Let's all be very clear: this parable is weird. Although the parable begins with a pretty good hook and seems to go in a predictable direction, the story skews off pretty quickly, leaving us all a little confused. At first, this parable is off-putting, apparently contradictory, and in the end, does not seem like the kind of parable that would be a favorite for most of us.
Let's start at the beginning: Jesus says that there is a rich man who had a manager who squandered his wealth. It's a good hook, so I'm in. The rich man summons the manager and tells him that he will soon fire him for being so bad at his job, but the manager doesn't just mope away like a victim. Instead, he begins to devise a plan that will allow him to get a good job once he's actually fired. The plot thickens!
At this point in the story, I'm thinking that this manager is trying to be a little too clever, a little too shrewd, and he's simply going to dig himself into a deeper hole. I know this manager; I have been this manager. I totally sympathize with his position. I have definitely been in situations where I haven't done something well, and when I realize I haven't done something well, instead of simply admitting to it, I try to work myself out of the jam. And instead of saving myself, most often I end up putting myself in a worse position than before. I hate to be wrong and I hate to make mistakes, and so, I understand where this poor manager is coming from and what he's attempting to do to save himself.
As the story goes on, we see that the manager calls together all the people who are in debt to his wealthy employer. He asks each one how much debt they have, and then one-by-one, begins slashing their debts, some by as much as half. Now, we know what he's doing because Luke has already let us in on the plan: the manager is trying to appear gracious and generous so that once he's fired, he'll be able to go to one of his employer's partners and get another job. Now, the manager is not slashing debts for the good of his employer. The manager is slashing debts to try to save himself. I know how this is going to turn out: his employer, the rich man, is going to get super angry!
So, here it comes, the moment of truth, when the master finds out what the manager has done . . . and Jesus says, the "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." (Wait, what did he just say?) "And I tell you," he continues, "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."[i] Well, I don't know about you, but now I am totally confused.
As this parable ends, we are left in a strange place. We know that Jesus is telling this story for a particular reason, but this story is not an easy one. This story isn't simply a "love your neighbor" moment. Something else is happening here and we need to dig a little deeper.
You see, Luke is a complex writer, and as he composed the story of Jesus, Luke structured his stories by providing a particular amount of depth to Jesus' teachings. One of Luke's favorite literary techniques is to use the phrase "how much more" in many of Jesus' parables. In many moments throughout the gospel, Jesus tells a story to teach his disciples, and at the end, he says "how much more" would this story be true in relationship to God.
For example, we see in Chapter 11 where Jesus says:
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?. . . how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"[ii]
And again in Chapter 12, we see Jesus say:
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. How much more valuable are you than the birds!"[iii]
Now, although Luke does not use that explicit "how much more" phrase here, the implication is along the same lines: something about this story shows the simplicity or the smallness of our human experience, and in comparison, how much more will God do than what we can do?
When I reflect on this parable, the moment that resonates with me the most is when Jesus says that the dishonest manager was commended for acting shrewdly. This moment feels out of place in the world of scripture. Aren't we supposed to be kind and loving, generous and slow to anger? By commending someone for acting shrewdly, the implication seems to be that the end justifies the means. This does not seem sacred and holy.
Yet this kind of moment is so common in our world, where many, perhaps most of us, act as though the ends justify the means all the time. Commendations, even rewards, are often handed out to those of us who act shrewdly, not honestly. Business is done, and if we're honest, business often succeeds, because smart people, able people act shrewdly. My grandma once told me that honesty is the best policy, but unfortunately, that's not always how we choose to live.
Jesus offers us a few instructions in this passage, and perhaps I can offer a synthesis of his message: children of the light need to first, act shrewdly and second, be faithful with dishonest wealth. This can kind of seem off-putting at first, but I want to take a stab at making sense of it.
We have seen that shrewd actions are commended, and ultimately rewarded. Jesus is nudging us toward the wisdom of living in this world. Being shrewd, perhaps being wise, is how we navigate the moral and ethical complexities of this world. We are here for only a short period of time, and we have been given opportunities and gifts. Will we choose to use those gifts wisely, even shrewdly, or not? Being shrewd in this life is not the point but being shrewd means we will be able to work toward a higher goal.
Which brings me to the second part of Jesus' lesson. A shrewd life, one in which we make the most of what we have been given, allows us to be as faithful as possible. When we use the gifts and talents we have been given in this world, when we maximize our opportunities, we have as much power and authority as possible to do the most good, to be the most faithful we can be. Put another way: if we succeed in maximizing our worldly wealth and power, we will be able to maximize our worldly impact for good.
That conclusion, that lesson makes sense to me. To quote Jesus from just a few chapters earlier, "...to whom much as been given, much will be required; and ...to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded."[iv] And yet, Jesus is not finished. The point of this lesson is not the call to multiply our gifts and to use them for good, but there is an even higher purpose, a most important call. Jesus speaks an even greater truth when he says, "you cannot serve two masters."
For Jesus, and indeed for us, the absolute truth of this passage, the point of this most dense parable, is that we are slaves to this world. We are regularly tempted by this world to believe that the gifts we have been given and the opportunities we have had to multiply those gifts are ultimately for our own good. But the deeper truth is that our gifts have been given to us, not earned by us. Our life and every strength we have comes straight from God.
And make no mistake, Jesus is not talking about wealth in some vague way. Jesus is talking about tangible wealth, about our assets, and yes, about our money. For many listening today, I'm going to guess that the mention of money sends a cold shiver down your spine, but believe me when I say that Jesus talks about money all the time, and if we act like church isn't the place to talk about money, we are simply not being faithful to his example.
Money is incredibly important to Jesus because he knows how important money is to us. Consider these quick facts. Nearly half of the 39 parables in the Gospels deal directly with money, and 1 out of every 7 verses in the Gospel of Luke itself - in the entire gospel - deal directly with money. When we consider how much Jesus wrestles with the idea of money and wealth, perhaps we should be brave enough to wrestle a bit more with our own.
This parable is pointing to the complex relationship we have with the wealth we have received, with the good gifts and opportunities we have, and how we can give thanks to God for those gifts. Jesus says that we cannot serve God and wealth. We cannot celebrate our gifts and talents and comforts and strengths unless we know, deep in our bones, that we serve the one, true God. To make this as clear as possible, our money is not for us. Our money is for the working of God's kingdom. The money we have is nothing more than a tool that we can use for God's work in the world, and that is why Jesus wants us, his followers, the children of light, to be shrewd and use our money as well.
The grace of God is poured out over each of us, and parables like the one we hear today remind us that no matter who we are and no matter what we do, God stays with us and calls to us to turn back again and again to the truth. We see grace poured out on this dishonest manager when he did not deserve that grace. And perhaps, we know all too well that grace has been poured out over us when we did not deserve that grace, either. Grace is given, freely.
Today, we are reminded that we are to live in this world wisely, even shrewdly, but to never tether ourselves to the world. God is the truth, and God is who we were made to serve. The grace we receive is nothing we have earned, and yet we receive God's grace with the hope that this life is only the beginning. God's promise is that the best is yet to come. Amen.
[i] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 16:8-9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[ii] The Holy bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 11:11-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[iii] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 12:24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[iv] The Holy bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 12:48). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.