Shrewd Managers

Luke 16:1-13

Today the Church gives us what is certainly one of the most difficult sayings of Jesus; indeed, at various points in Christian history, the Church has been outright embarrassed by these ancient words passed down for us to hear today.

We’ve grown accustomed and even expect Jesus to raise the bar on obedience – “the law said don’t commit adultery?  I say don’t even look at another person with lust;” “the law says don’t murder?  If you hate your brother or sister, you’ve already committed murder in your heart.”

We’ve grown accustomed to hearing Jesus calling people to keep the law rightly, as he summarized in the two great commandments: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.

And yet, now, we hear Our Lord commend this dishonest manager, one who, by any objective standard, falsified the accounting books to ensure that he would land on his feet after he was fired.

It’s no surprise the Church found this passage embarrassing over the ages – on face value, there’s no question – this manager is not a good guy.  You don’t want this guy working for you.  What a mess we would be in if we read this passage and concluded it with a hearty “go and do likewise”.

It’s a hard text, but it’s one that deserves our attention precisely because it doesn’t say what we expect; and when we think we’ve got God all figured out and conveniently ignore those hard parts of his Word, that’s when – time and time again – we find ourselves dangerously close to worshipping a god made in our image, rather than the one in whose image we were made.

A Parable in Context

If we were to open our Bibles to Luke 16, the first thing we would find is that this passage doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  It’s a parable – a certain type of story, often using unexpected characters and situations to teach a lesson, and if we were to flip back a page in the Gospel of Luke, we’d see that it exists as part of an extended collection of more familiar parables: last week we heard the first part of Luke 15 – the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, a pair of stories told to illustrate God’s persistence in finding even one who is lost.

Then, later in Luke 15, but not in the lectionary this year, we have the well-known parable of the prodigal son.  We all know it well: a wealthy man has two sons and divides his wealth among them.  The younger one takes his money and travels the world, spending this great fortune on fabulous parties and wild living, and eventually finds himself broke, on the streets of a foreign land, feeding pigs and perhaps sleeping in their barn just to have a roof over his head. 

Now, with all of his father’s hard-earned wealth wasted, he returns home begging for his father to take him back as a hired hand. 

And what does his father do – he welcomes him with open arms, forgives the wasting of the family wealth, and, like we saw with the lost sheep or the lost coin, celebrates that this one that was lost has been found.  Of course, as we might remember, the rich man’s other son is angry, saying, “look, my brother wasted all your hard-earned money, but I’ve worked hard at the family business all my life – why are you celebrating?”, the moral of that parable of course being that it isn’t about the wasting or the dishonour or disrespect brought upon the family, but it’s about the restored relationship between a loving, merciful father and a child that had wandered away.

And it’s as part of that string of familiar stories that Jesus tells the parable of the dishonest manager.  

Jesus’ Theology of Money

If we want to understand the point that Jesus is making here, we have to first take to heart his absolutely radical, earth-shattering approach to money.

We all know “Money makes the world go round”.  Every one of us in the room base many of our day-to-day decisions on their financial impact.  In today’s world, it’s money and livelihood that brings communities together, as we grow up and, more often than ever before, have to leave home in search of work and… money.  Money to buy what we need – food, shelter, clothes; money to buy what we want – cars, books, toys of whatever sort, whether it be a Nintendo or Xbox or a boat and skidoo; and money to plan for our future – to pay off debt, to put something away for our kids, to have a place to call our own.

Money, for better or worse, is the driving force behind many of our choices: decisions to work harder now to pay off that student loan, or to put off retirement for another year to pay off the truck and take that great vacation.

And if we actually read Luke 16, perhaps the most unexpected thing that we find is that Jesus is actually acknowledging the role of money in our lives.  Jesus, having just told the parable of the prodigal son who wasted his father’s wealth, and who as told the rich man to sell his goods because it is easier to enter the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, takes this opportunity to teach his disciples – you and me – about worldly wealth.

“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?

The problem is not money.  The problem is when we forget what money is.

Money is not God.  Money is not the master.  You cannot serve two masters.

So if money is not the master, then what is it?

Money is a tool. 

It’s a worldly tool; all tools are.  It’s not as though God installed ATMs and printed bills with his face on them to use in the garden of Eden, where, without pride and greed, everyone’s needs were met without toil or labour. 

Money is a tool.  And tools, even worldly tools, can be used for good or evil. 
A hammer can be used to build or to destroy; fire, used wisely, gives light and heat, but left to its own devices will consume everything around it.

Money is decidedly worldly – it does us no good in the Kingdom of God; we can’t buy our way in, and we can’t take it with us.

But, in this world, we find ourselves entrusted with it. 

“And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.  For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”

Now, let me be clear – this is not about stealing.  This is about Christians understanding the right use of money – not as a supreme goal or measure of worth, but as a tool, as a means for accomplishing things in this world.

The Dishonest Manager

As was common in the first century, the master had hired a manager to oversee this area of his business.  And business managers, like tax collectors were entrepreneurs rather than servants working for room and board; they had a quota due to their master, and then they would add their commission over top, or charge interest if one of the debtors had missed a payment and the manager had to cover the expense.

When the manager’s position came under scrutiny and it looked like his contract wouldn’t be renewed, a short-sighted manager, one viewing money as the goal rather than as a tool to be used, would have called up the debtors and demanded payment.  A short-sighted manager would have said “I’m going to lose my job, I need to collect some money right away”.

But this shrewd manager said, “they’re going to cut my position, I need to make friends while I can so that, when I’m no longer in authority, I have people to look out for me.” So he calls them in, slashes his commission, writes off the interest, and sends them on their way.

He writes-off the debt that is rightfully his because he knows that his time is short. 

He writes-off the debt that is rightfully his because he knows that money can only get you so far; that worldly wealth runs out.

He writes-off the debt because he understands that everything he has ultimately belongs to the master, and can be taken away at his next breath.

A Parable Applied

Now, remember the prodigal son? 
Remember the undeserved mercy shown by the Father?

God is the master.  We are the managers.  The Master has given us everything – grace, forgiveness, blessings beyond measure, and he has put us in charge of his accounts.

But word comes to the master that we’re squandering his possessions.  That grace, that mercy, that forgiveness, those blessings, those positions, that influence – we’re not using them to their full potential for the master’s kingdom.

So, he wants an account.  He wants to check the books.

And this is where he wants us to be shrewd.

So, we call in those who owe us.  Our debtors; or to use the older language, those who trespass against us.  And recognizing that everything that we are owed pales in comparison to what we have received from God, and realizing that whatever worldly wrongs done to us, whatever we are owed, is worth nothing in the age to come, we forgive, we write-off those debts.

For whoever is faithful in little will be faithful in much.

And, in forgiving our debts, in laying down what is rightfully ours, in not seeking revenge, in repaying wrongs with kindness instead of anger, we use our worldly powers to gain friends for ourselves, relationships which reflect the mercy that we ourselves have received from God, and which will pay eternal dividends.

No one can serve two masters.  But, use your worldly wealth – money, positions, power, influence, relationships – the things that, in the long run matter very little and will pass away; use them in such a way that we will be welcomed into our eternal dwelling, where we will be entrusted with true riches – abundant life where neither moth nor rust destroy and where thieves do not break in a steal – for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

To God be the glory, now and forever more.  Amen.

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