Sermon: What is Jesus saying? (We don’t know!)

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
18th of September 2022

 Luke 16:1-13
1 Timothy 2:1-7

Oh, dear. With last week’s parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin I suggested that we were back in our biblical comfort zone. But Jesus does like to keep us on our toes. No one has any idea what today’s parable, the parable of the dishonest steward, is about. The Church Fathers ignored it; renowned contemporary commentators have declared it to be incomprehensible; and people have suggested that the author of the Gospel according to Luke himself had no idea of its meaning, and so just added a series of morals to the end of the story in the hope that they would make sense of it. Last week I said that Jesus told parables to leave his hearers with something over which to puzzle, and with today’s story Jesus has more than succeeded.

The story starts with a rich man. Nothing in Luke’s gospel has led us to expect anything good from such a person, and next week we will hear the almost-too-comprehensible story of the rich man and Lazarus. But today’s rich man is not the protagonist of the parable. Instead, we hear about the rich man’s manager. The manager has apparently been squandering the rich man’s property. Incidentally, the same word, ‘squandering,’ is used for what the manager has done and what the younger son did in the parable Jesus had just told to the Pharisees and the scribes. Maybe the manager was also an example of ‘dissolute living’? (Luke 15:11-32) At any rate, he is now in trouble. Jesus’ world was one in which some ninety per cent of the population worked for a very tiny elite. A manager might temporarily live a life of luxury as he acted on behalf of his master, but once he had lost that role he would be back among the other peasants. And, as this manager says, ‘I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg’. If he does not figure something out fast, he may starve.

The manager has two things going for him. The first is that he has not yet been publicly dismissed. He has just been asked to give an account of his management. The second is that he lives in a world based on reciprocal obligation. If he helps people, they are obliged to respond in the same way. Taking advantage of the fact that he is still able to act on his master’s behalf, the manager calls his master’s debtors; asks them how much they owe; and reduces their debts. That the two debtors we hear of owe ‘a hundred jugs of olive oil’ and ‘a hundred containers of wheat’ suggests that these might be wealthy tenants, who have agreed to work the rich man’s land and pay him some of the produce. They are good friends for the manager to make. That the manager tells them to alter their bills ‘quickly’ suggests that he is trying to get this done before his changed position becomes known. As far as the debtors are concerned, he is still acting on behalf of the rich man, and so that rich man is showing himself to be remarkably generous. When the rich man comes to hear of the manager’s deeds, he won’t be able to repudiate them without losing face. The rich man will have to accept the reduction in the debts, together with his new reputation as a creditor of great generosity and honour. And the manager, who was the conduit for this generosity, will, hopefully, find himself welcome in the debtors’ homes.

Then comes the most difficult sentence in the whole parable: ‘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.’ Why on earth would the master commend the ‘dishonest manager’ for reducing the repayment he will get from his debtors? The word for ‘master’ is ‘kyrios’ and in this gospel Luke uses that as a title for Jesus. Maybe we’re meant to instead read this verse as: ‘The Lord (Jesus) commended the manager’. At the core of Jesus’ ministry was the forgiveness of debts, real and metaphoric. ‘Cancelling of debts’ could be a metaphor for the forgiveness of sins; perhaps it is in this parable, too, and the ‘children of this age’ are the same people that Jesus described in the previous three parables as the lost, while ‘the children of light’ are those who considered themselves righteous, the Pharisees and scribes who refused to forgive sins and cancel debts.

