Luke 16 and Amos 8: A Questionable Shift in Managerial Style
2007-09-22 by Dee Dee Haines
A few thoughts for those who are, like myself, Saturday writers.
Who’s the boss? Who is in charge? Whose idea was this? In other words, who do we want to hold accountable? These are just a few of the questions we often ponder when we find ourselves in a mess. Someone has to pay. The manager in Luke’s Gospel is, at first sight, an attractive scapegoat. Let’s agree to blame him, shall we?
It’s too easy to cover this story with our present age systems of accountability. If we’ve paid any attention to the financial industry in the last few weeks, we see how quickly we want to shift blame from one industry segment to another. In the end, as Tom Long says, it is not the manager who is unrighteous, it’s what he manages. It’s the system of wealth itself that will rot from the inside out and contaminate all it touches. Amos tells us that the basket of summer fruit is fermenting, seeping through the weakened skins that can no longer hold what bubbles beneath.
Thanks to Tom Long, we’re wrestling with those images of collision that appear when we remember that God’s just and imaginative vision for creation doesn’t look anything like the one we’ve created for ourselves. Instinctively, we want to know who is at fault. We’d like to blame the manager, but Jesus is conducting his performance review and awarding top marks to the administrator we’ve been led to believe is the one who let us down. We thought he was about to pick up his pink slip. We’re hoping to feel better by making a good choice with his replacement. We’ve already got a candidate in mind who is hungry to make her way to the top. But that’s our problem. We’re not looking for someone whose values are kingdom-of-God enthused and informed. Our job description is firmly planted in the wealth we hope to gain from the system that is already in place. We don’t really see, or believe, that our economy is flawed.
Amos brings the indictment to life when he personalises the call to accountability by naming the deeds that we’d like to keep out of the boardroom: trampling the needy, ruining the poor, conducting shady business transactions that put into motion a system of greed that renders the life of many as expendable, having no more worth that a pair of sandals.
Stephen J. Patterson reminds us, “The Wisdom of Jesus is first and foremost about the reversal of common values. The Empire of God calls for a reordering of human-life relationships that places those who are valued least in the world at the very center.” (The God of Jesus, Stephen J. Patterson, 1998) That’s hard for us, because we make decisions based on our broken human perception of self at the center of all things.
Could Jesus be using this questionable shift in managerial style to illustrate how futile it will be if we don’t all (from owners to managers and debtors) begin to see that our system of wealth and debt is not only broken, but does not lead to life? Does he turn this story on its ear because we too often want to blame those at the top who make attractive products for small amounts of money so that we can all secretly rejoice in a bargain? Are we able to see how we would rather blame someone with more power than ourselves than recognise are own participation?
My ears are burning with those words, “No slave can serve two masters.” You cannot serve the God of justice and mercy and serve the god of Wealth, as well.
I suspect that this story is seldom listed as anyone’s favourite. Unlike other more commonly known parables, it does not easily lend itself to becoming domesticated. We can’t take the punch out of it like we have with so many others. As long as we place our hope in our present system, it will always leave us feeling unsettled, disturbed, challenged and ill at rest. The good news is that we can be changed in the most unexpected ways.
Sermon Outline for September 23 (Luke 16 and 1 Timothy 2)
2007-09-21 by David von Schlichten
Shrewd Like the Cross
Texts: 1 Timothy 2:1-7 and Luke 16:1-13
Main point: “Since God acted decisively in Christ to save us, we Christians must be clever enough now to meet the challenges of our time, and quick about it, too” (p.70). Part of meeting those challenges is making shrewd use of our resources, including prayer.
B. Even people we disagree with or disapprove of us can still be a positive example for us
C. The dishonest manager is just such a person, someone whose behavior is negative but who still is a good example for us
D. He is dishonest with his boss's money for his own gain; instead of being angry with him, the boss actually praises the dishonest manager for being shrewd
E. Jesus does not want us to be dishonest, but he does want us to be shrewd with the wealth that God has entrusted to us so that we serve God and people in need
F. The word “shrewd” means to be clever, cunning, and calculating; it is not necessarily bad; Jesus always wants us to be loving, including by being honest; but we are not to be foolish, naïve, lazy; we are to be shrewd; be innocent as doves, yes, but also be wise as serpents
G. Are we shrewd with our wealth, or are we wasteful? Today is Harvest Home Sunday, when we collect non-perishable food to donate to the local food pantry; this is wonderful use of our wealth, thanks be to the Holy Spirit
H. What else could we do? How can we be even more clever, cunning and calculating with our wealth so as to help as many people as possible?
