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09.22.19 Luke 16.1-13 Paying it Forward Sermon Summary

by on September 23, 2019

The New Testament scholar Charles Cousar said this passage is, “one of the great exegetical mountains.” In other words, getting the meaning out of this passage is exceptionally difficult.

I propose that we begin with the end in mind. In the Gospel of Luke, the overarching point of this passage is verse 13: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

How do we know this is the overarching meaning? Because of verse 14: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” Clearly Luke has placed this comment of Jesus as the link between the parable and what follows.

To put it most simply, this is a passage about financial stewardship. It follows the “Lost Chapter” containing the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. The final parable introduces us to the younger son who hates his father but loves his father’s wealth.

Shortly after in the gospel we read the parable of the rich man who didn’t care for poor Lazarus who begged to death at the rich man’s gate. So in context we can confidently assert that today’s parable about financial stewardship.

After all, Luke presents Jesus as saying, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” (verses 10-12)

The challenge for the reader and even more the preacher comes in the parable of the dishonest manager which leads us to the issue of financial stewardship. The first challenge is the complexity of the manager.

We’re told that he “squanders money.” But the question immediately arises, whose money is the manager squandering? The text as we have it is ambiguous. Is it the master’s money or the manager’s money that is being squandered?

Think about it. If your physical trainer was terribly out of shape, if your financial planner was terrible with her personal finances, would you entrust this person with your own training or finances?

The manager in the parable is of questionable character. He appears unwilling to find a suitable laboring job: “I am unable to dig.” He is prideful: “I am too ashamed to beg.” Ultimately the parable says outright that he is “dishonest,” a better translation of which is that he is “unrighteous.” Here is a person whose relationships are not right.

And yet, at the conclusion of the parable, the master praises the manager for acting “shrewdly” which we might best understand as “prudent” or “wise.” And even more, Jesus himself praises the manager by urging his followers, “You also should make friends with unrighteous wealth,” and with the admonition, “The children of this age are wiser than you.”

Some have tried to redeem the manager. It has been suggested that in decreasing the amount owed to the master, the manager cut his own commission. This may make sense in the cutting of 100 containers of wheat to 80. But how much commission was this manager making where the cut was from 100 jugs of oil to 50?!

Others have suggested that the manager was cutting the interest charged on the loan. This would be in accordance with the commandment that no Israelite should charge interest to a fellow Israelite. (Deuteronomy 29:13) In cutting the interest, the manager is seen to be critiquing an exploitative economic system.

Maybe it was some combination of the two. But maybe we should just take Jesus at his word, however uncomfortable it makes us, and recognize that the manager is simply self-serving and dishonest. But also shrewd!

Here’s another complication. The manager is concerned about where he might find his “home” once he is fired. When Jesus returns to the topic he speaks not of “homes” but of “eternal tents.” Clearly this is an intentional change on the part of Jesus or of Luke. But what exactly is an “eternal tent”? Don’t we all know that tents represent temporary housing, not eternal?

More: What does it mean to be faithful and honest with dishonest wealth? And what are “true riches” verses “dishonest wealth”?

In order to move toward some answers, I think it’s helpful to remember that in ancient societies there was no middle class. There were those with power, connections, and wealth; and those without. That was all.

So without the rich master this manager is homeless. He is in a desperate situation and he knows it. So he thinks about it, acts with urgency, and makes friends—even though he is self-serving, prideful, and dishonest.

And THIS is commendable: He is deliberate, urgent, and makes friends. We also are to be deliberate, urgent, and friend-making—even with “dishonest wealth.”

With whom shall we, the children of light, make friends? Or to put it another way, who is in a position to welcome us into “eternal tents”?

In Luke and according to Jesus, it is the poor, lame, crippled, and blind. Luke pays particular attention to these outcast, marginalized persons. When we use earthly wealth to make friends with them they reveal God’s presence to us, and we enter the eternal tent right here on earth.

In this we discover true riches, when we take care of the needy. If we are faithful in the small amount of dishonest wealth, God will give us a large amount of true riches in eternal tents. For we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve God and wealth.

One last thing. Think you can’t do this? Think your management of wealth has been too dishonest? Remember this: Jesus found something good in the manager. And God sees something good in you. Your life can be redeemed. Let Jesus show you how at his Table.

When Jesus looks at you he sees the potential of a good manager, of a good steward. And just as he took the bread and the cup and saw the potential of grace through the sacrifice of his body and blood, so let Jesus take you and all you have into his hands, and make of your life a sacrament of grace.

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