The Dishonest Manager
First UCC – Carlisle Luke 16:1-13
I believe that a number of people here in the congregation know that in addition to being an ordained minister I am also a social worker. I have spent a number of years working with a variety of people with various concerns. I worked in Michigan and in Hawaii as an inhome family therapist. When I was living in Boston, I spent a couple of years working in group homes in the suburbs of Boston, and then spent two years working on the streets of downtown Boston with people with a variety of mental health issues. That time in downtown Boston I was with a company that employed a clubhouse, utilizing the Genesis model. Simply put, it was an attempt to focus on people as opposed to diagnoses, to build relationships with people and empower them to succeed with their goals. This time in downtown Boston was particularly fruitful, in large part due to the large number of people I came to meet and know. I mention this because one of these people I met there had the perfect expression for today’s Gospel reading. Let’s call him Alex. He would often stand before people, tilt his head back, and say with a thick Boston expression, “that don’t make no sense.”
It is possible that when people heard the reading of this passage, it made perfect sense to them. And I glad to hear that. I have to tell you, my experience is different. I have read this passage a number of times. I have read it using a couple of different translations. I have obtained several commentaries which look at this passage in order to get a good perspective on it. I understand some of it, and yet I am finding myself leaning toward what Alex used to say, and express it about this passage “That don’t make no sense.”
So today’s sermon might be for some people going on a journey into the unknown, the confused and the strange. So take a deep breathe with me (take another one if it is not significant)
We can start with an easier part of the passage and consider the final verse (or two) where it states that people cannot worship both God and wealth. This is something that we have heard before (from the gospel of Matthew). This is something that is practical and likely makes sense to many of us. It is hard to have multiple priorities and this verse is telling that if we tend to focus on money and wealth, it would be harder to take God a priority when we are already making money a top concern. This is emphasized about the comment about serving two masters. We are wonderfully complex and uniquely made, and yet it is extremely difficult to serve more than one master, focus on more than one fundamental priority. And Jesus giving us this simple and straightforward message that we must take care to watch what we make our priorities and continue to make God a priority. This is not the only time this message is shared within the gospel or the rest of the disciples. We are reminded here to worship and honor God.
Going in reverse we can look at the prior verse and see what else Jesus was trying to convey to the people who were with him. Jesus takes the time to talk about honesty and dishonesty. And Jesu was point out that that often when people are trustworthy with the small details and little things, those same people can be relied on for bigger matters. The converse is also true, if a person does not handled small details honestly, then it is likely that they cannot be trusted with larger and more important matters.
I think that we can all agree that this also seems logical, yes (people will generally be the same with all matters whether it being reliable and trustworthy, or dishonest and unreliable.
So far so good? This makes sense to people? Ok my thinking is that this is the easier part of the selected passage.
So let’s move on to the beginning of this passage. We can probably start with the title of this passage “the parable of the dishonest manager.” I almost thought about writing in my own copy of the Bible and adding a question mark after the phrase: Dishonest manager. I guess we can say he is consistently dishonest but his actions bring confusion to the situation as does his master.
The parable starts with this manager working for an owner. And after some time, charges are brought against the manager that he is being dishonest and stealing for himself. The owner is notified of these charges. The charges directly point to the manager squandering the master’s property. So the owner demands an accounting of all the manager’s actions and essentially tells him that he is to be fired. The manager realizes the peril of his situation and understands he is going to lose his job, but is also worried because he feels that he is limited in his skills set and it will be difficult to find any other sort of work. So the manager goes out to his accounts and starts collecting (as a part of this accounting). He goes to one account who owes one hundred jugs of oil and cuts the debt to 50 jugs. He then goes to another account of someone who owes 100 sheaves of wheat, and cuts the amount to 80. And the master is pleased with the work that the manager does.
This might make sense to some people, and if so I am glad to hear it. The first challenge may be to determine the inherent issue with the manager and his actions.
There is a possibility with the manager that he is not competent to do the job. This would true if he was simply unable to handle the accounts and so is not collecting what he is supposed to. This would be a bad business practice, and it makes sense that the owner would want an accounting and also want to fire the manager. Another possibility with the manager is that he is stealing in this process, so whatever is owed by the people, he is skimming materials and possessions and money to line his own pocket. It is not clear what are the motivations of the manager and the relevance of these charges against him, and I believe this situation become more muddled when he goes out for the accounting and settling of debts
Another concern here is with the owner. The owner is obviously upset because the manager is not doing what is expected of him. And he wants the manager to show an accounting, in other words settle up accounts. And that is fine, expect for the point that the manager does not collect with the various people owe. He decides to cut the debts that various people owes. Now, this might curry some favor for the manager with the people after he has been officially fired. So the manager may be looking out for his own interests. I am quite sure however that the owner would not be in favor of these business practices. If the owner sees what is owed and then the manager cuts the debts, who is going to suffer the consequences? It would be the owner. And yet when the owner sees what the manager is doing he is congratulating him on his shrewdness. Why would the owner be pleased about losing money? His property was already being squandered by the manager. In essence, the manager is demonstrating further neglect and squandering but this time is given praise for his actions.
There is a verse or two in there about the people of the current generation being shrewd and more cunning than the children of light. For me, however, I am not sure how this shrewdness fits into the grand scheme of the ministry of Jesus or with any of the messages that Jesus offers in the gospels
The Jewish midrash was a form of teaching, and most likely was not meant to be taken literally. Yet the messages about money in this passage are unique and different from the overall message of Jesus. In fact, I am not sure there is another parable or passage in the gospels that parallels this passage. So it makes it difficult to discern what we are to take from this passage.
Yet it is unwise to ignore it. One point here that I can see is the “gracious” nature the manager offers to the people in debt. I use quotations because I am still not entirely sure that was his primary motivation. He did it to possibly gain favors later. The man who is the manager is shrewd, but he still was not shrew enough because he was still likely going to be fired. But being gracious does appear to be an important message for us to remember: God’s grace and forgiveness toward us and our call to be forgiving and gracious toward others.
I do think we can take from this passage the necessity of honesty in our interactions with other people, whether it deals with interactions, dealings, or how we treat one another. We do need to be honest in all of our relationships, dealing and with our actions. We can witness this call for all who listen to be truthful and honest in our lives. We can see the possible need for us to be savvy and aware of the people and the situations around us so that we are not necessarily being taken advantage of. This could another message here, but along with being shrewd we also have to be faithful to god and our call to follow the example of Jesus. We definitely need to careful with money and how we treat money. We have to look within ourselves and see what we are serving, what is our true priorities
Thanks be to God and may the people of god say amen