When you get a new kitchen appliance, or some electronic gadget, or even a new car, do you read the instructions that come with it, the operating manual? I do. Oh, I might not read every word, but I give them a good look.
Okay, I'll admit I can get a little compulsive about it.
But sometimes there's a problem with instruction manuals, and if you're an instruction booklet reader like me then you've experienced this as well-sometimes they can be virtually impossible to understand!
When I was a boy, my father-a devout Methodist minister-ordered a grandfather clock kit from the Emperor Clock Company of Fairhope, AL. He spent several weeks putting this clock kit together. Often I would help my dad in his basement workroom, handing him the tool he needed, holding a piece he'd glued until it was set. And I clearly remember the colorful language he would use trying to put this big clock together. Oh, he never used bad words-the worst it got was, "Aw, foot!" But I could tell he was frustrated.
Apparently I didn't learn much from that experience because when I was a young man in my mid-20s, I decided I wanted to build one of those grandfather clocks myself. So I ordered one in black walnut wood. Now, I hadn't done any kind of wood working, and when I read the instructions, well, frankly, I was flummoxed.
Step 1. Locate the left and right side frames and the face frame assembly. Trial fit the tongue of the face frame in their respective side frame grooves. Insure that the dado in the bottom rail of the face frame faces the inside of the case. Install the case bottom in the dadoes in the side and face frame. Be sure to pilot the holes for the brads, using a brad with the head clipped off. NOTE: The bottom edges of the crown returns fit in the rabbets in the side frame assemblies.
Okay-what was I supposed to do with my tongue there? And what the heck is a dado? And something about rabbits? And who is Brad, and why is his head clipped off?
Somehow, despite these almost impossible-to-understand instructions, long before the internet when I could Google these unknown terms... somehow I got that grandfather clock built. And today, some 35 years later, that clock still ticks. So does my dad's clock, now at my big brother's house! (Both clocks of course are antiques now.)
I'm wondering whether the gospel writer had something of the same problem understanding Jesus' instructions here in Luke 16. I do. These are challenging instructions, and you wouldn't believe the variety of explanations that Bible commentators offer for this simple little story of Jesus'. The only thing they agree on is that this is a very confusing passage of scripture! After all, it's called both the parable of the dishonest steward and the parable of the shrewd manager. Can he be both dishonest and shrewd? Even Luke seems a bit clueless as to what to do with this parable, because he offers four different lessons from it at the end of this passage.
First of all, who is Jesus talking to? In the previous chapter, the crowds, including "all the tax collectors and sinners" (15:1), have just heard Jesus tell the lost parables--the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. But in 16:1 the writer says, "Then Jesus said to the disciples..." and he tells this parable.
So what happened to the crowds? Is this meant to be secret insider stuff, just for the close followers of Jesus? Apparently not, because right after this passage, the next verse says, "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him." (16:4)
Jesus must have known that these money-loving Pharisees were listening in, and he very likely is being a bit outrageous just to tick them off! Jesus' parables, after all, were often used as a means of confronting the authorities of the status quo-he makes a very powerful point cleverly concealed in a nice little story. He tells these stories to challenge the conventional wisdom of the day.
In fact, right after this parable, he tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus-a powerful story about yet another rich man, who because he was wealthy was presumed by the religious elite to be blessed by God. But Jesus reveals what really happens when one fails to make wise and prudent use of their wealth, and it's not pretty.
Think about this context. This whole 16th chapter in Luke focuses on Jesus' warnings about the dangers of wealth. Jesus is giving instructions about our relationship with money, and in our parable today, he's explaining how to use money shrewdly, wisely, with a goal.
So here's the story. There's a rich man who has a business manager. Somebody squeals to the boss that this manager was wasting, squandering, the boss's property. He's busted. "What's this I hear about you cheating me?" the boss says, "Show me the books you've cooked, because... you're fired!" A New Testament Donald Trump, I guess.
