A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 22, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 16: 1-13
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
16 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. 2 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.’ 3 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. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 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.’ 8 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. 9 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.
10 “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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 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.”
There are some parables that are difficult because of what they teach us, and the challenging nature of the claim of their teaching. It seems the last few weeks we have been looking at some of those. This one may fit in that category, but mostly this one is challenging because it is confusing. It's kinda all over the place, and the obvious take away, doesn't seem all that Christ-like, in its claim, it doesn't seem to really hold people to the high standard of love that so many of his other parables do. Look at some of the details, dishonest wealth, children of the light, I mean Jesus says at one point, if you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, no one will entrust you with true riches. . . really dishonest wealth, why are we troubling ourselves with dishonest wealth? Is it possible to be faithful with dishonest wealth? Isn't that a paradox? What are you supposed to do with dishonest wealth? Turn it in right? Isn't that the boyscout way? It's very troubling.
I think the trouble starts because we tend to look to God to play one of the roles in Jesus' parables, especially when there is a master. . . or a father character. We typically take the bossman character to be God, and then the actions of the employee to be us in our relationship with God within the kingdom of heaven. Think about it, isn't that the standard? There is the parable of the talents, master gives them out expects people to put them to good use, standard translation, God gives gifts expects us to use them in bettering his kingdom. Another example, Master puts his servant in charge of watching his house until he returns, remaining ever vigilant. God is returning, Jesus is returning, we are to be vigilant until he returns. We don't know when that will happen so we need to keep watch. Again and again we see that pattern, so that is our standby viewpoint for how to parse all of them.
But when we go that way here, I think we are in error because this is the way it goes. Master gives us some responsibility, but we are lazy about it, so we find a way to do the job, rather being willing to beg or starve, we find a way, not for the benefit of our master, but for our own benefit, then the master sees our success, our ingenuity and praises us, giving us that second chance. The Master praises us for being shrewd and figuring a way out of a bad situation, following up irresponsible behavior with dishonest behavior. Then there is that weird part about the children of the light. . . It all just doesn't fit, especially when we come up to the overall end, the moral of sorts, of the story, that a servant cannot serve two masters, not able to serve God and wealth. If we stick with God being the master here, it seems that you can serve God and wealth as long as you do it shrewdly, and as long it's dishonest wealth anyway. How does such dishonest self preservation fit into the concept of love. It goes against every other definition of love Jesus puts forth. To proud to beg, instead cheat, show shrewdness, just to take care of self, using others, and this is rewarded? See this simplistic first take understanding of this parable really does fall apart at the seams when you break the surface. It was amazing how many sermons and studies I saw in my research this week that were trying to force this line of thinking and ignoring the conflicting details. Even that old standard, Matthew Henry, seems to suggest that we are all dishonest employees, who find a way, better late than never, and despite bad intentions back into the loving embrace of the master. But why then all the stuff about wealth, money, and serving two masters.
I see this parable very differently. I don't see the character of the master in the story to be God at all, but rather pointing to a real human relationship, and the way that human beings work things out with each other according to human standards. A description of the way the world works, and then finally at the end a rebuke about how it isn't the way that the kingdom of heaven works. So there is this employee who is wasteful and worthless, so the master calls him to task about it. Summons him to him to try to figure the situation out, but he doesn't fire right then, instead he asks for more information. The master wants to get all of his ducks in a line, he wants to make sure that his figures are right, that the rumor, the I heard tell you are squandering my stuff, is actually accurate. He gives him 24 hours to report back. Now its obvious that the employee was squandering, or misrepresenting, or stealing, or laundering, something dishonest is going on, so he realizes he's probably fired, he needs to try and figure this all out. He wonders how can I use my position while I've still got it to win some friends so I will not have to beg. I'll give out some favors, while I still have a little pull, to make sure I never will have to humble myself. I'm going to play while I'm still a player. And so he does, he gives all of the people who owe his master a break on what they owe, so they are happy and pay right way, but a lesser amount, the master is happy, because all of a sudden this employee who he thought he would have to fire is now doing a good job of bringing in money, so all is well. Problem averted, right, all should be well. Children of this generation are more shrewd than the children of the light. . . yes those are the words of the master, but are they Christ's, are they Gods? Does God find that shrewdness in this case is a good and noble distinction, one to which we should all strive. Notice shrewdness is not a characteristic of the children of the light, but instead this generation. Notice also, Jesus doesn't say as he does in some other parables, go and do likewise. No he doesn't, and then he says, make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth so that they may welcome you into their eternal homes. . . they, not me. Is there sarcasm there? Is Jesus talking about eternal homes that don't exist? Go and make friends with your dishonest wealth, and go find eternal rest with them. Then that puts the next part, about faithfulness and dishonesty with wealth in a different light as well. Faithfulness in little things is akin to faithfulness in big things. Intentions matter, honesty matters, righteous dealings matter, not necessarily on earth, you can always manipulate your way out of a situation on earth, but in the kingdom of God, where things are real, it actually matters. How do you use your tools? Whom do you serve? These are the important questions?