I. God could return at any moment; death can come at any time; are we being shrewd with what God has entrusted to us?
J. Are we being shrewd with our money and our skills? God has given us prayer; are we being shrewd in our praying?
K. 1 Timothy calls for us to pray for our leaders, our politicians; do you do that? We are busy complaining about our politicians, but are we praying for them?
L. 1 Timothy tells us that God wants everyone to be saved; everyone is valuable; if God wants everyone to be saved, then we should as well; we should even want Richard Dawkins to be saved, although Ann Coulter expresses delight over the though of him burning in hell
M. Striving to help all come back to God calls for shrewdness, urgency, in prayer and action; in the use of our time, money, and skills
N. Dawkins is smart but ultimately mistaken, but God wants him to be saved, just as God wants salvation for you and has given it to you through Christ
O. God in his shrewdness sent Christ to trick Satan and outsmart death; Christ's death looked like defeat but surprise! It was actually life; the supreme act of shrewdness has won for us eternal life
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, poedifier
Tom Long's Blog and Highlights from This Week's Articles in "Lectionary Homiletics"
2007-09-19 by David von Schlichten
I regret that I did not get to blogging sooner. I've been busy getting a head start on my midlife crisis, as well as struggling to accept that my son is becoming more and more independent. In addition, our 19-year old cat Shadow just died.
How we use the time and resources God has entrusted to us is crucial, isn't it? Crucial.
Anyway, the blog entry below on Luke 16:1-13 by Tom Long (one of my homiletical heroes) helps us to find our way through this strange parable to a conclusion that makes sense vis-a-vis the Good News.
His comments have guided me through the Escheresque weirdness of the parable and Luke's subsequent attempt to make sense of it, so that I can read and understand the clear, simple, though not simplistic, bottom line. Scroll down to read the blog. It's lucrative reading.
Also, the “Exegesis” piece by Brian K. Peterson is available for free here on this website in the samples section for the coming Sunday. The passage is full of thoughtful valuable points, including a paraphrase of a Craddock quote that helps to clarify stewardship.
From this week's articles in Lectionary Homiletics I found the following exceptionally noteworthy:
Alan Meyers teaches that, to understand this passage correctly, one must view it through the lenses of eschatology and stewardship. Meyers sees the story as declaring that we need to make good, shrewd use of what we have while we have it, because someday all this wealth will be gone.
Pamela Cooper-White explains that the word “steward” was originally a term that meant the one who takes care of the pigsty. Her point is that being a Christian is not purely spiritual and otherworldly, but also calls for us to be involved in the muck of the earth, including with money. “God is just as much in how we use our material possessions, and yes, even our money, as God is in our fine liturgies and prayers” (p.67).
Alex Gondola summarizes a sermon by Robert Cueni that offers compelling interpretations of this passage. One possible interpretation is that Jesus is simply saying, “It's only money. Don't make money a bigger deal than it is.” The wealthy landowner in this text, as well as the prodigal father in the previous chapter, both put other things or people above money. Even though the younger son has wasted his money, the father still welcomes him home. Even though the manager has been dishonest, the landowner still commends him for his shrewdness.
Another interpretation that Cueni offers is that the parable presents hope for all of us sinners. If there is hope for this dishonest manager, then there is hope for the rest of us.
Gondola also ends his article with a cogent summary of the text that could serve as the beginning of a sermon: “Since God acted decisively in Christ to save us, we Christians must be clever enough now to meet the challenges of our time, and quick about it, too” (p.70).
Preaching the Lesson
David J. Schlafer begins his article with the insightful paradox, “It's not about the money; but it is about the money!” (p.71) Money is not an end in itself, but it is critical as a means to right relationships between humans and with God.
Then I was at Wednesday Bible study this morning and found rich the passage from 1 Timothy, which speaks of praying for everyone, including our political leaders, and which says that God wants all of us to be saved. I think the Spirit is tugging me toward preaching on this passage as well as on Luke 16.
For now, though, I am getting ready for my teenaged daughter to arrive home from school to discover that her cat of twelve years has died.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, poedifier
2007-09-18 by Rick Brand
I read a quote that nagged at me. "The church is the community were you can say the things that need to be said." Yet there are so many things we are told that you can't say in church. So I decided that I would look at the Psalms for the next few weeks. The Psalms are where the church has said the things that need to be said. Like in Psalm 79 the Lament says:
a. Things are in a horrible mess. A lot of bad things have happened. Where is God? Heaven knows, there are enough bad things that are currently happening.
b. Well, maybe God is in the judgment, the bad things, because a lot of these look like the consequences of what we have done. This is payback for our past sins. And we are now reaping the consequences of our wrong decisions.
c. There is hope even in judgment. God will save us, not because we are worth it, but because God's reputation is involved.
d. And because God is involved we can already start the celebration even in the midst of the mess.
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."
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