Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Luke 16:1-13 (CEB translation; my translation in brackets)
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
“The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.
“One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
“The master commended the [unrighteous] manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use [unrighteous] wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal [dwellings].
“Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. If you haven’t been faithful with [unrighteous] wealth, who will trust you with true riches? If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? No [slave] can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
As you may remember, I meet each Tuesday with a group of local pastors to read the week’s lectionary passages and share ideas for our upcoming sermons. This week, we talked ourselves in circles trying to understand Jesus’ latest parable, about a fired employee who cooks the books, embezzles from his boss, and—as the clincher—gets praise for it.
Of all the parables in the gospels, this may be one of the few to retain its original shock value—the boss praises his fired employee for going around to their clients and having them forge new contracts? What on earth is that about?
This is a hard parable. Its hero—if indeed the manager is the hero—is a bad employee, a liar, an unrighteous man. This parable follows directly upon the one about the prodigal son, and perhaps our unrighteous manager represents the path not taken—instead of repenting and going home once he’s squandered someone else’s wealth, he digs in and finds a way out all by himself.
Beside our shady protagonist, it’s also a tricky parable in other ways. There’s some strange Greek, some unclear history around first century economic realities, and a few verses at the end that may or may not have originally been attached to the story.
One of my colleagues had to leave Bible Study early. “I’ve got a dentist appointment,” she said—and then, after a pause, remarked—“which I’m more excited about than preaching this durn parable.”
All of this is to say—I hope I always come to this pulpit with a dose of humility, but today I’m bringing the whole bottle. I’m not sure what this parable is about. Nobody is—I’ve read commentaries from upwards of twenty scholars this week, and no two agree on quite what Jesus is angling at here. And so, while I think I’ve picked a faithful path through these verses, I hope this parable does for us today what parables were always meant to do—make us question, make us argue, make us think.
As I said, all those commentaries disagreed with each other so thoroughly that I didn’t find them much help, but I was intrigued by one footnote referring to that great intellectual of Christian doctrine, Bob Dylan.
Honestly, and maybe I should add this to my personal prayers of confession this week, but I’m not much of a fan of Bob Dylan. And that is not to say I don’t like him—I just truly don’t know much about him. I had no idea that he converted to Christianity in the late 70s and produced gospel music for about a decade, including a song called “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
I didn’t dig enough to know whether Bob Dylan had the last verse of our scripture in mind when he wrote that song, but I wouldn’t be shocked.
You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
This is Jesus’ own thesis, in grungy, funky, rock-n-roll style. It perhaps hits the nail on the head a bit too strongly. But what I found more interesting, was that Dylan’s song inspired another—and not in a good way.
John Lennon, of Beatles’ fame, wrote a song of his own, a caustic parody of Dylan’s called “Serve Yourself.” The lyrics are too laced with profanity for me to quote at length here, but here was Lennon’s thesis:
You may believe in devils and you may believe in lords
But Christ, you’re gonna have to serve yourself and that’s all there is to it.
Lennon might as well have written the unrighteous manager’s theme song.
Some of the commentaries I read this week tried to make the unrighteous manager a hero. It’s not a huge stretch—usually in the parables, it is the good guys who forgive debts. In our Lord’s Prayer, Christ commands us to forgive those who are in debt to us. Yet the manager isn’t forgiving those who are in debt to him—he’s forgiving someone else’s debts without their knowledge. And he isn’t really doing it out of compassion, or solidarity with the little guys, or even a desire to follow the Jewish law. The manager lays it out clearly in a little conversation with himself—he doesn’t want to engage in blue collar work, he’s too proud to beg, so he hopes by going to some of his master’s wealthiest clients and helping them out, they’ll be inclined to let him come stay for a while. He is, in other words, serving himself. His actions might look like generosity on the surface, but at the end of the day, he’s looking out for number one. He has one goal in mind: his own comfort and ease.
“You’re gonna have to serve yourself and that’s all there is to it.”
The twist of this passage comes when the boss finds out about the manager’s financial malpractice and praises him for it—for his cleverness. Although his profits have been slashed, this rich man recognizes a fellow player in the game. When you assume everyone is looking out for themselves, then it’s nobody’s fault but yours when you get taken advantage of.
Jesus makes this conclusion: “People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light.”
The unrighteous manager may be a bit of a skeeze, but he is a diligent, creative, and energetic one. When one door closes, he moves quickly to break open another. He uses all the power and cleverness he has to secure his goal.
And Jesus laments that the children of light—those who are seeking to serve God, and not wealth, or their own comfort and ease—are not half as clever as this manager is, not as diligent, creative, energetic, or focused. Over and over, Jesus expresses frustrations with would-be disciples who want to follow him while keeping one foot in business as usual. Most recently, he has been exasperated with Pharisees who are glad to sit back and judge sinners from a distance, but aren’t willing to go seek them out and bring them home.
I can almost see Jesus throw up his hands. “If you guys put half the effort into living out the kingdom of God as everybody else does in securing their own comfort, amazing things could happen,” he is saying. “If you looked out for the least with half the vigor with which most people look out for themselves, just imagine what the world would be like.”
You cannot serve God and wealth, Jesus concludes. You cannot split your heart between the two, not really. Your devotion to one will only be lip service.
I am reminded, in Jesus’ sardonic admiration for the unrighteous manager’s drive, of our ordination vows. When pastors and elders are ordained in the PC(USA), we promise to serve the people with “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” It’s my favorite of all the vows, and I know I’m not alone in that feeling. They echo scripture’s command to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. We are to be driven, diligent, creative, and energetic, in our pursuit of loving God and serving neighbor. We are to put our whole selves in.
One preacher posed the question this way: what if we went after the mission of God with a tenth of the energy, time, and brainpower we go after money, comfort, and security?
Several times throughout his struggle for equality, Martin Luther King Jr. noted that it was not the bad people who violently upheld racial segregation who saddened him the most. That was only to be expected. Instead, it was the listless attitudes of moderate Christians, the half-formed compassion and dulled imaginations, that were the true threat.
In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King wrote, “the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition [is] not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the acts and words of the children of darkness but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”
Jesus was likewise frustrated with “children of light” who were slow to catch his vision, or half-hearted in their pursuit of discipleship. You gotta serve somebody, he reminded them. Choose today whom you will serve.
This is not an easy parable. It is not an easy message. It points the finger squarely at us, Jesus’ own listless, distractible disciples. I mean, I have an IRA. I spent yesterday reorganizing my craft supplies and dreaming about home renovations. I put my intelligence, imagination, energy, and love into serving my own sad self far more frequently than I would like to admit.
I trust in the grace of Jesus Christ to forgive and reorient me in those moments.
But I have also learned, slowly and fitfully, that there is a dissatisfaction to chasing after my own tail. Watching my bank account grow is never as satisfying as growing friendships. Resting easy at home is never fully comfortable when I know billions of people don’t have the privilege. Coming out on top is, ultimately, a lonely place to be.
Jesus says that making friends using unrighteous wealth may get us an invitation to the eternal tents, but a tent is not a home. The hunt for our own security never ends, and more is never enough.
You and I have a choice today. A choice about where our energy goes. Where our intelligence is put to use. What worlds our imagination builds. Who and how we love.
We can use our diligence, our creativity, our drive to secure our own comfort, or we can use it to carry the cross.
Or, as Dylan put it:
You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
 King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride toward Freedom; the Montgomery Story. New York :Harper & Row, 1958.