A sermon, based on Luke 16.1-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 22, 2019
Jesus said: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
Reflecting on this Parable of the Dishonest Manager, I wonder. Did Jesus have an off-day; beginning with a good idea, but losing his train of thought? Or did Luke misremember and misquote what Jesus said?
A manager, soon to be fired, reduces the bills of his master’s debtors, hoping that they, in gratitude, will care for him when he is out on the street. That, to me, makes – even if sinful! – sense.
The master, confronting the manager, rather than condemning his perfidy commends his prudence! That, to me, makes little sense; save for the possibility that the master, despite his anger, begrudgingly admires the manager’s creative self-interest!
Sense or nonsense, I bid we take Jesus’ parable seriously for one reason with two points.
One. It’s about our possessions. Save for the kingdom of God, Jesus talked about this more than anything else.
Two. It’s about our possessions. Jesus talked about this almost more than anything else because what we do with them is not only a material, but also a spiritual matter.
Therefore, it’s about stewardship. Our honest-to-God use of our lives, whatever the quality and our wealth, whatever the quantity. For what we do with our lives and wealth reveals the depth of our belief (aye, whether we believe!) in God as the Giver of life, “our daily bread” to sustain life, and eternal life. What we do with our lives and wealth also reveals the breadth of our worldview, whether of abundance, trusting that as we give of ourselves and our substance, we receive or of scarcity, harboring, hoarding our resources to care for ourselves.
Now, letting you in on a bit of a biblical “secret,” there is a “back story” that may make some sense of the master’s appreciation of the manager’s deception…
In the ancient eastern Mediterranean world, managers were not mere servants, but agents who, in conducting the master’s business, charged commissions. So, in rewriting the bills, the manager eliminated his percentage and, yes, the master’s profit, yet leaving the master to be repaid the original amount of the debt; no more, no less.
Nevertheless, the manager will be fired. And Jesus told this parable to his disciples, then and now, about our possessions to warn us of the possibility of being fired. Not from our jobs, but from life.
I don’t mean physical death, though that will happen to all of us, but rather spiritual death. The death of living outside of God’s will. The death of not acknowledging and acting in accord with this cardinal characteristic of life as God creates it: There is nothing we “possess” that we have provided by ourselves for ourselves.
To a greater or lesser degree, someone, something, or both has placed everything in our hands. Even, in worldly, human terms, when we claim that what we possess has been won largely by the creativity of our thinking, the sweat of our brow, the might of our hands, the intensity of our commitment, the force of our will, there remain causative factors beyond our control or command…
The good fortune of circumstance…
Genetic predispositions for strength, endurance, mental acuity…
Therefore, no one can say, dare say, “I alone hath wrought this!”
When we remember that we alone did not, cannot provide all we possess, then one of all possible responses to this immutable reality is prudence. We are to be honest-to-God wise in the use of our possessions.
And here’s the rub. Jesus is no casuistic rule-maker with tidy definitions and universally applicable instructions about prudence for each and every possible circumstance. He does clarify three things:
One, life in this world is a terminal gift.
Two, we are to be wise in our living.
Three, each of us has to figure out what that means.
Illustrations: Parable of the Dishonest Steward, part 1 and part 2, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)