Seriously? What’s That About?

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | November 8, 2020

Luke 16:1-8a

For a couple months now I have known that I was going to be preaching on the Sunday following the election.  I figured that the Holy Spirit was likely to move me to reflect theologically on that event so I didn’t plan to write my sermon until after Tuesday evening.  Well, the results weren’t in on Wednesday.  Or Thursday.  Or Friday.  I’m starting to get a bit concerned.  I was thinking about all the psalms that begin with the question, “How long, O Lord.”  By this time I abandoned the idea of preaching about the election.  I decided instead to lead us in thinking about the most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables.  Because it’s so difficult, it’s also among the least known: The Parable of the Dishonest Manager, from Luke 16. 

First, let us note the context.  Remember that the gospels are not intended to be a diary, a daily journal of the life and teachings of Jesus. “On Tuesday this happened, on Wednesday Jesus said this, on Thursday….” and so on.  Each of the editors, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were writing at different times and had different audiences in mind and slightly different intent in their writing.  So they take the various actions and teachings of Jesus and arrange them somewhat differently one from another.  For example, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and driving the animals out of the Courtyard of the Gentiles, takes place very early in Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of John, but it is set during Passion week in the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The editors feel free to move things around to suit their own purposes.

This parable, which, by the way, is found only in Luke, is placed by Luke in the middle of a series of parables.  It comes immediately after the parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the younger son goes off and wastes his inheritance, and immediately before the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  This is not Jesus’ friend Lazarus.  Different guy, same name.  This is a fictional character in a parable, in which a poor man, Lazarus, begs outside the door of the Rich Man’s house.  So, Luke is bunching together several teachings of Jesus which Luke believes have to do with money.  (Jesus talked about money ALL the time.)

Luke 16:1-8a The Parable of the Dishonest Manager

16 Then Jesus[a] said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to (the rich man) that this man was squandering his property. So the rich man summoned the manager and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Bring me the account books, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig ditches, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly…

Seriously?  What’s that about?  (If we had bulletins you would know that that’s the title of this sermon.)

Isn’t that weird? “…his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”  I don’t mean to embarrass anyone but, if you are willing, raise your hand if you have never heard this parable before?  There is a good reason for that.

For example, as many of you have heard me say, the Gospel of Luke is my favorite book in the Bible, indeed, my favorite book in the world.  I have preached dozens and dozens of sermons on various passages from the beginning to the end of Luke.  Yet in my 43 years of ministry, how many times have I preached on the parable of the dishonest manager?  It comes around in the lectionary every three years. How many times?

Once.  Time to do so again.

This parable has been called “a problem child…insoluble,” (Rudolf Bultmann), “an (interpretive) hornet’s nest.”  Biblical scholars unanimously call it THE most difficult of Jesus’ parables to understand.  

First, let us note that as the most difficult of all parables, we can be quite certain, therefore, that Jesus actually said it.  Editors always make things easier to understand.  I’m sure that Luke and later editors would have loved NOT to include it, if there were any doubt as to its authenticity.  So, we can be confident that the parable itself does come from Jesus.

So, what do you think?  What is Jesus’ point?  Ordinarily I would ask for your hypotheses, but given the mask situation you are saved from that exercise.

All right, let’s dive in.  Is Jesus really commending dishonesty?  I have read numerous commentaries, by some of the most brilliant theologians and preachers of the past sixty years, most of whom threw up their hands in defeat.  But one of them I found to be most compelling.  It might not be right.  So, this sermon is what I like to call a “think-with,” perhaps so, perhaps not, drawn largely from Ken Bailey’s writings.  (Ken Bailey is a prominent biblical scholar who has lived most of his life in the Middle East, so he “gets” that culture.) 

