Luke 16:1ff -- The Parable of the (so-called) Dishonest Manager
2007-09-17 by Tom Long
Philosophers, it is said, are people who kick up dust and then complain because they can't see. Well, biblical scholars have kicked up a lot of dust on this strange parable, with the result that it is often hard to envision what might be salvaged from it homiletically. But I think it's worth another look.
First the problems. Difficulties abound in this text, I suppose, but the big obstacles boil down to two:
1. Jesus' story, with its questionable hero, and his subsequent statement, "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth," seem morally indefensible, conjuring up the picture of Christians leveraging laundered drug money and the proceeds from Nevada brothels to win friends.
2. Like "Wayne's World" and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," this parable seems to have multiple and competing endings and applications. Is the "lesson" of the parable that God's people ought to act as shrewdly as worldly people (v. 8), or is it that disciples ought to make friends for themselves with dishonest wealth (v. 9), or is it that you cannot serve two masters -- God and wealth (vv.10-13)? New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd once famously quipped that it looks like Luke simply jotted down notes for three different sermons on Jesus' story.
The dust settles a bit, I think, when we think about this story not as an isolated unit but as a moment in the sweep of Luke's Gospel and as an intrinsic part of Luke's theology, especially his theology of money. Here's some background: Luke, like Paul, believed that we are currently living in "the present age," that is, in an unrighteous world that is passing away and which will be replaced by "the world to come," by God's new creation. The crisis of the gospel is that, in Jesus Christ, the new creation has made a sudden appearance in the middle of history and before the present age has passed away, thus generating a collision of worlds. To encounter Jesus is to be confronted with a decision: Am I going to cling to the present age or am I going sit down at table with Jesus in the new creation. The Rich Ruler decides it one way; Zacchaeus chooses the other.
So how does this affect Luke's view of money? All money, in Luke's view, belongs to this age and stands in contrast to the "unfailing treasure in heaven." The money in our wallets and bank accounts is like Confederate bonds in 1863 -- still negotiable, but it is the currency of a doomed sovereignty and it has a limited shelf life. The humorist Calvin Trillin was once amused to see an investment company named "Omni Capital Worldwide," which Trillin took to mean "all the money everywhere." Just so, Luke does not divide money into "good" and "bad," "honest" and "dishonest" money. "All the money everywhere" is the temporary cash flow of the doomed present age, and when the new creation dawns, the material possessions of this age will be like luggage on the Titanic ("You fool. This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? -- Luke 12:20). The phrase "dishonest wealth" in our text is actually a bad translation. It should actually be "the wealth of unrighteousness," better yet, "the money of this present and unrighteous age," or even better, "all the money everywhere."
Now, against this theological background, the pieces of our parable begin, I think, to fall in place. The main character in the parable is described as a "dishonest manager" (v. 8), but a better translation is "the manager of unrighteousness." In other words, it's not the manager who is unrighteous; it's the stuff he manages. He's a money manager; he's an administrator of material possession, a steward of worldly possessions. In short, he is like all of us, trying to decide how to manage what we possess, and what renders him morally good or bad is how he conducts his managerial responsibilities.
We all live in this world; we all live in the present age. Not even ascetic monks can get utterly free of material possessions. The moral question is, what do we do with our money and possessions? How do we manage this "unrighteousness"? At the beginning of the parable, the manager is not doing too well at the job. He is described as "squandering" property (v. 1), which is, by the way, the same Greek word used to describe the Prodigal Son in the previous chapter (15:13).
But then the crisis happens. His squandering ways are exposed, and his world is about to come to an end. Now what? The manager takes a dramatic new action. He uses his power and the power of money to ingratiate himself to his boss's creditors so that when he loses his job "people may welcome me into their homes."
Pretty smart! Indeed, Jesus says, "I wish the children of light were that smart," by which he means that if the people of God were as shrewd as that manager, they too, would use their money and power and possessions ("the wealth of the unrighteous age") to make friends who "may welcome you into the eternal homes."
And who are these friends? Jesus has already told us, in Luke 14, who these friends are:
"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (14:12-14)
In sum, then, the theological thrust of this parable is that the arrival of the reign of God in Jesus has exposed the mismanagment of all of us in this present age. We have been clinging to money and possessions as if these were the keys to life. We have stored up goods for ourselves and found our identities in the cosmetic trappings of the culture. In short, we have been squanderers. What to do, now that we have been found out and now that we know that our present world will pass away? What the parable calls us to do is to invest in that which is eternal, which is not an invitation to sentimental piety but a chance to practice economic justice, to use our possession to make kingdom friends. Because one day, the doors of the heavenly banquet will open up before us and there, in the seats of honor around Jesus, will be the wretched of the earth "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind," and when they see us coming, the words we hope to hear are, "Welcome to the feast, friend, welcome to the feast."
A Blog Response from Walter Brueggemann with Relevance to the Readings for Sept. 16
2007-09-14 by David von Schlichten
Last week, Walter Brueggemann was our guest blogger. A reader submitted a question to him. Both the question and response are below. (I added some boldface for emphasis.)
