Just to get re-acquainted, I am Ian Punnett. I'm an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. Not everybody understands the difference between a deacon and a priest, and I understand that because the diaconate is expressed differently in various traditions; but remember that deacons, while less known or understood than the priesthood as holy orders go, actually there were deacons before there were priests. And in the Episcopal Church, we are considered a separate but equal holy order.
For the most part, deacons don't get paid; yet we are attached to a church, one where I preach regularly. I serve within church services, but mostly the world is my cathedral. You can follow me on Twitter @deaconpunnett. And I travel and I tell stories and I serve a congregation at large, not unlike the evangelists of the New Testament.
Earlier we heard the weirdest parable from Luke the Evangelist as he is known, a gospel passage that may take a minute or two to clarify, but it's important that we do. Usually, I think most people who study scripture can do an admirable job unpacking the parables of Jesus but not this week. This week, without a trained professional, you interpret the gospel at your peril. Welcome to Luke 16; don't try this at home.
Now proof of the weirdness of this biblical parable is that it comes down to us over time with a couple of well-known titles. Luke 16 is known both as "The Parable of the Dishonest Steward" and "The Parable of the Shrewd Manager." Can it be both? If the conflicting titles of the parables seem confusing, the parable itself appears to be almost a riddle, one of the most debated and debatable passages in the New Testament.
So what does it mean? What was Christ trying to teach us in this parable? Is the lesson still relevant to us today?
Well, here is the parable again in a nutshell:
A wealthy landowner calls in his business manager to give him the heads up that there have been rumors going around that the business manager was being careless with his estate, maybe another way to look at that is wasteful, might even be cheating. So the business manager thinks to himself, "Uh-oh, I could get fired. This stinks. I can't afford to lose my job and I'm not in the mood for manual labor and begging would hurt my street cred so, I'd better come up with a Plan B. At least, then, I'll have a place to crash." So, he calls in his boss's biggest debtors and forgives the debtors a portion of what they owe the landowner in order for them to be indebted to him--the business manager--personally.
But when the landowner finds out about how his scheming business manager reduced the bills of his debtors behind his back, the landowner is so mad that he yells at his dishonest manager by saying, "Now, that is some seriously shrewd thinking, it goes to show you that kids today are so much smarter than geezers like me."
And just to amplify the moral of the story, our Lord and Savior says, "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, your co-conspirators may welcome you into the eternal homes."
Wait, what? Did we just hear Jesus say something about how dishonest wealth is great and that honor among thieves is a virtue?
Is that what this parable means?
Well, it might be. If The Holy Gospel According to Luke were in Satan's Bible!!
But it's not! Luke is in the Holy Bible so there must be a twist to this story that evades the modern ear. Something about that story just goes by us too fast to notice why Jesus is praising this shrewd/dishonest manager, and here it is. In biblical times, it was not uncommon for powerful men who held a monopoly on resources to manipulate their books to make it appear as though their debtors owed more than they actually did. In fact, some people would say that type of practice goes on to this day. I mean, is it terribly different than, say, the Enron scandal? Anyway, in order for a wealthy businessman to pad his pockets for an extra profit here or there, he would need a business manager that was less than scrupulous too. So, the steward here or the business manager--he was padding the books for his boss. And, of course, with all that padding going on, a less-than-honest steward of your less-than-honest business might be inclined to make a little nice padded landing for himself as well.
Which is exactly what the dynamic of this story is all about: A shady guy working for a dishonest businessman. So when the scheming landowner suspects his business manager might be more of a scoundrel than even he bargained for, he gives the man a chance to prove himself. The steward sees this as a battle he's not likely to win so he decides to out-scheme a schemer by pulling out the books and making some calls.
So, he rings up the first guy, "How much does my boss say you owe him?"
The man says, "A hundred jugs of olive oil."
"Well, if he says it's a hundred, it's more like fifty. Put down fifty, pay up and consider yourself even with my boss."
Next guy, same thing. "If my crooked boss says you owe him a hundred bails of wheat, it's more like eighty, trust me. Pay it and we're even."
Now just then the wealthy landowner discovers that he just got out-gamed by a gamer--the gamer he was about to fire; and, you know what, the wealthy landowner had to begrudgingly respect the guy for it. I mean, after all, the landowner's coffers are now full, his accounts receivable are at zero, his customers are happy because they got some debt relief, the landowner's clients have now bonded to his manager, and the very guy he hired to be shrewd in business turns out to be even shrewder than he thought. I mean, at the end of the day, the guy is a keeper, the perfect guy to run this type of operation, somebody who is both a "dishonest steward" and a "shrewd manager" at the same time.
But why does that earn such high praise from Jesus?
Well, seemingly to Jesus, none of this earthly wealth mattered all that much anyway. How much money we have means nothing to God. How we conduct ourselves around money, however, that is different. And you know the rest.
Jesus says, "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. You cannot serve God and wealth."
But isn't the dishonest steward a guy who is seemingly making money his God? Well, maybe not. He might be wasting his boss' resources, he might have been taking a little for himself, he might be complicit in the padding of the books; but in other ways, he was what we might call today, a whistle blower. Think about that. How timely is that story. He was being the trickster. He was the guy who was kind of blowing the lid off the scheme of his boss. Now, sure, he only became a truth teller to save his own skin but that just makes the parable more entertaining.
And maybe, that's all the Parable of the Dishonestly Shrewd Manager really is--an entertaining story, with a surprise ending and a great moral. Think of it this way. In its time, Jesus might have been telling an entertaining story like Goodfellas or the Godfather or Sopranos. Shouldn't surprise us, Jesus was a great story teller. He could captivate a crowd. In his life, the world was Jesus' cathedral; he traveled and he told stories and served a congregation at large.
In fact, Jesus would have made a great deacon.
Let us pray: God of all creation, like the apostles, we are both called and sent. First, you were with us as we gathered to share and understand the Word. Now be with us as go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.