Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
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. 2So 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.’
3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’
5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’
He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’
7Then 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.’
8And 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. 9And 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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.” (NRSV)
Deuteronomy 23: “You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.” It’s called usury, and the Torah lists it as a sin. So, how many sinners in here have money earning interest in a financial institution? My father-in-law was a banker, so for my wife’s sake, I won’t ask who has ever lent money at interest or benefited from family or friends who did.
That’s one way to come at what may be Jesus’ most troublesome parable. It’s conceivable that the dishonest manager lowered the two debtors’ payments by the amount of interest the landowner had charged them. In that case, the reduction of the payment might be viewed as an act of righteousness according to the law, but another instance of mismanagement according to the landowner.1
We might also imagine the manager doing business like a tax collector—charging more than the landowner charged in rent and interest in order to get a cut from the farmers’ payments.
The problem in either case is that the dishonest manager lowers the debts for selfish gain. He reduces the debts “so that,” he says, “when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” He forgives a portion of the men’s financial debts in order to make them debtors to himself. When Jesus commends the actions of the manager, we find ourselves saying, Wait…what?! This flies in the face of virtually everything he has said and will say.
So, what’s going on? That’s the $64,000 question. Writing on this passage, New Testament scholar Charles Cousar said this: “Luke 16:1-13 is one of the great exegetical mountains of Scripture. This bewildering parable and the positive use Jesus makes of its shifty protagonist may never be satisfactorily solved until faith is made sight.”2
So, anything I might say about this passage is just one more guess, or one more repetition of a guess. But a couple of things stand out.
First, in 16:1, Luke says that Jesus is speaking “to his disciples.” In the verse that immediately follows today’s reading, Luke tells us that “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed [Jesus].” I imagine Jesus doing a version of what many of us underhanded preachers do in worship, namely speaking to the congregation while delivering the children’s sermon. Jesus certainly speaks to his disciples, but he also speaks at the Pharisees who are listening and waiting to pounce every time he says something that challenges their theological hegemony and their social status quo. And as “lovers of money,” the Pharisees have a lot in common with anyone, ancient or contemporary, who confuses material wealth with divine favor.
Jesus is getting downright meddlesome, isn’t he? He seems to be saying that material wealth, and all the greedy lusts and self-serving entitlements that owning it inevitably creates, necessarily result in the idolatries that lead to everything from envy, hunger, depression, and racism, to war itself. While it’s tempting to deny this, today’s reading ends with Jesus’ unambiguous and unsettling statement: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” What do these words say to us? What do they challenge us to do differently as disciples in our wealthy culture? And are we still “children of light” if we rationalize our way around this teaching whose roots run deep and wide in scripture and in the spiritual practices of many faith traditions?
The second thing has to do with a nuance that gets lost in translation. In verse 4, the manager decides to manipulate the process of debt collection in order to make friends who will “welcome me into their homes.” In verse 9, Jesus makes the bizarre statement, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” In verse 4, “home” is the Greek word oikos. It refers to an established household. Our word economics comes from oikos, and it means “practiced in the management of a household or family.”3 In verse 9, the word translated “home” is skénas, and it means “tents.” Commentator Scott Bader-Saye says that the parable hinges on these two words. “Jesus does not promise ‘homes’ but ‘tents,’” he says. “Jesus doesn’t not promise to provide what the unjust steward sought, the stable abode of those who have possessions and security. Rather, Jesus promises the unstable abode of the wanderer, the refugee, and the pilgrim, whose mobility requires the dispossession of goods.
“Perhaps,” says Bader-Saye, “the Jesus who told this parable calls us to dissipate wealth as the steward did, but in order to be dispossessed of the desire [to make others indebted to us]…Only as we are freed by our holy squandering are we made able to live the pilgrim life of those nomads who have relinquished the possessions that possess them.”4
In principle, most of us would like to think that we’re not owned by the things we own. In practice, however, we tend to get defensive. I just can’t afford to contribute. My life is just so busy right now, I can’t participate.
As neurotic as I am about being liked, I wish there were a more palatable way to say this, but discipleship is neither easy, nor convenient, nor inexpensive. Indeed, Jesus compares discipleship to taking up a cross. He says that the way to discover one’s life is to lose it. Wealth, then, may always be tinged with dishonesty until we are released from its hold on us and it is shared with those who don’t have enough. Only then does it become a true blessing.
Think about people who have an overabundance of material wealth and who have political power. Most such folks find themselves owned by what they own, and to be honest, I feel kind of sorry for them. All-too-often, they’re not able to make real friends. Instead of relationships, they make interest-bearing investments or alliances, because the people around them always want something from them. And while that kind of clout can be a drag, it can also be a drug. It’s addicting to have people indebted to us. The institutional Church has made its share of self-serving investments and alliances. Since the days of Constantine, we have sacrificed faithfulness to Jesus for the sake of patronage of powerful people and nations.
Honestly, I don’t worry about the life to come for you, or me, or anyone else for that matter. I trust God to be far, far more gracious with humankind than most institution-sanctioned theologies are willing to allow. The salvation Jesus offers all of us is the often unwanted, but here-and-now deliverance from the idolatries of power, wealth, and individualism. The salvation Jesus offers is a genuine and lasting freedom to live in relationship with God by living in relationships of mutual compassion, forgiveness, and joy with our neighbors and stewardship of our one and only skénas called Earth.
I shared only half of Charles Cousar’s quotation about “the great exegetical mountain” of today’s text. After acknowledging it as “bewildering” to the point of inscrutability, Cousar says this: “In the meantime, perhaps the best we can hope is that our joining the quest for a solution [to this parable], the grappling of God’s people with even the difficult parts of God’s book, produces a weary but earnest friendship among the children of light in this generation.”5
We are in that “meantime.” We’re in that nomadic, tent-dwelling interval in which everything we say and do exposes what we hold as real and eternal. On this shared journey, Jesus is delivering us from the life-diminishing entanglements of greed, fear, and the love of all that is perishable.
May all we have and all we are be gratefully received and generously shared, so that as “children of light,” we may love and serve God and God alone.
1Charles Cousar, “Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010, p 95.
2Ibid. p. 97.
4Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010, pp. 94&96.
5Cousar, p. 97.