The conversation is germane to our readings for Sunday, which stress that God's mercy extends to all, even the ones our society labels as outcasts. Therefore, we are to do likewise.
Also, if you scroll down, you will find a sample sermon and a sermon outline. You will also find blogs by Holly Hearon. All of these entries pertain to the readings for this Sunday, September 16.
QUESTION AND RESPONSE
Dear Mr. Brueggemann:
I was struck by this interview that was on Canada AM some of which is printed below. I could not help but think of the Jeremiah 18:1-18 and the potter’s story. In fact it really shook me up. It shook me up because it made me more aware of the evil in our world. We have the potter (God) molding us and we have a few think tanks using and manipulating people in need to satisfy their bank accounts or politics. What do you think? Thank you.
Rev. Catherine Bromell United Church of Canada
CANADA AM – SEPTEMBER 4, 2007 – NAOMI KLEIN – THE SHOCK DOCTRINE
Disaster capitalism. How do natural disasters—like Hurricane Katrina—play into the economy? The answer might shock you. Author Naomi Klein joins us with her theory... and her new book – “The Shock Doctrine.”
The bestselling author of No Logo shows how the global free market has exploited crises and shock for three decades, from Chile to Iraq.
In her groundbreaking reporting over the past few years, Naomi Klein introduced the term disaster capitalism. Whether covering Baghdad after the U.S. occupation, Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami, or New Orleans post-Katrina, she witnessed something remarkably similar. People still reeling from catastrophe were being hit again, this time with economic shock treatment, losing their land and homes to rapid-fire corporate makeovers. The Shock Doctrine retells the story of the most dominant ideology of our time, Milton Friedman’s free market economic revolution. In contrast to the popular myth of this movement’s peaceful global victory, Klein shows how it has exploited moments of shock and extreme violence in order to implement its economic policies in so many parts of the world from Latin America and Eastern Europe to South Africa, Russia, and Iraq.
At the core of disaster capitalism is the use of cataclysmic events to advance radical privatization combined with the privatization of the disaster response itself. Klein argues that by capitalizing on crises, created by nature or war, the disaster capitalism complex now exists as a booming new economy, and is the violent culmination of a radical economic project that has been incubating for fifty years.
I am much interested in the piece on Klein. This makes perfect sense to me. I believe that the ideology of corporate capitalism, supported by the military, is a totalizing view of the world that sweeps all before it. In this regard it is not unlike that of Israel’s Egypt or Rome in the NT period, but perhaps more lethal. The issue for us is whether in the face of that totalism, the church can articulate an alternative that gives people space in which to imagine and act freely. Privatization is a code word for building barriers between resources and neighbors. This is the matrix for our evangelical work!!!
Sermon on Luke 15 for Sept. 16
2007-09-14 by David von Schlichten
The sermon is significantly different from the sermon outline I posted yesterday. Scroll down to read the outline.
The Good Lord is Trying to Tell Us Something
(word count: 865)
text: Luke 15:1-10
main point: Our calling is to focus on, not wrath, but compassionate love, a calling that has stunning implications for how we respond to outcasts and how we regard ourselves.
Have you noticed how we Christians tend to call God “the Good Lord” immediately before we talk about God doing something wrathful? When a disaster happens, such as a hurricane, we often say, “The Good Lord is trying to tell us something.” What we mean is, “God is mad at us, and we better shape up before he destroys us.”
I never hear anyone say, “The Good Lord is trying to tell us something” and then follow that statement with good news instead of bad. Have you? What if we said that? “The Good Lord is trying to tell us, not bad news always, but primarily the Good News.”
Luke 15:1-10 tells us the Good News. Jesus is talking to religious leaders. They have been grumbling about him spending time with the wrong crowd, with outcasts, lowlifes. In response, Jesus says, “When a shepherd loses a sheep, he leaves behind the others to look for the lost one. When the shepherd finds him, he is thrilled. When a woman loses one of her valuable coins that can help support her family, she sweeps the house until she finds it. Then she cheers for joy. 'Woo-hoo!' That's how God and the angels are when someone repents.”
In other words, Jesus teaches us that the Good Lord offers us mercy. Why is Jesus associating with the lowlifes of society? Because God, in his mercy, seeks the lost to save them.
Further, the implication is that we are to do likewise. We the Pharisees and scribes, the religious insiders, the ones who come to church, are to seek and help the wayward, the lost, the alleged lowlifes, the outcasts, and then we are to be thrilled when they return to God.
The Good Lord is trying to tell us something, and it is the Good News. God is merciful. God has a wrathful side, but his dominant hand, his “righting” hand, is his merciful hand, the hand reaching out with healing love to all, including people we think deserve wrath.
Indeed, the whole point of the cross and the empty tomb is merciful love. John 3:17 declares that Christ came, not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The religious leaders in Luke 15 are judgmental against the outcasts, but the Good Lord is trying to tell them, “Seek the lost, and rejoice when they are found.”
What if we lived that way, responding to the people we label as outcasts by seeking them and being joyful when they are found? Do you keep your eyes open for opportunities to seek outcasts and maybe help them return to God?
