September 8, 2019

 “Good Reward for Bad Behavior?”

 Luke 16:1‑13

 

Jesus used parables to illustrate a point. Sometimes the message from those parables is pretty straightforward. For example (Luke 6:41) ”Why do you seek the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”- Here Jesus perfectly illustrates how we find fault in others much more easily than finding any fault in ourselves-straight and to the point.

 

Today’s parable, however, is not so straight forward. Theologians from Augustine to Luther to Calvin to modern-day have struggled, wrestled mightily with this parable that seems to lift up a dishonest, somewhat lazy steward as a shining example for us all. This one is a doozy, one of the most difficult parables of Jesus to understand and apply to our lives.  And yet, as is true with all parables, there is something Jesus is trying to tell us which we can apply to our lives here and now. Let’s dive in and find out what it is!

 

This week’s parable, which immediately follows the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, has a number of segments. In the first segment (vv. 1‑9) Jesus tells the parable of the shrewd manager who makes provisions for his future as he is about to be fired. What can we glean from this interesting story that may make the hearer scratch his or her head after hearing it? The master of the house, which in this case represents God, is warning the steward, which in this case represents us that time is running out. What are we running out of time to do? Just as the shrewd steward will not be in his job forever and so -therefore needs to prepare for his future, so too we will not be upon the earth forever and need to prepare for our eternal future. None of us knows the time and day when we will finish our time upon this earth, and as the church in the south often says, “Be called up yonder!”  I often remind myself that we cannot cue the violins as to our final day. The first part of this parable has to do with how we Christians use our material and financial resources in the time we have left, and why stewardship of those resources has eternal implications.

 

Jesus begins, "There was a certain rich man. He had a household manager [or steward, oikonomos]¼ (from where we get the modern English word “economist”), and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods.”  So, this wealthy master is preparing to dismiss his manager for squandering his property.

 

The Greek word used in this verse for squandering, diaskorpizo, probably doesn’t refer so much to outright dishonesty, but too reckless and wasteful spending, as it does in describing the behavior of the prodigal son in Luke 15:13. Facing the prospect of unemployment with no means by which to support himself, the manager takes action to ensure that he will be provided for after his dismissal by reducing the balance owed by his master’s debtors, thus putting himself in their gratitude, for which they will presumably repay him when he is no longer employed and needs to find other means to support himself.

 

 

At the end of the parable, the master congratulates the manager because he has "acted shrewdly" (v. 8a), which makes us wonder if Jesus is encouraging us to follow a poor example... Since it seems surprising that the master would commend the manager for essentially cheating him (v. 8a) and that Jesus would hold the manager up as an example to emulate (v. 8b). Some commentators throughout the centuries have suggested that the manager in reducing the debt owed was only giving up the part of the debtors’ payments that he would have been entitled to as his own commission. Thus, the master of the house would get what was owed to him and the shrewd steward would be penalized for his laziness and reckless spending, receiving no wages. Although it may or may not be the case, that is a bit too much reading between the lines for me.  Jesus however, is not lifting up his shady and questionable business dealings. Here the emphasis is on the manager’s shrewdness in ensuring his future security, not on his moral character. In fact, Jesus stresses that the manager acts shrewdly in spite of his status as a "dishonest" or, better yet, "unrighteous" or even "wicked" manager. He is one of the "children of this age in their own generation" who act shrewdly, cunningly, with a skill in deception - "someone who is really good at watching out for himself. So then, is the message that you and I are to look out for our own best interests and be skilled in deception? Thankfully, No.

 

For children of light to act shrewdly means to be always preparing for the end of our time upon the earth, for the life after this in heaven, and for the return of the Messiah.

We must be ready, whether our lives come to an end in some fashion, or when Christ comes again to judge as the Apostle’s Creed reminds us “the quick and the dead.”

 

We do this by using the resources we’ve been given by God wisely. In other words, Jesus is saying, we children of the kindom need to be as resourceful and diligent as we are able in preparing for the return of the Son of Man, for having our eyes be towards heaven and not earth, towards heavenly purposes here on this earth and not on our 401k, monthly incomes or retirement portfolios. We need to be as focused on the next life and Christ’s return as the children of the world are in their own affairs.

