Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Dishonest Story

A sermon on Luke 16:1-14, preached at All Saints' Littleton, NH on 9/19/2010)

I’m going to be upfront with you all this morning: I don’t understand this parable.

I’m in good company: the general consensus from all of the theologians, scholars and preachers is that no one really understands what this parable means.

Sure, there are theories, hunches and guesses…there are some interesting lines of thought here and there…but what it boils down to is that this passage is a difficult one, and no one knows for certain why Jesus told this particular parable, except for Jesus himself.

Now, you might think that we can tell its meaning by what Jesus says after the story. But it’s not that simple...

Here’s the way Gospel writing works: Jesus told these parables during his lifetime. Then, some years later, the Gospel writers, in addition to recording them, attempted to make sense of the parables for their audience. They have Jesus “explain” the parables, which means the Gospel writers tell us what they believe Jesus meant by putting words into his mouth.

This morning’s parable likely ended with the words:

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly.”

(This reflects the opinion of the Jesus Seminar, found in The Five Gospels: What did Jesus really say? The search for the authentic words of Jesus.)

Luke then starts sharing what HE believes Jesus means:

“…for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

Gospel writers never share their thoughts by having themselves speak in their stories. Instead, they always put their thoughts in someone else’s voice, usually Jesus’, to effectively tell the story. Remember, they weren’t taking dictation…they were later trying to make sense of it all.

This isn’t meant to be deceptive; this is the accepted technique of writing the account of someone’s life in the first century.

It not only serves the 1st century Christians well, it usually helps us make sense of what Jesus is trying to convey in his parables.

Only this time, it’s very unsatisfying. I cannot imagine that many of us enjoy hearing a scoundrel like this dishonest manager receive Jesus’ praise. This doesn’t give the same “good feeling” that the story before it does (the prodigal son and the forgiving father).

In truth, I don’t think Luke, our Gospel writer, really gets this story either. Look at his continued attempts to explain it:

"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"

I imagine that Luke, like me, and many others, didn’t feel very good with the conclusion of this parable, and keeps trying to say a little more to make sense of it all.
Luke then turns to another technique: taking Jesus’ spoken words from elsewhere to help explain the parable:

“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.’”

Matthew records this saying of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The Gospel of Thomas includes it as well.

Luke takes this general saying of Jesus and places it in the context of a specific parable to help with the explanation. This also, is done with some frequency.

This is not a critique of the Gospel of Luke: it is to his credit that he includes this tough parable of Jesus, found nowhere else in any Gospel. It is, however, a perfect example to illustrate the reality that Jesus challenged those listening to him…then, and today…with some difficult and complex stories and teachings.

Furthermore, I would be very skeptical of anyone who tells you that the meaning of Jesus’ parables and teachings are simple and straightforward. Most of Jesus’ words can be understood in more than one way (that what, in part, makes them so powerful). Anyone who insists “this is the right way to understand Jesus” just might be more unsure than you realize…

Having said all of this, I’m going to offer a possibility for this parable.

Who might this parable is aimed at? Think about it: who are the managers of the time? Could it be the Pharisees (who, we are told in the verse after this account, heard all of this and ridiculed Jesus.) Have they been dishonest in their jobs of overseeing the spiritual health of the community, focused on what is right and not money? Yeah, that fits.

Who could be the rich man be? Perhaps it’s not a stretch to see the rich man of the story as someone with authority over the dishonest Pharisees (God? Jesus? Even the Romans perhaps…the “rich man” doesn’t have to be good.) Whoever the rich man is, it’s clear that the manager is about to be exposed. “Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

So the manager, the Pharisee, is about to be out of a job. What is he to do?

He goes out and makes some deals that go outside the lines, cutting the amount that people owe his master. His motivation is self serving. His hope is to produce favor with those whose debts are forgiven, so that he might be sheltered.

Surprisingly, the rich man is pleased with this result: commending the manager for his shrewdness.

I had to look this up in the dictionary: I hear shrewdness with negative connotation, and sure enough, its archaic meanings are malicious, bad, and shrewish. But its real meaning is astute or sharp in practical manners; marked by cleverness and perceptiveness.

It is ironic, but in this moment of panic, the manager accused of squandering property does a good job managing: building relationship with people, forgiving some debt, getting some return for the one he represents, and not personally getting money in return. By practically using what talents he has, he actually serves everyone, and the rich man sees potential in his manager.

Perhaps this is the point: we all still have an opportunity. Do what you’re good at, what you do well, and conduct yourself like your relationships with others matter. Even if your motivation is initially self-serving, in this way you can find a path to serve.

So, be shrewd in the good way, “astute or sharp in practical manners; marked by cleverness and perceptiveness.” Look honestly at what you’re good at, what you have to offer, and then use those things to build relationships with others.

Perhaps some of this speaks to you, but if you are to take anything from this text, it should be the good news that ALL IS NOT SETTLED. This parable, like all of Jesus’ parables, is not some bitter pill to simply swallow and wait passively for an effect.

I believe that Jesus told these parables in part because that no simple answer would stand for time, in the hope that these parables would continuously require our reflection. Your thoughts on the story matter; and your understanding of the parable may be challenged not only by further study, but by hearing the thoughts of others.

So: what do you think this parable is about?

“I don’t know” isn’t a bad answer, so long as it’s not the end of your search.


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