Jesus said to the disciples,“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property… 29And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes…” 10 Luke 16:1-13
We could easily find this Gospel lesson appointed for today either confusing or offending. It seems that Jesus is praising the practices of a dishonest account manager. The manager falsifies the amounts owed to his employer so that when this manager is out of a job – mind you, he’s being fired because of his dishonesty! – these same creditors with whom he is currying illicit favor would admire him or owe him, and ultimately welcome him into their homes!
It’s not that this kind of behavior is unheard of, then and now. Quite to the contrary. The New York Times and The Huffington Post would have a lot of white space if similar stories about graft among both public officials and private individuals did not appear with almost-daily regularity. But it’s that Jesus is praising such folks because of their “shrewdness” that’s the real puzzler! Shrewdness? It’s outright graft. Jesus does not call these “shrewd” people “children of the light.” No, their behavior is, quite literally, “shady.” But Jesus does say to learn from them: “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
In a few moments we will confess our faith following the words of the Nicene Creed. We will affirm how Jesus is truly God and truly human. This gospel passage and so many of the parables and stories he tells smacks of Jesus’ humanity, how “street savvy” he is. He was conversant about sheep and shepherds; vineyards and wine-making; fishing and farming. He knew about seeds, and weeds, and pruning; about governing authorities, and their means, and their money. Jesus tells parables and teaches principles about the birds of the air and flowers of the field; about children,orphans, widows, and merchants; about the powerful, the poor; about prisoners and prostitutes; about soldiers, and tax collectors; about physicians and the sick; about all kinds of temptation; about the weather; about house construction; about sailing,and fishing,and storms at sea; about oxen and donkeys, chickens and goats; about weddings, and funerals, and banquets; about the mountains and the desert. Jesus speaks about the paradox of feeling full and simultaneously feeling empty; about prejudice and discrimination; about despair and hope; about the joys, challenges, and responsibilities of family members and friends; about marriage and about being single; about weariness and homelessness; and, finally – perhaps as no surprise – he talks about thieves. He says the Messiah’s return will be “like a thief in the night.”[i]
Jesus was very conversant about so much and with so many. I think that gives us the best help in making meaning of our Gospel lesson appointed for today: about ill-gotten gains. It would be a mistake to take this morning’s Gospel lesson in isolation and draw some life principle solely from this passage. That’s what’s called “proof texting,” where you shop the Scriptures to find some word, some phrase, some story to justify conduct that would otherwise be unjustifiable and inadmissible. Trying to harvest a life principle solely from today’s Gospel passage would not have integrity with the Scriptures that flank this story, nor integrity with what Jesus clearly lives for and dies for.
So I’ll take the longer view and glean three principles from this Gospel passage, principles that I do think have integrity with Jesus’ life and with our own lives.
1. This passage comes from the Gospel according to Luke where there’s a recurring theme about poverty and possessions. Possessions can be a real problem; possessions can possess us. On the other hand, we need possessions, or at least we need provisions. Jesus talks about life, both the here-and-now and the hereafter. In the Gospel according to Luke, we do indeed read about the dangers of wealth:[ii]
- The Song of Mary: “…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”[iii]
- The sermons of John the Baptist: “…“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise…”[iv]
- The prophecy of Isaiah remembered by Luke: “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…”[v]
- The blessings and the woes: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”[vi]
- The parable about the rich fool: “God said, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you… So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”[vii]
- About not having anxiety about things you need: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear… Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…”[viii]
It could sound like “the rich” – actually all of us here would be in “the rich” category – are lost and without hope. But that’s not the whole story. Jesus has relationships with many wealthy people. He spends time, welcomes, enjoys, and shares meals with people who have money and resources. And remember that Jesus sends out his disciples into the world with one set of clothes, one pair of sandals, virtually empty-handed… not because they should expect manna from heaven, but because people will take them in, feed them, care for them,give them a place to bathe, wash their clothes, offer them a bed for the night.[ix] People with resources.
How true it is, as Jesus says, that a servant cannot serve two masters, God and money; however it is very difficult –virtually impossible – to serve God without money, without resources. The reason that Jesus’ message of good news would speak to so many different people of so many different walks of life is that we are all so much the same. As that great commentator on life, W. C. Fields, once said, “A rich person is nothing but a poor person with money.”[x] Everyone is rich and poor, one way or another.
- This shady Gospel passage is an example of the principle that “all truth is God’s truth.” Jesus sees something in the questionable conduct of this dishonest money manager that is worth learning. It wouldn’t be right to use this story Jesus tells to justify illegal business practices or immoral personal conduct; however there’s no virtue in being naïve. We need to learn how this world works, how power is brokered, and how resources are invested, traded, bartered, and shared. I was talking with someone not long ago who told me they were in the market to buy a used car. They were praying about this, asking God to direct them to the used car they should buy. That’s all they were doing: praying. They asked me what I thought about it. I told them I would for sure pray, pray for guidance and provision. Then I’d do some research on the internet. I’d look at Blue Book prices and read Consumer Reports. I’d go with a friend who is “car savvy”to visit some car dealerships. And so for you. Use your God-given brain and experience to navigate life. Learn what you can. Jesus says, “Be wise as a serpent, and, at the same time, be as innocent as a dove.”[xi]
- Thirdly, we need to live our life on this earth in a way that is on good speaking terms with life to come. In the monastic tradition, this is why we live under a “rule of life”: a set of life principles that inform how to deport ourselves with integrity, in this life and for the next.[xii] The word “rule” comes from the Latin regula: a ruler, or measuring device, or model. A “rule of life”may be very helpful to you as you “size up” life. If you don’t have a personal “rule of life,” try using an index card. Make a few bullet points that are your grounding and guiding principles as you navigate life. Start with just that, a few principles. Live with them, test them out. You can always edit and adapt. The psalms speak of this as being on “level ground,” where you can look panoramically to remember the past, live in the present, anticipate the future (life on this earth and life to come) and it’s all of a piece.[xiii] Not pieces, but a piece which has been woven together with integrity. Test out a “rule of life” on an index card.
- We want to end up living our life without regret.
- We need resources, and we need to share our resources generously.
- Heads up: there’s truth to be learned in life, and from many sources. All truth is God’s truth.
- Live your life on level ground. Take the long view: past, present, future, and be on good speaking terms with it all.
[i]Matthew 24:32-44, the metaphor of “thief” also being used by subsequent New Testament writers, e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 3:3, 16:15.
[ii] Insight concerning possessions and the poor drawn fromInterpretation: Luke, by Fred B. Craddock (John Knox Press, 1990), pp. 188-192.
[iii] Luke 1:46-55.
[iv] Luke 3:10-14.
[v] Luke 4:16-30, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2.
[vi] Luke 6:20-25.
[vii] Luke 12:13-21.
[viii] Luke 12:22-31.
[ix] Luke 9:3; Mark 6:8.
[x] W. C. Fields (1880-1946), American actor and comic.
[xi] Matthew 10:16.
[xiii] “Level ground” from Psalms 26:12; 27:15; 143:10.
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