Sunday, September 15, 2016

Pentecost 18C

Amos 8:4–7, Psalm 113, Luke 16:1–13




Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.


Two Sundays ago we wrestled with Jesus’ troubling teaching in Luke 14:26: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”


It does not get any easier this Sunday. We are supposed to try and make sense of Jesus commending a dishonest manager for acting shrewdly. Last week all our Associate Pastor had to do was talk about Jesus seeking and finding a cute little lost sheep.


Our gospel reading for today is surely the most confusing parable Jesus told. And it doesn’t help that it is focused on an issue people tend to be reluctant to discuss: how we handle our money.


For centuries Biblical scholars have had only marginal success seeking to bring clarity to this parable. Numerous questions have been raised about the exact nature of the manager’s dishonesty. To what extent did he overcharge the tenants? When he reduced their debt, was he stealing from the rich man or was he simply giving back his commission to the debtors? In “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” immediately preceding “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager,” we are told that the wayward son squandered his property in dissolute living. The same Greek term translated “squandering” is used to describe what the dishonest manager was doing with his property. Does “his” refer to the landlord’s property or to the dishonest manager’s property? We cannot be completely sure.


In studying “The Parables of Jesus” in seminary we were taught that parables tend to make one primary point. This parable has a series of main points tacked on to the end of it.


One, people outside the community of faith are more shrewd than those inside the community of faith.


Two, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth. Surely Jesus is not encouraging us to use dishonest means to acquire wealth so that we can use it to make friends— or is he?


Three, whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful in much.


Four, if you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?


And finally, no one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth.


These may all be good points, but we are still left wondering: what is the main point of this parable? As Professor Vööbus, who taught “The Parables of Jesus,” often said, we need a “more penetrating analysis.” In the midst of our confusion, what clarity can begin to emerge? What clarifying clues can we uncover? Perhaps a main point can emerge, even if we cannot get all our questions answered satisfactorily.


First of all, notice that the primary charge the debtors make against the manager is not that he has cheated them. They charge him with squandering his property. As mentioned above, like the prodigal son, he was using his wealth to engage in dissolute living— eating and drinking excessively, hiring prostitutes, gambling, buying expensive clothes, and the like. He was flashing around the wealth he had access to in front of the hard-working tenant farmers who had made it possible for him to enjoy a lavish lifestyle. It is understandable that they were resentful. We can surmise that these tenants were treated well by the landlord. The manager’s behavior did not reflect well on the landlord, and they were concerned for his reputation as well as for themselves.


The manager knew he was in trouble when the landlord summoned him. He fully anticipated he would be fired. So he shrewdly came up with a plan to salvage the situation. Before the tenants heard he had been fired, he summoned them one by one. We get a report on two of those transactions. He cut the debt of the first in half. He reduced the debt of a second by 20%. These were major reductions.


In our “Parables of Jesus” course Professor Vööbus made a convincing case that the manager was returning exorbitant commissions that he charged these tenants. It made no sense to Vööbus that the master would have commended the manager for stealing money from the master to reduce the tenants’ debt. According to Vööbus, the manager in his moment of crisis, when all seemed to be lost, came to his senses and discovered who these tenants really were— not objects to be exploited, but his friends on whom his future depended. He fully realized how interdependent he was with other people. The reference to being welcomed into the eternal homes also indicates that he discovered how important his relationship with God was. In addition, he discovered that his relationship with other people could not be separated from his relationship with God.[1]


Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are: You shall the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. That was another way of stressing how interdependent or interrelated we are with God and our neighbors.


Whether the manager was using his exorbitant commission or his master’s wealth, he was taking advantage of his position to support a lavish self-serving lifestyle. He was running up huge personal expenses and making a show of the wealth to which he had access.


The primary message of this parable may not be as confusing as it may first appear. Jesus taught a great deal about money and possessions. At least sixteen of the thirty-eight parables teach something about handling our wealth. At least 10 percent of the verses in the gospels focus on some aspect of our money and possessions. In “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager” Jesus stresses the importance of using our wealth to make friends. What could be more important than making friends and cultivating healthy relationships with God and our fellow human beings!


It is also true that Jesus and the Bible put special emphasis on making friends with those in the greatest need. The tenant farmers in our parable for today would not have been wealthy people. For God and Jesus it was unacceptable to take advantage of them. In our Old Testament lesson for today the prophet Amos, speaking on behalf of God, takes the rich to task for trampling on the needy and bringing to ruin the poor of the land. Amos makes clear that God is fed up with managers who “practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of wheat” (8:5–6). The Psalmist stresses that “[The Lord] raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap” (113:7).


Clearly God is a friend of the poor and needy and wants us to be the same. God wants us to use our wealth to make friends with them.


We live in one of the richest nations in the world. Questions of justice have been raised about why the wealthiest nations have what they have. The Parable of the Dishonest Manager does not directly address such justice questions. The main point is to use our wealth to make friends with those with whom we are interdependent, however we acquired our wealth. But make no mistake: it does not advocate continuing to acquire wealth unjustly or dishonestly. Jesus makes clear that the time is now to recognize the reality of our interdependence and to use our wealth accordingly.


In our time we are waking up to the reality of how interrelated we are with all God’s creatures. We are participants in an Earth community in which the well-being of all creatures, including human beings, is dependent on the well-being of all other creatures. Too many of us human beings have been squandering our wealth in dissolute, excessively consumptive, living; and the whole Earth community is paying the price, especially the least of these among us, both people and other creatures.


Now is the time to recognize, as the dishonest manager did, that we have lost our way. Now is the time to discover how interrelated we are with God and all members of the Earth community. Now is the time to use our wealth, however we have acquired it, to make friends with God, to make friends with our fellow human beings, and to make friends with our fellow creatures.


This fall during the A Home for All campaign we will be lifting up and reflecting on a number of stewardship principles to guide us in discerning how we are to use our money and possessions. The Parable of the Dishonest Manager teaches us that we would do well to focus on using our wealth to make friends. Making friends with God, our fellow human beings, and our fellow creatures is the way to the eternal home for all.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

[1] Arthur Vööbus, Lecture on Luke 16:1–9, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, November 28, 1981.