A Story Without a Moral

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time. 

Luke 16: 1-13

Then 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. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, 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, 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; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And 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.

‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

***

Okay, guys. This is a weird one.

I’m not the only one baffled by this parable. I’ve been poring through commentaries on this passage this week and they all only agree on one thing–that this is the most confusing parable of them all. Beyond that, everybody has their own perspective, their own opinion, their own interpretation of what the parable of the shrewd manager has to say. And each interpretation is so widely different from the next that your friendly neighborhood preacher has felt a bit at a loss this week.

Of course, scripture tells us that Jesus told parables intentionally to confuse folks. Just a few chapters earlier, in the middle of the parable of the sower, Luke reports that Jesus told his disciples, “The knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘Though seeing they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand’” (Luke 8:10). Well, I’ve been not seeing and not understanding right on cue.

I’ve always struggled with the verse I just quoted–it feels kind of mean-spirited to confuse people intentionally. But there are two things I know about scripture that I’ve been reminded of tenfold this week: first, that God wants us to put a little effort into understanding scripture. We need to engage with it, heart, mind, soul, and strength, if we want to understand. We can’t be lazy about learning from scripture. The second thing is that we also need a healthy dose of humility. Pastors probably need two doses. At the end of the day, just like God will always be beyond my full comprehension, so will God’s Holy Word. That’s a good thing; it keeps me hungry for more. It reminds me that I am the disciple, not the teacher. But man oh man, can humble pie be hard to swallow when you’ve worked for years for a theological degree!

So this is how I’m approaching this parable: humble and curious. What’s it really about? What’s it really saying?

One of the reasons I struggle with this parable is how opaque it is. I have so many unanswered questions. We begin with a rich man and his manager, a middleman, someone who visited clients and touted up accounts while the boss is off playing golf. Rumor has it that this manager has been “squandering” the boss’ property. One sentence in and I’m already full of questions: are the rumors true? There are other parables that talk about folks being falsely accused, not to mention Jesus himself. Luke doesn’t say. And also, when the manager squandered the boss’ property, was he dishonest, or just bad at his job? Again, Luke doesn’t say. The boss doesn’t seem to care about my questions, because he calls him in for his pink slip.

Losing a job can be devastating–losing not just the job but also the security, the stability, the day-to-day routines that undergird our lives. Our manager is clearly reeling, but he wastes no time in coming up with a plan, and his inner monologue is hardly sympathetic–he’s too weak for manual labor, too proud to ask for help. Instead, he chooses manipulation. He goes around to all the boss’ clients and–seemingly at random–tells them to reduce how much they owe the boss–basically, he slashes the rent. One guy gets half off; the next a 20% discount. That way, he figures, they’ll owe him, and give him somewhere to crash when he needs it.

So the manager goes on his merry way, basically embezzling from his boss, and the clients all go along with this, none of them apparently batting an eyelash.

And now we get to the punch line of this parable: the boss commends the manager for his “shrewdness.”

What?

Again, I have so many questions. What does commend mean? Is it kind of like a touché, when someone beats you at your own game and even though you lost you still have to respect a player? Or is there something here that the boss actually really admires, unironically? Does the commendation come with a job-back guarantee? Is it possible Jesus is being sarcastic?

And perhaps most importantly, why on earth would the boss respond to his embezzling ex-employee with anything but anger or disappointment?

What is Jesus trying to teach us here?

One of the things I’ve been struggling with this week is realizing that the church has a bad habit of thinking of the parables like the fairy tales of the Bible–brief little stories with a hero, a villain, and a moral at the end. Usually the master is the hero, because the master is God, and anyone who questions him is the villain. That makes our boss God, the manager our sinful selves–which means God commends us for dishonest behavior. That doesn’t sound right.

We could always flip it around. Perhaps the boss is the villain here–after all, the rich get a really bad rap in Luke. But if the boss is the villain and the manager is the hero, then we have to make his behavior palatable. I’ve read every theory in the book this week for why he might actually have been ethical in cutting rents owed to someone else, and I’m not really buying any of them. Some folks want to read this as a Robin Hood story, with the manager, who has nothing left to lose, cutting the little guy a break. The problem with this is that the amounts the parable talks about–a hundred jugs of olive oil, a hundred containers of wheat–we’re not talking about mom-n-pop operations here, we’re talking big commercial farms. I’m sure the owners appreciated the break, but they aren’t exactly on the edge of poverty themselves.

