A Crisis and a New Way. Jay’s sermon on a challenging parable.

Luke 16:1-13

1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?’ He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his 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. 9 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. 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 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.”

I’ve felt this rich man’s manager approaching for some time now. In early summer, Pastor Ingrid and I discussed this and other upcoming passages. Shortly afterward, we met with worship staff, too, and we reflected on what message should be at the center of our service on September 18. I have read many interpretations by gifted scholars about the purpose of today’s parable, most of which I found compelling, inspiring, and also conflicting with one another. There are significant questions any reader must face: is the manager a model for us, or is he commended with a sense of irony? Is the rich landowner a stand-in for God, just because he’s the master, or is he more like the villain of the story? Is this a story of forgiveness and mercy or just about one man’s efforts to save his own hide? I asked those questions, and all the while I felt the manager approaching, knowing his story would be told and we would be left with the main question that we ask each Sunday, “Where is the meaning for us in this biblical text?” What is God’s word for us today?

It took me until Wednesday of this week to give up trying to figure out the absolute correct interpretation of this passage once and for all. So today, even more than usual, I am going to rely on your help and trust you all to do some interpretive work with me. And I will allow for the very real possibility that we will all leave worship today having heard something quite different than the person sitting next to us did.

That’s really not that unusual. I believe that the Holy Spirit is at work whenever we encounter God’s living Word and that our individual needs, experiences, and questions will all shape our hearing of scripture. It is good news that God meets us where we are—sometimes comforting the afflicting, sometimes afflicting the comfortable. And since I believe that—that there can be a diversity of responses to God’s Word—I’ve decided that it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that when Jesus first told his parables, they were heard in differing ways by his original audience, too.

Today’s parable of the manager could be a prime example. The story itself takes 7 ½ verses. To summarize: the manager finds himself in a crisis, accused of squandering his master’s property and about to lose his job. But while still employed, he goes to his master’s debtors and renegotiates the contracts with them, which allows the debts to be paid and, most notably, ingratiates the manager to the townspeople, the neighbors upon whose kindness he will soon be forced to rely. When the master learns of it, he commends him because he acted shrewdly. Whether he still lost his job or not, we don’t know. That’s the end of the story.

But the Gospel writer Luke has more to say. Depending on how you count, there are four to six concluding statements to the parable, which could be taken as interpretations or morals of the story, and I’m not sure they all fit with each other. They probably reflect a community, perhaps a lot like ours, that had different ways of making sense of the parable and putting together things that Jesus said. And any one of the interpretations could be enough to reflect upon in our worship today. “You cannot serve God and wealth” is provocative and true and worthy of our serious consideration. And yet such platitudes are not nearly as interesting as the story we read. So I keep coming back to the question of what could it be that the manager wants to teach us? More accurately, why does it matter to you that Jesus told this story?

I suppose it’s possible that it’s just a story, if there is such a thing, whose purpose was merely to entertain the disciples and pass the time as they traveled one of their long journeys by foot. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if someone overheard one of my impromptu bedtime stories for my daughters and tried to extract a theology from it. I’d be pretty embarrassed. Could that be the issue here?

No, not likely. And given that it was meaningful enough to include in the Gospel, I do think it’s worth our consideration. So let’s think through the story again.

“There was a rich man who had a manager.” Again, I can’t know for sure, but I expect the original audience would begin with a negative feeling toward both characters. It’s not just because they had money but because of the way the economic system worked at the time. The peasants in the crowd would have known what it was like to be in debt and the danger of being forced off of their family land because of it. They would have known that most rich landlords were loan-sharks, taking advantage of the low literacy rate among the public to use exorbitant interest rates and hidden fees in order to amass more wealth and land for themselves. They knew that land owners’ managers, or debt collectors, also found ways of adding extra fees for themselves. The Pharisees in the crowd would have known that such exploitation was in direct conflict with biblical law. And yet, this is how it was done. It was the way of the world.

Well, this isn’t hard for us to understand. We could take a walk around the corner to the nearest payday lender, as some of us have, and find out that the cost of a debt can compound very, very quickly. Would we ever expect such a lender to say, “Take what you owe, and cut it in half?” No, that isn’t the way it’s done. That wouldn’t be in keeping with the rules of their business model.

The same was true for the manager, this collector of debts. So what led him to break the rules of the game? He found himself in a crisis. The bottom fell out. The market crashed. His investments proved to be foolish. Whatever the details, he was about to lose his job. Would the peasants in the crowd listening to the story have felt sorry for him? No, I can’t imagine they did. He was getting what he deserved; let him suffer. That could have been enough of a story to entertain. Jesus could have said, “the positions of those who exploit and oppress are fleeting. The mighty will fall.”

But there’s more to the story. The man acted shrewdly. He knew he needed help, or he would be lost. He knew well enough that the master would not be merciful, so he looked downward on the socio-economic ladder. He saw that his only hope rested with the ones he had previously viewed as powerless, ignorant, and objects of his greedy exploitation. What if it could all change? What if there were some different rules by which we could organize our world? So the manager went to his neighbors and cut what they owed. Maybe it was his own fee that he removed. Maybe he was unveiling the senseless exploitation in the system. Sure, he was still motivated by self-interest, but in any case, through his creative imagination, he operated according to different rules, and he found hope for himself and his community.

Right before the telling of this story in Luke’s Gospel is the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost or “prodigal” son. Could it not be a fair interpretation to call this the passage today the parable of the lost manager? One who was believed to be lost to greed—his own and that of the system to which he had committed his whole life—even he could be found.

Or maybe this story is preparing us to hear the story of Zacchaeus, just a few chapters later. You remember that “wee little man,” don’t you? He was the tax collector who was known to have consistently defrauded his neighbors. But when he changed his ways, gave to the poor, and repaid fourfold all whom he had cheated, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

So back to the manager: What a challenging parable it would have been if it meant that God was interested in finding and loving and saving people like an unjust manager. It’s as uncomfortable as the thought of loving our enemies. I’d understand why it would stick with people.

So now it’s your turn to work out what this parable means to you. You can let me know sometime, if you’d like, or just sit with it throughout this week. Are you like the land owner, knowingly or unknowingly supporting the rules of an unjust system even when they take advantage of others’ misfortune? Are you like the debtors, the unlikely and perhaps reluctant source of hope for someone in a crisis? Or are you like the manager, one who was lost but was found, one who was given the imagination to see his neighbors differently, to understand that their hope was bound up with his hope, and to seek a new way for life together.

However we hear the story, let us be reminded that God will not simply leave us to ourselves but is still working to turn the world upside-down, to challenge the assumed rules by which we live. Each of us, refreshed by God’s grace, has a part to play in this unfolding story.

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