The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

Luke 16:1-13

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.
I wonder how many readers and listeners would cite this bit of scripture as their favorite? Very few, I suspect. Luke 16.1-13, our gospel reading today, is at first sight both complicated and confusing. It is not only difficult to understand, but when we think we do understand it, we don’t think we like it very much.

It is disturbing to me that Jesus would commend such a scoundrel as an example to be followed.

In fact, it has been historically disturbing.
In some of the commentaries I read concerning this passage, it was disturbing enough to those writers to suggest that maybe Jesus didn’t tell this story at all, but that instead it was an addition made by Luke or a later writer.
The apostate emperor Julian used the parable as a defense against Christianity: he said, “Of course, Jesus told the parable and, of course, it proved Jesus as not only a mere man, but hardly a worthy one.”

A score of other theories have been offered to defend or condemn the parable, but suffice to say it is not listed as among Jesus’ most popular and favorite stories.

But the parable is here. Jesus probably did tell it—the early church certainly believed that—so, disturbing as it seems, perhaps, we should look a little deeper into what Jesus is really trying to teach us, with this story.

A rich man goes away and leaves all his affairs in the hands of his property manager. The manager is not very good at managing, it seems, and squanders away a good deal of his master’s holdings. How, we aren’t told. Perhaps by making merry with friends and footing the bill for all of it; perhaps he made some bad investments in the stock market; maybe he was just lazy and neglected the master’s properties until much of it simply wasted away.

In any case, when the master returned, the holiday was over—for both of them. After receiving reports of the manager’s misdeeds, the angry master demands to see the books and the damage done, and informs the manager that his managing days are over.

Suddenly, faced with prospect of being kicked out on the street, the thoughtless manager becomes very thoughtful indeed…for himself. “What will I do?” He asked himself. “I am not strong enough to work. I’m too proud to beg. I’d better figure out a way to endear myself to others while I still have the master’s resources to do so. If I can do favors for others, now, and make them indebted to me now, with the advantage of my master’s wealth, then when I am down and out, and on the street, they, in turn, will have to be kind and caring toward me.” A series of quid pro quos using someone else’s “quid”! And so he does this: he takes the master’s books and calls in all his master’s debtors. “You owe 80? Give me 40 today and we’ll call it even.” “You owe a hundred? Quick, take your bill and make it for 70 and that’s what I’ll write on your account.…But, this is just between you and me, right?….Oh, don’t mention it. We’ll think of something you can do for me later.” And so it goes, until the manager has achieved his purpose.

Of course, all this gets back to his master, so when the dishonest manager turns in the cooked books, surprisingly, he isn’t arrested or reprimanded, but instead he is complimented and commended. Who knows? Maybe he’s even reinstated to his position, for acting “shrewdly.”

And Jesus commentary on the parable seems just as whacky and troubling. “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes.”

So, two questions: Why did Jesus tell this parable in the first place, and why does he seem to be offering up this dishonest manager’s actions as an example to his followers?

Well, to answer the second question first, He isn’t. For that matter, neither is the manager’s master (who, by the way, isn’t Jesus, or God). Most of Jesus’ teaching was through parables not allegories, where the characters in the story represent other people. The meaning of the parable isn’t about who the characters are, but about the point of the story, the truth it teaches, and to make that one truth of the story clear. Some parables are example stories – like the Good Samaritan or The Pharisee and the Tax Collector – that commend a certain type of behavior. But the parable of the Dishonest Manager belongs to a different category. There is nothing edifying about it. The manager’s conduct was characterized in the beginning by incompetence, and in the end by flagrant dishonesty.

And while Jesus’ first comment after the parable may be saying, “If only my disciples acted with such foresight and focus. If only the children of light would do as much out of nobler motives, in this parable we are called to look, not at the manager’s carelessness or dishonesty, but to consider his subsequent actions—his ultimate motive. Bad behavior put him in a bad place. But that done, he considered the reality of his position and he faced the facts. He didn’t pity or deceive himself. He sized up the situation in cold logic, and acted in a way – with zeal – that served his purposes and his goals.

Thus Jesus’ lament (or what I think he is saying): “Oh, that the children of light should be so focused on the purposes and the goals of the kingdom.”

Jesus does not commend the manager’s dishonesty as an example to be followed, but he is calling his disciples to be just as zealous, and just as persistent, and just as single-mindedly focused on the kingdom of God and its righteousness, as the manager and, more precisely, as the children of the world – “the children of this age” – are focused on building for the benefit of their earthly kingdoms and personal welfare.

But Jesus has more to say in making, and finally driving home, his point concerning this parable. “Whoever is faithful in a little is also faithful in much, and whoever is dishonest in little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches? No one can serve two masters, for you will love one and hate the other. You will be devoted to one and despise the other.”

We make our homes, our eternal homes, with God or with the world, meaning that we choose one or the other finally and completely, and for ever. You can’t say, “I love God, but I am placing my allegiance with the world. My faith is really in my possessions and what the world says matters most. I have to take care of me and mine first—make sure I am comfortable with all that I have and all that the world says I need and must be; then I’ll seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness. Then I’ll work toward being all that God wants me to be and do, and about what matters most to God.”
Because you won’t.

Because you can’t have two masters. You’ll love one and not the other. Be devoted to one and not the other.

And so, like in so many of Jesus’ parables, we are given a choice of which direction we would go. Will we follow God, and seek God’s kingdom and its righteousness? Will we be children of light seeking eternal habitation with God? Or will we be children of this age, who seek treasures for themselves and the eternal habitations of this world, which are not eternal at all, but which rust and wear out and crumble and waste away.

We own nothing. We are all stewards, not owners. That’s why the word “my” on anyone’s lips is false, and that fact has tormented and grieved humankind’s selfishness from the beginning. For in the end, we keep nothing, except the choices we make.

Jesus’ parable tells of what is commendable to the world— Shrewdness and care for one’s self—juxtaposed to what is important in the kingdom of God—faithfulness and devotion to the Lord. What matters to the children of the world, and what should matter to the children of light.

Once, when John D. Rockefeller was asked, ‘how much is enough?’ He responded by saying, “Just a little more.”

You really can’t take it with you. You really do have to choose, today, what is important. What or whom you will serve.

That is the point of Jesus’ parable: Do you choose the peace and security that the world gives, or do you choose the peace and security that only God can give? And that choice will decide where your eternal allegiance – your ultimate and forever devotion – lies.

You cannot serve God and the world. For you will love one and not the other. You will be devoted to one and not the other. You can only have one God. Only one way can rule your life.

Choose wisely, and hopefully, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.