A Puzzling Parable (Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13)
I’d like us to try and think about how today’s scripture lessons for a few minutes this morning, so we can see how they connect to one another. I would suggest that the Old Testament Lesson in Psalm 113 furnishes us with a basic description of God as One for whom nothing is too great to accomplish and for whom no one is too small to lift up and love. Clearly God lifts up the poor and gives the undervalued a home and a significance to show that these are God’s own loved ones. Although the words are not in Psalm 113, it is common enough for the Bible to say that God’s people are to imitate God in this work of caring for those who are small and disregarded. The specific identities of these will vary in each local community.
According to the Epistle lesson from 1 Timothy 2 it’s an important part of our corporate and public task to pray together for all people, even those who are not like us, and who we might even consider enemies – much as rulers might have been in the days this Epistle was written. Since, for us Christians, there is only one God and one mediator, and that God’s desire is for all to be “saved,” it is important that we intercede for all, whether they like us or not, or even whether we like them. When we read the word “saved” we must understand that the Bible does not mean “walking down the aisle” to “get saved” in a 19th or 20th century evangelistic sense. In the Bible this phrase implies that it is God’s will and passion that all people should be able to live in the fullness of God’s own love and in a relationship of wholeness and dignity with others, through Jesus Christ. Now, if Psalm 113 teaches that nothing is too great for God, and no one is too small, and 1 Timothy 2 teaches that even the folk we consider bad are among those that are not too small to benefit from God’s grace and care, then, one of the most godly things we do together is offer public prayers for public leaders, whether they bear our “label” or not. These prayers are a way of asking God to care for the world. It may be difficult to pray for people that aren’t like us, but that’s irrelevant. If God cares for all, imitating God means so should we.
Our Gospel Lesson is a very difficult parable of Jesus, usually called the Unjust Steward, or Dishonest Manager. This parable is only told by Luke. It’s clear it puzzled him, and has puzzled readers ever since. As we begin, we need to note things that may give us difficulty. We, first, need to take care not to think the Bible is too easy. We need to read the Bible open-mindedly, not being afraid to change our minds about what we thought a passage means, even if we’ve thought that a long time. If we aren’t be willing to change we assume we understand a story before we come to read it. That’s like saying God taught us everything we need a long time ago and it was simple. But, what makes us think that the Bible is designed to look at the complexities of life simplistically or demand simplistic answers? That’s like saying that God only chooses to shop at the $1 store. Sometimes the answers are as complex as life itself, and depend on where we stand as readers.
We also need to remember that we’re reading a parable here, which is a fictional story in which usually only the main point is transferable. We’ll come to that point in time, but let’s start by looking at the characters. Here, we have often heard that the owner of this estate represents God or Jesus and the crooked manager represents a disciple (maybe even ourselves). The problem, then, becomes that God or Jesus ends up congratulating the disciple (maybe us) for what looks just like cheating and stealing. The story itself does not identify these characters this way, so we can forget doing it. As we look at the characters, let’s also remember that ancient Mediterranean social assumptions of right and wrong are not the same as ours. For example, it was a core belief of Jesus’ society that all goods were limited to the amount that existed in the world at that time. That included wealth, honour, and shame. We may not believe such things today, but this a story from the ancient world with ancient assumptions and beliefs. Status quo was crucial.
To come back to the characters in this ancient story. First, there is a property owner. In Jesus’ day, these would have been in the top 1% of the population that controlled 99% of the wealth. Their goal was to maintain the status quo, no matter what it did to the 99% of the population.
Second, there is a steward. These were appointed by landowners to collect money or goods from those who lived on the owner’s land. All these “renters” so to speak, were obligated to pay the property owner a percentage of their crop or income. To this amount some owners added as much as 50% interest, which was presented, on one bill, so to speak, so that the amount of interest was hidden. This was it was normal business practice in and before the time of Jesus and would not have been considered “dishonest,” no matter what we think. The steward or manager had the job of collecting this whole amount. Normally, the manager also added an additional percentage as his “wage.” The owner would not be troubled about the manager doing this, unless such a manager began to live a lifestyle extravagant enough to rival the owner’s. In Jesus’ day, two of the biggest factors shaping society were “shame” and “honour.” If the manager began to live “to high off the hog,” he would be taking honour from the landowner, and would shame the landowner. When we read that the owner heard complaints that the manager was “squandering” his fortune, it probably meant that the manager had forgotten his place and was living too highly. The owner would have seen this as a threat to his honour and status, and was entitled to remove or imprison the steward, or even put the steward to death.
