Pentecost 17 Proper 20C September 18. 2010 Luke 16:1-13 The Rev. Benton Quest
This gospel reading is one that I always dread preaching about. One commentator likened it to a holiday that only comes once every three years. But probably, it would be an un-holiday. I really don’t want to have to preach on this reading, but when I try to talk myself into preaching on one of the other readings; I start to call myself a chicken. So, without further ado, I am going to jump into it and see what happens!
So what is so horrible about the gospel reading? Well, it doesn’t make sense! And on top of it, no one, even the most learned of the scholars, seem to be able to figure out exactly what is going on.
If we look at the reading, it sounds as if Jesus is telling us to not only cheat people and is telling us that there is even a reward for those who DO cheat. If cheating is rewarded, then I want to work for the IRS or maybe I should begin selling used cars! Actually, my apologies to any IRS agents out there or used car salespeople. And also, if there are any IRS agents, my name is actually Barak Obama; Pastor Benton is just my pulpit name.
But all kidding aside; how are we to deal with this reading? It sounds totally unchristian. Actually, it is even worse than that, it sounds totally non-biblical. It goes against the eighth commandment! We are not supposed to steal, and yet, this dishonest manager is stealing from his boss. The manager has been stealing from his boss for a while! And in the face of all this stealing, the manager is commended.
Some commentators have suggested that the manager was actually only cutting his commission off of the amounts owed. That sounds plausible. But in the case one of the debtors, that would equal a 100% commission for the manager! And we are not talking about small amounts of stuff here. We are talking about something like 900 gallons of olive oil and bushels and bushels of wheat! No, this theory doesn’t hold up.
Some have suggested that the manager is taking off the interest that the man had added to the amount borrowed. In removing the interest, the manager was keeping the landowner honest. That could be seen as an honorable thing! But again we are faced with the amounts that are involved and by the seemingly arbitrary way the manager reduces the amounts. For one debtor the amount is reduced 50% and for another it is only reduced 20%. No, this just seems to be a random cut. I don’t think we can get away from the fact that the manager is still squandering the landowner’s money.
And when the landowner sees what the manager has done, well, we would expect him to get upset at the manager, wouldn’t we? Instead, the landowner commends the dishonest manager! Now notice here, it is Jesus that calls the manager dishonest; the landowne refers to the manager as being shrewd. Then Jesus says that the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And that we are to make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when the money is gone, our friends may welcome us into the eternal homes.
No matter how you look at it, this is weird!
I have read one commentator who attacks this problem head on. He says that we should look at the wealth of our time as dishonest wealth. Now we are not just talking about the wealth of today, September 19, 2010, we are talking about wealth from anytime in our history. The wealth of this world is earned by means that are decried by Amos in the first reading. This world’s wealth is acquired by trampling on the needy and bringing ruin to the poor. So since we cannot acquire wealth in any other way than in dishonest ways, we need to be shrewd about how we use this wealth.
Jesus tells us that we need to make friends for ourselves with this dishonest wealth. Now we could say, “Fine, I’ll just give my wealth to my rich friends and they will give their wealth to me. That way I will have my friends and these will be the ‘right’ kind of people!” And granted, that would seem to make life easier, but Jesus will never let us get off the hook that easily.
Remember a few weeks ago? In the past we were talking about what it means to give and what it means to be part of the kingdom. We discussed what proper hospitality looked like and how to be a proper guest. Jesus said that we were to invite people to eat who could not repay our hospitality. We were supposed to give to those in need. And a while back, we discussed gifts given by God. We were told that we received gifts and talents for the good of the whole community; that we are to give of our gifts and talents for the building up of the kingdom. So in teaching us to make friends with our dishonest wealth, we are actually being told to share what we have with those around us, especially with those who are needy.
Now you may be saying, “Benton, make up your mind! You just told us that the manager in the story was dealing with large amounts of wheat and oil. These were obviously rich people! Well, actually, they were not rich people. They were so in debt to the land owner that they could NOT pay back the money. And even if that were the case, even if the manager were dealing with rich people, we need to remember the point of the parable.
You see, the thing to remember is that Jesus is telling us a parable; Jesus is not telling us an allegory. In a parable there is one main point. In an allegory each object represents something else. The story of the dishonest manager is a parable so there is one point that we are to take away. Jesus tells us this point: Use dishonest wealth to make friends. And as I said, previous to this, Jesus has taught us what it means to be a friend; what it means to be a neighbor.
As Christians, we are called to follow the teachings and examples of Christ. This is a tough one! Remember, Christ gave it all, his reputation, his body, his life, so that we may live. He gave these gifts to us while we were still sinners. He gave these gifts to us even though he knew we wouldn’t appreciate them. He gave these gifts to us, even when we didn’t deserve them. This is the type of life we are to follow. We are to give even when we know we will not be repaid. We are to listen, even when we don’t agree. We are to love, even when the other is unlovable. We are to do all of this because Christ loves us and we are to do this because Christ love is given to us and also because Christ’s love is given that other person.
How do we, as individuals and as a congregation, show love to the world? How do we reach out and ease the burden on our neighbors? How do we spread the love of Christ beyond our walls? That is the challenge that is placed before us.
In our world today, we are asked to listen, to love and to forgive. We are to listen to the voice of the poor and the suffering. We are to love those who hate us and wish to hurt us. We are to forgive those who would cause us harm. This is the way we can make friends in this world that will invite us into the eternal homes. This is the way we bring Christ, not only into our own homes, but into the world.