16 Jesus said to his disciples:
A rich man once had a manager to take care of his business. But he was told that his manager was wasting money. 2 So the rich man called him in and said, “What is this I hear about you? Tell me what you have done! You are no longer going to work for me.”
3 The manager said to himself, “What shall I do now that my master is going to fire me? I can’t dig ditches, and I’m ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I’ll do, so that people will welcome me into their homes after I’ve lost my job.”
5 Then one by one he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He asked the first one, “How much do you owe my master?”
6 “A hundred barrels of olive oil,” the man answered.
So the manager said, “Take your bill and sit down and quickly write ‘fifty’.”
7 The manager asked someone else who was in debt to his master, “How much do you owe?”
“A thousand bushels of wheat,” the man replied.
The manager said, “Take your bill and write ‘eight hundred’.”
8 The master praised his dishonest manager for looking out for himself so well. That’s how it is! The people of this world look out for themselves better than the people who belong to the light.
9 My disciples, I tell you to use wicked wealth to make friends for yourselves. Then when it is gone, you will be welcomed into an eternal home. 10 Anyone who can be trusted in little matters can also be trusted in important matters. But anyone who is dishonest in little matters will be dishonest in important matters. 11 If you cannot be trusted with this wicked wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? 12 And if you cannot be trusted with what belongs to someone else, who will give you something that will be your own? 13 You cannot be the slave of two masters. You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than to the other. You cannot serve God and money. Contemporary English Version (CEV)
The meaning of this particular parable is a puzzle. It is a parable that makes us uncomfortable, not because it is a reflection of our own dishonest nature, but because Jesus seems to endorses dishonest behavior.
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. 2So 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.’
This is a workplace story. Have you ever worked somewhere where a coworker didn’t pull his or her weight, or even stole from the company? In the field I’m familiar with, education, there was always room for improvement. I worked with lots of great teachers, but some times I grew frustrated with the habits of some of my colleagues. It was usually done in conjunction with turning a blind eye to my own shortcomings, of course. Like most people, we were always afraid of losing our jobs for some capricious reason. Thanks to the teachers’ union, you really had to do something awful to lose your job, like shoot the principal. On the other hand, that meant that as you got older, you could coast your way to retirement, as long as you kept the kids out of the halls and turned in grades on time. That being said, it is easy for me to imagine a parent complaining to a principal about a teacher and the principal calling said teacher into the office. Shoot, I don’t even have to imagine it! I sat in the chair a couple of times.
If the teacher was unjustly accused, then she or he could ask for the union to step in for protection. That hardly ever happened. Most of the time the issue was resolved and everybody got paid or graduated.
The manager in our parable doesn’t have a union to turn to. He is on his own and has to think quickly about how he can survive, keep food on the table and a roof over his his head.
3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.
There are few jobs available to him. The equivalent of flipping burgers at a fast food joint was hard labor on construction projects—digging dirt. There are two reasons digging dirt was not an option. First of all, he was not physically capable of physical labor. Two, there were plenty of people looking for work who could do the work. He wouldn’t have a chance at getting a job, let alone surviving it.
He knows he will need friends to survive, so he sets out to make friends. He can’t make just any friends. He needs friends who are powerful, who have money, and who will be willing to take a risk on him.
How does he make these friends? He cuts them a deal.
So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then 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.’
After he has been fired, he can go back to them and remind them that they owe him a favor. He may get only a meal or two, or they may even employ him…at least he has a little bit of security to look forward to. Ironically, even though he is stealing from his master, he expects them to reward him for that, since they benefited from his dishonesty.
That’s strange, coming from Jesus’ mouth. But it gets better….or stranger.
8And 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.
9And 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.
Did Jesus really say that? Make friends by means of dishonest wealth? Yes. According to Luke, he did. Jesus explains his reasoning this way:
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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.”
This is common sense. This parable is about the big picture. Jesus’ point is not to get rich by any means possible. The point is to use wealth to promote the Kingdom of God. In my research, I found this explanation especially helpful.
