
Let’s get started by making sure that we all know what a parable is.
Now, for a quick recap: There is this manager that has been dishonest with his boss’ financial affairs and was cheating him. The boss calls him into his “office” and tells him that he knows about his shenanigans and that he is getting fired. The manager freaks out and immediately starts shenaniganizing because NO WAY is he gonna be a manual worker bee OR beg for forgiveness and another chance. So, he calls in the people that owe his boss money, tells them to take out their bills and change the amounts that they owe. His boss catches on to what he is up to, and instead of having him killed on the spot, he gives him an “atta boy” and commends him for acting so shrewdly. Then Jesus says, and I quote, “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.” Then Jesus decides to call an audible, does a quarterback sneak, and somewhat cryptically drives the point of the whole parable home with words of faith, trust (and pixie dust)…just kidding…but this parable is so layered I thought we needed a laugh. And the whole gist of the parable is wrapped up with a bow and gift tag that says, “you cannot serve God and wealth.”
What the what?!? Back the truck up…did Jesus just tell the crowd gathered around him to “Look out for #1” and get their wealth dishonestly?!? Sounded like that to me…at first. Sounds like Jesus just might be shenaniganizing some of the crowd there listening to him. This stretch of Luke’s gospel is filled with many different parables. Sidebar PSA for this Sunday morning: It’s never a good idea to simply pull something out of the bible randomly and take it out of context to prove a point. Very rarely ends well.
Anyway, the parable just before this one, was the parable of the prodigal son which had a money element to it and a few other parallels we could draw into this one…but the money element for sure. The scripture that follows this parable, verses 14-15, shows Jesus speaking directly to the Pharisees that were in the crowd that Jesus was telling the parable to. The Pharisees were the keepers of the law and the holders of the money. They LOVED “their” money. <song break>
Wherever Jesus was…there were sure to be Pharisees around. The Pharisees were always busting Jesus for breaking Torah law. He healed on the sabbath, he performed miracles, he talked of forgiveness and mercy and grace from God without the requirements of the temple. Jesus was a threat to the status and power of the Pharisees…but in all fairness…they were just doing their jobs. They were doing their jobs, but they had lost their vision for how they were to be caring for all of God’s people.
It’s easy to do, isn’t it? To lose our vision of what God intends and wills for us. After all…this dishonest manager had a vision…a vision that didn’t seem to be concerned with anyone other than himself and he was gonna lie and cheat and steal his way into comfort, security and stability. Jesus affirmed it! Gave him a, “and I tell you” fist bump! What is Jesus doing?!?!
Here is how I understand it…Jesus was a marginalized Jew, living in an oppressive, dominating, Greco-Roman culture. The rich were grotesquely rich and got richer at the expense of the lives and livelihood of the marginalized poor. The poor worked the land and their bodies harder and harder so the rich could gather more crops or materials for the king for export so he could be even wealthier. This rarely ever came back to them in the form of money…it was a requirement of them. Kind of like us having to pay taxes today…gotta pay taxes. And…they were able to keep very little of what they harvested for their own starving bellies…not to mention their need to have enough to sell on their own to turn much of a profit. The system was broken and Jesus knew it…and Jesus was a master of confrontation. Oh yes…yes he was. He knew that there were Pharisees in the crowd listening in. He knew that there were people in that crowd that were also living on the margins as he was. Jesus knew that there were people in that crowd that had “more than their fair share” and could have scattered that wealth around…no matter what form of wealth it was.
Did the dishonest manager love his dishonest wealth, security and stability above God? He does if you look at him as one of the “children of this age” as Jesus was illustrating him to be. As a “child of that age” the dishonest manager was focused on wordly security of their culture…not eternal security. Jesus’ focus is on eternal security…but he also knows and understands that people need to be able to feed themselves and care for themselves and others. The lesson for “children of light” to be taken alongside the closing of the parable is about the “commending” of the “shrewdness” of the manager. The commendation isn’t highlighting the injustice of his dishonest acts; it’s about his having acted wisely WITH dishonesty. This parable and sermon remind me of the game, “Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon”…instead it’s “Six Degrees to the Gospel Message”…student pastor edition! The “children of light” are to be wise in the way that they handle what they have. If you have a single cup of water in the desert, and you are sharing that time in the desert with another person, you each drink equal halves of that water and you are both fulfilled…both in body and spirit. When the “children of light” (that’s us by the way) have an excess of something…we are to act wisely and shrewdly…and scatter our dishonest wealth or our excess to others. We to share and we are to give. Because it isn’t honest and isn’t God’s will for us to hoard and withhold while others go without and live in poverty….that’s why, I believe, that it’s called dishonest wealth. God wills justice for ALL of the created. That too is us. We are all part of the created. And as beloved children of God and of light we are to act and carry ourselves in a particular way. Our call and response into that particular way is shaped by the culture and society that we live in. Our culture and our society calls us to consume and collect…more and more and more at every turn. We have houses to hold all our “stuff” and when our “stuff” outgrows our houses, we get a shed to store more “stuff” or we get a bigger house. We keep biggering and biggering. George Carlin does a great bit on “stuff”…very entertaining (in an “earthly way”, if you will) but not deliverable in a sermon.
Jesus doesn’t promise an earthly home with stuff and stability and security and more stuff…but he does want for us all to have what we need to live in equity with all of our siblings in Christ and all of the created. He instead promises us an “everlasting habitation”…a blessed covering…a holy tent… which is stretched out over all of us in the promise of eternal life and relationship with God. One that calls to us and allows us to shift our vision and our focus from idolatry of earthly things and stuff…and displaces our willingness to give with strings attached. Walter Brueggeman says it so well, “letting go is to have and keeping is the way to lose.” I think that’s right. It’s wicked hard…but it’s right.
The longest and hardest journey for us to make most of the time is only 12 inches long. Anyone want to guess where that journey starts and ends? It’s from our heads to our hearts. Our heads and our hearts need to be strung together in a melodious, ever-evolving duet…not working against each other like clanging cymbals. A melody that you can’t tell which part is leading and is so beautifully orchestrated in God’s symphony that they sound as one. Let us raise our heart songs together as children of light…choosing to serve God…and doing God’s will. Amen.