I will save you all the background arguments, or this sermon would be really long, but Bailey gives this summary of the characters and the background for the parable.  “(C)learly, the most probable cultural setting for the parable is that of a landed estate with a manager who had authority to carry out the business of the estate.  The debtors were most likely renters, hakirin, who had agreed to pay a fixed amount of produce for the yearly rent.  The steward was …a salaried official…The master was a man of noble character respected in the community who cared enough about his own wealth to fire a wasteful manager.”  (Poet and Peasant, p. 94)

So, with that as background, here we go.  The master hears rumors that the steward has been “cooking the books.”  The master calls in the manager and says, “You’re fired.  And I want a complete audit of your books.”  Jesus’ listeners would have expected that the manager would start arguing with his employer, would try to shift blame somewhere else.  But he says nothing, implicitly admitting his guilt.  Jesus’ listeners would also expect that the master would throw the manager in jail, which he doesn’t.  Jesus’ parables are always surprising.

The manager says to himself, “What am I going to do?  I’m not strong enough to be a laborer and I am too proud to be a beggar.”  He thinks on this a bit, rubs his chin, scratches his head, bites his fingernails.  “What am I going to do?  What am I going to do?”  He thinks, “Well, it could be worse.  I’m not in jail.” 

Light bulb!  That is a supremely significant key to this parable, if Ken Bailey is right.  “At least I’m not in jail!”

Why isn’t he in jail?

The manager is not in jail because the owner is a gracious man.  So the steward comes up with a plan.  It is a plan that risks “everything on the quality of mercy he has already experienced from his master.  If he fails, he will certainly go to jail…

The key to his situation is that no one yet knows he is fired.” (Ibid., p. 98)

Are you with me so far?  Let me re-cap.  We have a wealthy landowner who has hired a manager to handle the accounts.  Word comes to the rich man that his manager has been siphoning off money.  The landowner confronts the manager.  The manager does not contest the allegation, so he’s clearly guilty.  The landowner tells the manager that he is fired.  

The manager thinks, “What am I going to do?  No one else is going to hire me as a manager.  I’m too frail to work as a day laborer and I’m too proud to beg.”

But he comes up with a plan.  An audacious plan.

The manager summons the renters to come in and talk to him because he has an important message from the master.  He calls them in one at a time, because he doesn’t want them talking with one another.  The fact that they do come in shows that they do not know the steward has already been dismissed.  The renters assume the bill-changing is legitimate.  “The second (very reasonable) assumption is that the master has authorized the bills and (italics mine) that the steward has talked him into it.  This is the only assumption that fits the story…the steward naturally takes credit for having arranged the reductions… The bills are not due.  These sudden reductions come as it were, ‘out of the blue.’  The steward may quietly let it be known, ‘I talked the old (guy) into it.’  We can easily reconstruct the kind of small talk that would have taken place during the bill changing.  After all, he, the steward, was in the fields day after day.  He knew that the rain was bad, the sun hot, and the worms active. …

The steward finishes his daring plan by gathering up the freshly changed accounts and delivering them to his master.  The master looks at them and reflects on his alternatives.  The master knows full well that in the local village there has already started a great round of celebration in praise of him, the master, as the most noble and most generous man that ever rented land in their district.  He has two alternatives.”  (Ibid., p. 101)

What are they?  He can go back to the debtors and explain that a mistake had been made.  They still owe the full amount.  Then what?  They will be angry at him, the stingy old miser.  Or, “… he can keep silent, accept the praise that is even now being showered on him, and allow the clever steward to ride high on the wave of popular enthusiasm.  The master is a generous man.  He did not jail the steward earlier…(The master) reflects for a moment and then turns to the steward and says, ‘You are a very wise fellow.’” 

The steward saved himself by throwing himself on the mercy of the Master.  According to Bailey, this is what Jesus was teaching in this parable.  It wasn’t actually about money.  The essence of the parable is this: even though one doesn’t deserve it, the wise person trusts the mercy of the Master.  Even though we don’t deserve it, we can trust the mercy of God.  The God of second chances.  And third chances.  And 33rd chances.  Amen!

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