The trouble with that interpretation is that the parable does not read that way. It reads as though Jesus is using kyrios to describe the rich man, rather than Luke using it to refer to Jesus. So we are left with the problem of the rich man, who seemed to have been about to fire the manager because of his earlier dishonesty, praising him for his later duplicity. Why would he do that? Some biblical commentators argue that the manager was merely reducing overly oppressive and illegal interest, or the portion of the repayment of the debt that he himself would have skimmed off the top, and so his reductions were righteous. In the latter case, the rich man might commend the manager for proving himself prudently ready to forgo his own share in the interest to ensure a later welcome; in the former maybe the rich man has been convinced by the manager’s actions not to charge the interest forbidden by the Law, and so is pleased that the manager has led him back to the paths of righteousness. (Deuteronomy 23:19-20)

Another intriguing suggestion is that in reducing the debts owed to his master the manager was here not acting dishonestly at all. He was acting prudently and according to accepted custom by reducing debts that tenants were finding hard to repay, thus ensuring that good tenants continued to work the rich man’s land, and were even more committed to paying their debts when they could. In that case, while the manager was ‘dishonest’ in his initial squandering of his master’s property, he has shown himself to be both shrewd and honest in reducing the debts of his master’s tenants, and this is the example of ‘being faithful with what belongs to another’ that Jesus then tells his disciples to follow.

Perhaps we are to compare this story with the tale from earlier in the gospel of the rich fool? Both the manager and the rich fool ask themselves ‘what shall I do?’ at significant points in the story. The rich fool, overwhelmed by the abundance of his crop, pulls down his barns and builds larger ones in which to store it. But that very night he dies and is unable to enjoy his wealth. Jesus ended that parable with, ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God’. (Luke 12:13-21) The rich fool would have been seen to have acted wisely and the unjust manager foolishly, but that is not how the parables end. Is the unjust manager being praised for scattering wealth rather than storing it up, in imitation of the God who provides food for the birds even though they neither sow nor reap, and who clothes the grasses of the field in glory?

Maybe the series of sayings at the end of this parable is to remind us that all wealth is ‘dishonest,’ in the sense that nothing we have really belongs to us. In that case, when Jesus says, ‘make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes,’ it might be a repetition of what he told his disciples earlier: ‘Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven’. (Luke 12:33) The treasure that we have been given on earth, ‘dishonest wealth’ that it is, should be scattered widely as alms, and thus we will show ourselves faithful in the ‘true riches’. By almsgiving, we will show that we are serving God rather than mammon.

As you can see by this list of possible interpretations, we do not know what Jesus means his disciples to learn from this parable. And because that is the case, we have more freedom than we usually have to decide its meaning for ourselves. So this is the interpretation that I prefer. It does not focus on the actions of the manager, but on those of the rich man, and it reads this parable in the context of the three that precede it, and particularly in the context of the parable about the two lost sons and their prodigal father.

We can read the kyrios, the rich man, as being an avatar of God, like the father in the previous parable. In that parable the son repented his squandering, and returned to his father, only to find that he had already been forgiven and did not even need to verbalise his apology. In today’s parable, the dishonest manager does not repent, in fact goes on to be even more dishonest, and yet is praised by his employer and even allowed to keep his job. Here we see again God’s acceptance of the lost, even the lost who don’t repent, don’t return and apologise, continue their dishonesty.

In today’s reading from the First Letter to Timothy we are reminded of the universality of God’s love. The author tells the readers to pray for everyone, even the kings and those in high positions currently persecuting the community, because God desires everyone to be saved. In fact, everyone has already been saved, because Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all. This was why Paul was able to be an apostle to the Gentiles; God’s salvation had reached even them. If God’s love is so incredibly inclusive, and Christ’s mediation is for all humanity and not just for a select few, then maybe it is not so beyond the realms of possibility that a kyrios who represents God will allow a dishonest employee to keep their job.

As I said at the beginning of this Reflection, we have no idea what Jesus intends us to take from this parable. Every three years the Lectionary brings it to my attention, and after fifteen years in ministry I am no wiser than I was the first time I read it. The only difference is that now I am happy to share my complete ignorance with congregations. But as I also said at the beginning of today’s Reflection, Jesus told parables to give us something to chew on. So, let us do what Jesus’ first hearers would have done and ponder today’s story as we head home, wondering what on earth the Lord might have meant by it. Amen.

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