So the manager says, "Uh oh, I'm in big trouble now. What am I going to do? I can't dig ditches, and I'm too proud to beg. Hey, wait a minute...I know-I'll fix it so that my boss's customers will owe me big time, so they'll have to take care of me!" And he calls the boss's debtors in one by one and slashes their bills, drastically discounting what they owe.
It turns out to be a win-win-win situation. The boss gets more cash flow (and probably the manager simply cut his commission on these sales) so he's happy... the debtors get a big discount so they're happy... and the manager makes friends who owe him something, so he's happy. He has dealt with an urgent and desperate situation very cleverly.
Then Jesus explains, "His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age [the worldly people] are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light [the disciples]. 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."
Jesus is saying, you disciples ought to be as smart as this guy about eternal life, about things that matter. And instead of using dishonest wealth to exploit others, as the worldly rich do, you are to use wealth to make friends for yourselves in eternity.
This is how the kingdom of God works, it overturns the old hierarchies, it shatters the old rules of power and position, and it creates new relationships, new friendships, that last forever.
Finally, with one more big idea, Jesus points out that you can't serve both God and wealth. Can't be done! That's the real bottom line. Our wealth belongs to God and should be used not for our own interests, but for the purposes of the kingdom of God.
The world is obsessed with money. Have you noticed that? But God is obsessed with relationship, with us, with all of us, forever.
So, children of light, followers of Jesus, if you possess wealth, consider it something to get rid of productively, because Jesus considers it dishonest wealth, the "mammon of wickedness."
None of this earthly wealth matters in the end, and how much money we have means nothing to God. But, how we conduct ourselves around money, what we do with it, what it reveals about our priorities and goals in life, well, that's a different story. Use your money wisely, Jesus says-use it up, give it away to make friends in the faith, who will welcome you into the eternal homes.
Maybe Jesus' instructions aren't all that confusing after all, if we're willing to hear them. Make friends-in whatever ways you can, even with the wealth you may possess-make friends for everlasting life.
A couple of years ago an Austrian millionaire, Karl Rabeder, was giving away every penny of his 3 million pound fortune after realizing that his riches were making him unhappy. A British newspaper interviewed this strange man. He was selling a luxury villa in the Alps, an old stone farmhouse in Provence, as well as cars and airplanes, everything. And he moved into a small wooden hut in the mountains.
He said, "My idea is to have nothing left. Absolutely nothing. Money is counterproductive-it prevents happiness to come."
His entire proceeds were given to micro-lending charities he set up in Central and Latin America. He explained, "For a long time I believed that more wealth and luxury automatically means more happiness. I come from a very poor family where the rules were to work more to achieve more material things, and I applied this for many years. But more and more I heard the words, 'stop doing what you are doing now-all this luxury and consumerism-and start your real life."
He added, "I had the feeling I was working as a slave for things that I did not wish for or need. I have the feeling that there are lots of people doing the same thing."
Since he sold his belongings, Rabeder said he felt "free, the opposite of heavy. But, I do not have the right to give any other person advice. I was just listening to the voice of my heart and soul."
And, perhaps, the voice of Jesus.
Child of light, the instructions are clear-they're right there in the instruction manual:
Be smart. Makes friends for eternity.
Get your priorities right. Serve God, not money.
Those are Jesus' instructions.
Each one of us has to figure out what those instructions mean in our lives.
What might we build if we follow them?
Anne Howard: A Word in Time, Grace by Losing. Beatitudes Society Blog.
Greg Carey, Commentary on Luke 16:1-13
Lois Malcolm, Commentary on Luke 16:1-13
David Lose, Money, Relationships, and Jesus' Most Confusing Parable
Ian Punnett, Day1 Sermon, Jesus' Weirdest Parable? Sept. 22, 2013
Emperor Clock Company, Model 145 Assembly Instructions
"Millionaire Gives Away Fortune That Made Him Miserable," Daily Telegraph, UK, Feb. 8, 2010