The manager knew that his former clients wouldn’t help, and, in fact, may have been the ones who tattled on him in the first place. His statement that he couldn’t “dig or beg” for a living was more than pride. It was a practical realization that, when he was deprived of master’s protection he would become a prime target for revenge. With no one to help him, at best, he would have been allowed to fall beneath the status of a peasant to that of a day labourer, which was really sub-human existence that would end very quickly in murder, exhaustion, starvation, or disease. He had reason for concern.
So he acted quickly, before anyone heard of his trouble. He visited each of those who had owed money to his master, and made deals to reduce what each owed the land owner, probably by removing his own “cut” from the transaction, which would reduce the bill considerably. They all paid up. What he had accomplished by this strategy was to make both the debtors and the landowner beholden to him. He helped the debtors by cutting the amount they owed. If, when he was without a job, these debtors did not reciprocate, they would be shamed. So, they would be forced to look after him, even if it gagged them to do it. He also made the landowner beholden to him when he showed him that he could collect debts. The owner wouldn’t have even known that he cut the bills, since that amount would have come from the manager’s percentage which the landowner would never see anyway. When the landowner saw this, he simply congratulated the steward for his cleverness with money.
The parable ends halfway through verse 8. Nearly half of the text (vv. 8b-13) are intended to guide our understanding of it.
The story ends with Jesus calling the manager by a name that will become important, “unjust” or even “dishonest” (adikia).The boss now said to the “unjust manager,” “Wow, you’re clever with using other people’s money/stuff to assure your own well-being.” The first thing Jesus says to guide our understanding is that folks in this world are usually like this unjust or dishonest manager, shrewd in dealing with possessions and money, above all making sure they land on their feet. In fact, they’re much better at it than disciples of Jesus are. However, disciples have to understand that they need to be as clever and entrepreneurial as those in the world in dealing with earthly resources. Jesus used an Aramaic word mamona, “mammon,” to indicate these resources. And he put these resources into exactly the same category as the manager, “unjust.” That is, these resources are fraught danger, and with moral and ethical ambiguities. These resources belong more easily to those who operate “out there in the world” than those who are disciples of Jesus. Jesus said, however, that disciples should be unafraid to use these resources to draw people into relationships (i.e., to make friends, , and in Jesus’ day a friend was one to whom we do good and who can reciprocate). But they need to understand that there is a great deal of difference between using the resources and allowing the resources use us by making them our goal as a church. Jesus continues, that resources are finite, and, when (not if) they are exhausted, disciples will need to make sure that the kind of relationships we have forged by means of them will survive their loss. Such relationships are those that tend and care for the community on the basis of God’s values (i.e., the age to come, “your eternal tents”). What does this mean for disciples? How can we use “dishonest mammon,” things and possessions, to form relationships and not be corrupted by the moral and ethical ambiguity that attaches to them? Some faith communities have never taken this parable seriously, choosing to think of its budget and its stewardship and the resources it uses as little more than an embarrassing reality, rather than a key part of mission. Any more they spend what they have to only on “safe and churchy” causes that only impact “us” inside the walls. Churches ought not to mess with the world and people in it, except to get them out of it.
Verse 10 begins to answer how Christian disciples can take this parable seriously, with a quotation also found in Matthew 25, outside of this context altogether that Luke must have thought was worthy of consideration here. The quotation contains that term that’s already been used “unjust,” both to refer to “mammon,” (things) and the manager who used them for self-preservation. It contrasts this term “unjust,” with another one, “faithful” (pistos). Jesus says that one who is “faithful” in very little will be faithful in much, just as those who are “unjust” in a very little will also be unjust in much. He goes on to say that” “unjust wealth” is the very little. True riches – by which Jesus meant those relationships that will last – are the “much.” If you can’t even make friends with money, who will ever trust you to do anything more important in mission for Jesus in the world?
Finally, the point comes in verse 12. Disciples cannot serve God and wealth. We may use wealth, but we may not serve it at the same time that we serve God. There’s only one boss. We have to choose. Now, we can understand what Jesus meant. Money and other resources are tools to serve God. The goal of stewardship is not money it’s ministry using money as one tool.
This difficult parable can speak to us in this day as much as it has in others. We need to be ready to operate with as many “street smarts” in the interest of spiritual matters and causes as others do in merely making money. We need to be bold to use our earthly resources for those who cannot necessarily repay us with money. Money is a tool. We minister because imitating the love of Christ gives us no choice. See Psalm 113.
We are the hands and feet of Jesus in this world where people are abused and forgotten, and there is an overwhelming need for a loving, kind, thoughtful, creative word of grace and blessing from God. The resources we have, whether great or small, need to be used thoughtfully, creatively, decisively, cleverly, and entrepreneurially in ways that count, to bring God’s vision of a world of sharing and wholeness into reality.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.