“But Pastor, if I spend time with outcasts, don't I run the risk of their wickedness rubbing off on me?” That is a risk, but the Holy Spirit helps us through Scripture, sacrament, the Church and other ways to keep us on track. When we do stray, we ask God for forgiveness, and it is accomplished.
It is indeed risky reaching to outcasts, trying to help them. They may try to take advantage of us or hurt us. They may try to con us. “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” Jesus says. We are to be cautious and smart, but we are still to reach to the outcasts to try to bring them back.
If we spend time with outcasts, are we somehow excusing their bad behavior? No, the whole point of being with them is to help them shuffle off their immoral coil, to help them walk or run back to God.
Whom do you consider an outcast? Drug addicts? People who abuse the welfare system? Sex-offenders? How can you reach to them? Not everyone will be receptive to the Good News. Not everyone will want our help. Even so, Jesus calls us to be open to helping the outcast. How to do that would be worth praying over and discussing here at St. James.
Someone calls the church asking for money. If we give her some, she might spend it on drugs. Instead, we can give her a food voucher or pay a past-due bill for her. We can also pray with her, and we can follow up with a note or card, an invitation to worship. Nothing pushy. Just reaching to the outcast, stretching ourselves, not being Pharisees, but seeking the lost.
Seek the lost, just as Jesus has sought us and rejoiced over our return. For we are not so different from the official outcasts of society. Each of us is an outcast; the difference is one of degree or labeling. Everyone sins, including you and me. When it comes to the Kingdom of God, all of us have made ourselves into outcasts, but the Good Lord is trying to tell us something. The Good Lord is trying to tell us that he is quick to forgive us and kill the fatted calf for us. The Good Lord is running toward us with tears in his eyes and arms outstretched. Can you hear him? He is shouting, “Welcome home! Now seek the outcast, just as I have sought you.”
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, poedifier
Sermon Outline on Luke 15:1-10 (and 1 Timothy) (Sept 16)
2007-09-13 by David von Schlichten
Man, this outline came hard. I need a nap.
Frankly, there were so many good ideas in Lectionary Homiletics and at this site that I had difficulty focusing on a topic or text.
At my Wednesday Bible study, a point that one of my parishioners brought up was, “If we are not to associate with bad people, then how are we to welcome outcasts and eat with sinners?” That was the second time in three days that I had heard, in substance, that question, so I feel called to address it in the sermon.
Still, I struggled with finding a main point of focus. I returned to Holly Hearon's blog (scroll down to read blog). I was struck anew by her statement that, in the Gospel reading, we are asked to identify, not so much with the lost, but with God. That seems to be main point-material.
Thank be to the Holy Spirit, here's a start:
The Good Lord Is Trying to Tell Us Something
text: Luke 15:1-10 (and 1 Timothy)
main point: Our calling is to focus on, not wrath, but compassionate love, a calling that has stunning implications for how we respond to outcasts. At the same time, this calling directs us to see that God shows us compassion, too, just as he did with Paul.
I. When you hear the word “God,” what do you think of?
A. Many of us will say “Love and mercy,” but we often fixate on rules, wrath, scolding, and judgment instead of love and mercy
B. “Sure, Jesus died for me and loves me, and now I better get my act together, so he doesn't send me to hell.”
C. “Of course Jesus loves my enemies, but they better shape up, or he's going to get them!”
D. Act of God = natural disaster (why not beautiful weather?)
E. When something bad happens, people often say, “The Good Lord is trying to tell us something,” which means that God's mad, and we better shape up (How come the Good Lord is never trying to tell us something joyful? Ah, but he is.)
II. Luke 15:1-10 presents a view of God that runs opposite to words of judgment
A. There is a wrathful side to God, but Luke 15 stresses mercy to the judgmental religious leaders Jesus is talking to
B. In explaining why he eats with sinners, Jesus tells stories about searching for the lost and being jubilant over finding them; God is the same with sinners who repent
C. Implication: We are to be likewise; seeking the lost, jubilant over their return
D. This message of joyful forgiveness dominates Christ's ministry and Scripture in general
E. The whole point of the cross and the empty tomb is joyful forgiveness
III. What if we lived this way, responding to the people we label as outcasts by seeking them out and being joyful over their return?
A. But won't I become one of them if I associate with them? Not if you stay focused on the Gospel
B. Will they hurt me? There is risk in reaching to outcasts
C. Is seeking them out condoning their behavior? No, it's caring for them
D. Some people you just can't talk to; true, but let's not be too quick to give up; remember Paul in 1 Timothy; he was a terrible sinner, but he was far from hopelesss
IV. As we do all this, we remember that God has sought and saved us, too, and is joyful over our return; each time we fail, God will seek us and throw a party upon finding us
Something like that. Open to the Spirit, I'll keep working right after my nap, ever
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, poedifier
2007-09-13 by Rick Brand
Listening to all this good material, a conclusion which seems to be forming for me is that all of them talk about what God is doing and the texts really don't worry too much about what we humans do. God is the actor, and our place is to receive, rejoice and share. But I guess that would make it too easy.
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