a sermon, based on Luke 16.1-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, September 18, 2016
“(The owner) commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.
This parable, at first reading, lacks plain sense. I wonder. Did Jesus have an off day, perhaps beginning with a good idea, but losing his train of thought? Or was he misquoted, Luke not remembering accurately what Jesus said?
A manager, soon to be fired, reduces the bills of the owner’s debtors, hoping they, in gratitude, will care for him when he is out on the street and the owner applauds the manager for his prudence.
Creative grammatical analysis of the Greek word translated “commended”, suggesting that the owner’s praise really was bitter acceptance or begrudged admiration, cannot make this appear other than nonsense. It does make sense that the manager was shameless and the owner was stupid!
But, on second glance, I bid we take this story seriously for one reason with three points.
First, Jesus tells this parable to his disciples then and now us concerning our possessions and how we use them; a subject Jesus talks about more than anything else, including sex! (Given the unending raging debates in the church about human sexuality, based on presumably clear biblical mandates, one might think Jesus would have given us more instruction on this matter. He didn’t! If he did, his teachings weren’t documented. He does talk about our possessions and those sayings were recorded!)
Second, what we do with our possessions is about stewardship; our honest to God use of our life and health whatever the quality and our wealth whatever the quantity.
Third, Jesus talked, taught so much about our possessions because our attitudes and actions about how we use them are not merely material matters, but profoundly spiritual. How we deal with our possessions testifies to who we are. The depth of our belief about God as Giver of all things – life, “our daily bread” to sustain life, and, at our life’s end, the blessedness of the fullness of eternality. The breadth of our worldview, whether we look at ourselves and life around us chiefly from the position of abundance, trusting that as we give of ourselves and our substance, we receive or from the perspective of scarcity, harboring, hoarding our resources to take care of ourselves…stated another way, the height of our generosity with ourselves toward others or our security of ourselves for ourselves.
Now, there’s a “back story” to help us interpret the parable’s obvious problem of the owner’s seeming admiration for the manager’s seeming deception. In the ancient eastern Mediterranean world, managers were agents empowered to conduct business, not merely servants attending to the owner’s bidding, needing the owner’s authorization at every turn. And it was accepted practice for managers to charge commissions. So, when the manager rewrites the bills, he is cutting, yes, the owner’s profit, but also his percentage. The owner will be repaid the original amount of the debt, no more or less.
Dispensing with that conspicuous, apparent nonsensicality, again it’s all about stewardship. And Jesus, making the point about our possessions and what we do with them, calls us to look into the face of crisis.
Crisis, from the Greek, meaning “to separate.” The manager will be fired, separated from his job. Jesus confronts us with the crisis of being fired not from our livelihoods, but from life itself. By “fired from life,” I don’t mean the death of our bodies, but of our spirits in living our lives not wrongly, for who, save God, dare judge another, for judgment requires absolute information (thus, truth be told, we dare not judge ourselves!), but inauthentically. In other words, living apart and aside from the will of God who created us in the divine image, and, in that respect, living without acknowledging and acting in accord with this cardinal characteristic of life as God creates it…
There is nothing we “possess” that we have provided by ourselves for ourselves. Nothing. To greater or lesser degree, someone or something has placed everything in our hands. Even when our living has been attained by our zealous personal industry – the creativity of our thinking, the sweat of our brow, the might of our hands, the intensity of our commitment, the force of our will – there remain causative factors beyond our control or command: family connections and the good fortune of circumstance, genetic predispositions for strength, endurance, mental acuity, and the luck of chance. Therefore, no one can or dare say, “I alone have wrought this!”
Even more, each of us will die. And according to the trite truism none of what we claim to possess can we take with us. Paraphrasing an old saying: Brink’s trucks never follow hearses to the cemetery.
When we recognize that we alone did not, cannot provide all we possess and will not, cannot take it with us, then one of all possible responses to these unchangeable conditions of existence is prudence. We are to be shrewd, wise, again, honest to God, faithful to God in the use of our possessions.
And here’s the rub. Jesus is no rule-maker with tidy definitions and universally applicable instructions about prudence. He does clarify three things. One, life in this world is a terminal gift. Two, we are to be wise in our living. Three, each of us has to figure out what that means.
Illustration: Parable of the Unjust Steward, Marinus van Reymerswaele (1490-1546), Kunsthistorisches Museum. A rich man (foreground, left), accusing his steward (foreground, right) of embezzlement, tells him he will be terminated. Then (background, right) the steward, seeking future reciprocal favor, returns the bills to the owner’s debtors so that they can alter them.
 Krisis from the verb krinein