“… this lesson from Jesus, like every other mention on money in Luke’s Gospel is about how God’s economy is different than the worlds economy. The underlying fundamental truth is that every economy is a faith based system. Certainly, in America post-1933 and the end of the Gold Standard, any value we place in a dollar is based on our faith that it is worth something. Even before that, dating back all the way to Jesus and beyond, things like gold and silver have value because someone says so. They are “precious metals” only because they are rare and hard to unearth, not because they really have any inherent value.”
So, according to [this] line of reasoning, when Jesus says, “you can’t serve God and wealth,” he is saying that a choice must be made between Almighty God and the Almighty Dollar. If the pursuit of wealth deprives you of a relationship with God and with your fellow human beings and even all of creation, then you have made the wrong choice. But if your wealth building up the Kingdom, supports the Church, aids the poor, oppressed, and afflicted, then your priorities are in the right order.”1
Doesn’t that make sense? We know very well that wealth is not distributed fairly, let alone equally, in our country. There are a hundred reasons for that, but you and I have little control over that. What we can control is how we use our own wealth and how we use our own talents and abilities.
The media gives a lot of attention to the widening gap between the rich and the poor. It becomes especially critical when Congress or the state legislature cuts millions of dollars from the grocery budget of people who depend on government help to put food on the table. The majority of these “food stamp” people are disabled, elderly , or under the age of eighteen. Twenty percent of the people who receive food stamps hold down jobs; in other words, they’re not getting paid to sit on the front porch.
Thanks to my daughter, Miriam, I’ve learned why people need the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Plan. For one thing, no one can survive on one minimum-wage job. Two, like it or not, some households have one adult, not two, to provide income.
I spent this last week at a workshop in Ames. It was nice. The workshop was in the Holiday Inn, so I stayed in a nice room there. There were fourteen people in my workshop. We had two things in common: 1) we were studying to become Peer Support Specialists and 2) we’ve all had a mental illness diagnosis. My mental illness is simply clinical depression. I’ve had it all my life, but it was first diagnosed in 1986. I was 37 years old, I had three small children and I was working full time as a high school teacher. I was lucky. I never had to quit my job; I was never homeless or hospitalized. My classmates experiences were different from mine. Some, because of their illnesses, had been in jail, had lost jobs, had lost their children, and had been deserted by their families.
You might say my classmates had made bad choices, like the manager in our parable. You might say, they had pushed too many buttons, made too many mistakes to be given jobs or respectability or even to have their children returned to them. But like the manager, they used their brains, their ability, their experience to rebuild their lives. They’ve learned how the systems of law enforcement and public assistance and health care can work for and against them. They have learned how to survive and become stable, valuable citizens.
You’ve probably heard complaints about people abusing food stamps or medicaid or child support. First of all, statistics prove that the abuses are very few compared to those who use agencies to support their families. And to put things in perspective, think about the latest Wells Fargo scandal. Do all bankers create false bank accounts and defraud consumers? No. Very few do.
On the other hand, when I talk with people who are social workers or who use food stamps, I know that to survive, you have to know how to get the most out of the system to survive. That’s what the manager in our parable did. And what does Jesus say? Does Jesus tell a story about a dishonest manager going to jail or being thrown out in the street? No. That could have very well been the ending of the story. Instead, Jesus commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.
Jesus is not naive. He knows that we all have found it easier at one time or another to lie or to cheat or to steal. I won’t give you any examples; you can think of your own. I think what Jesus expects us to do is to take anything that we have gained through dishonest means and turn it to good use. So, if I cheat on my taxes, then the money I save can be put to help someone else. Does that make sense? Do you have something that is yours because you took advantage of someone or because you never got around to paying for it? I expect you might want to find a way to use that advantage to give someone else an advantage.
Perfect people don’t need to follow Jesus; but those of us who fall off the path need all the help we can get, even if it doesn’t make much sense.
Blessings on all that you do, whether you screw up or make up or build up. Amen.
16 Jesus said to his disciples: