Serving two masters?
Sermon preached at Enmore, 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 18th September 2016
Reading: Luke 16.1-13
If anyone ever tells you that they fully understand this morning’s parable about the dishonest manager then may I advise you not to believe them. This parable, found only in Luke has been examined and re-examined from every possible perspective and still manages to baffle the commentators. I remember one morning in a Moore College Chapel Service a brave student attempting to explain what he described as the real meaning of this passage but the more he tried the more puzzling it became so that when he finished speaking a great cloud of unknowing had descended on all of us.
When I was small I was taught that a parable is ‘an earthly story with a heavenly meaning’ which is okay as far as it goes but the problem is discerning the heavenly meaning. C.H. Dodd, the great New Testament scholar of the last century defined a parable in this way. He wrote: “At its simplest a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” The parable of the dishonest steward certainly teases our minds into active thought because it appears to applaud the behaviour of a man who is clearly a scoundrel: the Arthur Daley of the New Testament, for those of you who remember the T.V. programme, Minder. The famous scholar, Rudolf Bultmann, went so far as to declare that the problems raised by this parable were insoluble.
So this morning the best I can do is to tell you what I think the passage might be about. First of all let’s notice the context. The previous chapter, fifteen, has Jesus telling three lost and found stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son’s. Jesus tells these stories in response to criticism from the Scribes and Pharisees who accuse him of consorting with tax collectors and sinners. In their words, “This fellow, welcomes sinners and eats with them.” All three parables emphasise God’s extravagant love for the lost and outcast but the third one –the lost son- describes a young man who tries to find meaning and satisfaction in life through wealth and the things money can buy. But he discovers that money can’t buy love and its love and relationship that he is really seeking.
So perhaps it is no accident that Luke follows the parable about the lost son with a parable about money and people who manage it. We are introduced to a rich man who has a manager and he leans that his manager has been fiddling the books. This kind of situation was well known in First Century Palestine. Tenant farmers paid rent to the owner of the land in the form of agricultural produce. Owners employed managers or stewards to administer the property and collect the rents which provided opportunity for dishonesty. In the parable the owner (the rich man) doesn’t immediately dismiss his manager but puts him on notice and tells him to surrender the account books. In this regard, the manager, is like all of us. For the present we have life, goods, talents, relationships and time to manage, but we are also on notice that a day is coming when we will have to stand before our Lord and give an account of ourselves. None of us knows the day or hour of that reckoning. Very aware that his dishonesty is about to be exposed the manager asks the question: “What will I do?” This is the same question that the rich fool asked himself in Luke 12:17. In both cases it is a question of money and material resources. The rich fool assumed that the present order would continue indefinitely and that security was to be found in building bigger barns. In contrast, the manager knows that a new order is about to come upon him and that his position is precarious.
The manager’s response is to throw himself on the mercy of his master. He determines to attempt a strategy which is very risky but if successful will give him some possibility of security in the future. There are some parallels here with the parable that precedes this one, namely the Prodigal Son. Both the prodigal and the dishonest manager are accused of squandering their property and both decide they have no alternative but to depend on the mercy of the ones who will be their judges: the manager’s master and the son’s father.
There has been a great deal of ink spilled over the question of what the manager is actually doing when he reduces the amounts that the various debtors owe. Many commentators assume that the manager has been over charging the tenant farmers their rent and that his revised amounts are the real figures without his commission. That he has been overcharging by giving himself a generous commission is probably true but it seems clear from the parable that the figures quoted by the tenants of what they owe the master are the genuine amounts. What the manager is doing is to reduce the amount owed in order that the master will be perceived as being very generous. The tenants will then assume that the manager has persuaded the master to treat his subjects leniently and will look on him kindly. The manager acts swiftly so that the master is presented with a fait accompli. The master has little alternative but to accept the situation with a wry smile and praise the Manager’s shrewdness but not his dishonesty.
This parable, like the one before it has an open ended conclusion. Does the elder brother ever join the party welcoming his brother home? Does the manager get his job back or does he maintain some standing in his community? These questions are left hanging. One of the problems that many commentators have with this story is that Jesus appears to be commending the rather dubious behaviour of the manager. But the parables of Jesus reveal a surprising list of unsavoury characters. In addition to the steward are the unjust judge who ignores the widow’s plea for justice and the grumpy neighbour who is reluctant to get out of bed to help a neighbour. In each of these stories Jesus is using the ‘how much more’ principle. That is, if the widow finally got the attention of the hard hearted judge how much more will God be willing to respond to our requests? If the neighbour eventually got help from the grumpy man in bed, how much more will God come to our aid? And if the dishonest manager solved his dilemma by relying on the mercy of his master, how much more will God help us when we trust in his mercy?
But what are we to make of Jesus’ comment at the end of this parable: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light?” Again many explanations have been offered but the one that appeals to me is the view that Jesus is exhorting his followers to use their time productively. The manager was on notice-he had to use the brief window of opportunity left to him and he seized it. The disciples of Jesus didn’t know it but their world was about to be turned upside down-soon they would lose their leader, soon they would be without the physical presence of Jesus and then crucial decisions would have to be made. For us today the message is to make the most of the time God gives us for we do not know what the future holds. As one writer puts it: “the whole context of the story is the consciousness of the End – which implies accountability.” (Douglas John Hall)
The parable is followed by a group of sayings (vs.9-13) that are not directly related to it but are perhaps more related to the story of Lazarus and Dives that comes a few verses later. The sayings are in the nature of a short poem focussing on the relationship between faithfulness with money, God and the truth.
Verse 9 is puzzling: “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.” Dishonest wealth in the original text is literally, ‘Mammon of unrighteousness’. It may simply mean use your money wisely for the good of others and not just yourself. Followers of Jesus are to use their material resources for spiritual purposes just as wisely as others do for earthly ones.
The final verses are nicely paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in his translation called the Message:
“If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things
If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things
If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?
No worker can serve two bosses: She’ll either hate the first and love the second
Or adore the first and despise the second
You can’t serve both God and the Bank.”
To which we all say, Amen.