The dishonest manager

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 16:1-13

Of all of the parables of Jesus, this is the one that most puzzles us. By “us” I don’t mean only the “us” here, who have just heard how the “master commended the dishonest manager”… to say nothing of hearing Jesus tell his disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” The “us” who are puzzled begins with the disciples to whom the story was first told, and extends through every preacher, bible study leader, commentator, theologian, and ordinary everyday Christian who has ever attempted to deal with it.

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In the lectionary cycle of readings, the passage appears once every three years. I’ve been ordained twenty-six years, so this something like the ninth time I’ve faced it as a preacher. Yet each time the passage comes up, I find myself pressed by it. Over the years I’ve looked at any number of commentaries, and I’d say that the one thing that they all agree on is that this is the hardest—the most awkward and counter-intuitive—of all of Jesus’ parables. As my friend and colleague James Snyder observed, “People who spend their entire lives studying and contributing to our understanding of this parable are all over the map. And right now there are 10,000 preachers who might be all over the map.”

It is funny that this parable is placed where it is in Luke’s narrative. The previous chapter had offered three much easier—though in some respects no less audacious—parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son; a parable that might better be called “the lost sons,” as it really has the lostness of both the young prodigal and the elder brother firmly in view. These three are great parables for any preacher, for they speak with such power of the gracious God who will turn the house upside down in order to bring the lost ones home. We like that; or at least we like it once we’ve figured out that we are each of us numbered among the lost.

I think, though, that this parable of the dishonest steward actually requires the same sort of figuring. I think, in other words, that it is no less a parable of grace than are the three that precede it, and that it requires the very same willingness to confess our lostness in order for it to even begin to have resonance. It also requires that we shelve any sense that the parables of Jesus are moral tales, after the manner of Aesop’s fables. In the tradition of Aesop, the lost sheep would have remained lost (or maybe run across a colony of industrious ants who would have taught him the way back to the shepherd), the prodigal son would have been assigned as a perpetual servant to the righteous older brother, and this dishonest steward would have faced his come-uppance and been tossed into the streets.

Jesus, however, seems disinterested in telling that sort of moral story. In fact, here he is prepared to use a rather shady character as his hero. Just as he is willing to use a crooked judge as a stand-in for God in one parable, a reprobate tax collector as a model of faith in another, and a pain in the neck friend as an image for faithful and persistent prayer in a third, Jesus is apparently unafraid to deal in anti-heroes and undesirables.

Sometimes you’ll hear people say that while they don’t believe that Jesus was Son of God or saviour, he was a great moral teacher. Yet Jesus simply doesn’t offer a coherent system of universally applicable moral and ethical teachings that can be abstracted from who he is. You can try… the parable of the Good Samarian can work at that level. But ultimately, even the stories and teachings that do seem to have a wider application—for instance, “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”—can’t be heard apart from his claims as to who he is. Yet even the church, says Jim Snyder, “has spent twenty centuries trying to mold Jesus into our image of moral respectability,” adding, “But all it takes is a parable like this to blow it all apart.”

You see, unlike the prodigal son who “squandered his property”—and it is the same word in this parable; the dishonest manager is said to have been “squandering” his boss’s property—here the dishonest hero never actually repents. In fact, he acts in a way that Jesus characterizes as a shrewd dealing with dishonest wealth. Having played fast and loose with the accounts and assets entrusted to him by the wealthy owner, and now facing dismissal into who knows what line of work—“I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg”—he decides to just go for broke. He summons all of the people who still had outstanding balances on their accounts with his boss, and starts lopping them down. How much do you owe? A hundred jugs of olive oil? Settle it now, and we’ll call it even at fifty. And you? A hundred bushels of wheat? Make it eighty. He’s fixing the books… the business owner could have him arrested for this kind of fast dealing.

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly”—that’s when we know we’re dealing with a parable, and not a moral fable. He commended the dishonest manager, to which Jesus adds, “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Okay Lord, now you’re piling one complication onto another… aren’t we supposed to be children of light? In the world, certainly, but not of the world? And certainly not “children of this age,” right? And then one more layer is added:  “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.” That phrase “dishonest wealth” is sometimes translated as “worldly wealth” or even just plain “money,” but even that only solves so much. A preacher could spend a lot of time digging around in word studies and other details dealing with all of the verses that follow from the parable. Not only would that keep us all here considerably longer than we’d expected, I’m not sure it would get us at the heart of the matter. And I think that the heart of the matter is tied up in the fact that the dishonest, shrewd, bad-actor who managed to squander the master’s property and then deals with it by fixing the books is in fact this parable’s Christ-figure.

This is a perspective not unique to me… and some of you may have already guessed that it is one I learned from that most audacious theologian of grace; Robert Farrar Capon:

This parable says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life. He was not respectable. He broke the Sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he died as a criminal. Now at last, in the light of this parable, we see why he refused to be respectable: he did it to catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead.

 

You might object that if this is the parable’s Christ-figure that means that the rich business owner who was initially going to toss the dishonest manager out on the street is God… and doesn’t that put Christ and the Father in opposition to one another? That’s bad theology, Jamie… to which I’d say, yes, that would be bad theology. But we’re talking about a parable here, which is meant always to unsettle or challenge or fill us with wonder; maybe all three at the same time. And part of the point here would seem to be that in the end the rich owner and his shrewd steward manage to share a laugh as the old rules of book-keeping are tossed out the window and everyone is enabled to have their accounts settled right then and there.

That sounds a whole lot more like good, solid, Christian theology to me. The Christian proclamation insists that in the end grace comes only by death and losing—by the self-emptying of God in Christ on an executioner’s cross. And when you really think about it—when you look at the accounting of our own lives, our own decisions, our all too often self-serving and self-justifying way of being in the world (to borrow yet another line from Robert Capon)—isn’t it “lucky for us we don’t have to deal with a just steward?”

 

One Response to The dishonest manager

  1. Byron O'Donnell says:

    Good one Jamie! I hope you record Malcolm tonight…

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