So I return to my original theme: what is going on here?

Well, I’d like to make what is, for me at least, a scary proposition: this story may not have heroes and villians. There may not be a moral to this story.

If you don’t like that idea, Luke didn’t either. Our lectionary reading this morning continues several verses past the parable, where Luke tacked on a couple of proverbs about money–“whoever is faithful in little will be faithful in much” and the ever popular “you cannot serve both God and wealth.” It would be easy to assume that these more catchy sayings are the point of the parable, but they just don’t go together for any other reason than that they both focus on money.

The proverbs are a lot easier to wrap our heads around. I could’ve preached this whole sermon on “you cannot serve both God and wealth.” It would’ve been easier, and we could’ve all said Amen and gone home. But the thing is–real life doesn’t look like that proverb–neat and clear cut–as wise and true as it is. Real life looks a lot more like the parable, messy and confusing and without pure heroes and villians.

There is a long history of Christian idealism about money, much of it beautiful, much of it deeply unhelpful. Let’s start with the disciples themselves, who, we all know, left their jobs to become itinerant ministers, relying on the kindness of strangers instead of currency. So we have as our models people who left the economic system altogether–right? Well, sort of. True, the twelve disciples didn’t carry cash, but Luke lets slip that there were women who traveled with Jesus too–Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna and many others–who bankrolled the crew. These women get cut out of our imagination, because we don’t like to think that occasionally Jesus paid for dinner too.

Following Jesus’ call to sell all they have, the early centuries of Christianity are full of men and women who headed out into the desert to live without the taint of money, the origins of the vow of poverty that many of our Christian brothers and sisters still take today when they enter religious life. These people were lauded for living apart from the worldly economy, and yet: somewhere, someone paid for the monasteries they lived in, the food they ate, the scrolls they wrote their wisdom on. Somewhere lurking behind every Christian ascetic idealist is someone else with a checkbook, making it possible.

It is absolutely true that money can become an idol, and that we cannot serve money with our heart, mind, soul, and strength and expect God to be happy with the leftovers. But it’s also true that we can’t just opt out of the economy. We don’t have to serve money, but we do have to use it. And that can get messy fast.

This is a tiny example, but it’s one that I struggle with myself: where do I buy my t-shirts? Do I buy them as cheap as I can, so that I can have more money to give to the church, cancer research, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance? Or do I spend the extra to buy fair trade clothing, knowing that no child, slave, or exploited labor was used in the process? Do I buy from Goodwill, keeping clothes out of a landfill? Or do I buy new, hoping that creates jobs? It’s a messy choice. I want a clear-cut, right, ethical option. And there isn’t one. Each choice helps and hurts. Money is like that. People are like that.

Looking at my budget for the month, I find myself in much the same place as when I began looking at this parable: baffled about what the right answer might be. And, much like with this parable, I’m afraid I don’t have one. Not for me, certainly not for you. I am not going to begin to tell you how to spend your money. But I would encourage you–to some extent–to approach it in the same way you approach scripture: thoughtfully and with humility.

Not one of us has the resources to fix all the world’s problems with our money. I’m pretty confident about that claim. Every choice we make with our money will probably help a little and hurt a little, and if we think through our choices we can do our best to maximize the good and minimize the bad. The idealist in me doesn’t love that, but it’s a faithful response. We do our best. God’s grace covers the rest.

I still struggle with seeing why the boss commended the manager who cheated him. Maybe the boss, rich as he was, understood that money was messy, and that the manager, in his fear and panic, made the best choice he could think to make–trading forgiveness for hospitality. Maybe this is a boss who realized he could be a little more forgiving himself. I don’t know. Like I said, it’s a weird one.

I know that you can’t serve God and money. But I also know that you can serve God with money, if you are willing to keep your budget and your Bible in the same room, and are faithful with what you have, whether that is little or much.

The world is messy. With thoughtful faith and God’s grace, we’ll make it through alright. For that, I give thanks. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s