From Obscure to Uncomfortable

Pericope: Luke 16:1-13

St LukeJesus 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 accounting 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.”

The disciples, who never had it easy, must have really struggled with this story. You can see them poking the dust with their toes and offering one another sideways glances. It is a strange story. Evidently some tipster alerted the boss that his manager was dishonest. The boss gives the guy a chance to tell his side of the story and then, apparently unmoved by the explanation, fires him. The manager fearing a future as a Wal-Mart greeter tries to garner favor with the boss’s creditors by reducing their debts. The unlucky manager, however, is caught in the act. Now, most of us would expect the authorities to be called in and criminal charges a distinct possibility. Instead, the boss looks on approvingly and commends the crook for his shrewdness. What’s more, Jesus seems to indicate that this is a good thing. That leaves us all scratching our heads.

As puzzling as this seems, we have to remember that when Jesus tells a story, there’s always a twist designed to make us stop and think in a different way. That said; let’s look at the story again. It seems the manager is not necessarily dishonest at the beginning. He squanders money rather than stealing it. He’s probably careless or simply lazy in the discharge of his duties. But when he sees his livelihood evaporating, he becomes industrious and works out a clever, though ill-advised, means of securing his future. In the process he moves from lazy to criminal. When his actions are brought to light, the boss doesn’t hire him back, but admires his former manager’s initiative and ingenuity. The point seems to be that if the guy had put as much effort into his job as he did into being a thief, he would have been a very successful manager indeed. Jesus is suggesting that we’ve grown careless or lazy with the riches God has placed before us and risk losing our place in the Kingdom. He underscores that we need to demonstrate integrity and be shrewd in how we allocate the resources available to us.

Some of the obscurity of this pericope comes from the use of the word “dishonest.” When the manager engages in his scheme with the creditors, it’s wrong and is what we understand as dishonest. When Jesus speaks of dishonest wealth, it doesn’t mean ill-gotten gain. It means worldly or unrighteous wealth. It’s the kind of wealth that means some people will have more than they need while others won’t have quite enough. Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” He means that the fair distribution of wealth in this world will impact your standing in the next.

The second paragraph brings all this uncomfortably home. Jesus points out that in human relations people who are honest in little things tend to honest when things count. Conversely, someone who will cheat you out of a little will cheat you out of a lot. Jesus then pushes the idea harder and makes it a matter of trust. If you can’t be trusted to handle the small stuff—worldly wealth—how could you be trusted to handle the far greater heavenly riches? The answer is implicit—you can’t. Then comes the painful bottom line; “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

And so there it is. At the altitude of 2,000 years, we’ve grown comfortable in our faith and deaf to some of the harder Gospel messages. While growing spiritually lazy, we’ve become vastly shrewder in our accumulation of worldly wealth. Though not dishonest like our hapless manager, we’ve become skilled hoarders. We wrap ourselves in luxury. We buy bigger homes, faster cars, the latest electronics and wardrobes so extensive they require custom closets.

There’s no injunction to wear coarse robes over hair shirts. There’s no reason not to enjoy the fruits of your labor. But there does come a time when you should ask yourself, “do I have enough?” There comes a time before the next purchase when you ask, “do I have too much?” There comes a time as a believer, to ask yourself, “am I using my wealth to fulfill the Gospel or to satisfy myself?” In this pericope, Jesus is telling us the time is now.     —Ebert

Categories: Life in the Spirit

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