Jesus closes this parable with the important words of you cannot serve two, not money and God. We have to look at what money is, especially in the context of this parable, but in general too. Money is simply the means by which we trade. It is a marker that allows us to exchange different goods and services, all on an equal playing field. It is in essence supposed to be simply that, but we all know in reality it can be very different. It is a marker that we use to make the exchange of goods easier, and therefore it is a tool. If you look up "tool" in the dictionary, you will find it to be an "artificial element for facilitation of action" in other words, things that we make to make our work more easy. So money as a tool is supposed to be a way to make the exchange of goods and services easier, but how often does it become instead a tool for manipulation and power, making things easier for those who are shrewd.
Look at how the employee in the parable uses money. He uses his boss's money to manipulate the people to become his friend, so that he will not have to beg. . . in doing this he makes his master happy as well? Why, because he is being shrewd. He is using money as a tool to manipulate. It's all part of the game, its beneficial because it sustains the game. It sustains the master's game and it sustains the employees game, it's shrewd, and is the opposite of begging. Isn't it interesting that Jesus is quick to include the detail that the man is much too prideful to beg. Begging doesn't fit the game, he'd rather steal and be dishonest, because at least it fits the game, he's still a player then, he's still in control. There is nothing to be gained, no give and take, no quid pro quo, nothing can be gained from giving to or being a beggar. It's outside of the game, and therefore no place for the shrewd.
Here is why I think Jesus is not raising up any of the characters in this parable as and example of behavior, nor a God figure, but rather painting a picture of the world's game. It is all about manipulation and control. The kind of artificial control that money gives. It is system of dishonesty rather than truth, and leaves people clinging to illusions, illusions of control and security. Tools. . . if money is a tool, how can it become something that we serve rather than something that serves us? It is something we make to make things easier for us, but it ends up giving us a different understanding of reality, warped away from the truth.
Let me tell you another parable. We are now 16 trillion dollars in debt, and we praise ourselves and our leaders for being shrewd enough to keep the system running. We celebrate the next continuing resolution, then next debt ceiling increase, we can't stand anything but shrewdness in our leaders, work it out, make it work, compromise, keep the system going, by any means necessary. With each faithful use of dishonest wealth we give more and more faithful assurance that the job will be done well, we give much more faith in the system, that the system will solve our problems. The system, our system, keep it going it is our tool for success, apply it and apply it to more things. The old saying rings true again, when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail, right, what is the solution to all of our problems, throw some money at it, get it to be a part of the system, but we see all around us that the system is no longer a tool, but rather something we are constantly forced to serve. Is this what Jesus' parable points us towards, does Jesus want to reward and praise our shrewdness? Is this generation one to be raised up on account of Shrewdness? Or would he rather us be children of the light?
Shrewdness, playing the game just doesn't seem to stand up to being a child of the light, a child of truth, a servant of God. We just can't serve both can we? How do we use our tools, for manipulation, sustenance, security, feeding the system, or for love, selflessness, sacrifice and service? It is a difficult question in our system driven world. But it is the one Jesus compells us to ask of ourselves, when he says that we cannot serve two masters. Behind the parable is the question, which will you serve? O God, help us to be, become, and remain, then children of the light. Amen.