A Sermon Preached 22 September, 2019, at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, Diocese of Toronto
Readings for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
“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.” (Luke 16:8)
Imagine that you are at a diocesan or church conference, and a motivational speak tells you the story of a parish that really turned itself around.
There was a church warden, and things had gone poorly because the parish whose finances had been badly managed. And the priest said to the warden, “What have you done? The Diocese is going to close us down because things are so bad, and we could both go to jail.” So the warden spoke to a business that the parish owed a lot of money to, and said, “We’re broke and I can’t pay you, but if you rip up your invoice I’ll give you a receipt for a tax deduction for the same value” and they did. Then the warden went to three different families and said, “that money that you were going to leave the church in your wills, give it to us now and we’ll rename the church after you when you die”. And then the warden closed the parish daycare, which was losing money, and bribed a friend at city hall to give him a license to reopen the space as an after hours dance club. And the church books looked great, so the priest was happy, and the Diocese was so impressed that it hired the warden to run all of its business affairs.
And the moral of the story is …. ?? Yes, right. That’s the problem, isn’t it. My story isn’t really conducive to any morally improving conclusion. If it had actually happened, the people involved would be in court, and for good reason.
Which is why today’s gospel reading, known as the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, is in its own way as problematic as the silly story I just told you.
In the parable, a master tells a servant. who is probably a slave, that he will be fired for his poor management of the master’s goods, but first, he demands a financial statement. The manager turns to his master’s debtors for help, thinking that if he can help them reduce their debts, then they will be grateful and give him a soft landing when he is fired. The master learns of the scheme, and praises his manager because is so cunning. We don’t learn what happens to the manager, but presumably he keeps his job.
The problem with the parable, as many preachers have noted, is that Jesus doesn’t explicitly condemn the dishonest manager. In the second half of verse 8, when the parable seems to end and Jesus makes his first comment on the story, he says “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light” (Lk 16:8b).
The phrase “children of light” seems to apply to Jesus’ followers, to us, and is contrasted with “children of this age”, who appear to be the dishonest manager and those like him, people who want wealth and comfort most of all. But in verse 9, Jesus seems to tell us to be like the dishonest manager and make friends “by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (16:9). In this verse “eternal homes” (the Greek word for home is tabernacle, which has a sacred meaning) seems to speak of heaven or the afterlife, in which case, we are left to wonder, how does “dishonest wealth” get us into heaven?
The parable does not offer an easy interpretation. In the early days of the church it was considered a bit of a scandal, and some pagan writers would point to it and say how could you take a religion seriously if it has such a story in its scriptures? Biblical scholars have struggled to interpret it, and preachers like me grimace when it shows up in the Sunday readings, because it’s hard to know exactly what Jesus is getting at.
If we break it down into its core concepts, there are three aspects of the parable that seem important. First is the manager’s cunning, which is the trait that gets him off the hook with his master. Second is wealth, which Jesus stresses in his teaching after the parable. Third is the role of the manager as someone who is charged with looking after things that don’t belong to them.
So cunning first. We’re told that “his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly”. This could mean that one rascal admires another rascal, but the word “shrewd” can also mean a person with good judgement, someone who is astute. Those are good qualities in a financial adviser or a banker, for example. Is Jesus telling us to be shrewd, sort of like in Matthew where he tells the disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16)?
However, if we look at some of the other parables in this part of Luke’s gospel, there is nothing that a shrewd financial adviser would admire. Consider the three parables in Luke 15 that come just before our gospel readying today. A shepherd abandons 99 valuable sheep in the wilderness and goes off to find the lost sheep (Lk 15:1-7). A woman searches for a lost coin, and when she finds it, invites her friends and neighbours to a celebration that costs more than the coin is worth (Lk 15:8-10). A father throws a lavish party for a son who has squandered half of his net worth (Lk 15:11-32).
Whenever Jesus talks about money, he doesn’t follow the rules of shrewdness and cunning that we would want our own wealth managers to give away. People with money tend to happily give it away, or like he parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew, they get the same wage regardless of how long they’ve worked (Mt 20). The laws of capitalism don’t seem to apply to the kingdom of heaven.
Furthermore, people who want to hang on to their money don’t fare well in the gospels. You can’t take it with you is one of Jesus’ core teachings (Mt 16:19-21). In today’s gospel reading, Jesus twice refers t wealth as “dishonest”, and concludes by saying that it is impossible to serve God and wealth. This teaching irritates Jesus enemies, the Pharisees, who Luke tells us were “lovers of money” (Lk 16:14), so Jesus tells another story, the parable of Dives and Lazarus, where a rich man is tormented in the afterlife while the poor man at his gate is taken to heaven (Lk 16:19-31).
It’s fair to say that Jesus regards the pursuit of money and wealth with suspicion. Acquiring money for it’s own sake is “dishonest wealth”, and is not something that his followers, the “children of light”, should pursue.
And this is where the role of the manager needs to be considered, because a manager, or steward, is someone who looks after someone else’s property. Today, when we talk about giving to the church and its work, we talk about it as stewardship. The fundamental idea here is that what we have, our wealth and possessions, even (and especially) the world we live in, is given to us for a time by God but is not really ours. This idea flows out of the doctrine of creation, the idea that God made the world for us to use for our time here.
In a society where we praise rich people as “wealth creators”, the idea that wealth is given to us by a creator God is outlandish and foolish, but so is much of the church’s teaching. The very first Christians took this idea to heart (44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Acts 2) and made it part of their way of life. Today the practice of tithing, of giving a fixed percentage of our wealth to the church, reflects this idea that we are stewards of what God gives us.
We give to the church so that the church may share God’s love and grace with the world. That’s the only reason we’re here. Yes, we pay salaries and bills and keep the light and heat on, but those are necessary things to the church’s mission. The church exists to love as God loves, generously, without hope of return, for all who want it. We call this love grace, and graces spends its wealth freely.
If there is anything that the parable of the dishonest manager shows, it is, curiously, grace. At the end of the story, the master’s debtors have their debts reduced. They did nothing to deserve these discounts, they just got them. Likewise, at the end of the story the manager keeps his job. The master recognizes that his manager is a rascal, but forgives him. And Jesus seems to imply, if worldly people (the children of this age) can be so forgiving, then how much more forgiving can God be?
The story of he dishonest manager resists easy interpretation, and may even be, in some people’s eyes, a scandal to the gospel. But if anything about the gospel is scandalous, surely it is the scandal of grace, about a God who does not pay and punish as we deserve, but who gives freely and forgives freely. If we want the rascally manager to be punished, and are disappointed, then what other disappointments might we expect from a saviour who parties with tax collectors and sinners, who kills the fatted calf for the prodigal son, and who makes the thief on the cross beside him welcome into paradise?