 

To clarify things a bit more for his listeners and for us today, in verse 9 Jesus focuses more narrowly on one specific obvious example of living shrewdly in preparing for the kindom of Heaven: the management of one’s earthly resources or "unrighteous wealth." I often joke with those who let me know that they are going to Reno or Las Vegas for a getaway, that they need to remember the church in their “unrighteous wealth” winnings- a tithe, a tenth would be a way to honor God with their gambling gains and make their winnings holy... (tongue firmly in cheek as I say this to them, of course)

 

So then, what are we to do with worldly wealth-with profit from the stock market, additional financial windfalls from our jobs, a larger than expected kicker from the state of Oregon, a lucky slot machine pull or hitting the lottery?  Are we to think shrewdly of our own interest? No. Our human welfare can and does often interfere with matters of God’s kindom, and Jesus knew this. Here Jesus admonishes us that entry into the eternal kindom demands faithful action with our earthly assets, no matter where they come from.

 

 

This concern for wealth and possessions, and their potential to mess up our focus on trying to live faithfully happens quite frequently in Luke. Two chapters later, for instance, Jesus tells the man who asks how he can inherit eternal life to give all of his wealth to the poor so that he will have "treasure in heaven," and when the man becomes sad at the thought of relinquishing his wealth, Jesus responds "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God" (Lk 18:18‑25). We see similar emphases in other Lukan stories, such as the parable of the foolish man who dies after building many barns (12:13‑21) and the parable which follows this one, of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19‑31).

 

Scripture certainly warns us against having our focus in this life being upon our finances, our assets, and possessions. Ecclesiastes 5:10 tells us, “No one who loves money can ever have enough, and no one who loves wealth enjoys any return from it.” 1 Timothy 6:9-10 reminds us, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their own hearts with many pangs.” 

 

In his book, Run with the Horses, theologian Eugene Petersen likens the issue of holding onto our finances to seeing a family of birds teaching their young to fly. He mentions that three young swallows were perched on a dead branch that stretched out over a lake. One adult swallow nudged the first chick closer and closer to the end of the branch until suddenly, it hurdled towards the water below. About 4 feet from the water, it stretched its wings out and began to fly. The same thing happened with the second. The third, however, was not to be bullied. As he approached the end of the branch, his grip loosened just enough to where he swung upside down, fully focused upon his own self-preservation, still not letting go of the branch. One of the parents began pecking at the little chick’s feet until he finally let go, and like the others, as his wings began pumping, flew away. The mature swallow knew what the chick did not-that it would fly-that there was no danger in making it do what it was perfectly designed to do. Petersen concluded, “Giving is what we are perfectly designed to do, to do what do best. It is the air into which we were born. It is the action that was designed into us before our birth...some of us try desperately to hold on to ourselves, to live for ourselves. We look so bedraggled and pathetic doing it, hanging on to the dead branch of a bank account for dear life, afraid to risk ourselves on the untried wings of giving. We don’t think we can live generously because we’ve never tried. But the sooner we start, the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait, the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of joy and grace.”

 

In the final section of this passage, Jesus expounds further on the contrast between being focused upon earthly possessions and the things of the kindom, saying, "The one who is faithful in little is also faithful in much and the one who is unrighteous in little is also unrighteous in much " (v. 10). If our focus is upon giving and others, even if we have meager resources, faith will guide our actions in our stewardship of those resources. If, however, we have our own self-preservation at the root of our lives, then we will be led by that self-preservation, even if we have abundant financial resources. Jesus then reminds us that if we have not been faithful with our "unrighteous wealth", how then will we be given the true riches from heaven-joy, love, and life itself? How indeed would we even recognize them as riches?

 

 

Just to emphasize Jesus’ point about the perils of focusing upon our finances and possessions, Jesus reminds us that no one is able to serve two masters (v. 13), reminding us that loyalty to wealth and loyalty to God are mutually exclusive. Only one of these, loyalty to God prepares us for the coming of the Son of Man and for life in the kindom of Heaven.

 

Theologian John Stendahl says, “The day of account approaches, so cast your lot with the debtors and ally yourself with those on the losing side of the ledger. Find your friends there, for things are going to change when the day of the Lord comes. In an unjust world you can’t do much to make Mammon righteous, but what you can do is use it in the solidarity that will find you a sweet welcome among the debtors of the world. But be quick about it, while there’s still time and the books are in your care.”

In the time we have left, whether it be brief or years to come, may we be led by a generous spirit, giving what we have already been given by God, so that others might feel God’s justice and mercy, and come to know how high, how broad and how deep the love of God is for them. Alleluia! Amen.

 

 

Benediction- 1 Timothy 6:11-14

“But as for you, men and women of God, shun all this: aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith: take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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