“Pick Your Master”
September 18, 2022
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. So, he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account 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.’ ***
Throughout the summer we have encountered a lot of parables in Luke which Jesus used to teach his disciples and others.
Some of those parables prompt good feelings. The parables of the Sower and the Good Samaritan tell us of
God’s generosity, forgiveness and kindness.
The parable today stands apart from the others. It is difficult, even upsetting. One preacher suggests that most people can do an adequate job of explaining most parables, but not this one. “Without a trained professional, you interpret the gospel at your peril. Welcome to Luke 16; do not try this at home.” It is even hard to find a consensus on where the parable actually ends and the explanation — such as it is — begins.
There seems to be no agreement about why Jesus told this parable. Was he tired of answering the same questions over and over? There are many approaches to this parable, so let me propose that Jesus aim was directed at the Pharisees and Scribes. They have been following him and questioning his actions of spending time with people they deemed questionable or unworthy.
At the start, Jesus introduces us to two characters: a wealthy master and the manager of his estate. The manager has been accused of squandering his master’s property and he is about to be fired. But we need to stop right here because in order to go further in the story, we need a little background information.
Context is essential. Reading this parable in isolation is a guarantee of confusion and misunderstanding.
To grasp the context, one only has to go back to the start of chapter 15 when we are told that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinner and saying: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
When we learn this, Jesus first response to the grumbling is to tell three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin and the parable of the prodigal son. All are aimed to be a corrective to the negativity of the Pharisees and scribes.
Each one infers the way in which God reaches out to those who are lost and draws them back into community, which is a cause for a party! The parables are about mercy, love, forgiveness and grace as well as the extent and effort to which God goes to restore people in their relationships.
After these parables, Jesus tells the parable of the dishonest manager. Here again, context regarding the culture of business at this time is imperative.
In this period of history, a manager of an estate could act in every capacity as the owner’s agent. The manager had full authority to buy, sell, and oversee the property of his master. His decisions were equal to the master’s decisions, and his character was considered to reflect his master’s character. The manager’s behavior was an extension of the master’s own behavior if the master did not publicly object to it. Whatever the manager did was as if the master had done it himself.
As Jesus starts telling this parable, we know the Pharisees and scribes are still listening, so it is likely that Jesus is sharing a bit of an inside joke with his disciples while allowing his detractors to eavesdrop on the conversation.
This is a thumbnail sketch of what Jesus tells them:
There is a rich man who had a manager who he thought was not doing a good job so he decided to sack him.
The manager, fretting to himself, realized he was too weak to do manual labor and too proud to beg.
So, he went off and called together everyone who was in debt to his master.
He said to one who owed 100 jugs of olive oil, make it 50. To another who owed 100 containers of wheat, make it 80. Later, the master found out and commended the manager for his cleverness
Shocking. You have to be kidding. What is Jesus trying to teach his disciples in such a story? The rich man commends the manager after he had cooked the books and cheated him? Where is the good news here and the God of generosity, forgiveness and kindness we heard in the last three parables?
This parable does not make sense. If someone cheated you, would YOU praise their shrewdness? But remember, Jesus is not aiming chiefly at his disciples and teaching them, he is pulling a fast one on the Pharisees and scribes.
For a moment, let’s have Jesus telling this parable by replacing the Master with the Pharisees and Scribes. They were of a similar stratum — high up in society, possessing power and wealth. With this substitution, then it is that Jesus is saying to the disciples, “Hey, these guys (the Pharisees and scribes) who think they are my master want to give me the flick because they think I am managing God’s affairs and message badly.”
And this is where Jesus is pulling off fast one on them. Likening himself to the manager who worries about losing his good job, Jesus has a better plan. It is God’s plan for dealing with “debtors” — those tax collectors and sinners over which the Pharisees and scribes had been grumbling.
“I am going to forgive the debts, the sins; I am going to restore relationships. As you have heard in the previous parables, the only way to work out our relationship with God is to work out our relationships with each other;” and, he says to the disciples, “I want you to do the same. These Pharisees and scribes might want to give me the flick but they cannot because I am doing God’s business.”
Just as the Master commends the manager for his shrewdness, Jesus is saying to the Pharisees and scribes who see themselves as his master, “Pay attention! I am not being shrewd by reducing the debts of my subjects. I am being faithful to who God is and how God regards everyone. I am bringing God’s forgiveness into the lives of people who you look down upon as unworthy. This brings honor to God, even though I see you are not serving God as you ought, but pursuing your own wealth as lovers of money. So rather than grumbling you should be commending me who is doing God’s will.”
Jesus concludes with a sharp statement as a way to sum up what he had been trying to say all along: ‘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.’